Gothic fiction is well known for emphasis on mood and setting. This made it a natural for translation into film. Gothic fiction is in fact largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story”. In the second half of the 18th century it was further developed by writers like Ann Radcliffe and reached its peak in the 19th century, with works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All these have found their expression in film.
I have avoided the standards like the various versions of Dracula and offer some different choices in hopes you might find something new to enjoy.
Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975 – Based on a novel of the same name written by Joan Lindsay it details the story of the baffling disappearance of three girls and a teacher from Appleyard College, a posh turn of the century girls’ boarding school, during a St Valentines Day picnic in the shadow of the enigmatic Hanging Rock. The event disturbs the school and the local community, creating of suspicion, anxiety and fear. Peter Weir’s now classic film is considered the first gothic film in Australian cinema. Out of print and unavailable for decades a director’s cut was finally released on DVD in 1998 and now there are several issues, including Blu-Ray. I have one caution. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity you may not like this film.
Weir recalled that when the film was first screened in the United States, American audiences were disturbed by the fact that the mystery remained unsolved. According to Weir, “One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d wasted two hours of his life—a mystery without a goddamn solution!”Critic Vincent Canby noted this reaction among audiences in a 1979 review of the film, in which he discussed the film’s elements of artistic “Australian horror romance”, albeit one without the cliches of a conventional horror film.
The Devil’s Backbone or El espinazo del diablo 2001 – This film was directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras. It was independently produced by Pedro Almodóvar as an international co-production between Spain and Mexico, and was filmed in Madrid.
The story is set in Spain, 1939, during the final year of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s fascists are winning and in a remote orphanage the children of left-wing families await the end. An enormous crucifix has been put on display to disguise the institution as a Catholic school and in the courtyard, a huge unexploded bomb rests, nose-down and still ticking, according to one of the boys. Into this ominous setting comes young Carlos. He is assigned Bed No. 12, the bed of Santi, a boy who died, and whose ghost is sometimes seen, sometimes heard sighing. There are mysteries and subplots galore and even for those who don’t have enough familiarity with the Spanish Civil War to get many of the subtle references the movie is spooky and mesmerizing.
Rebecca 1940 – The first Hollywood picture from Alfred Hitchcock for producer David O. Selznick is also one of his most classic and one of the definitive Gothic horror movies. Far down on my personal list for a number of reasons, nonetheless, the opening sequence is still one of the best even done, by Hitchcock or anyone. There are plenty of young woman menaced by ominous house stories, so many it has become both a subgenre and a cliche but this is probably the cream of the crop. In spite of all the praise you will find for the performances of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine I always felt that Dame Judith Anderson stole the show and carried the picture with her portrayal of the loyal-to-the-grave housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. She is my played by Sean Conneryreason for rewatching the film.
The Name of the Rose 1986 – This is an Italian-French-German mystery historical drama film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco. As an old man, Adso of Melk, played by Christian Slater, recounts how, as a young novice in 1327, he and his mentor, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, played by Sean Connery, traveled to a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy where the Franciscans were to debate with Papal emissaries.
The abbey boasts a famous scriptorium where scribes copy, translate or illuminate books. The monk Adelmo of Otranto, a young but famous manuscript illuminator, was found dead below a tower with only a window which cannot be opened. The abbot seeks William’s help and he is reluctantly drawn in by the intellectual challenge, his to disprove fears of a demonic culprit and fear the abbot will summon the Inquisition if the mystery remains unsolved. The plot thickens when William later finds Venantius, a Greek translator and the last to speak with Adelmo, dead in a vat of pig blood. William inspects Adelmo’s desk, but is blocked by Brother Berengar, the assistant librarian, and Brother Malachia, the head librarian, denies William access to the rest of the building.
Why do I class this film as Gothic? It has all the elements, the historical setting, the massive, labyrinthic monastery, the mysterious deaths, belief in the supernatural, and the looming threat of the Inquisition. If you will recall, they were the villains in Edgar Allen Poe’s very Gothic The Pit and the Pendulum. It’s even down to the victims’s name, Adelmo of Otranto, that same Otranto of Walpole’s Castle.