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Are Horror Movies Scarier in Black and White?


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October is just around the corner.  I saw the new promo TCM is running for horror movies being shown next month. I got to thinking...

Maybe I'm just old fashioned. Does anyone else agree with me that horror movies are scarier in black and white?

I still have a penchant for the original Universal Horror movies of the 1930's. I grew up on them in the late 60's and early 70's.  When I was a kid it seemed House On Haunted Hill played endlessly on the Channel 9 Million Dollar movie out of NYC.  It never failed to scare the bejesus out of me.

I never got into the Hammer Horror films myself. I'm not saying they are bad in any way. I just didn't accept them like I did anything in creaky black and white.

I would love to see a new "old-fashioned black and white" horror film made today. Anyone else?

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Okay I'll bite, no pun intended.

Color may look more modern for certain things, but...

I think it comes back to the main reasons why B&W movies overall cannot be realistically colorized.  The lighting techniques are different.  Also B&W is exposed for the darkest parts - it is most important to keep the darkest parts dark, whereas color is exposed for highlights.  So apples and oranges.  One is fundamentally different from the other.  Those are just starting points though.

The human eye has about 20x as many rods as cones.  Also the cones are spaced more closely together in the center.  So realize it or not, most of our vision is in the B&W domain in real life (rods), even though we may attribute the world we see in terms of color (cones).
https://moviecollectoroh.com/pics_to_hotlink_on_TCM/rod-cone-dist.gif
https://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/rodcone.html

 

Not much perception is lost with B&W films.  In fact I think certain things are gained with B&W, as our B&W senses (rods) are more acute and finely tuned for seeing in the dark.  So that, combined with the aforementioned correct exposure for B&W film, provides for a more immersive experience.  Color films often look "flat" to me in comparison.

I think this goes beyond horror though.  It draws me in and conveys better emotion in all genres.  My thoughts?  B&W, correctly exposed, correlates well to the wider range that we see in B&W, resulting in a more immersive experience.

Chew on that for a while.   😁
https://moviecollectoroh.com/pics_to_hotlink_on_TCM/mr-ed.jpg

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The answer for me is in THE SOUND EFFECTS (and possibly the score) and notsomuch in the photography.

i think of the effect DEAD SILENCE and SUDDEN SOUND EFFECTS (music or otherwise) have in PSYCHOLOGICALLY MANIPULATING the viewer- when i think of the moments in film that have unsettled me (in JAWS, THE INNOCENTS, HALLOWEEN II...) I instantly think of THE SOUND and MUSIC CUES (or lack thereof) and not the colors. .

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It must be for me since 7 out of my top ten horror movies are in black and white

MY B&W FAVORITES-

Bride Of Frankenstein (1935)

The Raven (1935)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Horror Hotel (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Carnival Of Souls (1962)

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (1962)

COLOR FAVORITES-

House Of Wax (1953)

Horror Of Dracula (1958)

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

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I don't think black & white is necessarily scarier than color. It moreso depends on how the lighting and cinematography are used. Sometimes black & white can be more effect. For example, the colorized version of Night of the Living Dead (1968) loses much of its bite because it's missing that key chiaroscuro effect that made the original so visually eerie.

In contrast, specific subgenres like giallo films, for example, would become far less effective if they had been shot in black & white because those films rely on their bright color schemes to reinforce the gore effects.

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 Shot in both black & white and color, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) offers something of a side-by-side comparison of the two mediums in the horror genre. 

 The Stick Man scene is perhaps eerier as shot in B&W, but the - SPOILER ALERT - tent scene with what sounds like children outside, which is seen in color if I correctly recall, brought the fear factor of the film to its acme for me.

                                                                          th?id=OIP.XLohqu4KgXerDwsBKZV_iwHaDz&pid=Api&P=0&w=317&h=163th?id=OIP.mvdr9eO153R6hasP3ekunAHaFL&pid=Api&P=0&w=221&h=155

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I think colorized films are often too gory for me.  Hitchcock said he didn't want to film Psycho in color, and the closeup of Marion's (?) eye is extremely scary.  I prefer my horror to be of a psychological nature (or you are not sure).  The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw) and The Haunting (original with Julie Harris and based on Shirley Jackson's novel) are extremely upsetting.  When I was in about 6th grade, they showed a b&w version of Jackson's The Lottery (which they showed years later when I substitute taught).  It gave me nightmares.

Carnival of Souls is very scary and, in the original Night of the Living Dead (don't like Zombies except for those in Hoodoo or Voodoo), the only survivor (spoiler alert) is killed because he is black (there is a great deal of racial prejudice, etc. in that movie).

 

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LEMON, I'd say it was more a matter of the STORY and how it's presented.  For instance, a friend of mine suggested a coining of a new word for today's "horror" movies.  That word is "Gore-or" movies as they seem to rely more on blood and guts for the "horror".  And if one is into that sort of thing, it's probably better in color than seeing all that chocolate syrup being wasted.  ;)   But you really shouldn't need buckets of blood to make a movie scary.  And really, it's a personal matter.  Some would prefer color to B&W for whatever reason.  And some might think other color movies might have been better in B&W...  for instance...

I grew up seeing typically B&W film footage of WWII and of course, as our TV set, like the majority of them at the time, was a B&W set so it didn't matter.  I often wondered, whenever watching SAVING PRIVATE RYAN if it would have been better, or at least more familiar, if Spielberg had shot it in Black &White.  ;) 

Sepiatone

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43 minutes ago, Sepiatone said:

LEMON, I'd say it was more a matter of the STORY and how it's presented.  For instance, a friend of mine suggested a coining of a new word for today's "horror" movies.  That word is "Gore-or" movies as they seem to rely more on blood and guts for the "horror".  And if one is into that sort of thing, it's probably better in color than seeing all that chocolate syrup being wasted.  ;)   But you really shouldn't need buckets of blood to make a movie scary.  And really, it's a personal matter.  Some would prefer color to B&W for whatever reason.  And some might think other color movies might have been better in B&W...  for instance...

I grew up seeing typically B&W film footage of WWII and of course, as our TV set, like the majority of them at the time, was a B&W set so it didn't matter.  I often wondered, whenever watching SAVING PRIVATE RYAN if it would have been better, or at least more familiar, if Spielberg had shot it in Black &White.  ;) 

Sepiatone

That's why Schindler's List was filmed in B&W.

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Hmm...  I found my bit of theory above quite interesting, as I hadn't previously thought of how well those two principles line up.  It's not intended to be a complete thesis, not any more than my database for this network was when I first started working on it, but rather it just branches off in an unfamiliar and new direction that I myself don't know where it will end up.  A "hmm, that's interesting" moment.  All I do is connect the dots and see where it takes me.

P.S. I think that bright splashes of color used for blood and gore, and loud sound effects are just work-arounds, whereas the B&W can afford to be more subtle and sublime - that was my whole point of interest.

The thought about the Blair Witch Project with both B&W (presumably exposed for B&W in the traditional sense) and color segments just sounds like a multi-vector approach, assaulting the senses (and sensibilities) from different angles as so many modern movies do, sometimes to the point where you are left feeling numb when it is over.

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4 hours ago, Sepiatone said:

LEMON, I'd say it was more a matter of the STORY and how it's presented.  For instance, a friend of mine suggested a coining of a new word for today's "horror" movies.  That word is "Gore-or" movies as they seem to rely more on blood and guts for the "horror".  And if one is into that sort of thing, it's probably better in color than seeing all that chocolate syrup being wasted.  ;)   But you really shouldn't need buckets of blood to make a movie scary.  And really, it's a personal matter.  Some would prefer color to B&W for whatever reason.  And some might think other color movies might have been better in B&W...  for instance...

I think this is an inaccurate generalization of contemporary horror. When you look at some of the most popular films of the 2010s like The VVitch (2015), Get Out (2017), Cam (2018), Hereditary (2018), and Us (2019), none of those are necessarily gory films. They're certainly not as extreme as the torture porn craze of the mid/late 2000s. This new trend of slowburn horror seems far more reliant on tone and atmosphere to convey scares rather than sheer shock value.

Again, this isn't to say that color or black & white is more effective. It depends on how they are being used. For instance, take Midsommar (2019) and The Lighthouse (2019). Midsommar was filmed in color because it uses its colorful palette to stress it's connections to folk horror, specifically The Wicker Man (1973) which uses its bright schemes to contrast its darker narrative. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, uses its black & white imagery to show its influences in older surrealist cinema, as well as perhaps draw comparisons to Ingmar Bergman's approach to psychological horror in films like Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968) (at least that's what I got in my reading of the film).

Both Midsommar and The Lighthouse are effective, but they use their visual design in different ways when telling their narratives.

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The original Wicker Man gave me nightmares (but I have personal nightmares that are worse - like many people).  I like the scene in The Bad and The Beautiful where Kirk Douglas and Barry Sullivan talk about not using the guy in the cat suit because unseen horror can be terrifying.  Original Cat People has a particularly scary scene at the pool (and I felt sorry for the character - glad they made a sequel).

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7 hours ago, MovieCollectorOH said:

 Re: "The thought about the Blair Witch Project with both B&W (presumably exposed for B&W in the traditional sense) and color segments just sounds like a multi-vector approach, assaulting the senses (and sensibilities) from different angles as so many modern movies do, sometimes to the point where you are left feeling numb when it is over."

 The assault of the senses that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT elicted seemed to lay not in the color of the film but rather in the motion of the movie as some found Karl Freund's unchained camera had gained too much independence.

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I'm about to admit something unusual...but here goes...about a year ago, I changed the color controls on my television and got rid of all the color so that everything I watch is in black and white.

Why did I do this? A number of reasons.

1. I didn't like the warm lighting in a lot of newer films and if I could mute the colors, then I could mute some of the brightness.

2. The garish Technicolor films of the 40s were annoying me. Not all of them are done as beautifully as BLACK NARCISSUS. So now I can focus on costumes and staging and performance without the over-saturated color distracting me.

3. I realized I am a bit color blind when it comes to dark greens and dark blues. If I have everything in black-and-white I am not blurring or mislabeling these colors.

4. I dream in black and white and I never remember anything in color. So I want what I watch on screen to match how I archive images in my brain.

As for the OP's point about if something is scarier in black and white, for me-- things are scarier in color! :) 

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There's the old saying that cheap horror films (like 70's drive-in) are scarier because our own nightmares are low-budget--With bad sound, a lack of extras, shaky camerawork, and over-the-top direction/acting.  

On that theory, Eraserhead would never have worked in color.  Maybe our dreams are in color, but most of us don't remember them that way.

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All I remember is that the scariest movies I recall were usually in Black & White.  And too, like Chaya implied from another movie about the "unseen horror".  IMHO, lots of blood and guts isn't horrifying, it's just horrible( and not in a good way  ;) ).  

But talking to me of contemporary "horror" does no good since I haven't been to a theater to see a new movie since me and my wife went to see GRAVITY in 2013!  Maybe you're right about them LEMON, but I'll have to find time and an outlet in order to see them.  The last "contemporary" so-called "horror" flicks I've seen were from the late '90's and first decade of the 21st century.  And they were so filled with the same redundant cliches I either turned them off or changed the channel. i mean, how many times CAN someone see a quick cut to the exterior of a house just in time to see the windows blow out( for some unexplained reason) or some bug like looking creature crawl up a wall and onto the ceiling then stop. open it's mouth with a distended jaw and tilt it's head to one side like a curious puppy?  And what WAS up with the FX that had people shaking their heads back and forth at warp speed?  :rolleyes:  Color or not, all that crap is just too stupid to be considered worth the price of a ticket.

Sepiatone

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You know I’ve been slowly watching the 1943 version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA In bits and pieces and I have to say it would be a definite example of a film where the Bright, shadow-free, TECHNICOLOR cinematography renders it very very not scary.

Also the fact that Claude Rains was about 5 foot seven.

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