We all know that October is primo horror territory. But August is a surprisingly good time for the unsettling delights of a good gothic horror story. Gothic horror, with its crumbling mansions, family skullduggery, and romantic deceptions, is just as good for the dog days of summer as it is the golden-orange days of fall. The genre’s intertwined vines of love and death play well in the heat.
On August 31 we’ll get to see The Little Stranger, directed by Room filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, based on the novel by Sarah Waters. (Abrahamson also made the excellent and relatively under-seen movie Frank, starring Domhnall Gleeson, and Michael Fassbinder in a giant mask.)
Domhnall Gleeson stars in The Little Stranger as a doctor called to attend a patient at an old family mansion. The mansion, Hundreds Hall, is falling into disrepair in the aftermath of World War II. Gleeson’s character – whose mother once worked at the Hall – finds himself pulled into a web of mystery and intrigue thanks to the mother and two children living in the mansion.
In honor of The Little Stranger, here are some of the greatest gothic horror films.
Gothic horror films are rooted in gothic literature (no surprise) so a good place to start is with this gorgeously moody adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. A new governess, played perfectly by Deborah Kerr, is hired to take care of two children whose uncle and guardian has no time to devote to the kids. The previous governess committed suicide after her abusive lover died accidentally, and soon the new employee is learning about all sorts of weird behavior that went on around the family estate – and then she begins to believe that the ghosts of the prior governess and her lover are possessing the children. A small handful of movies defined much of how horror developed on film, and this near-perfect 1961 movie is among the best. (To see just a shade of this film’s influence, check out how the image above is echoed in one of the selections below.)
We hear the term “gaslighting” often now, especially on Twitter and other corners of the internet. This movie adapts the 1938 play Gas Light, and the two projects together are the origin of the term. As a child, Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula lost her mother and then experienced her aunt’s murder. As an adult, Paula is still haunted by the murder, and takes refuge in a whirlwind romance with the charming Gregory (Charles Boyer). He convinces her to move back to her childhood home in London, which is also the site of her aunt’s demise. Before long Paula’s possessions start to disappear, she hears people moving around in the house, and sees the house’s gaslights dimming and brightening of their own accord. Is she losing her mind, is the house haunted, or is something else going on?
Guillermo del Toro has toyed with gothic horror more than once, as in his films The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Crimson Peak is his ultimate gothic effort, a full-blown horrific romance with all the trappings. Mia Wasikowska plays a young writer romanced by a would-be industrialist played by Tom Hiddleston. They soon marry, and he spirits her away to Crimson Peak, his family’s old mansion. The new bride struggles to make her new dwelling a home, and clashes with her husband’s authoritarian sister, played by Jessica Chastain. And then she learns about the real family secrets – and the ghost. The director brings his signature visual flair to the story, but the real meat of this bleak romance is the brilliant performances from the three lead actors.
Is it cheating to have two loose adaptations of the same novel on this list? Maybe so, but The Others, another semi-adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, shows how powerful gothic horror can be, and how strong some of the foundational works, like Henry James’s novella, really are. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, who lives with her two young, light-averse children in a remote house on the Channel Islands after World War II. The kids think mom is crazy, while Grace thinks the house is haunted. The truth is something far more awful. The film, however, is one of the first great horror movies of the current century.