In A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s self-financed supernatural romance film, Casey Affleck haunts Rooney Mara through eerie suburban landscapes wearing a bed sheet. Strangely, the film is only the second best American art film dealing with ghosts in 2017 (sorry Lowery, but Olivier Assayas’ mind-melting Kristen Stewart flick Personal Shopper takes the cake), however, Lowery has crafted a rare horror film in which death physically looms and grief colors every experience. It’s sad and beautiful, a little bit weird and unquestionably worth watching.
After a horrific accident that kills “C” (Affleck), he leaves the hospital and returns home to haunt his wife, “M.” The film subverts the traditional ghost story in that M never feels her husband’s presence. Instead, C (visible to the viewer in true meta fashion as a silhouette covered by the knowingly clichéd white sheet) is forced to watch “M” silently grieve, come home with a new boyfriend, and eventually vacate the home they once shared. The film is a quiet and meditative think-piece on how crappy death, especially premature death, is. The cruelty of life snuffed out too soon is never lost on Lowery: no matter how great M’s grief is portrayed to be, it does not compare to the agony of simply not being there. The film’s cruel joke is that death is an actual experience in which the dead can’t affect any real outcome.
Here, Lowery’s greatest challenge as a filmmaker was to create a haunting atmosphere and sense of dread while never leaving the banal surroundings of a suburban home’s interior. If you are familiar with the photographs of artist Gregory Crewdson, you should not be surprised that Crewdson provided formidable influence on Lowery in the framing of the home featured in A Ghost Story. Crewdson uses suburban settings and meticulously constructed sets that he builds himself to stage unnerving and cinematic images of alienation and loneliness. His work stands directly in-between the work of documentary photographers like William Eggleston with surrealist filmmakers like David Lynch, wringing real drama out of normally banal imagery. That influence is paramount to the effectiveness of A Ghost Story. The film doesn’t have jump-scares or fancy special effects or even much story to rely on. Instead, Lowery has left his viewers with a powerful cinematic experience that comes from the inherent anxieties associated with the dullness of life in a suburban home.
Lowery is just the latest in a long line of directors who have drawn inspiration from fine art to imbue their films with an atmosphere that helps them tell their story. Below are some of the best uses of art images found in some of your favorite films.
Director: Ridley Scott
Influence: Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
I have always held the belief that the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien is the most terrifying and evocative movie monster ever created. The creature, in all its permutations and stages of life (from pod to “facehugger” to full-blown double-jawed, acid-blooded, razor-sharp-toothed alien) is not just aesthetically shocking, it’s also philosophically scary. The Xenomorph’s very biology challenges the human fear of bodily dysfunction (which is why Alien is often considered the largest budget body horror film ever made).
The Xenomorph plays on the male anxiety of being made feminine (by literally impregnating a human host via oral insemination) and also plays into feminist issues over ownership of bodies. This was, of course, all by design. To achieve the grotesque look of the film, Scott tapped Swiss net-surrealist H.R. Giger, who was by then becoming known for his horror-themed paintings that depict a biomechanics and pseudo-sexual relationships between man and machine, to art direct the set and props. Giger came up with the designs mainly on his own, but he did turn towards one inspiration for designing “the chest-buster,” or the baby Xenomorph that first emerges onto the ship after bursting out of a crew member’s stomach. The chest-buster was directly inspired by the horrific creatures that populate the Francis Bacon piece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Both are terrifying and full of dread. It’s likely that Alien is such a masterpiece because it is the rare example of a major Hollywood studio release in which artists had free reign to shock and disturb their audience. Giger died in 2014, but his artistic legacy lives on in his much-celebrated book Necronomicon as well as in the art direction in Scott’s new Alien franchise film, Alien: Covenant. The Bacon painting is on view at Tate Modern in London.
Film: The Shining
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Influence: Diane Arbus’s Twins
While riding around the painfully symmetrical hallways of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, young Danny Torrance hallucinates (or are they really there?) an image of two brunette twin girls… Before seeing a vision of the young girls brutally murdered. In addition to being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kubrick was also a master photographer and a great admirer of fine art photography during the era in which he was making his best films (roughly 1960 to 1980). The twins in the film were recreated directly from the late fine art photographer Diane Arbus’s 1967 image of identical twins.
Arbus was drawn to the strangeness of the girls’ biological duplication, but the stories surrounding Arbus made Kubrick even more interested in the image. Arbus often likened herself to a war photographer in that she was putting herself in dangerous situations to capture these images (there is most definitely a critique of white privilege to be made about her work), and claimed that she wanted to capture evil in her pictures. The twins in the photograph do exude an air of uncanny strangeness, and the girls’ father has called Arbus’s photograph the worst likeness of his daughters he has ever seen. But it was also Arbus’s 1971 suicide that, in Kubrick’s mind, lent the image of the twins an even more sinister undertone. In Arbus’s tragedy, Kubrick detected a dark psychological undercurrent that he hoped all viewers, not just art history fluent viewers, would pick up on. And he was right. The twins of the Overlook Hotel are one of the most frightening images in a film that never lacks in gore or terror.
Film: The Exorcist
Director: William Friedkin
Influence: Rene Magritte The Empire of Light paintings
The Exorcist is arguably the greatest horror film ever crafted, but even that hyperbole doesn’t quite do its genius justice. With The Exorcist, William Friedkin proved to the American public that a supernatural horror film could directly tap into the cultural zeitgeist in the same way as classic films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind did, or Rear Window. The Exorcist’s greatest success is the way it punctures holes in the misguided belief that somehow by living in a cozy, American suburb you are shielded from the horrors of the world. It exposed a cultural fear that even a well-kept young girl from a good, God-fearing family could fall victim to evil forces beyond society’s control.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Friedkin was looking at source material beyond the language of horror cinema to craft his vision. The Belgian surrealist painter master Rene Magritte’s series of paintings The Empire of Light, for instance, inspired a pivotal scene in The Exorcist. The scene in which Father Merrin (Max Vin Sydow) enters the MacNeil family home features a nifty piece of cinematography in which Merrin is standing in day light but as he approaches the house he notices the entire home has been engulfed in the darkness of night. The image, which was also used for the film’s promo posters, was lifted from The Empire of Light paintings, which feature a suburban home bathed in nightlight despite daylight surrounding the home. Friedkin saw the image as allegorical for how this house has been stripped of the comfort of suburban safety and violated by darkness. The Magritte paintings are not only aesthetic influences on the film, they provide the basis for the entire philosophical subtext that make The Exorcist such a staggering work of art.
Director: Lars Von Trier
Influence: John Everett Millais Ophelia
Though not a horror film per se, Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic Melancholia is, like most of his output, deeply disturbing on an existential level. The film follows the unfathomable despair of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who in the first quarter of the film, gets married and destroys her marriage during one very weird, very angst-y wedding reception. The next three quarters of the film are far more poignant and clarifying. As Justine settles into the mansion that her sister shares with her millionaire husband, news starts to spread that a comet has spun out of orbit and is on crash course collision with Earth. The dichotomy of the film is that while the comet approaches and the rest of her family members utterly emotionally decompensate, Justine is poised, fearless, and strong.
Von Trier was deeply depressed while writing the film, and was trying to communicate his simple but powerful belief that those who tend towards despair act far more rationally when shit actually does hit the fan. One beautiful image in a film stuffed with them features Justine floating down a stream, facing towards the sky, and wearing her full wedding garb. Von Trier lifted the image from 19th century British painter John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia that depicts the Hamlet character Ophelia floating before drowning in a river. While Ophelia fell victim to her depression and madness in Hamlet, in the film, Von Trier reexamines that same madness as female strength and rationality (or hyper-rationality).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Influence: Edward Hopper House by the Railroad
To craft the landmark serial killer film Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock knew that his titular “psycho” had to be as empathetic as he was menacing and disturbing. Psycho is not just an influential film in its pulsating cinematography and infamous use of jump cuts in the iconic shower murder sequence, it is also influential in its attempts to map out the psychology of its villain. Hitchcock was far too sophisticated to just condemn evil; he wanted to understand the root of evil.
To do that, he imagined Norman Bates as a man suffocated by the space that he inhabited and the memories that lived within that space. When this idea emerged, he thought of the paintings of early 20th Century American painter Edward Hopper, who used to imagine his subjects trapped in an isolated space. He even told actor Anthony Perkins that he imagined that if Perkins were a character in a painting, he’d be a character in a Hopper painting. He then crafted the design of Bates Motel off of the Hopper painting House by the Railroad. Within that image, Hitchcock free to imagine the source of Norman’s psychosis. Here is a man who is driven mad by the memories that exist within the space that he inhabits, but at the same time, his particular psychosis renders him incapable of simply vacating that space. Those ingredients bake a truly terrifying killer who doubles as a classically tragic figure.