Gothic Film: A Brief History

Gothic films are at once very easy and very difficult to categorise. Within the wider context of the “horror” genre, gothic films are linked directly to the literary gothic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often adapting the original novels – for example: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (Germany, 1922), Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (US, 1931), and pretty much everything made by Hammer after The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, 1957).

Beyond the literal definition of gothic films as versions of gothic novels, however, there is a legion of horror films, fantasies and thrillers that have some level of gothic sensibility. Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (US, 1959), for example, combines vampire iconography with bargain-basement science fiction, while Hitchcock’s Psycho (US, 1960) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (US, 1999) are both doppelgänger narratives.  There are Faustian allegories everywhere, with deals and demons present in, among many others, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (US, 1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (US, 1973), and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (US, 1987).  Ridley Scott turned the gothic castle into a derelict spacecraft in Alien (US, 1979), and explored the Miltonian subtext of Frankenstein in Bladerunner (US, 1982).

Vampira (Maila Nurmi) Camps it up in Edward D. Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Vampira (Maila Nurmi) Camps it up in Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Following a long tradition of Romantic art and literature, phantasmagoric theatre, melodrama, and Expressionism, gothic films have a recognisable mise-en-scène based around archetypal settings and characters, familiar visual signifiers and narrative codes.  The style is Otranto-esque and uncanny, and can be either period or contemporary.  There are old dark houses, sublime castles, dungeons, graveyards and secret passages.  Settings are invariably cobweb-strewn and secluded, and there is fog everywhere. Action takes place in the shadows, and soft lighting maintains misty moonlight while under-lighting distorts features.  Like gothic literature, competing frames of rational and irrational explanation are often deployed to generate tension and unease.  The unreal challenges the real, and moral boundaries are transgressed. Characters, meanwhile, conform to both Romantic and Victorian literary models.  There are final girls and sexually menacing villains, mad scientists, melodramatic heroes, doppelgängers, undead, walking dead and clowns at midnight. Shock, suspense, insanity, mystery, cruelty, sex and violence are mixed and manipulated to create an atmosphere of brooding terror.  Good gothic should be erotic and sadistic. Setting is clichéd, but somehow expected, despite being subject to parody since Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein, and Lily Munster first decorated for Halloween. Contemporary, postmodern gothic mise-en-scène is not so much Romantic or Expressionist as Hyper-real.

There has been gothic film for as long as film has existed.  Before that there was gothic theatre in the form of phantasmagorias, Grand Guignol, melodrama and magic lantern shows. Gothic, or at least horror, films tentatively began with the cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès.  In short (2 – 3 minute) films like The House of the Devil (France, 1896), Bluebeard and The Monster (France, 1903), Méliès double-exposed bats circling, ghosts and witches rising from cauldrons, gentlewomen hanging from hooks, Egyptian princes resurrecting dead lovers, bodies decaying and heads exploding. The first gothic novel to be filmed is generally considered to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by the Selig Polyscope Company (US, 1908), although La Esméralda (France, 1905) by Alice Guy-Blaché was based on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) so probably deserves the honour. The Danish company Nordisk remade Stevenson’s novel as a one-reeler a year after Selig, as well as two “premature burial” shorts, Necklace of the Dead (Denmark, 1910) and Ghosts of the Vault (Denmark, 1911). In America, Edison Studios made a 16-minute version of Frankenstein in 1910, while Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, also made Jekyll and Hyde (US, 1913). In 1915, D.W. Griffith filmed Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee” as The Avenging Consciousness, while Maurice Tourneur put Svengali on the screen in Trilby. (Prawer: 1980, 9). The gothic film had arrived.

While the new technology of silent cinema was inventing the genre in Hollywood, its narrative and visual influences remained literary, theatrical and essentially Romantic – the films compressed versions of nineteenth century gothic stage adaptations, filmed by static camera with high-key lighting.  The next innovation was dark, German and Modernist.  Expressionism sought to represent the human experience as interior and subjective. Expressionist art therefore exaggerated the symbolic and emotional, often distorting physical reality to convey individual perception.  This characteristic Modernist challenge to nineteenth century Realism in art and literature already aligned Expressionism with the fantastic, transgressive and psychological aspects of gothic discourse, while an interest in extreme existential and emotional states inevitably led to the horror film.  Expressionists celebrated the new medium as an opportunity for writers, artists and performers to collaborate. The first significant Expressionist film to explore gothic themes is The Student of Prague (Germany, 1913), a Faustian fable co-directed by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye.  Rye died in a French prisoner of war camp in 1914, but Wegener went on to play, write and co-direct the recurring movie monster the Golem – the animated clay man of Jewish legend – in three films, most notably Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World, Germany, 1920).

1920 also saw the release of Robert Weine’s influential and often imitated Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). This milestone in gothic film was originally intended to be a satire on bourgeois hypocrisy directed by Fritz Lang.  The scriptwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, were Great War veterans, and fans of Wegener.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) abducts Jane (Lil Dagover) in a much - replicated scene from Robert Weine's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)
Cesare (Conrad Veidt) abducts Jane (Lil Dagover) in a much – replicated scene from Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Two men on a park bench discussing “spirits” frame the story. The younger of the two, Francis, tells his companion of the carnival hypnotist Dr. Caligari and the zombie-like “Somnambulist,” Cesare.  Cesare (the androgynous and spidery Conrad Veidt) is displayed in a coffin-like cabinet and can predict the future. Francis’ friend Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, and is told he will die before dawn. Alan is stabbed to death that night, and although a local thug is arrested, Francis and his fiancée, Jane, suspect Cesare.  Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, and he enters her bedchamber through the window at night with a big knife. Caesar resists Caligari’s control and abducts Jane, carrying her across rooftops to the mountains, pursued by an angry mob. Jane is rescued, while Cesare sleepwalks on, finally falling to his death.  Francis tracks Caligari to a local asylum, where he learns that he is the Hospital Director. In the Director’s office, Francis finds a treatise on somnambulism, an ancient book documenting the killing spree of “Dr. Caligari” and “Cesare” in 1703, and a diary. The diary reveals that a “true somnambulist” has been admitted, and that to research whether or not a sleepwalker can be compelled to act against his waking will the Director “must become Caligari.”  The Director’s growing insanity is depicted by Caligari’s name appearing (animated on screen) around him as he raves. Caligari is taken away in a straightjacket, “And from that day on,” Francis concludes, “the madman has never left his cell.” The frame is then twisted, revealing that the men are in the grounds of the asylum and Francis, Jane and Cesare are all inmates. Francis is restrained, while screaming that it is not he who is insane but Caligari. The film ends with the Freudian Director explaining that now he understands Francis’ mania he can cure him.

The film’s visual style is distorted and darkly carnivalesque.  Shadows are painted onto sets, and the contorted streets, crooked houses and grotesque characters (designed by art director Hermann Warm and the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig) were intended to convey the delusions of a madman.  This stylised mise-en-scène was so powerful that “Caligarism” became a synonym for Expressionism. With its innovative and atmospheric visual style, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari defined gothic cinema.  Its iconographic shockwaves can be felt throughout Hollywood, where mad scientists and beautiful girls carried into the night by pale, lanky monsters, pursued by rampaging villagers was de rigueur.

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Germany, 1922), is of equal stature. While Der Golem and Dr. Caligari anticipate Universal’s Frankenstein, Nosferatu is an unauthorised version of Stoker’s Dracula written by Wegener’s collaborator Henrik Galeen.  Noferatu is not as visually abstract as Caligari, but both films share Expressionist features. Murnau, another Great War veteran, used low-key lighting and deep space (positioning significant image elements both near and distant from the camera), to create depth and strong contrasts between light and shadow.  This effect was most famously realised as the shadow of the vampire, Graf Orlok, ascends the stairs to Ellen Hutter’s bedchamber during the film’s climax.  Max Shreck’s cadeverous Orlok is absurdly phallic – bald, tall, and matchstick thin, he rises from his coffin like a fascist salute or an erection, leaving us in no doubt as to the threat he represents to Ellen.  Orlok’s pointed teeth, ears and claws are rat-like, and vermin and plague follow with him.  Ellen uses her feminine wiles to trick Orlok into staying past cockcrow, and he is destroyed in the dawn sunlight.

An iconic moment in expressionist cinema: Graf Orlok (Max Schrek), represented only by his shadow, ascends the stairs to Ellen's room in the finale of Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau (1922)
An iconic moment in expressionist cinema: Graf Orlok (Max Schrek), represented only by his shadow, ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room in the finale of Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau (1922)

Florence Stoker successfully sued for copyright infringement, and Lugosi’s Dracula soon eclipsed Shreck’s Orlok.  The animalistic “Nosferatu” vampire archetype remains, however, as a contrast to the aristocratic Ruthven/Varney/Dracula model, most notably in Stephen King’s revisionist vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1975) and, more recently, Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II  (US, 2002).  Werner Herzog remade Murnau’s classic as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, West Germany, 1979) starring Klaus Kinski as “Count Dracula.” Kinski loosely reprised the role in Augusto Caminito’s Nosferatu a Venezia (Vampire in Venice, Italy, 1988).  E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Bat (US/UK, 2000) reconstructs the filming of Nosferatu, depicting Max Shreck as a real vampire.  Other key Expressionist films incorporating elements of the gothic include Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, Germany, 1924) directed by Paul Leni, Metropolis by Fritz Lang (Germany, 1927), and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (Germany, 1932).  When the Weimar Republic fell, many Expressionist filmmakers fled to Hollywood.

The synergy of the literary gothic, stage melodrama, and Expressionism is the foundation of gothic film as it subsequently developed in Hollywood, most notably at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures, which employed Conrad Veidt, Paul Leni, and Lon Chaney Senior, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”  Laemmle, another German immigrant, had been a nickelodeon owner who had decided to challenge the Edison monopoly by making his own films.  Lon Chaney’s breakthrough was the sadistic MGM gangster film The Penalty (US, 1920), in which he played a double amputee crime lord who plans to have the legs of his surgeon’s future son-in-law grafted on to his stumps.  To play the insane gangster, Chaney strapped his calves to his thighs, foreshadowing the masochistic commitment to grotesque make-up that characterised his iconic performances in Universal’s silent gothic classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, 1923), The Phantom of the Opera (US, 1925), and MGM’s London After Midnight  (US, 1927), the latter directed by Tod Browning. Browning and Laemmle wanted Chaney to play Dracula, but he died of lung cancer in 1930. The other notable silent Universal gothic films were both directed by Paul Leni. The Cat and the Canary (US, 1927) was an “old dark house” mystery based on the play by John Willard, and The Man Who Laughs (US, 1928) was an adaptation of Hugo’s nasty novel of 1869.  Veidt’s performance as the disfigured Gwynplaine, smile carved onto his face, inspired Bob Kane’s design of the Joker for the first issue of Batman Comics in 1940. Leni was the first choice to direct Dracula, but he died of blood poisoning in 1929.

Lon Chaney Sr as 'The Man in the Beaver Hat' from the lost classic London after Midnight, dir. Tod Browning (1927)
Lon Chaney Sr as ‘The Man in the Beaver Hat’ from the lost classic London after Midnight by Tod Browning (1927)

The deaths of Leni and Chaney ushered in a new generation of talent.  Rather than adapting the original novel, Universal’s Dracula (US, 1931) follows the 1927 Broadway hit by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderstone, the first version to be authorised by Florence Stoker. After much deliberation, the studio cast the play’s lead, the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, to reprise his role.  Although Nosferatu was mined for plot devices – for example Harker cutting his finger and Dracula reacting – Lugosi’s Byronic interpretation of the suave Carpathian aristocrat was a long way from Shreck’s repulsive Orlok and Stoker’s original. Lugosi’s Dracula has become the definitive version, and his flowing cape, magnetic charm, and sinister European accent are replicated and pastiched (or, in Gary Oldman’s case, both) across the history of gothic cinema.

'There are far worse things awaiting man than death.' The great Bela Lugosi in his signature role, Dracula (1931).
‘There are far worse things awaiting man than death.’ The great Bela Lugosi in his signature role, Dracula (1931)

Carl Dreyer’s haunting Vampyr (Germany, 1932) – loosely based on Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) – is a near contemporary of Universal’s Dracula.  Dreyer’s film is more experimental than Browning’s, incorporating Expressionist and Surrealist techniques.  Real and unreal blur in this pale and foggy film – shadows and reflections have a life of their own, while the hero has a waking dream of burial alive.  Vampyr is the last significant Expressionist gothic to be shot in Germany.

Universal was quick to follow up the success of Dracula with Frankenstein, which was released in November 1931.  The Englishman James Whale (who had conquered the West End, Broadway and Hollywood with Journey’s End) replaced the Frenchman Robert Florey as director, casting fellow ex-patriot Boris Karloff (over Lugosi) to play the “monster.”  (Florey’s contribution to Frankenstein goes largely unacknowledged – he and Lugosi were moved to the Murders in the Rue Morgue project by Universal.)  Whale, like Florey, was heavily influenced by Expressionist cinema, while his experiences as an officer in the trenches had left him with a dark, gallows humour that, in common with his German counterparts, found a release in the gothic.  Colin Clive, the highly-strung, alcoholic lead of Journey’s End was cast as “Henry Frankenstein.”  Clive played Frankenstein as a manic iconoclast, addicted to a power that both attracts and appals him, and from which he cannot escape. “Now I know what it feels like to be god!” he shrieks, in a line hastily trimmed by Universal’s censors.  Jack Pierce’s make-up and Karloff’s interpretation of the monster as a mute and child-like grotesque defined the role for generations in the same way as Lugosi’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the film’s plot is taken from stage versions rather than the original novel – the hunchback assistant, “Fritz,” for example, is a legacy from the play Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake (1823), although the film is essentially from the 1927 play by Peggy Webling, adapted by Balderstone.  Frankenstein’s visual style blends Expressionism with conventional Hollywood gothic.  Whale was a great admirer of Leni, Wegener and Weine, and had The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screened repeatedly during pre-production (Curtis: 1998, 149).

Dracula and Frankenstein were huge hits in a period when Hollywood was suffering from the Great Depression, and a wave of sequels and copies followed.  Browning prematurely wrecked his career by choosing art over commerce and making the quintessential American gothic film Freaks for MGM in 1932, controversially casting disabled people from sideshows rather than using costumes and makeup.  Back at Universal, Karloff starred as The Mummy in 1932, directed by German-émigré Karl Freund (who also directed Colin Clive and Peter Lorre in Mad Love, a remake of the German silent Orlacs Hände, for MGM in 1935), Lugosi starred in Murders in the Rue Morgue (US, 1932), and both appeared together in The Raven (US, 1934). Lugosi also made White Zombie for United Artists in 1932 and starred in the second Hammer film ever, The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, in 1935. Whale directed Karloff in The Old Dark House (US, 1932), and Claude Rains as The Invisible Man in 1933. Henry Hull played The Werewolf of London for Universal in 1935, while Whale, Clive and Karloff were re-united for The Bride of Frankenstein the same year. British gothic film, meanwhile, slogged along in a series of Victorian melodramas filmed by George King and starring the over-the-top Tod Slaughter, the most memorable being Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (UK, 1935), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (UK, 1936), and The Face at the Window (UK, 1939).

'Friend...?' Karloff's Monster fails to connect with Elsa Lancaster's Bride in James Whale's seminal sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
‘Friend…?’ Karloff’s Monster fails to connect with Elsa Lancaster’s Bride in James Whale’s seminal sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein takes the unrealised creation of the creature’s mate from Shelley’s novel, and makes her flesh.  The film is darkly comic, and adds the “Bride” archetype so important to the popular Frankenstein myth.  The film is anachronistically framed by Elsa Lancaster playing Mary Shelley, telling Byron and Shelley what happened next. The monster has survived, and the evil Dr. Pretorius uses him to coerce Henry into replicating his original process with a female, also played by Lancaster, memorably swathed in bandages with lightening streaks in her hair. While the monster reaches towards her imploring “Friend?” the bride is horrified, and looks to Frankenstein for comfort. (This scene was re-created in Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator, US, 1990.)  Things do not end well, and the monster tells Pretorius and the bride that “We belong dead,” before triggering an explosion and destroying the laboratory. Colin Clive died of tuberculosis in 1937, so Basil Rathbone took over as Son of Frankenstein in 1939, with Karloff reprising the role of monster for the final time (unless we count a cameo in the TV show Route 66), acting alongside Lugosi as “Ygor.” Whale did not direct. Universal made Dracula’s Daughter the following year, which picks up the story at the end of the original film.  Gloria Holden plays “Countess Zaleska,” and Van Sloan pops up again as Van Helsing. A series of increasingly unremarkable sequels followed, the Universal monster cycle briefly enlivened by Lon Chaney Junior’s appearance as The Wolfman in 1941. Monsters began appearing together, as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman starring Chaney and Lugosi (US, 1943), and House of Dracula (US, 1945), which stars Chaney as the Wolfman, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, and John Carradine as Dracula. Aside from MGM, the only serious rival to Universal’s stranglehold on gothic film was RKO, which made Charles Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric Cat People (US, 1942), and I Walked with a Zombie (US, 1943), and The Body Snatcher (based on Stevenson’s short story) starring Karloff and Lugosi in 1945. MGM also returned to the literary gothic in 1945 with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Warner Brothers introduced the arachnophobic archetype of the disembodied hand in The Beast With Five Fingers starring Peter Lorre in 1946.  Universal finally flogged their gothic franchises to death in a series of Abbott and Costello horror comedies, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (with Chaney, Lugosi and Strange) in 1948, and the clumsily named Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff in 1949. Et tut, Boris?

Post-war Hollywood fantasy focused on atomic and Cold War anxiety, while the audience demographic became more teenaged. Horror films moved towards science fiction and rock ’n’ roll in the fifties, the best of it inspired by the short-lived but hugely influential EC horror comics rather than the traditional literary gothic. The studio system also changed considerably after the war, and major studios moved away from second feature productions (which is where the Universal monsters had washed up), creating a niche for very low budget independents, most notably Roger Corman.  There is a distinctive post-war gothic style in America, but it is cheap, kitsch and comedic. American International Pictures led this new market, with titles like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (US, 1957), and The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959). Universal rolled the dice one more time in 1954 with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Across the water, the seeds of a new English gothic were sown in Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night (UK, 1945), a portmanteau pioneer with a framing narrative, five separate gothic stories connected by a common theme, multiple directors and guest stars. In the scariest episode, Michael Redgrave plays an insane ventriloquist who believes his creepy dummy, Hugo, controls him. A decade on, Hammer Film Productions returned to the influence of Universal, and the small British company’s first gothic film was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  This was closely followed by Dracula (UK, 1958).  Unlike Universal, Hammer focused on Victor Frankenstein rather than his creations, and Cushing’s interpretation of this role, alongside Christopher Lee’s Dracula, returns to the resonance of Karloff and Lugosi.  The gothic had come home.

The Baron (Peter Cushing) examines his creation (Christopher Lee), while Robert Urquhart looks on, in Terence Fisher's The Curse of Franstein (1957).
The Baron (Peter Cushing) examines his creation (Christopher Lee) while Robert Urquhart looks on, in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Hammer films differ from Universal in that they are in full colour, and return the gothic to the adult realm of moral ambiguity, taboo, sexuality and violence. Cushing’s Frankenstein is not a flawed romantic lead, but a cold, obsessive and mad genius, while Lee’s sexually magnetic Dracula both seduces and repels. Visually, Hammer films are theatrical rather than Expressionist, and the influence of the Victorian stage, and the pre-war revivals of King and Slaughter, is apparent in these period dramas. Universal executives were so impressed by Hammer’s interpretations of Frankenstein and Dracula that they made their entire back-catalogue available for re-make. In its heyday in the 1960s, Hammer’s gothic output equalled that of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. Hammer resurrected all the major gothic archetypes. In addition to six Frankenstein and eight Dracula sequels, Hammer made four “Mummy” films, including an adaptation of Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (UK, 1971), as well as the re-makes The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (UK, 1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (UK, 1961), and The Phantom of the Opera (UK, 1962). Other vampire films include: Countess Dracula (UK, 1971), based on the Elizabeth Báthory legend, the magically real Vampire Circus (UK, 1972), and the Le Fanu inspired “Karnstein Trilogy” (UK, 1970 – 1972).  Hammer also adapted two novels by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out (UK, 1968) and To the Devil a Daughter (UK, 1976).  The Gorgon (UK, 1964) and The Plague of the Zombies (UK, 1966) refined the gothic aesthetic of Lewton and Tourneur, while a string of psychological thrillers nodded towards Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hammer received the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968, in recognition of its contribution to British film and its outstanding international success. Not since MGM’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won two Academy awards in 1931 had gothic film achieved such establishment recognition.  Gerald Thomas also paid tribute to Hammer in Carry On Screaming (UK, 1966).

Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958).
Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

The success of Hammer resuscitated the traditional gothic.  There were domestic imitators, such as Amicus Productions, which specialised in Anglicised anthology versions of EC horror comics, and Tigon British Film Productions, which made Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968. 20th Century Fox, meanwhile, released a screen version of James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) as The Innocents in 1961, scaring the hell out of everyone.  Echoing rock ’n’ roll culture, the British had taken an American form and re-invented it.  It is therefore Hammer, rather than Universal, that inspired American International Pictures to produce a full-colour version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, directed by Roger Corman, written by Richard Matheson, and starring Vincent Price, in 1960.  AIP’s subsequent “Poe Cycle” ran to seven more films: The Pit and the Pendulum (US, 1961), The Premature Burial and Tales of Terror (US, 1962), The Raven and The Haunted Palace (US, 1963), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (US, 1964).  In mainland Europe, notable period gothic films include Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan, Italy, 1960) and I Tre volti della paura (AKA Black Sabbath, Italy, 1963), and the vampire films of French filmmaker Jean Rollin. Ado Kyrou directed Le Moine, a version of Lewis’ The Monk written by Luis Buñuel, (France/Italy/Germany, 1972), while Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (Japan, 1964), was a period gothic anthology based on the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn.

'We have put her living in the tomb!' The 'Gable of the Gothic,' my wife's hero, and the man we named our son after: The incomparable Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in Roger Corman's The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).
‘We have put her living in the tomb!’ The ‘Gable of the Gothic,’ my wife’s hero, and the man we named our son after: The incomparable Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

By the end of the Swinging Sixties, period gothic had once more declined.  Hammer’s attempts to update the form largely failed (see, for example, Dracula AD 1972), while Corman sensibly moved towards “Hell’s Angel” films, and Bava invented the “slasher” film with Reazione a catena/ (Bay of Blood AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve, Italy, 1971). The independent American New Wave, led by directors like George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven also made historical gothic appear trite and dated.  It should be noted, however, that the atmospheric visual style of Night of the Living Dead  (US, 1968), and the fairytale leitmotif of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (US, 1974) still place such films within the gothic tradition.

Gothic films continue to exist, but always in the shadows cast by Expressionism, Universal and Hammer.  Literary archetypes remain, although films purporting to return to the original texts usually reproduce Universal plots. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (US, 1992), for example, is nothing of the sort, and uses the re-incarnation device from the Universal “Mummy” cycle (itself lifted from Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars).  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh (US, 1994) is a mix of The Bride of Frankenstein and the NBC TV special Frankenstein: The True Story (US, 1973). Only in letting the creature speak does Branagh acknowledge the original novel.  The best literary gothic film of this period is Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (US, 1994), from the 1976 novel by Anne Rice.  Ken Russell applied his unique style to the night that Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys decided to make up a few “ghost stories” at the Villa Diodati in Gothic (UK, 1986).

Gothic iconography remains present in many hybrid and inter-textual forms of horror.  Gothic elements are updated and alchemically blended in, for example: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (US, 1981), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (US, 1982), Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991), Alex Proyas’ The Crow (US, 1994), Myrick and Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (US, 1999), and a variety of controversial “slasher” and “torture porn” bloodbaths. Purists may demarcate, but the parody and pastiche of postmodernism is everywhere. Leatherface is Mr. Hyde and the Phantom of the Opera taken to their logical extremes, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers lumber around silently like Glenn Strange playing Frankenstein’s monster, and the Eastern European Otherness of Hostel (US, 2005) is straight out of Radcliffe and Lewis.

Hail to the King baby. Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi's cult classic Evil Dead II (1987)
Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi’s cult classic Evil Dead II (1987). Traditional Gothic archetypes combine with Grand Guignol spectacle and gallows humour. Much imitated, never bettered: ‘Hail to the King baby!’

Modern gothic films nowadays tend to be either period and/or involve classic monsters – Universal revived The Mummy franchise in 1999, while the collective monsters of Van Helsing (US, 2004) recall the Lugosi/Chaney team-ups of the late-1940s.  Vampires remain sexy, as seen in the relationship between the teenage Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, the Harry Potter of vampires, in Twilight (US, 2008). The spirit of the literary gothic is presently most realised in the supernatural fantasies of Guillermo del Toro, while Tim Burton has returned to the marriage of melodrama and Expressionism that epitomises gothic cinema.  Gothic film turns full circle in Burton at his best. Edward Scissorhands (US, 1990) is a fairytale Frankenstein, while A Nightmare Before Christmas (US, 1993) takes the format of the Rankin/Bass seasonal television special and slams it into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In Batman Returns (US, 1992), Burton’s Gotham City is an Expressionist metropolis, its corporations controlled by the corrupt “Max Shreck.” Burton has also acknowledged his debt to Hammer in the 1999 period gothic Sleepy Hollow (Salisbury: 2006, 169 – 170), and in 2007 returned Sweeny Todd to the screen, albeit the Sondheim and Wheeler musical version.

'They all deserve to die...' Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) from the film of the same name by Tim Burton (2007).
‘They all deserve to die…’ Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) from the film of the same name by Tim Burton (2007)

At time of writing, vampires are in. Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, Sweden, 2008) has been re-made by the revived Hammer brand as Let Me In (UK/US, 2010), Burton is adapting Dan Curtis’ gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, while Breaking Dawn (the fourth instalment of The Twilight Saga) is due for release in 2011.  Gothic film, like a walled-up vampire, cannot die and continues to feed upon itself.


Finally, there is, of course, a difference between ‘Horror’ and ‘Gothic’ cinema. ‘Horror’ is generally concerned with spectacles of violence – in film terms, lots of special effects – in the tradition of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris. Slasher movies mostly rely on this feature, so plotting is minimal. On the original DVD release of Jason vs Freddy (US, 2003) for example, there’s a menu option to ‘Go straight to a kill.’

‘Gothic’ fiction (and Tim Burton is probably the most gothic director active in Hollywood right now) uses violence, but this is not the only point of the story. Revenge Tragedy informs the birth of the gothic as a literary form in the eighteenth century – Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) is full of references to Hamlet – and this model can show how ‘horror’ can be turned to something much more sophisticated.

Burton’s Sweeney Todd (US, 2007) is a nice example. Sweeney Todd was a Victorian character revived for the theatre by Chris Bond in the early-1970s. His version was later turned into a musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, and later still filmed by Tim Burton. The original character goes back to the days of the Victorian penny blood.  He started in a popular serial in 1848, The String of Pearls (probably written by Thomas Peckett Prest), and was soon adapted as a stage melodrama by the legendary George Dibdin Pitt. The stage version ran for over half a century, and was filmed in the UK in 1936 with the wonderful Tod Slaughter in the title role. In the last 20 years, there have been a further two film adaptations, all roughly telling the same story of the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’ a psycho killer with a cannibal accomplice.

The original (serial) novel and subsequent stage versions were rather like 1980s slasher movies. Grand Guignol at best, Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovitt were just like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies: random killing machines, the ‘plot’ being structured around the violence. This is very simple ‘horror’ – familiar, repetitive, boring – and there are so many low budget genre movies out there with this kind of basic structure. Watch the Horror Channel after 9.00PM each night for a week, and aside from the odd, imaginative little gem like Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (US, 2015), the quite frankly stunning Martyrs by Pascal Laugier (France, 2008), or a re-run of The Evil Dead trilogy, you will endlessly encounter the same formula.

Chris Bond, however, took the basic horror plot, kept the barber and the pies, but added elements of The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas (1845) and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1607), in which the protagonist seeks to avenge the death of his lover, brought about by a villainous older man, resulting in a bloodbath that kills hero and villain and pretty much destroys everyone around them. Suddenly Sweeney Todd has a detailed backstory.  He was an honest man (Benjamin Barker, barber) whose beautiful wife attracted the attentions of the evil Judge Turpin. The judge and his henchman framed Barker, and had him transported for life. His wife was seduced and abandoned, and his child adopted by Turpin as a ward while her mother went to the madhouse.  In the present of Bond’s story, Barker’s wife is presumed dead, while Turpin plans to marry the now adult daughter. Barker returns to London after 15 years under the name of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ set on obsessive revenge.  Todd’s hatred is existential and universal, and he is as relentless as Captain Ahab in his pursuit of Turpin. He murders indiscriminately along the way, because of his total contempt for humanity, declaring to the empty heavens ‘They all deserve to die!’ Sondheim saw the potential and used Bond’s play as his model; the Burton version is the same.

The difference between genre and narrative codes is obvious. The original character was just a simple horror archetype driven by plot points, but the Bond/Sonheim version has been elevated to a doubled tragic hero. In Burton’s film, Johnny Depp portrays a truly gothic Hamlet: a tortured protagonist who, in Aristotelean terms, experiences hamartia (the fatal flaw), anagnorisis (its revelation), and peripeteia (a fatal reversal of fortune).  This is the art of the true Gothic, and very probably why Burton, even at his most violent – and his Sweeney Todd is extremely violent – is much more accessible to mainstream cinema audiences than R-rated horror. As the Demon Barber himself advises on the reality of the human condition: ‘You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.’


The House of Horror: A History of Hammer Films

A Gothic Chronology

More Weird Tales from the Vault of Fear: The EC Legacy

A Short History of Monster Movies

The Saw Is Family (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

An Artist is Meant to be Extreme (David Cronenberg)

Remembering Richard Matheson

He Wants to be Just Like Vincent Price (Tim Burton)


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This is a slightly updated version of an article originally published in: W. Hughes, D. Punter & A. Smith eds, The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic vols 1 & 2. (London: Wiley-Blackwell 2012).

Reproduced by permission of the editors.

Copyright © Wiley-Blackwell 2012

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5 thoughts on “Gothic Film: A Brief History”

  1. I wish someone would make a film about Lon Chaney Sr. People tend to forget about him and his many achievements!

  2. […] Gothic Film: A Brief – Shared by Dr Stephen ‘Kit’ CarverGothic films are at once very easy and very difficult to categorise. Within the wider context of the “horror” genre, gothic films are linked directly to the literary gothic of the eighteenth and nine… […]

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