Owing a great debt to “The Innocents,” but also fashioning something new out of so much old rope, Alejandro Amenabar‘s terrifically spooky “The Others,” taken alongside del Toro’s own magnificent “The Devil’s Backbone,” can be seen as ushering in a new era of appreciation for good old-fashioned gothic horror. Starring Nicole Kidman in a brilliantly nervy but normalizing role that makes the most of her ethereal beauty (this is after all a genre that relies primarily on translucently pale-skinned women shimmering down long hallways with only a single lantern or candle to provide accent lighting for their cheekbones), it’s true that “The Others” is reliant on a big reveal that might make yout hink there’s no enjoyment to be had a second time around. But in fact it’s so well made, and Kidman is so compelling (as is Fionnuala Flanagan as the genre-mandated chilly housekeeper), that it rewards repeat viewings, becoming deeply melancholic rather than outright scary once you know how the film ends in advance. As I’ve said elsewhere, gothic stories unite obsessive love — be it romantic or parental — with death, and so beneath the scares and potential gore of the best gothic films there is always a kernel of tragedy, of grief or guilt or heartbreak. “The Others” makes that manifest to yield one of the best horror films of the century.
“The Changeling” (1980)
Our idea of ghost stories is so fundamentally associated with Victorian gothic fiction that it’s hard to really think of many that do not have their gothic elements, but some non-period films embrace them more than others. And so we have this really rather great Peter Medak movie (he was also behind the terrific Peter O’Toole film “The Ruling Class,” but otherwise seems to have been something of a journeyman in film and often TV). George C. Scott stars as composer John Russell, who, in the prologue, witnesses the accidental deaths of his wife and child. As quite often happens in gothic fiction, the initial tragedy that haunts the protagonist actually has little to do with the real mystery. Instead, it just provides backstory and accounts for why the erudite and educated Russell might willingly embrace the idea that the huge old house he’s renting might have some other occupants too. Again mining a seam of grief, as though the seeds of the supernatural can be sown in that sort of soil more easily, “The Changeling” then throws the gothic horror handbook at the viewer: mysterious clanking, dusty attics, seances, creepy children’s toys, treacherous staircases, fires, even a haunted, ancient, kid-sized wheelchair. It has a fair few hokey moments, like when Medak overdoes the slo-mo, but mostly it’s surprisingly satisfying, a lot down to Scott’s consummate underplaying as the haunted yet oddly practical hero.
“Les Diaboliques” (1955)
This unfeasibly creepy masterpiece from genre master Henri-Georges Clouzot rarely gets classified as straight-up gothic, as it’s also a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, an insanity film, and about ten other genres all individually perfected here, but there’s no denying it also fits into this category. With the castle/mansion here represented by the school, run by stern, sadistic Michel (Paul Meurisse), and the love triangle that so often sits at the heart of the gothic romance being between Michel, his frail wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), and brassy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), but with the very French twist that not only does Christina know about Nicole, they are good friends, the plot is labyrinthine, but somehow all works. It’s a film that veers between all-out gothic ghostliness (maybe the creepiest photo ever used in a movie — seriously) and surprisingly fleshy reality, as when the scheming women are faced with the practical difficulties of hefting a heavy body into a car and into a swimming pool, yet Clouzot’s masterful direction keeps it all in the same relentless tone of menace and dread. It’s story is so cleverly told that the delight in the rewatch is in seeing how skilfully you were fooled first time out. In fact, it’s really a free masterclass in atmosphere, tension, tone, and surprise — all qualities notably absent from the frankly insulting remake.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
Arguably the single greatest film from terminally undervalued Australian director Peter Weir, this uncannily eerie story of a group of turn-of-the-century schoolgirls who go missing during a school visit to Hanging Rock is a scintillating example of the less-is-more school of horror filmmaking. With no real bloodshed per se, no actual sex, and no gore, Weir lays on layer upon layer of atmospherics until the aura of cloying, mysterious, hormonal femaleness is almost chokingly tangible. It’s a trick only managed a few times since — Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” and Peter Jackson‘s more full-blooded “Heavenly Creatures” spring to mind, and here, the unearthly soft-focus of the scene in which a few of the girls, obeying some tacit command, all walk calmly off to noone-knows-where, never to be seen again, is maybe the spookiest cinema scene ever to happen in broad daylight. The film then explores, in the same detached, slightly dreamy manner, how their disappearance affects the community, their families, the rest of the class, and even a young man who happened to be on the Rock that day and who becomes obsessed with solving the mystery he partially witnessed. Of course that solution is withheld, yet Weir’s film succeeds where so many attempts at ambivalence fail: its mood of otherness is so complete and so near-unique that the story feels complete and satisfying, despite its unfinished nature. Some mysteries derive more power from remaining unresolved, and that’s part of what gives “Picnic at Hanging Rock” such exquisite sustain.
We make no claims to this list being in any way definitive: with a genre this fuzzily defined and widely influential, that is not defined by one thing but by many constituent parts, any one of which can give a film a distinct gothic flavor, as soon as you think of one title that fits, another three pop to mind. Some of the more obvious omissions from the above list were made just to avoid too much repetition: we have “Jane Eyre,” so I left off any of the many adaptations of gothic romantic classic “Wuthering Heights,” for example. And since I easily could have filled this list two or three times over with films solely from before 1970, there were a lot of those excluded or just cursorily represented above — all the Hammer Horrors, and many of the Corman films qualify, as do a lot of the giallo features of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, et al (if you’re a fan look out for another feature dedicated to that subgenre coming soon). Similarly, there are just too many Draculas, Frankensteins, and other monster-based gothic horrors to list them all, and I’m just going to assume you’ve seen both “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining, which could each be classified as (brilliantly) updated takes on gothic archetypes.
Many of Tim Burton‘s better films fall into this category — “Sleepy Hollow,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Corpse Bride” could all have shown up. Classics I left out include psych-thriller “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray” based on Oscar Wilde‘s famous ne plus ultra gothic novel, 1925 silent “The Phantom of the Opera” with Lon Chaney ( I expect the 2004 Gerard Butler one is super gothic too, but I haven’t seen it because life is too short for Joel Schumacher/Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborations), and David Lean‘s “Great Expectations,” which I mention not so much because it’s hugely gothic (though it has many elements, especially in Miss Havisham’s presence), but because del Toro himself has called it out as an inspiration.
And a few more entries into the canon that are worth checking out if you like this sort of thing (can you tell I loved researching this feature?) include the looney but fun “Brotherhood of the Wolf” from Christophe Gans; the slightly disappointing, but at least it’s got Rebecca Hall in it “The Awakening“; the fun Spanish-language del Toro presentation, “Julia’s Eyes,” starring Belen Rueda from “The Orphanage“; and the one you’re all going to laugh at me for including but that I found quite scary for some reason — “The Skeleton Key.” Oh, and the brilliantly frightening and atmospheric Halle Berry vehicle “Gothika,” obviously.
Ha! No, “Gothika” is terrible, but there are piles more out there, so do feel free to call out your favorites and recommendations in the comments below — we’re only two weeks from Halloween and some of us may prefer to the classier, eerier vibe of a good gothic number to the popcorn scares of the latest slasher sequel or cheapie remake.