Darkness has long been the default setting in horror cinema. The reasons are practical. Over the decades, spartan lighting has proved useful for directors both as a stylistic tool and a means of hiding limitations in budget. For an audience, the idea of what can’t be seen is often most frightening of all.
In the shadows waits the unknown, and the quite possibly terrifying; perhaps naturally, nyctophobia is the one widely-held fear exploited by horror movies more than any other. And so, as the western has horses and heroic gunfighters, and musicals have their song-and-dance numbers, horror has monsters and the shadowy corners in which they hide.
Of course, as with every cinematic rule, there are exceptions, and directors eager to both shatter expectations and test their filmmaking mettle. Illuminate a horror film, and suddenly the filmmaker is forced to re-evaluate just what makes scary cinema scary.
US filmmaker Ari Aster’s new outing, Midsommar, is the latest in the brief history of daylight horror. While his 2018 debut, Hereditary, typically saved many of its scares for the nighttime, Aster’s sophomore feature is set at the height of summer, as a young American couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) travel to rural Sweden for a mysterious festival that only comes around every 90 years.
To celebrate the release of Aster’s film, here are 10 great horror films in which the daytime offered no escape from the terror.
The Birds (1963)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
A special effects marvel for the time, Alfred Hitchcock’s existential disaster movie almost reads like a self-imposed genre challenge for the filmmaker after his previous horror. Where the shadowy Psycho (1960) featured a shrieking Bernard Herrmann score and a monster that was kept largely in the dark, Hitch makes The Birds entirely music-free and ensures the implacable, beady-eyed villains of the title always remain in full view.
Hitchcock trusts the uncanny sight of an animal so common in daily life as to be considered background noise suddenly turning deadly: seagulls hurl themselves at cars and phone boxes; sparrows flood a living room via the fireplace; crows ominously mass on a jungle gym as they prepare to divebomb a school full of children. An early example of eco-horror, The Birds’ refusal to explain why nature would suddenly turn on the people of a quiet California fishing village also lends Hitchcock’s final classic a touch of the cosmic. What unfathomable conspiracy are these creatures privy to that the audience isn’t? The director never tells.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Director Michael Reeves
Amid the chaos of the English civil war, Puritan lawyer Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price, showing a chilling restraint rarely exhibited in his hammier horror roles) exploits local superstition and the absence of government to terrorise East Anglia as the self-appointed Witchfinder General. Where Hopkins goes, collecting cash for executions of suspected ‘witches’, atrocities are committed in broad daylight: Catholic priests are hanged; innocent villagers are tortured for confession; women are raped in open fields or burned alive as sniggering villagers look on.
Directed by Michael Reeves when he was just 24 (the young filmmaker would be dead the following year of an accidental overdose), Witchfinder General is remarkably hopeless, despite its painterly pastoral views. A prototypical folk horror, the film’s threat is not some ancient terror of the land but the supposedly civilised creatures who reside there, a temporary suspension of the law all it takes for people to turn the idyllic English countryside into a vision of hell.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Director Robin Hardy
Old and new world superstitions clash in Robin Hardy’s cult classic, as stuffy Christian copper Sgt Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on Summerisle, a remote Scottish island where paganism is still practised openly. A pious man who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, Howie is horrified to discover the inhabitants of this sunlit paradise fornicate out in the open and teach children to sing around the maypole about the restorative power of death upon the earth.
Conceived and shot at the dawn of the 70s when the counterculture dream was dying, The Wicker Man has post-Manson anxiety about what darkness might lie beneath the free-love veneer of the flower power movement. Convinced he’s the crusading hero come to save an innocent from an island full of ignorant heathens, Howie’s fate in the rug-pull finale is still as shocking for the audience as it evidently is for him all these years later.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Escaping the crowds in mainland Spain, English couple Tom and Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) take a boat out to Almanzora, an apparently uncharted island unknown to the other tourists. Looking for a more ‘genuine’ holiday experience, instead they discover an island deserted except for children, the adults all wiped out by a gleeful pre-teen horde that attacks as a hive mind and plays with corpses like they’re gory piñatas.
More cheerless than its many shlock titles would suggest (the film was also released as Island of the Damned in the US and Death is Child’s Play in the UK), Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s vacation horror is existentially upsetting long before the inevitable bloody clash between the possessed kids and adult protagonists. Though he hints at some random supernatural event as the reason why the island’s children would turn suddenly bloodthirsty, Serrador opens his film with newsreel-style mondo footage of 20th-century atrocities — Vietnam, the Holocaust, the Nigerian civil war – in which children were the principal victims, suggesting from the beginning that maybe the grown-ups had it coming anyway.
The Shout (1978)
Director Jerzy Skolimowski
The windy dunes of the Devonshire coast provide the primary setting for The Shout, Jerzy Skolimowski’s mystifying dark-magic fable in which avant-garde composer Anthony Fielding and his wife Rachel (John Hurt and Susannah York) are accosted by a trenchcoat-wearing wanderer named Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), who claims to have recently returned from 18 years learning Aboriginal sorcery in the Australian outback. Inviting himself into the Fieldings’ home, Crossley proceeds to bewitch Rachel after showing her musician husband his greatest trick: a ‘terror shout’ with the power to rip souls from their bodies and kill anyone in earshot.
Framed as a tale told by Bates’ Crossley to Tim Curry’s young doctor over a game of cricket in the grounds of an asylum, and with Anthony’s music constantly bleeding into the soundtrack and vice versa, The Shout constantly urges the viewer to question the veracity of Skolimowski’s tale. Emanating sheer malice, Bates leaves us to wonder whether Crossley is a genuinely evil force or merely some poor, dark-hearted fantasist.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Director George A. Romero
After 1968’s Night and 1978’s Dawn, godfather of the walking dead George A. Romero finally brings his flesh-eating monsters into the light with Day of the Dead. Most memorable for the character of Bub, a Beethoven-admiring captive zombie who military scientists domesticate in their attempts to awaken a walker’s humanity, Day of the Dead also features a post-apocalyptic opening sequence that’s among the most poignant in Romero’s allegorical horror series.
Robbed of their menace in the daylight, there’s a dreadful sadness to Day of the Dead’s walkers, immortal cattle aimlessly shuffling through empty streets with nobody left to feed on, no reason to be. Meanwhile the surviving humans go mad below the surface, eking out existence in daylight-starved underground bunkers as the undead dumbly enjoy the sun above.
The Reflecting Skin (1990)
Director Philip Ridley
Best enjoyed for cinematographer Dick Pope’s magic-hour skies and impossibly golden wheat fields, Philip Ridley’s southern gothic fantasia is set in an anonymous 1950s midwestern farming community, where the townsfolk dress perpetually in black as if always on their way to a funeral. At the centre of this picture is Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), a curious eight-year-old boy who processes the multiple horrors of his world by interpreting it through the lens of fantasy.
Classic stories of good and evil mercifully keep Seth from the truth: the English widow (Lindsay Duncan) who lives across the way and grieves for her young husband, dead by his own hand, is actually a vampire who vanished the man herself; the desiccated foetus Seth discovers in a local barn is rather the angelic reincarnation of a murdered friend. Meanwhile, Seth’s brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), recently returned from military service testing atom bombs in the Pacific, isn’t disintegrating from radiation poisoning but from having had his life force drained by his vampiric lover.
Funny Games (1997/2007)
Director Michael Haneke
Whether you see the original German-language version or the director’s own starrier (but virtually shot-for-shot) ‘Hollywood’ remake, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is always an aggressively unsettling experience. The film is confrontational from its opening titles, an opera-soundtracked drive to a lakehouse for a middle-class family’s vacation, abruptly interrupted by pugnacious heavy metal.
Haneke often punctures scenes this way, whether with sudden eruptions of violence or fourth-wall-breaking nods to the camera from the two villains, a pair of anonymous young men who torture Anna/Ann (Susanne Lothar/Naomi Watts), Georg/George (Ulrich Mühe/Tim Roth) and their son Georg Jr/Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski/Devon Gearhart) at their summer home for no apparent reason other than it’s the filmmaker’s wish for them to do so. Ostensibly a home invasion thriller but with a lecture on film violence for a director’s commentary, Funny Games gives the audience what they would typically expect from such a film while constantly challenging them as to why. With Haneke in deconstructionist mode, Funny Games takes such a dispassionate approach to its characters’ welfare as to be doubly chilling.
Director Hideo Nakata
Upending genre expectations with its skin-crawling climax, Ring is also so heroically restrained as to leave the viewer guessing until almost the last of its 95 minutes. Could there really be an evil spirit inside a mysterious videotape purportedly connected to a spate of recent deaths, and if so how is said ghoul even claiming its victims? With his penultimate scene, at last director Hideo Nakata leaves no doubt: certain that the curse of the hexed VHS has been lifted, university professor protagonist Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada) relaxes at home just as the light begins to shine on a new day; but the television starts playing him the accursed tape once more, only this time the footage ends with a demonic girl crawling from a well, towards the camera and out of the TV itself.
It’s little wonder Ring has had such a lasting influence on horror following its enormous box office success: for all the genre cleverness of the postmodern likes of Scream (1996) that briefly dominated horror in the late 90s, nothing could be as impactful as smashing one of the oldest rules in the horror playbook. After Ring, daylight no longer necessarily brought safety in horror cinema.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Director S. Craig Zahler
A potent brew mixing western and cannibal horror, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is also an unlikely fusion of slow cinema and grindhouse. Starring Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson at the head of a posse of archetypal gunslinger types on a mission to retrieve a group of kidnapped townsfolk, Zahler’s languorous oater takes a hard-right turn into torture porn territory when the heroes finally locate the captors: cave-dwelling ‘troglodytes’ with a taste for brutality and human flesh.
Illuminated by a hellish California sun, images of death and injury are lingered upon by Zahler, the director evidently taking pleasure in showing his audience what might be thought unshowable. The stomach of Russell’s sheriff is cut open, a steaming tin flask inserted into the wound; a man is hung upside down and bisected while still alive. If the terror in daylight horror is explicitly seeing that which horrifies us, then Bone Tomahawk makes for a prime example of the side-genre.