The Fellowship of the Ring is our introduction to Peter Jackson’s version of Middle-earth. It sets the stage for the trilogy’s epic journey, helping us take our first steps into a world that had never been so effectively imagined on screen before. It’s got a harder job to do than The Two Towers or The Return of the King, and it does it with aplomb.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
But there’s something else that sets it apart from its successors, two action-adventure fantasy epics that span the world of Middle-earth and focus on half a dozen different characters. Unlike The Two Towers or The Return of the King, The Fellowship of the Ring is a horror movie. And that’s exactly why it’s great. Both fantasy and horror require you to believe in monsters for a few hours at a time — and scaring viewers can be the fastest way to make them believe in heroes.
Fellowship’s divergence in tone comes by virtue of its uniquely limited perspective, mostly focused on Frodo or the hobbits. While we may literally see events that Frodo does not, it’s through his eyes and naïveté that we’re watching it all unfold, instead of hopping around to the journeys of several different characters. The other movies occasionally get spooky when we’re back with Sam and Frodo, like when Shelob is hunting them, but Fellowship spends almost every moment in that creepy mode.
This kind of perspective is integral to what makes a horror movie scary. Horror is all about the unknown, and the dangers that lurk in the dark. While many of the characters in Lord of the Rings have some familiarity with the more dangerous parts of Middle-earth, from Frodo’s point of view everything we’re seeing is brand new and terrifying.
Fellowship’s horror elements start almost as soon as the one ring appears in the Shire. We see Bilbo go from a kindly old Hobbit to a ghoul at the thought of giving it up. He only snaps out of it when Gandalf betrays a hint of his full terrifying power, bellowing at Bilbo not to mistake him for a “conjuror of cheap tricks.” We see the same thing from Galadriel, the kindest and most gentle-seeming of the characters in the movie, when she, too, is tempted by the ring.
In fact, most of the movie is just the hobbits and their companions moving from one monster to the next. When they arrive at the gates of Moria — a haunting place in its own right — they’re forced inside by the Watcher in the Water, a massive tentacled monster that’s straight out of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Once inside, they’re faced with skeletal corpses, orcs (which bear a resemblance to the horrors in Jackon’s previous movies), and a troll. Finally, their journey in Moria ends with encountering the Balrog, which resembles a fiery demon and pulls Gandalf to his doom in a the-killer-wasn’t-really-dead fakeout fit for any slasher movie. Even the Uruk-Hai are shot to emphasize that they are horrific, decidedly inhuman, and monstrous.
Unlike the rest of the trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring’s battle sequences are largely assembled with a sense of panic. Unstable, quick-cutting shots give us a sense of the chaos that the helpless hobbits feel during the fights. In contrast, in the few moments toward the end of the movie where we see characters like Aragorn battling foes with no hobbits in sight, he’s shown in wide, stable shots as he defeats multiple Uruk-Hai at once.
But the movie’s most harrowing scenes involve the Nazgûl. When Gandalf discovers that the One Ring is at Bag End, Fellowship takes on an entirely different color palette, as if the Ringwraiths’ arrival has darkened the entire world. The wraiths themselves are also shot in close ups of certain features, like horror-movie monsters like Nosfuratu or the Xenomorph from Alien, rather than the villains of action or fantasy movies, like Saruman who we tend to see with his full face and upper body in-frame. It takes Jackson hours to show the Nazgûl in their full strength and numbers, only offering glimpses of them shrouded in shadows, their metal gauntlets, their shadowy-hooded faces, or their cloaks as they ride off screen.
This is even more true when the Ringwraiths track Frodo and his friends down and begin their pursuit. As soon as Frodo realizes the Nazgûl are chasing him through the forest, Jackson makes his inspiration clear by employing a zoom dolly shot — a signature trick of Alfred Hitchcock that he first used to unease viewers in Vertigo, and a horror-movie staple. From there, everything with the Ringwraiths is pure horror.
During the pursuit, we spend far more time with closeups of the hobbits as they hide — covered in bugs and trying not to scream — rather than on the monsters that are hunting them. Instead the Nazgûl lurk at the edges of the frame, looming and threatening the hobbits, always just one wrong move or small sound away from catching them. It’s a move straight out of slashers like Halloween.
Jackson even uses bits of this when he introduces Strider. It’s easy to bask in the familiar glow of Viggo Mortenson’s confidence as Aragorn and the memory of all of the fearless things he’ll do in the next two-and-a-half movies. But if you watch the scene the way Jackon presents it, Strider seems like yet another threat for the hobbits — because all they’ve found outside of the Shire is terror. Frodo is our portal into this world, and for him (and us) it’s a scary place full of danger.
If they weren’t so tightly connected to some of the best fantasy and action-adventure movies ever, the entire Nazgûl section of the movie, from the moment they’re introduced until Arwen and Frodo are safely across the river, would be more widely recognized as full of masterful horror sequences. You could watch it without any context and instantly feel a connection to the charming hobbits, and terror at the faceless creatures chasing them.
But then, horror is especially good at introducing fantasy worlds. A Nightmare on Elm Street has to make you scared of a man with knife-fingered gloves who can kill you in your dreams while you sleep, The Exorcist has to make you believe that a girl is possessed by a demon, and The Omen has to convince you that a 5-year old is the devil. So why shouldn’t Peter Jackson use some of the same techniques he used in his time as a horror filmmaker to sell you on a world of goblins, elves, dwarves, and hobbits?
Horror is a genre of purposefully heightened emotions, and everything of the horror movie has to match. You like the charming characters more quickly, laugh with them more easily, and accept otherworldly ideas with fewer questions — which makes it all easier to tell a fantasy story with nearly a dozen main characters.
By the time you’ve rewatched the Lord of the Rings for the dozenth time, it’s easy to think of the series as just one big movie. But that’s not exactly right. The Fellowship is, by design, a much spookier movie than you might remember. In other words, it’s the perfect movie to rewatch this Halloween — plus it’s a great excuse to kick off the rest of the trilogy.