7 classic gothic tales to watch before you see The Beguiled
With its potent Southern gothic imagery, its psychosexual tension, and Colin Farrell’s bellowing about “vengeful bitches,” Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled has been riling up viewers since its trailer dropped. Based on a novel (also titled The Painted Devil) by Thomas P. Cullinan and a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, the film tells the tale of young women in a Southern boarding school who take in an injured enemy soldier. His presence in the repressive house results in a violent overflow of jealousy and sexual tension. Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film takes the subject matter and flips it on its head, eliminating the male gaze and telling the tale from the viewpoint of the women confined within the stifling atmosphere of the house.
The film appears rife with the tenets of the gothic thriller — a genre that in both literature and film probes anxieties over female sexuality and the interplay of passion and repression. A subset of the genre, known as the Southern gothic, places these themes and moods in the American South. As with the genre’s most famous entry, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Gothic tales typically center on female protagonists and investigate the female psyche, particularly as it relates to desire, repression, and unbridled emotion. Coppola seems to up the ante on this with her focus on the female point-of-view, and it’s fitting that it was this film that made her only the second woman to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
Before you dive into the secrets and tensions of The Beguiled when it arrives in theaters this Friday, take a look at one (or more) of these seven classic gothic films.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
As with its sister text, Jane Eyre, there have been numerous attempts to adapt Emily Bronte’s tale of forbidden love on the moors. Though this adaptation only makes use of 16 of the novel’s 34 chapters, it is perhaps the most indelible for its Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography that brings the ghostly, haunting moors to vivid life (despite being filmed in sunny Los Angeles). It favors romance over the novel’s intended towering feminine rage that extends from the afterlife, but for better or worse, the film’s take on the central relationship between Cathy (Merle Oberon) and Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) has shaped notions of the story for more than half a century. Olivier disliked his costar because he had wanted to star opposite his real-life love interest Vivien Leigh (who was off making Gone with the Wind at this time). However, he did make an interesting contribution to the subconscious terror inherent to the gothic – fresh off playing Hamlet on the British stage, he employed Freudian techniques of psychoanalysis to make Heathcliff a smoldering Byronic hero in lieu of the more traditional romantic lover.
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…so begins this gothic romance based on a 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel that was a contemporary answer to Jane Eyre. Du Maurier is arguably the queen of source material for gothic adaptations (the recent release My Cousin Rachel is based on one of her novels). Alfred Hitchcock made his U.S. directing debut with this film (the only one of his oeuvre to win Best Picture). A timid and shy new wife returns home with her husband, Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier), only to find that his estate is haunted by the memory of his first wife, a mysterious and threatening presence. Our heroine, played by newcomer Joan Fontaine, is known only as “I” or the second Mrs. De Winter, as the story is told entirely through her subjective point of view. Her terror and torment are enhanced by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a cold and calculating woman who is obsessed with her former mistress (and said mistress’ underwear drawer). The conclusion of the novel had to be altered slightly to meet Production Code requirements, but the film does a remarkable job of maintaining its sense of dread while interrogating anxiety over female promiscuity. The virgin-whore complex at the center of the plot, which drives the tension between our narrator and Rebecca’s memory, fuels many a gothic narrative.
Available on: DVD/Blu-ray
Madness, poison, a governess from humble beginnings, a house with a delightfully medieval name, and Vincent Price – what more could you want from a gothic drama? Set in 19th-century New England and based on a novel, the film blends the conventions of the gothic romance with the historical reality of Dutch-style tenant farming that dominated the Hudson River Valley in this era. The film stars screen siren Gene Tierney as Miranda, a beautiful governess with farm-girl origins. It helped to launch Vincent Prince as a villainous figure onscreen — he had previously languished in matinee idol type roles — but this film helped put him on the trajectory to his definitive persona as a maniacal villain. The film leans heavily on its gothic elements, with its suggestion of a haunted house and a romance between a brooding gentleman and a naïve governess (further complicated by the presence of a first wife and her mysterious death). However, it also brings in strands of class consciousness and social commentary with its focus on the conflict between Price’s landowner Nicolas Van Ryn and his dissatisfied tenants.
Available on: DVD in the Fox Horror Classics Collection, Vol. 2
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
You may be surprised to find this classic on the list. After all, it’s a scathing indictment of Hollywood and fame – hardly the typical themes of a gothic tale. But Sunset Boulevard has all the trappings of the gothic genre – an oversized and spooky house rotting from the inside out; a female character who has watched her sexuality (and her sexual appetite) fade from an asset to a symbol of desperation and excess; and a core mystery knit up with themes of desire, repression, madness, and more. Billy Wilder’s tale of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) flips the gothic genre on its head by switching the gender roles – making William Holden’s Joe Gillis the naïve and inexperienced figure who finds himself trapped by a a tinseltown brand of madness. Norma Desmond also inhabits a less oft explored aspect of the gothic style – the grotesque. The film’s pervading gloom and dread, along with its inherent sense of voyeurism that asks you to fear, pity, and ultimately, understand Norma Desmond’s delusions and psychological underpinnings, makes it a gothic thriller of the highest order. Ready for our close-up, indeed.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
In this pitch black Southern gothic, Robert Mitchum stars as a serial killer masquerading as a preacher. His conman in sheep’s clothing has the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his hands, which he uses as symbols in his sermons — an iconic look that has reappeared in everything from The Blues Brothers to Do the Right Thing. Mitchum’s Harry Powell marries gullible widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), and terrorizes her and her children in an attempt to located $10,000 of robbery money hidden by her first husband. Based on a 1953 novel, its West Virginia setting combined with its gothic sensibilities place it solidly in the sub-genre of the Southern gothic alongside The Beguiled. From its grotesque cast of characters to its sense of dread and mystery to its fixation on a serial killer as its protagonist, the film drips with gothic tendencies. Director Charles Laughton was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, which relied on strong shadows, surreal sets, distorted images, and bizarre camera angles — all visual elements key to expressing the interior and psychological trappings of the gothic.
The Innocents (1961)
Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, this supernatural gothic horror film is yet another tale of a Victorian governess who finds herself in a house that goes bump in the night. Flora Giddens, played by Deborah Kerr, begins to see ghosts and believes that her two young charges are possessed by evil spirits. Things spiral out of control as she tries to convince the children and other residents of the house that they are being haunted. The entire proceedings possess an undeniable Freudian subtext with the plot’s obsession with unhinged outpourings of vulgarity, whispers of sexual perversion, and Deborah Kerr’s repressed eroticism. All of this is enhanced by heavily atmospheric artistic choices. The film employs deep focus and heavy shadows, most particularly in scenes where Kerr wanders the house alone at night in a severe white nightgown using only a candelabra for light. The film also pioneered use of synthesized electronic sound to create eerie sounds and hint at supernatural happenings. Though its a gothic thriller that relies more heavily on psychological thrills than actual shocks, Martin Scorsese placed it on his list of the “11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time.”
Available on: DVD/Blu-ray
The Haunting (1963)
You can’t get much more gothic than a haunted house tale that uses supernormal happenings as a metaphor for anxiety over lesbianism and the specter of “aberrant” female sexuality. Based on a 1959 novel by Southern gothic author Shirley Jackson, The Haunting follows a group of individuals who hole up in the notorious Hill House to study its paranormal activity under the direction of Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). Among them is Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the heir to the estate; Theo (Claire Bloom), a thinly-veiled lesbian psychic; and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a fragile young woman. Eleanor, who purportedly experienced a paranormal encounter as a child and long lived under the thumb of her ill mother, is racked with guilt and a host of anxieties, including terror over her own feelings of desire. During the study, Eleanor begins to unravel, feeling herself haunted and possessed by the house in a metaphorical representation of her mental breakdown. The film uses a host of tricks and techniques from forced perspectives to a anamorphic wide angle lens to strange tracking and panning shots to amplify its sense of claustrophobia and horror. Steven Spielberg purportedly once called it “the scariest film ever made.”
Available on: Amazon