Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spooks, Ghosts, and Things that Go Bump in the Night: 11 Great Period Gothic Films

As regular readers of this blog know, I love period films. While we usually think of period films as primarily romantic, the Gothic narrative has a place in cinema just as it has in literature. This genre is a particularly fun one, as it includes all the delights of a period piece - the costumes and set designs, gorgeous mansions, ball scenes, and witty dialogue - as well as the spooky pleasures of the best Gothic literature, from ghosts, curses, and repressed secrets, to madwomen in the attic. These eleven films are my favorites:

Dragonwyck (1946)
Though its class politics are decidedly simplistic, Dragonwyck is the ultimate Gothic period piece, encompassing everything one comes to expect from the genre: a harpsichord-playing and vengeful ghost, a creepy and neglected daughter, a batty maid who knows too much, a poor and provincial governess, and a tortured, desperate, and yet attractive lord of the gloomy, splendid manor. Gene Tierney stars as the governess opposite Vincent Price as the lord of the manor and their chemistry together has a spice and vitality that brings the superficially suppressed sexuality of their relationship to the fore. Essentially a retelling of the Bluebeard legend, this film is a welcome, and less-known, addition to the Gothic film genre.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's final film, an autobiographical opus that explores the deepest undercurrents of his dark world view, follows the sad fortunes of siblings Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), beloved children from a well-to-do and cultured Swedish family whose lives are thrown into turmoil when their widowed mother (Ewa Froling) marries a brutally severe Lutheran bishop (Jan Malmsjo). One of the longest cinematic features ever released, Fanny and Alexander is superficially one of the most stunningly beautiful films ever shot by long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, with its rich pinks, reds, and golds, but on a deeper level, few films dig as deeply into the terrifying world of the child's subconscious, still perilously close to the surface.

Gaslight (1944)
This thriller directed by George Cukor stars Ingrid Bergman as a pampered and wealthy woman who is slowly being manipulated into madness by her husband, played by Charles Boyer, who turns his suave playboy image to his advantage in this hypnotically creepy role. The ending of the film, which I won't spoil, is remarkable in the way it upends our understanding of justice and revenge, chipping away very subtly at gender expectations. Angela Lansbury made her knockout screen debut in this film as a spiteful maid.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) 
The ethereally beautiful Gene Tierney stars opposite Rex Harrison, in one of his greatest performances, in this hauntingly beautiful and very funny film about the ghost of a salty dead sea captain who helps the new tenant of his home write his memoirs and secure her fortunes. Tierney and Harrison have fabulous chemistry and their exchanges run the gamut from heart-breakingly poignant to laugh-out-loud funny, while George Sanders plays an oily philanderer and children's author who publishes under the name "Uncle Neddy." The brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann wrote perhaps his loveliest ever score for this film.

Great Expectations (1946)
Though one can quibble about the altered ending, David Lean's adaptation of the great Dickens novel is both suitably Dickensian and cinematically stream-lined, a rich, witty, creepy whodunit. John Mills stars as Pip, the young innocent in love with the embittered Miss Havisham's (Martita Hunt) ward Estella (Jean Simmons as a child and Valerie Hobson as an adult) who inherits a fortune from a mysterious anonymous benefactor. A young, surprisingly rakish-looking Alec Guiness plays one of my all-time favorite Dickens characters, the delightful Herbert Pocket. Despite alterations to the plot, this film is, in my opinion, the best Dickens adaptation ever made.

The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," this film is easily the most frightening film on the list. Deborah Kerr stars as a naive, neurotic governess with little experience, who arrives at the remote estate of Bly to find two disturbed children (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). Whether she is losing her mind, being haunted by the sexually abusive ghosts of a former governess and valet, or both, she soon descends into hysteria, possibly exacerbated by her repressed attraction for the children's uncle (Michael Redgrave). The spooky atmosphere was achieved with sound and lighting effects and cinematographer Freddie Francis's use of deep focus. A must-see for horror fans and literature buffs alike.

Jane Eyre (2011)
Charlotte Bronte's much beloved and much adapted novel is the basis for Cary Fukunaga's film, with a screenplay by Moira Buffini and starring Mia Wasikowska, looking remarkably "poor, obscure, plain and little," and Michael Fassbender, wearing some wonderful sideburns. This is my favorite adaptation of the novel precisely because it emphasizes the Gothic elements over the Romantic elements, transforming it into an examination of tortured souls in thrall to past traumas and present suffering. This version doesn't shy away from the supernatural or from some of the more brutal plot elements, both often softened in adaptations. The costumes by Michael O'Connor are historically accurate and very lovely.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)
This seminal Swedish film, directed by Victor Sjostrom, has dated poorly in terms of its moralizing and melodramatic plot, an operatically highstrung story about an alcoholic (Sjostrom) who must repent of his wickedness or be doomed to serve Death as collector of the souls, driving his carriage for a year. But, the real reason to watch this film is to see the extraordinary use of double exposures, which in 1921 had to be achieved with hand-cranked cameras; the special effects work in this film is truly stunning, both technically and artistically, and the phantom carriage of the title is one of the most striking images of early cinema.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Australian director Peter Weir's masterpiece escapes easy definition: is it a murder mystery? a fantasy? a horror movie? Whatever it is, this gorgeous and ambiguous film is about a group of schoolgirls who disappear on Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day 1900. Russell Boyd's sun-drenched yet ghostly cinematography, achieved by stretching a bridal veil across the camera lens, evokes the mysterious Dream Time, while Romanian panflute player Gheorghe Zamfir provides a haunting, lyrical theme and the beautiful historic Martindale Hall, a mansion in Georgian style designed by Ebenezer Gregg, stands in for Appleyard Hall.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Director Albert Lewin's highly idiosyncratic interpretation of Oscar Wilde's novel travels far afield from its source material with marvelously cinematic results. The immensely strange-looking Hurd Hatfield stars as Dorian, nothing like Wilde's character, but a fascinating re-imagining of a man obsessed with youth, beauty, and immortality, while George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Donna Reed costar. The shocking interjection of color in an otherwise black and white film highlights the extraordinary paintings by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, at least one of which is a genuine artistic masterwork.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
Surely one of the greatest Gothic films of all time, Wuthering Heights, based on the brilliant classic novel by Emily Bronte, stars Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, both of whom are marvelous. Olivier in particular is the veritable embodiment of the tortured, masochistic lover, who retains a seedy glamor even as he descends into ever more convoluted evil. A sweeping romantic score by Alfred Newman and rich, shadowy cinematography by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) give this film a haunting atmosphere and keep it fixed in the mind long after the screen has gone dark.

1 comment:

  1. Don't Look Now should be #12. I always found it disturbing, creepy, and wonderful. Plus: Venice!