In Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, the spirit of a deceased painter uses his art as a medium of revenge on those looking to profit from the work. Paintings and art installations come to life, strangling, slashing and even wholly enveloping their unscrupulous victims. The film is far from the first to explore the trope of the spooky painting – other notable ones include Ghostbusters II (1989), In The Mouth Of Madness (1994), The Lady Killers (2004) and 1408 (2007). Here are some great iterations of the trope:
ART THAT TARGETS YOU IF YOU’RE EVIL
Like in Velvet Buzzsaw, art driving the greedy insane is a trope that also appears the pilot episode of Night Gallery, the 1969 horror anthology written by Rod Serling (Twilight Zone). In The Cemetery, Jeremy (Roddy McDowall) murders his wealthy uncle, but a seemingly haunted painting in the house prevents him from enjoying his inheritance. Minute details change each time he passes it by – a freshly dug grave appears, then a coffin, then the animated corpse of his uncle, which keeps shuffling closer to the house. The frantic Jeremy falls down the stairs and breaks his neck, only for viewers to later find out that the tableau was staged by the uncle’s loyal butler, Portifoy (Ossie Davis). The episode ends with Portifoy enjoying his newfound wealth, only to be frightened by the same painting, which now shows Jeremy out to get him.
PAINTINGS INSIDE WHICH SINISTER ENTITIES LIVE
Not every spooky painting is tied to an entity looking to dish out some poetic justice. Some have more sinister motives. A spate of murders in Supernatural episode Provenance (2006) is traced back to the vicious spirit of a young girl haunting her family portrait. While the painting can’t be destroyed, burning the child’s antique doll finally dispels her spirit. Another indestructible evil painting is the subject of Stephen King’s The Road Virus Heads North, adapted for television in 2006. Horror novelist Richard Kinell (Tom Berenger) buys the macabre image of a sharp-toothed man at a yard sale, only to notice its details changing as he drives home. After a failed attempt to burn it, he becomes the eerie figure’s next victim.
2017 movie IT, based on another of King’s works, also uses a painting to chilling effect. The titular monster terrifies a young boy when it appears as a deformed woman who emerges from a painting in his father’s office. Director Andy Muschietti said the scene was inspired by the distorted artwork of Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, which frightened him as a child. In James Wan’s Conjuring 2 (2016), demonic entity Valak creeps out from behind a painting of the nun it’s currently taking the form of.
Closer home, the Ramsay brothers’ 1984 film Purana Mandir, features the portrait of a king whose eyes move when looked at directly. The demon Samri appears through the painting and we later find out his undead head is stashed in the wall behind it.
PAINTINGS YOU CAN GET TRAPPED INSIDE
What’s more frightening than an entity escaping its painting? For some filmmakers, being trapped inside the horrors of its world. All of Night Gallery’s episodes are introduced with a painting, each of which “captures on a canvas, suspended in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare”, but they’re the focus of only one other short in the pilot episode. In Escape Route, a Nazi on the run tries to seek refuge inside his favourite painting that depicts a man leisurely fishing. Too late, he realises that the museum has replaced it with another, a concentration camp in which he will be tortured forever. In Three Cases of Murder (1955), an enigmatic stranger coerces a museum guide to enter a painting he loves. It doesn’t end well for the hapless man – the mansion in the frame is a sort of limbo in the afterlife, where he is taxidermied for the amusement of its inhabitants. A young girl is abducted by a witch and doomed to spend the rest of her life inside a scenic farmhouse painted by her father in The Witches (1990). Inside the painting, she continues to age normally till her eventual death, unable to return to the real world.
Speaking of women in paintings, arguably the best-known portrait of a woman – the Mona Lisa – comes to life in 1991 Bollywood horror film House No. 13, strangling an unsuspecting guest using only her hair. Words can’t do the scene justice, so watch this instead:
PAINTINGS THAT CAN KILL THEIR SUBJECTS
In some movies, the destruction of a spooky painting is the only way to defeat the entity tied to it. The best example of this is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, adapted into four American films. Gray’s charmed life ends after he stabs the portrait that’s been ageing in his stead. In Twilight Zone episode The Hunters, primitive cave drawings that come alive and hunt tourists are only defeated for good when the cave is scrubbed.
ART THAT YOUR MIND INTERPRETS AS SPOOKY
Sometimes, the artwork in movies is still frightening, but not malevolent at all. It’s simply a way to manifest the protagonist’s altered mental states. Nina’s (Natalie Portman) fading grip on reality in Black Swan (2010) is reflected in the sketches her mother draws of her. Early on, the eyes of her portrait track her movements, mirroring her internal suspicion. In a later scene, Nina’s screams of fright cause the sketches to scream back in unison.
The melting oil paintings in Twilight Zone episode Midnight Sun (1961) aren’t a sign that the Earth is about to be swallowed by the sun, as the protagonist suspects, but a figment of her feverish delirium.
Famous artwork has served as inspiration for some of the best horror movies. The iconic Bates house in Psycho (1960) – a model of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad. The Exorcist (1973) scene in which Fr. Merrin comes to the MacNeil home for the first time – inspired by René Magritte’s painting The Empire of Lights. “All art is dangerous,” says gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) in Velvet Buzzsaw. Maybe she was right.