In the 19th century, one may argue that the origin of horror onscreen was borne out of the Gothic literary movement. These are all staples of some of the greatest Gothic horror novels on the page, and many of the greatest horror films of the first half of the 20th century are drawn directly from such iconography.
As you can see from the below list, Gothic horror has become less common in recent times. It still beats like the telltale heart in the wall. If taken in the right direction, it may even thrive and escape from its cloistered hiding places. Hence we have created a list of not all of the finest Gothic horror movies, but enough to get you started exploring the most stunning of shadows.
Editors' Note: The following list is organized alphabetically.
Bram Stokers Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola's liberal reimagining of Bram Stokers' original 1897 novel is nevertheless dripping with Gothic motifs as well as blood, tears, and other bodily fluids, although not as reliant on the classical Gothic formula as many films on this list.
Coppola reinvents the narrative as a Victorian fever dream, while simultaneously enhancing the unnatural quality of such a yarn, derived entirely from German Expressionism and vaudeville. (Unlike modern CGI tricks),
Coppola's Gothic quality is enhanced by incorporating many of his and screenwriters' own ideas into the narrative, which culminates in crescendoing death climaxes (as opposed to arias or duets), and each scene feeds into a narrative about a Catholic man who has turned his back on God only to be twice condemned.
Mina Harker, who was already a Victorian progressive heroine, is now reimagined as part of the narrative through a love story of reincarnation with Vlad Tepes. Its a bit heavy and uninteresting, yet it adds to modern filmmaking.
Dracula won a well-deserved Oscar for costume design from Eiko Ishioka. The costumes were so luxuriant, and paradoxically Victorian stiff and scythed that Coppola dubbed each one a jewel; he argued that the sets were the sets.
The Changeling (1980)
With The Changeling, a 1980 Canadian production starring George C. Scott, he has had a strange, eclectic, and often genre-adjacent career in both movies and television.
The latter plays a well-known composer named John Russell, who moves from New York City to Seattle after his wife and daughter died in an accident. He starts to notice strange events and manifestations that eventually lead to a disturbing revelation about the family that once owned the property and, most importantly, national politics.
The Changeling was not a major box office success at the time, but its reputation has grown over the years, including some truly disturbing scenes set within a haunting, decrepit mansion. Before the outbreak of the decidedly non-Gothic slasher genre, Don Kaye was well-known for a moody, increasingly eerie story that has since become a cult classic.
Vincent Price, the ghoulish Master of Horror, is the film to credit. While not quite as horrible or fiendish as his battalion of Edgar Allan Poe photographs to come,Dragonwyckis the glossy period piece with a hint of the supernatural tragedy that first caught Roger Cormans' attention, leading eventually toThe Fall of the House of Usher.
When Old World customs and superstitions were placed in 19thcentury upstate New York, Price played Nicholas van Ryan, a patroon born from centuries of Dutch aristocracy. He lives in the titular Dragonwyck with his ill-fated wife, who cannot give him a son.
While he isn't insisting that local farmers treat him like kings by paying tribute, as was custom until the 1840s, he's starting to look at his distant and lovely cousin Miranda (Gene Tierney). Soon, Miranda will be his new wife, and together theyll try to ignore the sounds of a ghostly woman who killed herself with the van Ryan family's harpsichord.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs and writes Dragonwyckis, based on an adaptation of a novel by Anya Setons with the same name. It follows many of the same beats asRebeccaandGaslight (and is inferior to the first but superior to the second).
What makes the film unique, other than the priceless snobbery of the filmmaker, is its American touch. There is a certain undertone of class warfare between the patroon and his subjects who are willing to ignore European customs. She is much more proactive and perhaps more manipulative in the above films, because she is the daughter of a Quaker family that should avoid wealth. But when she discovers an obscenely rich cousin who wants her to stay the summer in his house, she accept
Although she did not play a role in the mysterious death of the original Mrs. van Ryan (are they still alive?) she nonetheless accepted the challenge of utilizing it for social mobility, dismissing her father's religious beliefs, her doctor/men callers' pleas (another element resurgent inCrimson Peak), and her own convictions to be Nicholas shifty nobility.
After a brief marriage, I consider this George CukorsRebecca-lite film. It contains many of the same beats about a haunted old house and a woman being driven mad, but for all of the increased horror film atmosphere, it feels a lot less menacing.
Ingrid Bergmans Paula Alquist moved to Italy at a young age after her mother was murdered in the attic of her wealthy mansion. She soon falls in love with her music teacher Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who convinces her rather than living in Italy or France, to return to her vaccinated house haunted by bad juju.
She reluctantly agrees and finds herself almost immediately driven mad by either spirits or Gregorys duplicity (which is as translucent as any floating apparition).
The reason why Gregory would wish his new bride to go mad is too spoiler-ish (and weak) to spoil here, but the film is packed with stunning charms, not least of which is Ingrid Bergman ofCasablancaandNotoriousfame in her first Oscar winning role. And Cukors touch does give an undeniable sense of foggy London danger to the proceedings.
Bill CondonsGods & MonstersMused in 1999 that director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) always envied Cukors' career.Gaslightcauses one to speculate if that admiration was at least somewhat reciprocal.
The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting, a 1963 film directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story) and the celebrated Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, is at the core of almost every Gothic horror film.
The Haunting is set in the present (or at least how it was in 1963) as well as the abode itself, Hill House, which is, while dark and menacing on the outside, is brightly lit on the inside. Nonetheless, it has its fair share of hidden corners and forbidden spots.
Eleanor (Julie Harris) the enraged woman at the heart of the story, is manipulated by the house almost as she enters, and Wise does a fantastic job of not only keeping the audience off balance, but never once allowing us glimpse what really is haunting Hill House, which is ultimately the gold standard for haunted house films.
House of Usher (1960)
The legendary American poet Edgar Allan Poe, made his way to the big screen in a matter of time. He was known for producing and directing low-cost black-and-white exploitation fare geared towards drive-ins. Corman worked for American International Pictures (AIP) before taking a risk on a (relatively) larger film, in color, based on Poe's most well-known short stories.
The film follows Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) to the titular edifice, where his girlfriend Madeline Usher (Vincent Price) lives. All members of the Usher family, according to Roderick, are eventually afflicted with madness.
House of Usherand Cormans subsequent Poe adaptations infused them with a fresh level of psychosexual dread and fatalism. Both the screenplay by Richard Matheson and the cinematography by Floyd Crosby created a mood that would last throughout the following films and beyond.
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The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw, is also a master class in creating a suffocating state of unease through the use of shadow, silence, and what is suggested rather than what is seen in a cavernous, brooding mansion known as Bly House. Giddens and Pamela Franklin become suspicious as they discover that the aristocrats have possessed the children.
The Innocents goes beneath your skin in a profoundly disturbing way, starting with the oppressive set design and Freddie Francis' rich black and white cinematography, which makes every pool of darkness a potential hiding place for evil. Bly House is a morbid character on its own, the grounds surrounding it both mature and decaying as well as the relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel.
Kerr and his children are all excellent in their roles, with Kerr hinting at Miss Gidden's twitchy exterior and masterfully keeping us wondering whether everything is going on in her imagination only. Stephens is equally superb, and one scene where he kisses Kerr in a shockingly adult manner is acutely uncomfortable. All of this combined with the intense atmosphere and visuals create a Gothic nightmare that remains powerfully unnerving today.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Anne Rice's contemporary horror novel is the story of two doomed love affairs: between Lestat (Tom Cruise) and his protege Louis (Brad Pitt) and Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), the vampire he creates who remains trapped in a little girl's body as her spirit matures. Jordan stages the bulk of the action in decaying yet still grand New Orleans, thick with sex and greenery, and one can practically feel the humid air clinging to our leads.
Jordan enlivens his screen with rotting corpses, full heaving bosoms almost bursting from tightly packed bustiers, and he plays the fabled vampire who never grows up. He is equally astute as the vampire who never grows up.
The film is never really scary, per se, but positively reeks with atmosphere and a strange, mournful tone (only the contractual obligation Guns N Roses song that plays over the end credits provides a disturbing wrong note). LikeBram Stokers Dracula, it defiantly embraces a period sensibility and tone that at least kept Gothic melodrama on the screen before the genre entered a more self-aware post-modern era.
Alfred Hitchcock's first Hollywood film is also one of his most famous. Before he turned his attention to elegant and sexy European capers or the eventual birth of the slasher genre, the Master of Suspense first created one of the world's most famous Gothic horror films for producer David O. Selznick.
Selznick, who was just finishing writing Gone with the Wind, imagined himself to be the savior on Hitch's set. They bonded famously. But they also produced this haunting tale about Daphne du Mauriers' windswept literary storm. Joan Fontaine plays an unnamed young woman who becomes known as the second Mrs. de Winter of the imposing Manderley, an English estate on a hill.
The new Mrs. de Winter was initially a shy American girl who was met by Maxim de Winter in a ruthless silence and magnetism by Laurence Olivier. He would seem to love her for her simplicity, her innocence, and her total ignorance of his first wife, Rebecca, but Rebecca's shadow looms larger than old Manderley's, who is still on her honeymoon.
The film's greatest attribute is Mrs. Danvers, the regal and judging housekeeper of Manderley, who was never re-created by Guillermo del TorosCrimson Peak. She will do anything to thwart Rebecca's replacement, including provoking the new Mrs. de Winter to suicide.
When it comes to Italian director Dario Argento, who is better known for perfecting the giallo genre of serial killer films, one of his most overtly supernatural (not to mention most popular) films fits the bill.
Suspiria takes us to an elite German ballet academy that, despite its setting in the present, seems somehow displaced in time and even space. There we meet Suzy, a American student who has come to study at the school and quickly discovers that things aren't exactly as they seem: behind the facade of the academy is a coven of witches that draws its influence from one of the Three Mothers of folklore, an ancient trio of beings who can manipulate world events to their liking.
Argentos film is drenched not only in a slew of sometimes garish colors, but also in a fair amount of gore, rotting corpses, and other visceral horrors that are usually associated with the more subtle nuances of Gothic ghost stories. From the ancient legends to the main character who is led to doubt everything she knows, the film's surreal, nightmarish tone supports Argentos' stunning fusion of old influences with new style, making Sus
The Whip and the Body (1963)
Kerr and the children are all excellent in their roles, with Kerr hinting at Miss Giddens twitchy exterior and masterfully keeping us wondering whether everything is going on in her imagination only. Stephens is also excellent, and one scene in which he kisses Kerr in a shockingly adult manner is absolutely horrifying. (DK)
The Whip and the Body (also known as Whatin the United States) is a masterpiece of Gothic rigor and misdirection. As Nevenka (the lovely Daliah Lavi) longs for the whippings she used to get from her brother-in-law and former lover Kurt (Christopher Lee) she falls in love and she loses interest in the story. Or does it? The mystery surrounding the story remains unsolved until the end, whether there is an actual spirit involved.
The Whip and the Body is a perverse soap opera, its sadomasochistic elements both distinctive for its time and more explicit for a film made in Italy in the early 60s. She is also a capable foil to Lee, who is as physically and psychologically intimidating as ever.