Black and white movies were once the only option. But after a certain point in history, filming in monochrome became more of an artistic decision than a technological necessity.
With Robert Eggers’ intensely mysterious The Lighthouse coming to theaters soon, we decided to look back at six very recent cult and horror movies—none released prior to 2013—that reached new cinematic heights or at least went to some memorably odd places with a valuable assist from their use of black-and-white.
Mad Max: Fury Road was already an instant masterpiece in sun-bleached color with cinematography by John Seale. But right around its release in 2015, director George Miller mentioned that his preferred way to view the film was in black and white. The near-fabled existence of this version gripped fans with a frenzied curiosity until, over a year later, it finally became available thanks to the glory of Blu-ray (plus a few theatrical screenings to boot).
Nothing’s different about the film outside of the color shift, but even beyond offering audiences the rare chance to witness (sorry not sorry) the director’s full embodiment of his vision, the “Black and Chrome” revamp of Fury Road really is stunning in its new hue. The stark landscape of the post-apocalypse never looked so beautiful, nor so brutal.
There’s no lush beauty in Computer Chess’ particular approach to black and white. Instead, cinematographer Matthias Grunsky creates a deliberately lo-fi look using analog video cameras (some of which appear on-camera too), a style that perfectly suits the film’s setting: a computer-chess competition held at a nondescript California hotel, circa 1980. Before this film came out in 2013, writer-director Andrew Bujalski was mostly known for his “mumblecore” works like Mutual Appreciation; he’s since made films like last year’s working-class feminist comedy Support the Girls and he also co-wrote the script for the upcoming Disney+ remake of Lady and the Tramp.
Computer Chess is really more of an improvised nerd comedy than a genre film, but the narrative veers into some very weird places—swingers, self-help enthusiasts, eerie evidence of self-aware AI, a sex worker who’s not what she seems—around the fringes of the contest storyline. Some of those odd moments nudge the film into sci-fi realms despite its overall commitment to awkward realism, a vibe that’s only enhanced by its vintage home-movie feel.
Randy Moore’s chronicle of one man’s spiral into madness during a family visit to Disney World earned instant infamy because of the way it was shot: using handheld video cameras brought into Disney’s theme parks without the corporate overlords’ knowledge or permission (Lucas Lee Graham is the credited cinematographer). It’s a gimmick that adds an extra layer of naughtiness to Escape From Tomorrow, which is a very bizarre blend of travelogue—as the cameras capture the actors blending into the unaware crowds, riding rides, waiting in line, eating, etc.—and then bending reality as main character Jim (Roy Abramsohn) sees his day go from bad (being fired over the phone), to bad-trip (“It’s a Small World,” but with demons), to WTF (as his inappropriate horndog stalking of two teenage girls suddenly gives way to his seduction by a...wicked witch?), to full-on “stop the world, I want to get off” (when he’s kidnapped into a sinister lab hidden beneath Epcot’s Spaceship Earth).
The black-and-white adds to Escape From Tomorrow’s unnerving interpretation of what’s supposed to be a bright, joyful destination, but there’s also a subplot involving something called “cat flu” that is far easier to sit through without the benefit of full color.
When we heard there was a fourth movie in the Grudge series coming, we were less than excited—seriously, did anyone actually see 2009's The Grudge 3? But then we saw who was making it: Nicolas Pesce, the writer-director whose 2016 feature debut The Eyes of My Mother is still rattling around in our darkest nightmares.
After a tragedy on her isolated family farm, a Portuguese American girl grows into a woman filled with grim and violent urges, trigged by a fear of loneliness and enabled by a near-scientific approach to indulging her darkest impulses. Thank the merciful movie gods The Eyes of My Mother is in black and white (the cinematography is by Zach Kuperstein), otherwise its gruesome surgical explorations would have rendered this artful yet deeply disturbing tale nearly impossible to watch.
The fact that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a black-and-white film is just one of its many distinguishing qualities. It’s also a debut feature—Iranian-American writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour has since gone on to direct apocalyptic freakout The Bad Batch; “The Traveler,” one of the better episodes so far on Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot; and has a female-centric Cliffhanger remake on the way.
But also, on top of that, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a “feminist Western vampire movie, shot in a California ghost town but with all dialogue in Farsi,” to quote my 2014 review below. The monochrome (the cinematography is by Lyle Vincent) only makes it more dreamy and timeless, nodding to Dracula and other classic monster movies of the past—while also feeling totally modern and unique.
British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill List, High Rise, Doctor Who) never seems to repeat himself and yet he brings a similarly offbeat perspective to all of his projects—that’s why we can’t wait to see what he does with the Tomb Raider franchise. But his black-and-white entry on this list (with textured cinematography by Laurie Rose) is the particularly unusual A Field in England, written by Wheatley’s frequent collaborator (and life partner) Amy Jump. It’s a blend of historical drama and psychedelia experienced by a group of raggedy soldiers and alchemists during the English Civil War. That field has got some very special mushrooms in it, to be sure.
In 2014, Wheatley spoke to io9 about why A Field in England doesn’t feel the need to explain itself. It just is, and that’s really what makes it a truly disorienting adventure for both its characters and audience:
We wanted to have this idea of like if you were to go to Japan tomorrow (unless you can speak Japanese and you know Japanese culture) if you go there and you don’t know anything about it, you would be completely lost. There is no exposition. There is nothing. You’re just there standing looking at the sign going, “I can’t read this shit. And don’t understand anything.” No one will explain it to you, because you should know. It’s the same with this. Most movies, the characters are just idiots, and they turn up somewhere and then someone explains everything to them. That’s just not how life is...So we wanted to make something that felt like if just dropped you in there. Sink or swim.
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