The most stylish thrillers of all time
Vogue, June 2020
This article, originally written for Vogue Global Network, has since been published on British Vogue, Vogue Germany, Vogue Italy, Vogue Spain, Vogue Mexico, Vogue India and Vogue Taiwan.
The thriller genre has produced some of the most beautiful and technically accomplished films ever to hit cinemas. Vogue looks at six silver-screen milestones that have shaped the entertainment landscape.
Stomach-churning roller coasters, extreme sports, spine-tingling films — most of us enjoy a good scare in the name of entertainment from time to time. While the jury’s still out on the science behind our fondness for frights, the numbers speak for themselves: the thriller is one of the most bankable, consistently innovative and industry-disrupting genres in the history of cinema.
It has also produced some of the most eye-wateringly stunning scenes to dazzle our retinas. From electrifying colours to breathtaking costumes, join us as we pick some of the most aesthetically pleasing thrillers of all time.
‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920)
Often cited as the first true horror film, Robert Wiene’s monochromatic masterpiece has become synonymous with German expressionist cinema. Doing away with the notion that the camera’s role was simply to record reality, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari boasted groundbreaking techniques which changed the face of cinema forever. Bizarre set pieces, slanted backdrops, shadows painted on walls and strange perspectives created a surrealistic and nightmarish world, paving the way for expressionist milestones like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Lang’s Metropolis (1927), as well as the post-second world war film noir movement. As if inspiring a whole cinematic movement wasn’t enough, Caligari was also the first film to employ the now played-out device of the plot twist, long before audiences gasped at the big reveal in The Sixth Sense, nearly 80 years later.
Covens never looked so… candy-coloured? Italian filmmaker Dario Argento’s fairy tale-inspired giallo (an Italian crime fiction genre whose popularity peaked in the ’70s) is perhaps the most visually iconic film on this list. Long before CGI dominated the cinematic landscape, Argento — with the help of renowned cinematographer Luciano Tovoli — handcrafted this stylised, violent fever dream. Paying homage to the German expressionist movement of the ’20s, and pushing boundaries in terms of available filmmaking techniques at the time (all created practically, with virtually no post-production intervention), Suspiria became an instant horror classic thanks to its iridescent colour palette, evocative score and nightmare-inducing crescendo.
Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake traded in Argento’s vivid aesthetic for a more muted one, a move many critics felt detracted from the unique, spine-chilling magic of the original.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
Martin Scorsese once equated watching a Stanley Kubrick film with looking up a mountain, as you wonder: “How could anyone have climbed that high?” While this might strike some as superlative reverence, Kubrick’s oeuvre runs the gamut, from war epics (Full Metal Jacket) to costume dramas (Barry Lyndon) to science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey) to, well, horror. Which brings us to one of the most renowned films on this list. Cinephiles will passionately argue that, as far as Stephen King adaptations go, none have come remotely close to The Shining. Kubrick, who is known for his obsessive perfectionism, has created a meticulously crafted visual masterwork, boasting more than a handful of Kubrickian trademarks. From perfectly symmetrical mises-en-scènes to sweeping camera movements, this classic is responsible for some of the most iconographic and haunting visuals in the history of cinema (elevators releasing tidal waves of blood, anyone?). Ironically, for a man rumoured not to have much love for the genre, Kubrick has crafted one of the best portraits of man’s descent into madness — and one of the best thrillers — of all time.
‘The Cell’ (2000)
Having cut his teeth directing music videos, Tarsem Singh’s feature film debut is arguably one of the most beautiful horror films to date. From Oscar-winning art director Eiko Ishioka’s spectacular costume work to the breathtaking production design, every shot is painstakingly crafted, and it shows. While the often ham-fisted script barely rises above your usual run-of-the-mill thriller fare, Singh’s imagery is so intoxicating, you almost forget to care. Drawing inspiration from seminal works of art by the likes of Damian Hirst and HR Giger, the sheer craftsmanship displayed on screen will have you pressing pause throughout to marvel at the undiluted opulence. While Jennifer Lopez’s performance helped catapult her into Hollywood’s upper echelon, it’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s frightening portrayal of a serial killer that guarantees goosebumps.
‘The Neon Demon’ (2016)
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has proven himself to be about as divisive as Marmite; you either love his work or you don’t. Ryan Gosling-led action drama Drive (2011) made Refn a household name and kept things relatively measured and mainstream — not so The Neon Demon. Worshipping at the altar of style over substance, this unabashed, neon-hued gonzo extravaganza follows ingenue and aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) on her quest for fame. Refn wastes no time throwing everything and the kitchen sink at viewers: ritual sacrifices, cannibalism and necrophilia are just a few of the topics explored. While the thinly veiled criticisms of the high-fashion dream machine can feel a little on the nose (here, supermodels are literally devoured by their Tinseltown ambitions), the film is undoubtedly a technicolor-tinged feast for the eyes.
Trippy, pulpy, surrealist: director Panos Cosmatos’ sophomore feature is all of those things, and then some. A B-movie-style revenge flick at its core, Mandy tells the story of logger Red (played with glee by a scenery-chewing Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy, who enjoy a quiet life in a secluded cabin by a lake. After Mandy is kidnapped by a murderous hippie cult, Red embarks on a mythic, mesmerising and LSD-fuelled journey of retribution. Logophiles need not apply, as dialogue is sparse. Instead, watching Mandy is a bit like looking through a dusty kaleidoscope from forgotten times: scenes are drenched in striking reds, vivid greens and deep blues, prismatic rainbows flicker across the screen and the camera’s focus undulates hypnotically. While the film’s slight narrative and proclivity for Grand Guignol violence might test some viewers’ patience, it’s a psychedelic experience that will delight ’80s aficionados and aesthetes alike.