“The Orphanage” (2007)
We may not be including any Guillermo del Toro-directed films in this ‘Crimson Peak’-inspired list, but that doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt in other ways. Most obviously, del Toro was central to the recent revival of atmospheric horror and ghost stories in Spanish-language films in a producing and executive producing capacity, helping shepherd a new generation of directors and ensuring their movies got the exposure that the GDT “brand” could bring. Arguably the best of these (rivalling del Toro’s own finest hours) is J.A. Bayona‘s “The Orphanage” starring Belen Rueda as the mother and wife returning to the house where she was raised as an orphan. Once there, her son Simon starts to see a little boy with a terrifying sackcloth mask, whom he befriends before mysteriously disappearing. What’s so clever about “The Orphanage” is that, like “Pan’s Labyrinth” which it resembles in structure if not at all in style (it is contemporary, for one thing), is that the real and the supernatural co-exist brilliantly here, and the machinations of the plot are of secondary importance to the overarching emotional story that the characters, especially Rueda’s, undergo. That emotion is almost entirely grief, so amid the horror and scare tactics, many of which work to genuinely creepy effect, Bayona also delivers one of the most magnificently sad horror films in recent memory.
“The Haunting” (1963)
Director Robert Wise‘s career was so eclectic —encompassing everything from “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story” to “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and the first ‘Star Trek‘ movie— that he inevitably bumped up against the horror genre a couple of times. 1963’s “The Haunting,” a black and white adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House” was one instance: it’s a terrifically atmospheric movie, rich with the kind of psych-horror flourishes that gothic fiction revels in, many of which have their root in the emotional frailty of the lead character and her repressed inchoate sexual desires. But what’s particularly of note here is that the existence of a supernatural entity is never really questioned: from the opening narration, we hear how Hill House was just built evil. Professor of the paranormal Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) wishes to explore it and recruits telepathically inclined beatnik lesbian Theo (Claire Bloom), heir to the mansion Luke (Russ Tamblyn) and neurotic, sheltered Nell (Julie Harris) to accompany him. Why them, and why especially, Nell (whose guilt over her mother’s death is raw and who has some sort of odd tragedy in her childhood), are enlisted is never really explained and really none of it makes a lick of sense, which possibly adds to its endlessly wrong-footing, uneasy approach. Add in Wise’s sense of pace and the inventive cinematography from David Boulton (who used flawed, distorting lenses, high and low angles and eerie tracking shots throughout) and you understand why Martin Scorsese called this the scariest horror film of all time. Oddly, he didn’t mention the Jan de Bont remake at all.
“Cat People” (1942)
The first and arguably best of producer Val Lewton‘s celebrated series of B-horror pictures, and the first of three he’d make with director Jacques Tourneur, “Cat People” doesn’t really feel like gothic horror at first blush. In fact, some of its tropes, like the femme fatale archetype and the expressionist cinematography, feel more indebted to film noir (and Tourneur would go on to make”Out of the Past,”;a classic in that genre too). But while “Cat People” was a successful attempt at taking a horror story out of the misty moors and medieval castles that largely hemmed the genre in elsewhere, many gothic elements came along for the ride, and so it’s a transposition rather than a wholesale reinvention. As often in both noir and gothic horror, there’s a “good girl” and a “bad girl”: here Simone Simon‘s alluring Serbian Irena tempts straitlaced all-American Oliver (Kent Smith) into marriage, despite the under-his-nose attractions of all-American gal and all-round good egg Alice (Jane Randolph). But Irena is haunted by a folk tale from her childhood and by a weird compulsion to visit the panthers in the zoo every chance she gets… and transforms into a vicious wild animal every time she gets aroused. Paul Schrader‘s wildly sexed-up 1982 version makes all that hugely explicit, but a lot of the atmosphere of Tourneur’s film comes from its restraint.
“Jane Eyre” (2011)
While “gothic” and “horror” feel like they’re inextricably linked, and indeed the truly gothic always does contain horror elements, “gothic romance” has almost as long a pedigree. Charlotte Bronte published “Jane Eyre” in 1847, nearly 30 years after “Frankenstein,” but 50 years before “Dracula,” and the very same year the other cornerstone of the genre, “Wuthering Heights,” was also published. Jane beat her sister Emily to the punch by the matter of a few months, and at the time, and for many years after, “Jane Eyre” was considered the finest of the Bronte books. It’s enduring popularity has seen it adapted countless times, most recently in a restrained yet cinematic version from Cary Fukunaga starring Michael Fassbender as Rochester and “Crimson Peak“‘s Mia Wasikowska as Jane. Keeping the Victorian setting, but somehow investing modernity into the approach to the story’s drafty mansion, haughty owner, and, of course, the mad wife locked in the attic. And so, perhaps the best aspect of this version is how easy it is to relate to Jane (played on screen through the years by Joan Fontaine, Susannah York, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samantha Morton, and Ruth Wilson among others), a character who, amid the richly atmosphere of gloom and tragedy, can seem passive to the point of wishy-washy to a modern eye, but here burns brightly in Wasikowska’s internalized but hugely empathetic performance.
“The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964)
The last of eight Roger Corman productions based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (and standing in for all of them, since they’re all textbook gothic horrors — “The Pit & The Pendulum, “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” et al — ‘Ligeia’ is also perhaps the best standalone film of the lot, thanks to an unusually well-developed female lead and an unusually sympathetic turn from Vincent Price. Again featuring the gothic horror staple of a good woman/bad woman dichotomy, it begins with Price’s Verden Fell mourning at the funeral of his black haired, long-ailing wife, Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd, in a dual role). Disturbed by the presence of a hissing black cat, and by the corpse’s eyes opening, Verden retreats to his grand house (with the ruins of an even grander structure in its grounds) as a near recluse. But some time later, a spirited young blonde, Rowena (Shepherd again), stumbles into his life and impetuously (and forwardly, for a woman of the time) sets about getting him to marry her, which the unquiet soul of Ligeia is not happy about. Co-written by Robert Towne and delightfully performed by Shepherd, ‘Ligeia’ is also proof that no one delivers nonsense speeches about haunted cabbages with the same stentorian sincerity as Price. And, trivia fans, alongside Fritz Lang‘s “The Big Heat” and John Ford‘s “The Searchers,” a clip from this Corman masterclass is used in Martin Scorsese‘s “Mean Streets.”
“The Innocents” (1963)
A genuine masterpiece in the gothic ghost story genre, and a huge influence on many of the later titles featured here, the biggest question “The Innocents” may leave you with with is, “What else did director Jack Clayton ever do and why isn’t he better known?” (Answer: titles including “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” and the very dull 1974 “The Great Gatsby“; and I don’t know). Well, actually that’s the second biggest question, as the real pivot of the film, and the unease that lasts long after the credits roll, is, “Was is real or was it all in her mind?” In one reading of the film, the highly strung, sexually repressed governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is the savior of the souls of the children in her care; in the other, she is their destroyer. All the performances, especially those of the children, are note-perfect, but it’s Freddie Francis‘ fantastic Cinemascope photography, the elegant, allusive script (co written by Truman Capote, based on Henry James‘ novella “The Turn of the Screw”), and Clayton’s brilliantly eerie staging that really create the mood of inescapable dread and oncoming calamity. If you’re put off the genre by the heaving bosoms and lurid exploitation vibe of its campier excesses, the classical intelligence and spine-icing effectiveness of “The Innocents” is the gothic horror for you.