by Rhias K Hall
The gothic imagination has long been obsessed with darkness and dread. Gothic literature, starting with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto focused largely on dark family secrets, shocking revelations, and supernatural phenomenon. Gothic film borrows heavily from those traditions. Gothic stories often revolve around innocent heroines who find themselves isolated in sprawling mansions surrounded by foggy moors, or set on storm-wracked coastlines. Often these women meet and fall in love with men who are not what they seem. Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre who keeps his unhappy ex-wife in the attic, or the charming master of Dragonwyck with his bouquet of Oleanders are prime examples. Other popular gothic tropes are family curses, ghostly visitations, and homes which are tainted by some indefinable evil.
Guillermo Del Toro’s newest film, Crimson Peak, is the latest movie to embrace the gothic genre, and as such it owes a great creative debt to its predecessors. Here are my ten spooky favorites.
1- Rebecca (1940)
Hitchcock’s brilliant adaptation of the novel by Daphne DuMaurier is as gothic as it gets. Laurence Olivier is charming as the millionaire husband Maxim De Winter, and Joan Fontaine is the perfect gothic heroine. Dominated by the steely housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. De Winter finds herself falling deeper and deeper into the mystery and madness of the first Mrs. De Winter.
2- The Haunting (1960)
When a group of psychics and mediums are summoned to investigate the Mount Everest of haunted houses things don’t go well for them. They go especially bad for the frail, and sheltered Eleanor (Julie Harris). This is the classic example of a film about a place which has been cursed or tainted by an unspeakable evil. The Haunting was directed by Robert Wise, and based on Shirley Jackson’s terrifying Haunting of Hill House.
3- The Innocents (1961)
When a bright eyed young governess takes her first job at an isolated mansion on the moors you know there is going to be trouble. Perhaps it is the isolation – or the way that the endless shadows prey on the imagination of a young woman with so little worldly experience.. The final question becomes which is more haunted, the house, the children, or the governess?
4- Jane Eyre (1943)Governess seems to the most common occupation of the gothic heroine. In Jane Eyre, the titular young governess is hired to care for the daughter of a gruffly handsome man. Upon arriving at his home and being introduced to his daughter she learns that her employer is a man with both a past and a reputation. The two strike up an uneasy friendship, which turns to romance, and finally to horror when the ghosts of his past literally return to take vengeance. My favorite version is the one with Orson Welles, but there are plenty of remakes and adaptations to choose from.
5- Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
This Roger Corman directed adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story is one of the purest distillations of the gothic ideas out there. The film tells the story of a man who goes to visit an old friend. When he arrives he discovers that his friend (the last heir of a once-proud bloodline) is suffering from a hereditary illness. He lives with his sister, who also suffers from a mysterious ailment. The house of Usher in the title refers not only to the physical house, but also to the Usher bloodline – both of which are crumbling away. The relationship between Roderick (Vincent Price) and his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) hints at incest, inbreeding, and the possibility of necrophilia. I think it is one of Corman’s best films.
6- I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
In this sweltering tale of tropic passion, the old dark house is supplanted by the stark white walls of the plantation house. An innocent nurse, hired to care for the catatonic bride of the plantation owner, finds herself immersed in a world of witch doctors and voodoo practitioners. This film is unforgettable, and oddly enough it portrays voodoo in a fairly positive light.
7- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
There are hundreds of Dracula adaptations, ranging from the sensuously artsy Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary to the classic Bella Lugosi version. Bram Stokers Dracula, however appeals to me as the most singularly gothic. Lucy Westenra wandering the night in her wedding gown calls to mind the cover of every gothic romance novel of the 1970’s, and the story of poor innocent Mina Murray’s seduction by a secretive foreigner fits neatly into the gothic tradition.
8- The Woman in Black (2012)
This re-telling of a classic tale is one of the newest horror films to come from the legendary Hammer studios. It tells the story of a young lawyer, haunted by the death of his wife, and trying to come to terms with the reality of being a single father. From the elegant decrepitude of the looming Eel Marsh house where he works to settle the estate, to the cursed phantom who murders the town’s children, Woman in Black wears its gothic pedigree proudly. It also boasts some really beautiful vintage taxidermy.
9- The Uninvited (2009)
The Uninvited is an unusual gothic. It starts out almost like a romantic comedy, and turns gradually darker with each following scene. A haunted house, strange piano music from an empty room, and a history of tragedy (rich with unspoken intimations of lesbianism) are the hallmarks of this surprisingly breezy, and strangely compelling ghost story.
10- The Others (2001)
One of the more recent films to focus on the tropes of gothic literature is The Others, which stars Nicole Kidman as a frightened mother of two photosensitive children. She and the children live in a dark, fog-enshrouded mansion awaiting the return of Kidman’s husband from the battlefields of WWI. After hiring three creepy servants, she starts hearing strange noises, and comes to believe that the house is haunted. It isn’t until the end of the film that she realizes the truth of her situation. No spoilers! See it yourself.
Crimson Peak arrives in Theaters on October 16th.
Rhias Hall is Scarecrow video’s resident goth. Her turn-on’s include candlelit strolls down cobwebbed staircases, haunted mansions, and dangerously frilly nightgowns. Her turn-offs include PG remakes of R rated films, computer generated gore, and getting bats tangled in her hair.