Trapped in a confined space while madness slowly descends…is this 2020 or 1820?
Gothic fiction has inspired many tropes which still pervade horror cinema and have had a recent resurgence in popularity, with the most obvious and persistent presence being the haunted house setting. Pathetic fallacy, foreshadowing and harbingers are Gothic features which have been used and abused in horror cinema, often through the use of dreams and nightmares. Superstition, ritual, myth, folklore, curses and talismans have appeared in recent popular horror films (eg. the work of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers), with Relic and Amulet literally being the names of two 2020 films. The doomed or tragic romantic hero (eg. Heathcliff) is starting to be reinterpreted by women screenwriters and directors in many interesting and varied ways. Frame narratives, piecing together rumour, diaries or letters – but with the story being told by an unreliable narrator/protagonist lends intrigue and twists. Madness and melodrama, obsession, suppression and repression – the questioning of sanity, gas-lighting, confusion over what is real or unreal, not knowing who to trust are also huge elements of Gothic fiction (and the recent news cycle) and some of the most fascinating to unpick. It is this last element that may explain why there has been a recent resurgence in Gothic-inspired films, especially featuring some fantastically flawed women characters.
Women authors were fundamental in forming these Gothic tropes, from the pioneering Mary Shelley, who invented many of the horror techniques which are still used to provoke shock, revulsion and dread in audiences. Other early pioneers include Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho), Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron), Elizabeth Gaskell (Gothic Tales) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper). Jane Austen famously poked fun at Gothic fiction in Northanger Abbey. Arguably some of the best Gothic fiction was written by the Bronte sisters – especially the masterpieces Jane Eyre (the ‘mad woman in the attic’ trope has been hugely influential) and Wuthering Heights (the setting of the misty moors is now considered a classic horror staple).
In the twentieth century, Daphne du Maurier picked up the mantle, writing many books that were adapted into films by Alfred Hitchcock – Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds, as well as 70s classic horror Don’t Look Now. Agatha Christie’s mystery stories include many Gothic elements, as can be seen in the brilliant BBC adaptations by Sarah Phelps – the most recent being The Pale Horse (2020), as well as the 2017 film Crooked House. Shirley Jackson has recently gained more notoriety from having her work adapted into the Netflix TV show The Haunting of Hill House and the film We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as Shirley, which is about Jackson herself. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black are more recent Gothic classics and Sarah Waters’ book The Little Stranger was adapted into an excellent film in 2018. Anne Rice is one the leading authors of the Southern Gothic offshoot, with The Feast of All Saints and The Witching Hour.
While women authors have always been leading figures within Gothic fiction, women film directors are still having to play catch-up. Romola Garai’s Amulet (released July 24 2020) is the latest example of one of the best trends of the last decade – more women directors having the opportunity to take on Gothic-inspired narratives and aesthetics. Garai says that when writing, she “kept getting drawn back to macabre forms such as horror, noir and ghost stories.” She names Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy as influences. Amulet‘s most obvious Gothic trope is that the house (where most of the film takes place) is a character in itself, with the production and sound design contributing to the effect of it feeling like a living, breathing presence. It also feels very much like a place where the characters, especially Magda (Carla Juri) are trapped and it’s contrasted with the freedom of a wild forest in flashback scenes. Amulet is set in the present day but has a mid-twentieth century aesthetic – the house is stuck in the past (as are the characters), giving the feeling that they are flung out of time and place.
Finally, the most important Gothic trope in Amulet is that we are following an unreliable male protagonist/narrator, as we do in recent Gothic-inspired films such as The Little Stranger (based on the book by Sarah Waters) and My Cousin Rachel (based on the book by Daphne du Maurier), and like in those films, our loyalties change throughout, shifting between a male and female character. The stock Gothic characters of the romantic hero/protector, the damsel-in-distress, the mad woman in the attic and an older, wise sage-like advisor (in this case, a nun) are all subverted in Amulet. The notion of not knowing who to trust, the sense that another character (or we, the audience) are being gas-lit is a cornerstone of recent Gothic-inspired films and the main reason they’re so fascinating. They also speak volumes in today’s era of unreliable, untrustworthy institutions (government, media) and the fact that women are finally starting to be listened to and having their day of reckoning, in some small way, at least. In the last decade, there have been some excellent and exquisite Gothic-inspired films directed by women and here is an overview of some of the best:
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)
Wuthering Heights is probably the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Gothic novel. It has had multiple adaptations over the years, with Heathcliff being played by Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy. In Andrea Arnold’s version, Heathcliff is Black (and played by actors Solomon Glave and James Howson) which particularly affects our view of how he is treated as an outsider as a child. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is breath-taking, there are long stretches with no dialogue, it emphasises the cold, the mud and the harsh realities for many in this time and place. It has the juxtaposition of sex and death, violence and beauty that pervades the best of Gothic fiction. You may feel like you know this story and don’t need yet another adaptation, but I promise you, you have seen nothing like this before. It makes a wonderful companion piece to Terence Davies’ Sunset Song and to much of actress Maxine Peake’s work eg. Gwen, Peterloo and The Village (the common theme is basically: It’s Grim – but beautiful – Up North).
Augustine (Alice Winocour, 2012)
As well as co-writing the wonderful Turkish film Mustang (with its strong echoes of The Virgin Suicides) about five sisters imprisoned by their strictly religious guardians, Winocour has also directed three features, the first of which was Augustine. Set in the 1870s and loosely based on a true story, it follows a nineteen year old French girl who suffers from seizures and partial paralysis (firstly of one eye and later of one hand) and is treated by the renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. She is sent to a hospital where girls and women are being treated for ‘hysteria,’ a classic Gothic setting if ever there were one. Augustine and Charcot go for mist-shrouded walks in the grounds of the oppressive hospital buildings, as she becomes an object of fascination and a particular favourite of the doctor. Sexual repression and exploitation is explored (making it a good double-bill with Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, as it is a kind of prequel to that film). Augustine is treated like a doll or mannequin, to be exhibited and experimented on and the only real agency she has or autonomy over her body, is to use it for seduction. I’ve seen this film described as a ‘love story’ or ‘romance’ and it is neither of those things, but it is a dark exploration of sex, religion, power and the very early attempts to explore and treat maladies of the mind.
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014)
Before her break-out turn in the equally Gothic Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh starred in The Falling, set somewhere which is ripe for an outbreak of Gothic maladies such as melodrama, rumour, superstitions and madness – an all-girls school. Set in 1969 and co-starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi and the brilliant Monica Dolan as the headmistress, the film deals with an epidemic of ‘mass hysteria’ which is characterised by fainting fits that seem to spread through the school. The parallels with the events in Salem (chronicled in The Crucible) and the notion that existed for hundreds of years that women were ‘martyrs to their nerves,’ which could result in them being sent to sanatoriums or in more unfortunate cases, Bedlam are clear. Women’s nerves and sanity and the fact they were viewed as hysterical has always been closely linked to puberty, menstruation and their burgeoning sexuality and those things being suppressed by religion and the strictures of society. All of these themes are explored through a woozy haze (aided by Tracey Thorn’s soundtrack) and spiked with humour by Morley. The close friendship between Williams and Pugh’s characters (and its lesbian subtext) is another theme that will come up time and again on this list.
The Babadook (2014) and The Nightingale (2019) – Jennifer Kent
The Babadook is a horror film in which a creepy character from a mysterious children’s book starts to haunt and terrorise a grief-stricken mother and son. It is set in present day Australia, but has several Gothic elements such as the feeling of the characters being trapped in their home – which for some reason has black walls, floors, a black kitchen table and black bedding. The illustrations in the book which the Babadook escapes from are in a Victorian shadow-puppet style, with the figure having a top hat and cape. The son is interested in magicians and the Babadook has qualities of the Big Bad Wolf “let me in, let me in.”
The Nightingale is set in the 19th century and is much more based on real-world horror. It has Western elements (which we will see again in The Wind), as well as a long journey through lush jungle and forest. The titular nightingale is tracking down the man who abused her and killed her family, so she can have her vengeance, but in the forest there is the question of who is being hunted or haunted.
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
Although this film is about a witch (Elaine played by Samantha Robinson), its aesthetics aren’t particularly Gothic, with it being much more influenced by the horror of the 1960s and 70s. What is Gothic, however, is the setting of Arcata and Eureka, Northern California, with their spectacular Victorian homes (the most famous one being the Carson Mansion). I promise you, it’s worth Googling so you can see these fantastically turreted houses which look like they’ve been plucked straight from a Gothic novel and Elaine’s own home is a great example. There is a scene of Elaine driving in her convertible on the Pacific Coast Highway which is extremely reminiscent of Melanie Daniels driving to Bodega Bay in The Birds. The pagan element and the medieval/renaissance fair which appear in The Love Witch have recently been ‘memefied’ by the hugely popular Midsommar which makes you wonder what could have happened to The Love Witch if it had the backing of a company like A24. Anyway, this film is a blend of many influences and styles and the Gothic is certainly one of them.
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)
The Beguiled is an example of the Southern Gothic off-shoot of Gothic fiction and while there are no supernatural elements in this particular film, there is certainly much darkness, violence and death. Like The Falling, it is set at a girl’s school where the last remaining teachers are Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst (who starred in the Southern Gothic classic Interview with the Vampire as a child). A wounded soldier, Colin Farrell seeks refuge at the school and sends both the girls (including Elle Fanning) and women into a frenzy of both fear and sexual awakening. Mushrooms, which are having something of a moment in film (Phantom Thread, Lady Macbeth, Shirley) are used for sinister purposes. For further examples of Southern Gothic – check out the 90s TV show American Gothic and the more recent True Blood, as well as films including Angel Heart, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Nocturnal Animals. Matthew McConaughey has cornered the market in Southern Gothic recently with True Detective, Killer Joe, Mud and The Paperboy.
Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2017)
Women screenwriters and directors taking on either biopics of women writers or major adaptations of women writers’ books (trying to find women directing work by Austen, the Brontes etc is surprisingly difficult) is something to be celebrated. Mary Shelley is known for being massively ahead of her time and was undoubtedly influenced by her feminist mother (despite her dying when Shelley was a month old). In the ultimate Gothic flex, she is said to have lost her virginity (to Percy Bysshe Shelley) on her mother’s grave. This film explores the romantic entanglements between the Shelleys, Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron. It is well cast and acted and has some dreamy visuals, including shots of the sky, as well as showing how Shelley’s visions (unfortunately related to her dead children) and nightmares may have influenced her work.
Braid (Mitzi Peirone, 2018)
It’s impossible to overstate how much this film is up my street. Two young women (Petula and Tilda) are bound to a third friend (Daphne) by the childhood games they used to play, with Daphne never having left the role-playing world they created. Almost the entire film is set in Daphne’s mansion, with the sense that no one can escape. The production design and costume design are both incredible, with a mid-twentieth century feel. Things are violent and brutal, sanity is questioned or already thrown out of the window and the blurring of lines between reality and the fictional world the characters have created is constantly shifting. Who has the upper hand out of the three characters – with Petula and Tilda attempting to extort and exploit their rich and mentally unstable friend and with Daphne wanting to keep them prisoner – also changes throughout. It’s a tug o’war with ropes that become braided together, as these three women will forever be intertwined. The use of colour is almost psychedelic at times, it’s incoherent, chaotic, dream-like, gorgeously-shot and divisive. Safe to say, this is my particular brand of twisted.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Stacie Passon, 2018)
Based on a book by Shirley Jackson (and influenced by her own agoraphobia), in the early 1960s two sisters – Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) live an isolated existence with their eccentric Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover, who goes with the adjective eccentric like gin goes with tonic). Sebastian Stan’s Cousin Charles enters the scene (very much playing the Uncle Charlie figure from Shadow of a Doubt and Stoker) and shakes up their cloistered and closeted existence. Merricat places various talismans in the grounds of the house to protect the remainder of her family, as there has been a mysterious tragedy in the past. Uncle Julian is obsessively writing his memoirs, Merricat greatly fears, distrusts and hates Charles and Constance is caught somewhere in between. The close bonds between women (sisters, friends, lovers) is a recurring theme in these films and it becomes apparent by the end just how close Constance and Merricat are. Poisoning with mushrooms and tea have been a recent feature of Gothic films, but the method used here is more unusual. The mid-twentieth century (when repression and societal pressure were still pervasive) was a great era for Gothic-inspired fiction and this period still makes a great setting for Gothic films.
The Wind (Emma Tammi, 2018)
The Gothic western is an interesting sub-genre, as is Western Noir (currently playing as a season on the Criterion Channel), with perhaps the most famous example being masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. The Wind is about two couples living in solitude and again focuses on the bond between two women, Lizzy and Emma, who both believe that supernatural forces have affected their pregnancies, having been influenced by a pamphlet called Demons of the Prairie. Gothic tropes such as wolves, a travelling reverend and the use of chloroform (it’s sometimes laudanum) to subdue are used. Most importantly, there is an unreliable protagonist, men not believing women and considering them mad or hysterical, and fear and paranoia created by religion. The harsh, windswept prairie has much in common with the moors of Wuthering Heights and other Gothic fiction. The frontier seems like a bleak place to live, particularly for women who were left alone for long stretches while the men went off to work. The isolation, as well as the brutal hardship of that existence has many parallels with living in the North of England in the 19th century and makes for an effective Gothic setting.
Judy & Punch (Mirrah Foulkes, 2019)
Mia Wasikowska is no stranger to the world of the Gothic, having starred in three of the best of the last decade – Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011), Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) and Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015). Judy & Punch takes the stock characters, which were originally from Commedia dell’arte, then became the basis of a Victorian seaside puppet show and examines what it look like if they were real. So, if we really saw Punch chasing a sausage-stealing dog around, tossing a baby and beating his wife with a ‘slapstick’ – what would that look that? And yes, there’s even a crocodile. Foulkes delicately blends tones, from the comedic to the tragic. The Gothic elements include the music (which hopefully makes sense when you hear it), Punch & Judy’s house and also the woodland setting, where Judy finds sanctuary with a group of outcasts.
The Other Lamb (Malgorzata Szumowska, 2019)
The Other Lamb is a stunningly shot film about a cult led by “the Shepherd” (Michiel Huisman). It stars Raffey Cassidy as Selah, a young woman who was born into the cult and Denise Gough as Sarah, an older woman who has gradually been pushed out to the peripheries of the group. It is set in isolated woodland and like many of the films discussed here, has a sense of being out of time and place. It’s the second Gothic-inspired lamb-themed piece centred around women of 2019, with the other being Lambs of God, an Australian mini-series starring Essie Davis, Ann Dowd and Jessica Barden, which I also recommend. The women are divided into wives (who wear red) and daughters (who wear blue), during menstruation the women are ostracised and segregated from the ‘flock’ and competition and jealousy among the women for the Shepherd’s light to fall upon them is rife. Huisman does a great job of fixing his gaze on the next ‘sacrificial lamb,’ while looking like a hungry wolf. The cinematography is both beautiful and bleak, like all of the best Gothic-inspired work.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, 2019)
Another exquisitely shot film, this time by cinematographer Claire Mathon, Portrait has a lot going on thematically, but its Gothic-inspired elements are some of my favourite aspects of the film. Isolation comes up once again – this time, a remote and inaccessible island. The power of groups of women is demonstrated in the famous ‘singing in rounds around the bonfire’ scene and the abortion scene, with its powerful recreation into a tableau to be captured by the artist Marianne. The capes and masks worn by Marianne and Heloise on the windswept cliffs and on the beach with its rocky outcrops and caves are deliciously Gothic. The most Gothic image of all is the vision Marianne has of Heloise, who appears to her in the dead of night, like a ghost in her white wedding dress, implying that her marriage will be a kind of death. The melodrama of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and the emotion it stirs in Marianne is also wonderfully Gothic. This film is incredibly rich in its themes and imagery and the Gothic is just one element from the palette that contributes to the overall masterpiece.
The Turning (Floria Sigismondi, 2020)
Critically panned on release, The Turning is an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw which is better than its reputation suggests. Set in 1994 for some reason, Mackenzie Davis plays Kate, a governess to Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and her older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) in a Gothic mansion of epic proportions, complete with pools, lakes, stables, mazes and a greenhouse. The mystery and haunting aspect comes from the former horse trainer and former governess, with plenty of creepiness and jumpscares. The subplot involving Kate’s mother (Joely Richardson) being in a psychiatric hospital worked for me and is what the film’s controversial ending revolves around. People have complained that the film has ‘no ending’ or an ‘abrupt, confusing ending’ but it made sense to me? It’s not the most original thing in the world, but fulfills the Gothic tropes of unreliable narrators/protagonists and a woman character having her sanity questioned by others and questioning it herself. I went into this expecting the worst and was pleasantly surprised.
Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020)
The fourth Australian film on this list focuses on three generations of women, played by Robyn Nevin (Edna), Emily Mortimer (Kay) and Bella Heathcote (Sam). Edna goes mysteriously missing for a few days and can’t remember where she’s been. Her daughter Kay is obviously concerned and moves in for a while to care for her, while arranging sheltered accommodation on the side. Edna is attached to the house and gets extremely angry when it is suggested she may have to leave. Like several other films on this list (including Amulet), the house itself is a huge, dominating presence in the film, with malevolence built into its very walls. It will not give Edna up easily. This film explores aging and dementia through horror and madness has been a central theme explored through Gothic fiction since its earliest incarnations. Gothic writers understand that there is nothing more frightening than feeling like you’re going mad (being attacked by your own brain, the horror within) or – the flipside – knowing that you’re not mad, but being disbelieved, questioned or deliberately gas-lit by those around you.
Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020)
Shirley is ostensibly a biopic of horror author Shirley Jackson (played here by Elisabeth Moss), but is also so much more than that. It is based on a novel (not a biography) by Susan Scarf Merrell and is about Jackson writing a novel – Hangsaman – based on a real case of a missing woman at the local college where Jackson’s husband works. So the lines between reality and fiction are obviously blurred throughout this film. The real star is Odessa Young as Rose, a young woman who comes into Shirley’s life and the film is really about the push-pull between Shirley, Rose and Paula (the missing woman, who has a haunting presence throughout). Jackson is agoraphobic and therefore trapped in her vine-covered home (sound familiar?). There are several pivotal scenes that take place in woodland, as this is where Paula went missing and the woods are the setting for an erotic mushroom scene (which makes sense in context). The close bonds/rivalries of women (which like The Falling, definitely has a lesbian subtext) are explored again and the whole thing positively drips with Gothic atmosphere. Easily one of the best films of 2020.
As for the future, we still have Rose Glass’ Saint Maud to look forward to, whenever that may get a release. This wave of women making Gothic-inspired films looks set to continue and now is the perfect time to descend into a world of nightmares and madness onscreen to… escape the one we’re currently living in.