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Atmospheria (Episode One)

July 12th, 2010 by unkle lancifer · 17 Comments

While watching a movie for review recently I was stunned by how much I got into the atmosphere of the film regardless of my reservations about the rest of its content. Nothing beats a film that is successful on all levels including storyline, dialogue, acting and direction but atmosphere, it seems to me, is something special, particularly in the realm of horror. A part of me in fact, feels capable of forgiving a film’s failure in other areas if it is able to capture that certain something elusive that many neglect to. To me, there is a certain magical element to a film’s atmosphere and it goes beyond just capturing a flashy image. It’s a marriage of sound, tone, color and stance that can offer the viewer a rewarding experience even when other areas of the movie may disappoint.

I’m going to do myself a huge solid by not trying to attempt to cover all of the films I want to talk about in one single post, this will be an ongoing series. I’m also going to treat myself to not using any kind of numerical rating system. You’ll see that all of the movies mentioned will range greatly in overall quality but that they share one thing in common. These are movies that, to me, capture a gratifying ambience even if only momentarily. My hope is to go beyond speaking about how they simply look on a visual level and talk more about the overall feeling or mood established.

So let’s get started, that top image of the castle that I used for the post’s title card is from WILLIAM PETER BLATTY’s 1980 film THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Here BLATTY worked with cinematographer GERRY FISHER who he teamed up with again for the equally excellent THE EXORCIST III. I was going to write about how I wished that BLATTY directed more often but I’m not sure if we, as an audience, even deserve such a thing. Maybe let’s all appreciate the incredible work he has already gifted us with and then perhaps we’ll deserve more of his fascinating work.

At first glance we have a traditional foreboding castle dunked in fog but this is no ordinary castle, it’s being used as a mental institution. I think those hanging branches work well as a stand in for bars of a cage. The shattering effect of the twigs cracking outward could also represent vision through a fractured mind. This shot is used early in the film and instantly sets a sense of place. Cold isolation prevails and we are informed that we are far off the beaten track. If you haven’t seen NINTH yet, get on it quick, not only will it blow your mind but you’ll also get to meet a very young TOM ATKINS.

Can you believe this shot is from THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES? You know, I really like this film and I hardly mention it because it’s stuck in some “thriller” isle in my head (working in a video store for years will do that to you.) It’s so good though and the type of horror it instills is the superior kind that opens your mind and really makes you wonder. It was filmed in Kittanning, PA and you may recognize some locations from 2009’s MY BLOODY VALENTINE which was filmed there too. I have Pennsylvania all through my blood so maybe I’m extra susceptible to this film’s environment. There’s an off-putting collision between woodsy nature and the run down industrial throughout. (Don’t be put off by RICHARD GERE and DEBRA MESSING being in this movie, it’s good enough to survive even that.) The current for much of the film reminds me of waking up in the middle of the night and walking about before your eyes have had a chance to focus. Nothing is clear but everything is clearly “off.”

Here is another director I feel I have to defend, JOE DANTE. This guy truly had the goods and it’s a shame that his talent wasn’t nurtured in the direction that it should have been. Creating an ominous forest atmosphere at night is challenging enough but just look what DANTE is able to achieve during the day in 1981’s THE HOWLING! There is a fairy tale aspect but it never loses a sense of the recognizable. We get the idea that the everyday could transform into the fantastic at any given moment. Besides establishing truly wonderful outdoor dioramas, the film opens on the direct opposite side of the thematic fence thrusting us into neon mazes of urban sex shop sleaze. These woods are where one would expect to escape unseemliness but in DANTE’s paws, the audience is well aware that danger is still around every corner.

It’s almost too easy throwing LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH on to the operating table. This film, directed by JOHN D. HANCOCK, oozes atmosphere like a squashed donut oozes jelly. For the most part it’s like an ethereal waking dream as viewed through cheesecloth. I had my pick of hundreds of haunting moments to choose from but I had to select this more earthbound and blatant capture. First of all, nothing beats authentic locations, the SCARE JESSICA house absolutely has a personality all its own. I love how the center of the frame is split down the middle by the weathered road. Although Jessica is outdoors she seems trapped, in fact, it rather looks like she’s being chased by a giant house and tree! She appears bullied by her surroundings, a doll-like plaything to the fates. I’m quite confident that I will never fully understand what is going on in this movie and I like that. Why should the viewer get all of the answers while Jessica flaps around like a confused goldfish that fell out of its bowl?

The hardest part for me about selecting images based solely on atmosphere was not picking films with snowy winter backdrops EVERY time. I knew my fetish going in so I’ve tried to steer myself away from it as much as I could. The fact remains though that snowy horror movies kick ass and there’s just nothing I can do to change that. 1987’s DEAD OF WINTER directed by ARTHUR PENN was obviously meant to elbow HITCHCOCK but for me it mostly registers as snow porn. Yes I admit it, this old biddy bait curls my toes and would you please be a dear and fetch me my afghan? What I’ve grown to notice is that this pet favorite’s persuasive atmosphere is not solely kept to the outdoors as the above image testifies. Wow, that’s MARY STEENBURGEN and doesn’t that resemble the cover of some potboiler gothic paperback from the sixties? The chance of any of the happenings in this mousetrap identity swap mystery occurring in the real world are a million to nil but if you muzzle your critical mind, the cozy, parlor game aspect of it pays off in spades.

While we’re on the subject of snow, let’s just get this one out of the way now, as it is perhaps the epitome of what I’m talking about. It is probably complete utter madness to expect a mortal being to translate the sheer epic phantasmagorical quality of PETER STRAUB’s magnum opus GHOST STORY to the big screen. It ‘s kind of like trying to shove a zeppelin into a fanny-pack. Those who have read the book may be able to fill in the blanks but a standard theatrical running time just isn’t enough time to do the tale justice (someone get on the snow ball and do a miniseries, please!) Although the screenplay and running time fail the subject matter, nobody has a right to complain about the aura created by director JOHN IRVIN with notable visual assists by ALBERT WHITLOCK. I’ve always hankered for a bit more of DICK SMITH’s fantastic make-up effects on display but the truth is some of the film’s most lingering chills come from its more vague illusions. The above shot is one of my all time favorites and I’d put it in league with ROBERT WISE’s delicately brutal hand in THE HAUNTING (1963). Like a bug in amber, a pristine moment is caught where an image starts to form… seemingly from nothing. It’s a forced a-ha moment that keeps the viewer cautious throughout the rest of the film.

ALEJANDRO AMENABAR’s 2001 film THE OTHERS’ only crime is following in the footsteps of THE SIXTH SENSE which came out the year before. Both films close with similar rug pulls but if you want to talk oppressive atmosphere THE OTHERS runs rings. There probably aren’t many shots in the film that are not impeccable but I find the one above exceptionally satisfying considering the story. Is the great monstrous mass of fog erasing the world or are we looking at an unfinished canvas that some unseen creator has neglected to continue with? The lonely figure sweeping the stairs suggests that some semblance of existence must go on either way. I think it’s a gorgeously somber way to present a dwelling filled with characters that our world has unknowingly left behind.

Have you ever just wanted to grab TIM BURTON by the shoulders and shake him? I know I sure as hell have. When he’s not acting goofy he’s capable of sublime beauty and when he eases up and lets it flow, he’s a true force. Unfortunately, some of his films unnecessarily ramble into knots of convoluted crapitude. Take SLEEPY HOLLOW for example, what a drop dead gorgeous looking film. BURTON’s even able to believably capture a time period where people were just barely living off the land and still had one foot stuck in the muck of ancient fears. It’s really a shame that the plot ends up ravaging everything earned. WASHINGTON IRVING’s Headless Horseman needs little garnish. It’s a simple tale and as such, it has prodded goose bumps out of anyone who has heard it for hundreds of years. BURTON’s movie tries too hard, throws too many unswallowable spices into the pot and ends up some kind of weird porridge but again, there’s nothing like it as far as atmosphere goes. I learned to approach SLEEPY HOLLOW as I would a beautiful buffoon. I smile, nod, take in the scenery and let it babble on. Jeez, check out how in the above image the kid’s posture echoes that of the gravestone in the background; one of several perfect moments in an imperfect film.

GARY SHERMAN’s DEAD AND BURIED has loads of atmosphere but damn if it’s not difficult to capture in one shot. The visual style of the film is pretty straight forward and often times murky. To best experience the seaside town of Potter’s Bluff in all its glory you have to collect bits and shards throughout the film and just wade in the accumulative effect. The film within the film is a different story altogether, it’s an avalanche of gritty and disturbing imagery that’s way ahead of its time. Decades later this type of trash chic would pop up everywhere from FIONA APPLE videos to underwear ads, not to mention tiny indie flicks nobody has ever heard of like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Whereas something truly low budget like BLAIR and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE wore its own jeans to work and allowed its grunge to speak for itself, DEAD AND BURIED consciously uses this hand held, dipped in sewer gruff in contrast to the rest of the film. The startling effect places the viewer into the chair of an unwitting co-witness to debauchery and murder. Hey, guess what? You’re watching a snuff film! The capture above speaks for itself; we’re voyeurs being peeped on by a voyeur. There’s barely any distinction between indoors and out and we’re caught red handed in his gaze.

We can’t talk about atmosphere and not bow toward producer VAL LEWTON and director JACQUES TOURNEUR. Their 1942 psycho-sexual game changing stunner CAT PEOPLE laps up mood like milk. Creating a dark shadowy world that echoed the psyche of the film’s characters was the first order of business for these two. I want to make sure that I impress that good atmosphere is not all about the weather outside and gloomy vistas. This simple, intimate living room scene of Oliver (KENT SMITH) and Irena (SIMONE SIMON) communicating their fears illustrates that human figures make great landscapes as well. Check out the body language with smitten Oliver lying back on the couch and repressed Irene straddling the fence so to speak. It’s all about them and they may as well be the owl and the pussy cat off to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. You don’t have to guess who the pussy cat is, just check out the cat ear shadow provided by the chair in the background!

I think we’ll be seeing more of LEWTON and TOURNEUR in future episodes of “Atmospheria,” but this is a good place for us to part ways for now.

Keep the fireplace burning kiddies, you never know what the shadows hide!

Tags: Atmospheria

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 9:19 am

    OH, what a great idea for an article. Love it!

    I LOVE Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. It maintains that creepy vibe from the first frame throughout. That’s some feat!
    I have decided now that I have read this, that  you NEED to see Ghostkeeper. I think you just may like it!
    Awesome work as usual!

  • 2 Liam ColeNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Definitely agree with the snow thing. There are too many great snow movies for it to be a coincidence.
    The Shining, Fargo, Changeling (if you include the opening), Planes Trains and Automobiles, … can’t think of any more off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are loads.

  • 3 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 11:07 am


    I’m going to try to catch Ghostkeeper this week. Thanks for the heads up on that one.
    If anybody else wants to catch up with that one, it’s on Amazon and you can watch it for 1.99
    It’s not available on DVD yet.
    I LOVE the snow movies..
    we did a list of them a couple of years ago 
    It looks like I mentioned several of the movies on this post way back then too…

  • 4 dasklyterNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    The first movie that comes to mind when I think of atmosphere is “The Company of Wolves”. The sets in that movie are so amazing – beautiful, scary and surreal – its magical. The production designer studied the works of Gustave Doré and Samuel Palmer prior to designing the forest sets.
    It’s quite an underrated little gem.

  • 5 RATSAWGODNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    GREAT article. Have a few new movies to add to my Netflix Queue! Yayness!

  • 6 Chuckles72No Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Well, that is one mighty fine list.  Have not seen The Ninth Configuration, but the castle image has sold me on it.
    IMHO, one truly notable missing entry would be The Wicker Man – the atmosphere of that film had me pretty much hypnotized from the first frames.

  • 7 roarvisNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Nice list. I’ve seen about half of them, the other half I will add to my queue.
    I also give movies a lot of slack if they have good atmosphere. Lately, I’m impressed more with cinematography and “vibe” than anything else.

  • 8 TaylorNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Ghostkeeper is aces for atmosphere…It’s sort of like a proto- Cold Prey, but supernatural.  The Boogens is another good snowy one.

    I’ve tried to watch The Ninth Configuration once or twice over the years, but the goofy comedic tone always makes me feel alienated from it.  I just can’t look past the overly “written”-sounding zingers in the dialogue.  But you’re right, a lot of what keeps me coming back to it to try again is that location…Same with The Keep — No idea wtf is going on in most of that movie, but I keep it around because the photography of that castle is so cozily creepy.

  • 9 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Good call on the Boogens Taylor. It’s one of my faves!

  • 10 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 3:21 pm


    I was just thinking of Company of wolves recently while watching Gilliam’s Brother’s Grim. Company is so much darker though and more surreal. l gotta watch it again, a great looking movie!
    Too true about the wicker man. You really get a feel for that island as a real place. We might have to do that one in the future!
    Yea, sometimes I think it’s fun to just sit back and go to another place in a movie and not worry about the details so much. I feel guilty saying that but it’s true.
    Ah Cold Prey!! I love that one soooo Much! THE KEEP is a perfect example I gotta try to find a copy of that! I like everything about that movie except how they treat the story! The look, the music, the casting everything. Too bad they couldn’t get  more of the book in there. The Keep as a book is an unforgettable experience!
    and THE BOOGENS!!!!! GO BOOGENS! If people have to do remakes why not remake THE BOOGENS I would pay anything to see a Boogens remake!!!!!

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Ratsawgod, I accidently skipped over you…glad I could help with your Netflix queue buddy!
    By the way, I appreciate any and all suggestions for future installments of this series! You guys have great taste and obviously get what I’m talking about! 
    It’s actually kind of liberating just focusing on the visual feel of a film!
    I had to throw in Dead and Buried as a last minute substitute when my INFERNO dvd wouldn’t play. I was going to do something with that underwater scene which I think is just amazing…
    I’ll get to Argento eventually!

  • 12 craigNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    If no one else had mentioned GHOSTKEEPER, I certainly would have. However, be prepared for one thing upon your first veiwing; because the audio is a little below par, and because the entire cast is wearing snowsuits, there’s a constant swish-swish sound of snowpants legs rubbing together during the quiet moments. Curious to see if this ups your atmosphere-quota, or diminishes it a little when you check it out.

  • 13 dagnabbitNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    About the 9th Configuration…the music that is playing during that castle shot absolutely destroyed the mood the images were trying to establish.   I agree with Taylor, the tone of this entire movie is off and this opening shot is a perfect example of it.  Imagine if you can a Glenn Campbell song playing as the soundtrack to this foggy castle establishing shot and you’re almost there.  Now consider the song is not anywhere close to being as good as a Glenn Campbell song.  Atmosphere created and successfully sucked away!  Boy I hate Glenn Campbell.

  • 14 ChrisNo Gravatar // Jul 12, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Thank you for this topic, Unk. Atmosphere is sadly lacking in most horror films these days (shame on you, filmmakers!), but your choices thus far have been spectacular!  I look forward to future entries.
    My favorite uses of atmosphere in horror (which hopefully make your list eventually)…
    #1: The opening credits of Halloween 4. That short sequence is so desolate, quite beautiful, and captures the season/holiday perfectly. And even though it was shot in Salt Lake City (I believe?), I could swear it was shot in my backyard here in Illinois. 
    #2: The big giveaway montage in Halloween 3. It’s just haunting, with the music, and the scenes of children trick or treating. Then you get to the shot of the little girl walking in front of the sunset. Gorgeous! It totally adds to the mood.
    #3: Pumpkinhead. The entire film. From the empty daylight shots, to the creep filled night (complete with lightning sometimes), the whole flick is beauty.

  • 15 sob317No Gravatar // Jul 13, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Great List. Lots of favorites and lots of new ones to check out. I think a good movie for this list would be The Reflecting Skin. Great, weird movie with a lot of fantastic camera work setting the tone.

  • 16 mitchNo Gravatar // Jul 13, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Astounding Job lance!! Atmosphere is numero Uno with me, when Horror films are concerned. I LOVE many of the films that you mentioned, and I would add The Hearse, and The Changeling to the list.

  • 17 Delandria EleandilNo Gravatar // May 7, 2011 at 4:03 am

    I would like to add Haunted (1995), great movie with beautiful visuals and a gothic mood despite being so light. I’d add more, but I’m terrible on reviews and everything was said on Fascination with Fear blog.

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