This Is the Closest Christopher Nolan Has Come to Making a Horror Movie

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Christopher Nolan has touched upon many different genres but he has never fully leaned into horror.
  • The sound design in
    Dunkirk
    adds to the eerie tension and creates a cinematic experience unlike any other, with every bullet and bomber roar making a visceral impact.
  • Nolan focuses on the psychological effects of warfare in
    Dunkirk
    , highlighting how it can leave scars beyond the physical, resulting in a chilling and compelling film.


In the two decades that he’s been making movies, Christopher Nolan has touched upon many different genres in film. He routinely breaks new ground in science fiction with films like Inception and Interstellar and he delivered a mind-bending thriller with The Prestige. He rose to prominence with the Dark Knight trilogy and helped change the landscape for the superhero movie in the process. One of the genres that Nolan hasn’t fully upon is horror. While there’s an argument to be made that Oppenheimer veers into the horrific with its depiction of the destruction the atomic bomb would wreak and the subsequent psychological impact on the movie’s protagonist, Nolan actually delivered a stealth pseudo-horror film in the form of his 2017 war epic, Dunkirk.


Dunkirk

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Commonwealth and Empire, and France are surrounded by the German Army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Release Date
July 19, 2017

Runtime
107

Main Genre
Drama

Studio
Warner Bros.


Nolan’s Choice Not to Show Axis Soldiers Makes Them an Effective Horror Villain

Taking place during the Battle of France in World War II, Dunkirk takes advantage of Nolan’s tendencies to play with time by splitting the focus on three fronts: a week on the titular beach, an hour following the Royal Air Force, and a day on a boat traveling to help the troops on Dunkirk. It’s the beach segments that feature the most horror elements, particularly where the Axis soldiers are concerned. Not once do they appear on the screen; instead, they’re represented by the whizzing of bullets, the falling of bombs, and the roar of plane engines. In choosing not to show the Axis soldiers — instead referring to them as “the enemy” — Nolan crafts an effective monster. Even more, he bucks horror tradition; the usual practice is to build up to the revelation of your monster with each kill it makes. Think of Jaws; it takes a good while for Bruce the Shark to show himself. The absence of the Axis soldiers only serves to heighten the tension as they could be anywhere.


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Nowhere is this made more clear than in Dunkirk’s opening scene. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow soldiers are walking through an abandoned city. Nolan chooses to make the setting as eerie as possible; there’s little to no music, and the flyers falling from the sky serve as an omen for the terror to come. Then one soldier bends down to get a drink of water… and a bullet whizzes through his face without warning. The entirety of Dunkirk is full of scenes like this, which more than fits the atmosphere of a horror film. It also keeps the audience on the edge of their seat — something any good horror film should do.


‘Dunkirk’s Sound Design Adds to the Eery Tension

Though film fans seem split on whether Nolan’s approach to sound design is a hindrance or a help to his films, it helps make Dunkirk into a cinematic experience like no other. Every bullet hits with devastating impact, sounding like it’s actually piercing through flesh and bone. The roar of the Lutwaffe bombers feels less like a machine and more like a beast from another world seeking to bring death to its prey. What really makes the film sing — no pun intended — is the work of sound editor Richard King. King had to work with less-than-ideal conditions, including rain and wind, as well as the whirr of IMAX cameras. “Usually, you get a little useful material in production recordings. But with this, it was pretty much a blank slate,” King told Variety while describing his work on the audio. “Basically, all we were able to use was just the voices.” He also took great care to replicate the sound of WWII warfare, including strategically placing microphones within a Spitfire fighter plane to accurately replicate what it was like to fly in one.


Nolan would also reunite with his longtime composer Hans Zimmer for Dunkirk‘s score, which results in perhaps one of the best scores of Zimmer’s career. Zimmer chooses to compose a score that increases in intensity, mimicking the rising tension of a horror movie. The bass hammers home with the force of a cannon. The horns rise and fall like heartbeats which only serves to heighten the feeling of anxiety. The standout track is “Supermarine,” which plays when the Royal Air Force engages the Lutwaffe bombers in combat. Its pulse-pounding rhythm, combined with Nolan’s choice to film up close in the cockpit of Captain Ferrier (Tom Hardy), is just as intense as Nancy fighting off Freddy Krueger in the original Nightmare on Elm Street or any other film where the victim attempts to outrace the monster.

Christopher Nolan Focused On the Horrors of War


More than the actual horror of dead bodies hitting the ground, Nolan wants to show the psychological effects of warfare. This comes across in two pivotal scenes– when Tommy and his friends encounter a jaded soldier (played by Harry Styles, no less) and when the boat traveling to Dunkirk picks up a shellshocked soldier (played by frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy). Both men have barely survived an encounter with Axis forces, and the results have left them shaken. The soldier in the boat lashes out and wounds young boathand George (Barry Keoghan) while the soldier on the beach keeps repeating that they’re all going to die. It’s a realistic yet chilling look at how warfare can leave more than physical scars on its participants.

Dunkirk‘s methodical construction, as well as Christopher Nolan’s thoughtful approach to warfare, results in a chilling yet compelling entry in the filmmaker’s canon. Oppenheimer utilizes a similar tactic, from the sound design to the fiery imagery, and is all the more impactful for it. Should Nolan choose to direct a full-on horror movie in the future, he’s more than proven that he has the chops to scare the pants off of his audience.


Dunkirk is currently available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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