I’ve always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature – of thwarted desires, obsessive love, dispossessed and psychopathic individuals as well as by the supernatural, and I’ve always enjoyed how the ‘Gothic’ genre often plays with our worst fears and insecurities to aesthetically explore the darkness and melancholia underlying human existence. And yet these films remind us, that there is indeed beauty in darkness, that the weird and the macabre offer a different lens to view reality, that although death is an undeniable facet of life, there are still worst things out there, and it’s not just ghosts, but memories that can also return to haunt and to torment us.
The Gothic welcomes and celebrates all that we might otherwise deny, and the movies below invite you to contemplate love and life, from an alternative or unconventional perspective. In these movies you’ll find vampires confounded by the curse of immortality, grisly tales of revenge and unrequited love, demons and headless horsemen, anti-heroes seeking redemption, and humanity’s relentless and desperate drive to fight on and hope and emerge victorious, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
01. Crimson Peak (2015)
This Guillermo del Toro film epitomizes the genre of the ‘Gothic romance’ and more. It features all the staple Gothic elements including a derelict mansion in the middle of nowhere, a shy and innocent heroine who quickly falls into the wrong hands, a dark mysterious Byronic hero torn between two choices, a witchy villains, ghosts, incest and family secrets – each of which seamlessly falls into place as the movie progresses. Edith Cushing, the daughter of a wealthy American businessman, dreams of being a writer. But her life turns upside down when she encounters the deceptively handsome Thomas Sharpe and chooses to marry him, despite her father’s warnings.
Repeatedly tormented by red visions, Edith finds herself trapped inside a crumbling Victorian manor, under the distrustful gaze of Thomas’ sister Lucille, who slowly poisons her. Yet even with her health deteriorating, Edith continues to explore the house’s dark secrets and discovers several unsavory facts which build up to an emotionally-charged climax. This is a film about wrong choices and the darker side of love, and a reminder that the supernatural is nowhere as terrifying as human cruelty and depravity.
02. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton is one of those few Hollywood directors whose films are distinctive for their delightfully macabre and Gothic aesthetics, and his adaptation of the Washington Irving short story, encapsulates all the best things about the genre. The movie heavily draws upon and expands the story’s richly detailed universe. Ichabod Crane is no longer a soft-spoken school teacher, but a detective sent to investigate the Headless Horseman who haunts the quaint village and is responsible for a number of grisly murders.
Skeptical of paranormal activity, he realizes that all is not what it seems in the village, even as he finds himself inexplicably drawn to the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel who aids him on his quest. The art direction in this film is absolutely on-point, and if you’re looking for a tale of dark adventure, mild horror and a happy ending, this is the film for you.
03. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Anne Rice’s 1976 book ‘Interview With The Vampire’ is one of the landmark Gothic novels published in the 20th century and is a first in a series of novels entitled ‘The Vampire Chronicles’ most of which follow the exploits of a certain Lestat de Lioncourt as he navigates the question of immortality. However both the book and the film are narrated from a point of view of Louis, a New Orleans plantation owner, whom Lestat turns into a vampire. Louis with his gentlemanly background, Christian beliefs and melancholic conscience, grapples with this dark gift and later, Lestat fearing estrangement, turns a child-girl Claudia into a vampire as well.
The heartbreaking film steeped in history, decadence and homoerotic undertones explores issues relating to free will and the nature of evil and asks some really uncomfortable questions. It also features an impeccable cast starring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas and Kirsten Dunst, so that’s another reason to check this film out.
04. Rebecca (1940)
Long before Guillermo del Toro made Crimson Peak, we had Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, that was brilliantly adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca is a Gothic Romance, that explores female insecurity and jealousy carried to a ridiculous extreme, and the way female desire and identity is completely effaced by the male gaze. The naïve unnamed narrator of the story encounters the mysterious Maxim De Winter and is whisked off to Manderley House with its majestic and sprawling estates that seem to enclose a world of its own. But she is visibly uncomfortable in her new home, because the presence of Rebecca, De Winter’s late ex-wife is imprinted on everything she touches or beholds, and De Winter’s growing aloofness does nothing to help matters.
The narrator finds herself, lacking and undeserving when compared to the beautiful and alluring Rebecca, so much so that when her husband confesses that it was he who murdered his own wife, she isn’t horrified but relieved – relieved because it meant that he cared for her alone, and not Rebecca. And what’s most interesting is the way the film plays with the viewers’ mind encouraging them to sympathize and even root for the leading characters, despite being aware of the heinous crimes committed.
05. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Over the years, the story of Dracula has been adapted and distorted so often, that one might find the actual novel quite insipid and uninspiring. However Coppola chooses to return to the source material, and only introduces some alterations in the latter half in his rendition of literature’s most popular vampire. Dracula’s castle in Transylvania is vividly brought to life and sharply contrasted against the gas lit world of Victorian London. And Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula as an utterly depraved but desperate monster is indeed impeccable. Playing with the idea of reincarnation and Christian redemption, Coppola invests the original tale with a tragic back story, and although Dracula is still a horrific villain, he too is granted a chance at salvation. And finally don’t miss out on Annie Lennox’s devastatingly beautiful melody ‘Love song for A Vampire’ as the end credits begin to roll.
06. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
This is a little known film from Czechoslovakia that is surreal, Gothic and fantastical at the same time, blending elements from folklore and horror. Much of the narrative follows Valerie, a precarious young girl on the threshold of puberty, as she embarks on disorienting and dream-like adventures. Think of it as a very dark and twisted version of Alice in Wonderland, where all is not what it seems, the protagonist has no or little power, and every other character seems to have an agenda of their own. Throughout the film, Valerie is accosted by priests, vampires and other strange people, and the sexualized imagery in the film is of course symbolic of Valerie’s own sexual awakening. This film has a slightly unsettling edge to it, and if you’re the sort who prefers to watch an indie art film on a weekend, this one might work for you.
07. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
As most of the films discussed here are live-action, I decided to include an animated one, to level things out. In fact, stop-motion animation has a distinctive flavor of its own, and makes it ideal to tell tales that are delightfully dark. The Nightmare Before Christmas which was directed by Henry Selick and was based on a poem that Tim Burton wrote, focuses heavily on issues pertaining to identity and fitting in. Jack Skellington, a long-time resident and leader of Halloween Town, is enchanted by the bright and twinkling lights of Christmas Town and wishes to kidnap ‘Santa Claus’ and bring him to his town instead.
Of course, his plan is met with disastrous consequences, and Jack is forced to make amends and learn from his mistakes. And in the process, he discovers true love with the rag-doll Sally and learns to understand himself and his place in the world, better. Although packed with dark and grisly creatures, the story is heart warming, and can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike. And if you do like stop-motion and Gothic aesthetics, be sure to check out Henry Selick’s Coraline which is based on the bestselling Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, as well as Tim Burton’s other animated efforts including Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.
08. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Personally, this is one of my favorite films, and although it features both vampires and a love story, it is pretty unconventional and bears little in common with the staple elements of those genres. For instance, a lot of vampire films tend to focus on the blood-lust and the killing of human beings – something that this film tries very hard to avoid. And most romantic films emphasize and elaborate upon the stage of falling in love, and not its aftermath, while this film is concerned with the aftermath of ‘true love’ and ‘happily ever afters.’
The film follows the exploits of two vampires – Adam, a brooding, reclusive and cynical musician, and his partner Eve, who finds this world and its culture intensely engaging and inspiring. Although they love each other, they live separately and are just a video call away, yet Eve is quick to fly back and visit Adam, the moment she notices something is amiss. Much of this film dwells on quiet moments – late night drives through a desolate town, dancing to slow grunge music, walking through a derelict parking lot and so on. It is slow, decadent and beautiful in a melancholic way, and if you are looking for the perfect film to watch at 2 am, all alone, that will cast its spell on you, look no further.
09. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
There’s something really fascinating about the way the Gothic genre probes into the human psyche and uncovers the darkest and the most depraved secrets. The two central themes in this film are revenge and cannibalism, and the characters here while unforgivable, are intensely fascinating to watch. Benjamin Barker is a barber who was wrongfully deported to Australia by the wicked judge Turpin so that Turpin could rape his wife. Having returned back to England and adopted a new name ‘Sweeney Todd’, the barber is informed by Mrs Lovett that his wife had apparently poisoned herself while their daughter is a ward of the judge.
Sweeney Todd vows revenge, but before he can kill Turpin, he decides to practice his murdering skills on unsuspecting customers, even as Mrs Lovett disposes of the corpses by baking them into meat pies, resulting in a huge boom in her business. But of course Mrs Lovett is besotted with Mr Todd and keeps a vital secret from him, and as the film progresses, the story turns darker, bloodier and more tragic. If you enjoy Gothic and horror, this film might be up your alley. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a musical?
10. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Another dark musical on this list, this film is based on a French novel by Gaston Leroux that was in turn adapted to a critically acclaimed musical. Starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum in the lead roles, as the Phantom and Christine respectively, this is a film about secrets, obsessions and mystery. It is a tale of a mysterious almost-mythical entity that haunts the labyrinth beneath an opera house and the young soprano he becomes obsessed with. Unlike the musical, the film tones down on the horror bits, and instead focuses on the visual aesthetics, the music and the romance, to bring to life the inner workings of an opera house in rich detail. So if you’re looking for period drama, beautiful art direction and a dark romance, then sit back and let this film work its magic on you.