The poster for Ari Aster’s second feature film, the horror movie Midsommar, seems noticeably jarring for its genre. In the movie itself, the rolling hills and clear blue skies of the Swedish countryside take center stage; along with beautiful bouquets of flowers and the lemon yellow of a mysterious, pyramid-shaped temple at the edge of the titular festival’s grounds.
There’s also quite a bit of gore in Midsommar—the film is replete with smashed-in skulls, blood, guts, skinned faces, and corpses—but you wouldn’t know it from that poster design. The simple, elegant design frames half of star Florence Pugh’s face in warm, saturated tones, drawing out the yellow flowers in her hair against the bright, marine-blue background. The design checks none of the boxes for horror movie posters’ time-tested visual language: there’s no black and white or monochromatic color scheme, no blood-red accents, spooky buildings draped in fog, or silhouettes of barren trees. At first glance, you might not even notice the single tear rolling down Pugh’s cheek.
2017 was widely declared a banner year for horror movies, and in the year and a half since—in which news has been dominated by all things Trump and Brexit-related—a few common themes have risen in the genre. The tenor of horror films has become noticeably more focused on the sort of psychological terrors that feel increasingly present in everyday life. In a piece for The Chicago Tribune, critic Danielle Ryan notes that the genre has always been concerned with fear of the “other,” and that the increased presence and power of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in Hollywood has led to more projects subverting these expectations.
As the horrors being depicted on screen have shifted towards the societal and interpersonal, such as that of grief and loneliness in Aster’s films, or the injustices to which a lucky few’s prosperity is tethered in Jordan Peele’s Us, movie poster and ad design has followed—they too are subverting the most common tropes in favor of a more subtle unease.
Midsommar’s poster, like the film itself, is at first an unremarkable design its blue-and-yellow color scheme seems warm and cheerful; then you see the star’s pained face, and the saturated color palette takes on the eeriness of hyperreality. Similarly, the poster and marketing for Us embrace unhorror-like aesthetics: the teaser poster featured a Rorschach-like design introducing its twin motif. The designs around Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, emphasized a sterile and quietly austere aesthetic; and those for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! saw posters bearing a whimsical, swirling script font.
“As the horrors depicted on screen have shifted towards the societal and interpersonal, movie poster and ad design has followed—subverting expected tropes in favor of a more subtle unease.”
Nowhere is this shift more apparent, however, than in the branding for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria, which uses a wordmark inspired by Bauhaus shapes and a pink and orange color palette that moves away from recent trends in horror poster design, but also nods to the work of Saul Bass pretty heavily.
Dan Perri, who designed Suspiria’s wordmark, says the design was a result of a year-long collaboration with Guadagnino, who Perri describes as a “visualist” who “came out of designing costumes and sets before he became a director, so every visual was very, very important to him.” Perri adds, “[The original Suspiria poster] had a very exploitational style, and used very raw colors. [Guadagnino]’s film, though it’s basically the same story, is told with a lot of subtlety and elements that are psychological.”
The shift in cinematography coincides with the trend in subtler poster design—as in the case of Midsommar, the film and the poster share the same basic color palette.
Part of the shift away from dark, shadowy horror movie posters may be partly a reflection of more recent films’ production elements such as lighting and cinematography. In an interview for the Motion Picture Arts Association, the trade association for major American movie studios, the cinematographer for Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out revealed that the bright, decidedly un-spooky lighting used in the first half of the film served as an intentional subversion of audience expectations, noting that “we didn’t want to arrive at the house and have it look like a real spooky haunted house that was a scary, rainy, dark sort of place.” The shift in cinematography coincides with the trend in subtler poster design—as in the case of Midsommar, the film and the poster share the same basic color palette.
Not all recent and upcoming horror films have embraced the new emerging aesthetic of horror, though: films such as A Quiet Place, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and The Grudge employ recognizable tropes such as bloody, grimy houses, frightened women’s silhouettes, creepy hallways, and black-and-white palettes with red accents. The 2019 adaptation of Stephen King’s In The Tall Grass appears to have moved from more blatantly horrific poster art of a blood-soaked hand rising out of a cornfield to a version in which the cornfield is presented upside-down, with less stormy skies and more a more saturated greens and light blues.
As the existential threats of our own dystopian world continue to find themselves reflected on the big screen, the visual language of movie poster design is making room for a new set of horror aesthetics, one which feels passive yet unnerving—and unsettlingly close to home.