Polychromatic Perversity: Hypercolor, Vice, and Violence in Horror

Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) in the Fourth World (Heavenly Creatures, 1994)

“Today Juliet and I discovered the key to the Fourth World,” announces Pauline midway through Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. “We have an extra part of our brain which can appreciate the Fourth World. Only about ten people have it.” This imagined land, the creation of teenaged lover-friends Pauline and Juliet, could not be more different from the tedious one in which they actually live. In the Fourth World there are no parents to humiliate and neglect Pauline and Juliet, no lesbiophobic psychologists to interfere in their intense relationship, no handsy boys pestering them for hetero sex. The only residents of the Fourth World are unicorns and butterflies, graceful queens and brave kings. And there is color, color so hyper-saturated that the real worlds inhabited by both the film’s characters and the viewer herself pale by comparison. 

The scene in which Juliet and Pauline discover the Fourth World plays like a more histrionic version of Dorothy discovering Oz. When a Toto-toting Judy Garland opens the front door of her crash-landed house and first glimpses the yellow brick road, the dreary sepia of Kansas gives way to the Technicolor of an enchanted realm. Likewise, Heavenly Creatures’ protagonists spend the first half of the film in settings starved of color and of passion: though not shot in literal black and white, the boarding houses and schoolrooms of their hometown languish in muted tones, the New Zealand countryside an endless brown. When the girlfriends begin to conjure the pleasure gardens of the Fourth World, however, the screen blossoms into supernatural purples, greens, and reds. 

Bright colors have been the preferred palette for dream sequences since filmmakers first brought color to the silver screen in the late nineteenth century. What sets the Fourth World apart from Oz and from other rainbow worlds of that ilk, however, is the sinister tenor of the fancies that the girls breathe to life there. Because what I haven’t yet mentioned about Pauline and Juliet’s fictional country is that it also serves as the stage for their gory revenge fantasies against their real-life tormentors. Sure, Oz spooks us ever so gently with its Wicked Witch and flying monkeys, but the film makes clear that they’re The Bad Guys—Bad Guys who are eventually vanquished, at that. In the sickly-bright Fourth World, by contrast, it’s our protagonists who paint the lovely gardens crimson with their enemies’ blood. Imagine if Dorothy’s slippers shone ruby because she’d been curb-stomping Munchkins.

The Fourth World reminds us that humans dream of violence just as often as we do of love, sex, and tranquility. In other words, horror constitutes fantasy in two senses of the word: it is both a cinematic genre about the currently impossible (alongside science fiction and capital-f Fantasy) and an integral structure of human imagination, escapism, and longing. Heavenly Creatures drives this home by painting hyperviolence with a hypercolored brush. 

This polychromatic perversity surfaces in other horror films as well, such as Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). These films make for uncomfortable viewing in part because color inherently engages the eye: gruesome narrative content comes wrapped in visually alluring screen image. Rarely has evil looked so lovely. 


The Masque of the Red Death

Witness, for instance, the cognitive dissonance baked into Roger Corman’s 1964 film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). While the eponymous pandemic spreads swiftly through an unspecified medieval countryside, the dastardly Prince Prospero (played by Vincent Price, naturally) ignores the nearby villagers’ pleas for help, opting instead to seal off the walls of his castle and throw a lavish costume ball for his fellow bluebloods. 

But it’s not just stone ramparts that separate Prospero’s fortress from the surrounding impoverished region; coloration does, too. Though shooting in Technicolor, cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who would go on to direct the ingeniously colored Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth) confines the woods, village, and costumes of villagers surrounding Prospero’s home to dismal blacks, grays, and browns. By contrast, the interior of Prospero’s castle, and the clothes of the fortunates partying within it, pop off the screen in brilliant tones. To be sure, some of these directorial choices are just natural extensions of the film’s chromatically-focused source material: in Poe’s tale, each of the rooms of Prospero’s home is dominated by a different color. But Roeg and Corman take this premise to its visual extreme, turning virtually every shot of the castle’s rager into a psychedelic kaleidoscope. 

Prospero (clad in gold) visits the dowdy villagers of his dukedom
A bird’s-eye view of the masque inside the castle
Partygoers enjoy one of Prospero’s amusements, a dancing dwarf

The excessive colors of the castle’s rooms are matched only by the acts of excess committed within them. A student of pleasure and cruelty alike, Prospero leads his friends into darker and darker depravity: feasting and boozing while the poor starve; abusing servants; playing twisted party games; groping and raping; and, eventually, murdering peasants and bothersome houseguests alike. In such a den of iniquity, even color itself becomes an instrument of sick amusement: Prospero brags that his father once imprisoned a man in the castle’s all-yellow room for years, gradually making the prisoner deathly afraid of the color. 

Is the film’s consistent pairing of immoral act with colorful setting meant to establish an ironic juxtaposition between the two, or a symbolic equivalence? The latter explanation jibes better with the film’s religious finger-wagging. Masque casts its humble but gallant peasants as devout Catholics, while Duke Prospero and his comparably wicked wife worship Satan. In the film’s version of Christianity, material and sensual forms of beauty—including, implicitly, both wealth and gorgeous color—seduce and distract from the worthier realms of the divine and the moral. Sin is a candy-red apple. 

Yet what makes color different from Prospero’s other sumptuous offerings—the money and the food and the drink and the sex—is the fact that we the viewers experience the film’s colors directly. In other words: Masque’s moments of chromatic bacchanal are indisputably more fun to watch than those that focus on the ashen, high-minded peasants. Corman forces us into the same position occupied by Prospero’s party guests: drunk on color, we become desperate to return to the castle the moment the camera’s eye leaves it for the gray forest. Perhaps we, too, would be seduced by the other violent delights available inside the fortress’s walls.


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sin is also redlined in Albert Lewin’s 1945 interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Set in fin-de-siècle London, the film follows the title gentleman as he gradually succumbs to vice and viciousness. 

Dorian finds dissipation so very tempting in large part because his wealth socially and physically insulates him from the consequences of his vile actions. The aristocrat confines the most glaring of his wrongdoings to a neighborhood that is far from his own and whose poor residents haven’t the clout to retaliate. More famously, he magically transfers the physiognomic consequences of his wicked deeds (a preoccupation of the Victorians) to a painting of himself. While the flesh-and-blood Dorian remains perpetually young and handsome, the painted Dorian ages into a twisted gremlin, matching spiritual with physical ugliness (in this adaptation, the portrait was created by renowned painter Ivan Albright, the so-called “master of the macabre“). Dorian locks the portrait away in a private room, doubly distancing himself from his own loathsome deeds. Or triply distancing, in fact, because Lewin makes the visually striking choice to render the portrait in color while every other frame of the film remains black and white. 

Dorian (in top hat) slums it at a variety show in a down-and-out neighborhood of London
Dorian’s degraded but colorful portrait towards the end of the film (Ivan Albright, 1943-44)

Unlike Masque of the Red Death and Heavenly Creatures, which use hypercolor to signal characters’ moments of delusion and detachment from the real world, the colors of Dorian’s portrait encode the opposite: the hard truth of what he has become. But as with Corman’s and Jackson’s films, it’s difficult to look away from the supposedly hideous revelation of the Decadent’s true self. Not only do the hues of the painted Dorian catch and keep our eye, thanks to their contrast with the rest of the majority black-and-white film, but the air of mystery surrounding Dorian’s trespasses only stokes our interest in them. Lewin never explicitly names or depicts Dorian’s sinful acts, leaving us only crumbs of evidence as to their narcotic, violent, and/or (homo)sexual nature. (Although the gay subtext of Lewin’s film is far less obvious than it is in Wilde’s novel, screen Dorian does, after all, essentially lock his colorful secrets away in a closet.) Debauchery has destroyed Dorian—but so, too, has it made him special, fascinating, different from the dull rule-followers around him. 

Perhaps he can even see things that others can’t—higher realms, transcendent ways of being. What is color, after all, if not a particular mode of seeing the world, a perceptual window through which only some of us are astute enough to peer? (Different eyes see color differently, remember. Even those of us who aren’t born colorblind tend to lose some of our color vision as we age.) Heavenly Creatures’ Pauline says as much when she describes the Fourth World as an aristocracy of the senses: “We have an extra part of our brain which can appreciate the Fourth World. Only about ten people have it.” It’s no accident, in this regard, that the flights of fancy at the center of Jackson’s, Lewin’s, and Corman’s films all hinge upon royalty and wealth. The dream of exceptionalism is one to which the hyper-rich—Prospero, Dorian, and queens aspirant Pauline and Juliet—are especially subject; they see themselves through rose-colored glasses.

Little wonder, then, that these characters expect to face no consequences for their acts of violence and self-indulgence. But these are horror films, and nobody gets out alive—or scot-free. In each case, the repercussions of polychromatic perversity come home to roost, always wearing a crimson cloak: the Red Death eventually penetrates Prospero’s castle, laying waste to the revelers within; Dorian kills a man, and as the portrait’s hand grows bloody, his social downfall begins; Heavenly Creatures’ young lovers commit a murder far grislier than any they’d imagined in the Fourth World, and are immediately arrested. As Pauline and Juliet are forced, in the film’s final moments, to part ways forever, a clip corresponding to their joint fantasy world plays—but gone are the magical hues and creatures of the Fourth World. Instead, the film’s eye has turned entirely grayscale, the girls’ sobs our only soundtrack as they separate. Toto, I have a feeling we aren’t in Oz anymore.

Juliet weeps for Pauline in the final, black-and-white sequence of Heavenly Creatures.

This post was written for Nightfire in partnership with Pseudopod.



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