Gothic Horror in Cinema

Last year, the British Film Institute had a months-long festival celebrating Gothic cinema. They produced an awesome trailer for it:

Even though the festival is over, they’ve still got a lot of the information up at the website –

Now I could just share that with you and be done with it, but that’s a cop out. So I might as well pad things out with my thoughts on Gothic Horror, and how it works in movies.

It’s not hard to find the basic tropes of Gothic Horror. Even the most cursory familiarity with the genre’s classics gives you the fundamentals:

* The atmosphere is as much a character as any person in the story. “It was a dark and stormy night…” Castles in the hills, far from any village… A mansion out on the moors… A sense “in the air” that something isn’t quite right.
* Something old and ancient is prominent. And old family, with an old curse. An old, decaying mansion. Antique objects, covered in dust and cobwebs.
* There’s often something supernatural involved. A curse, witchcraft, vampires, werewolves… but nothing outright demonic.
* Someone usually is or goes insane. If they start out insane, it’s more of a slight derangement than a full-blown psychosis.
* The author uses a sesquipedalian vocabulary. It’s generally not as bad as Lovecraft’s using “rugose” and “batrachian” when he means “reddish” and “frog-like”. Things are always “ancient and decrepit” instead of “old and run-down”. People aren’t “thin”, they are “gaunt”. The choice of synonyms favors the darker and more foreboding term.

So, how does this work in movies?

Movies are a visual medium, so a lot of the characteristics of Gothic Horror literature actually manage to translate quite well. Use plenty of shadows and visual effects to provide the atmosphere. A good soundtrack will help quite a bit. The rest aren’t hard to depict or script, either.

In fact, it’s possible that it might be easier to describe Gothic Horror movies by what they don’t have when compared to other horror movies:

* There’s very little in the way of blood and gore. People can certainly get killed, and in horrible fashion, but there’s almost none of the “grand guignol” splatter that one sees in slasher films. The scares are more psychological than physical.
* The pacing is slower and steadier. No jump cuts, no surprise shocks designed to make you jump out of your chair. Gothic is much more subtle than that.
* No “comic relief”. In keeping with the pacing, there’s no wisecracks or smart-assery to give you a little break from the tension. Freddy Krueger would never work in Gothic.

The movies used for the trailer above are all fine examples of Gothic Horror from across the decades. And yes, even Twilight counts – it uses many of the tropes of Gothic fiction (just not very well).

So what are some of your favorite Gothic Horror movies?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.