What Makes A Gothic Film Gothic?

What Makes A Gothic Film Gothic?


Release Date: September 1st 2003
Certificate: 12
Running Time: 107 minutes

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, Fay Compton

Often considered a gothic horror film, The Haunting, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson (first published in 1959), is about a group of people headed by Dr. Makrway (a paranormal investigator) who spend a weekend in a haunted mansion. The focus is however on Eleanor, who seems to be drawn to the house and its ghostly goings-on as she sinks deeper and deeper into it.

Gothic usually refers to a type of architecture that was prominent in Western Europe between the 12th and 16th century. Buildings would usually have tall pillars, pointed arches and tall pointed windows with patterns or stained glass and were usually cathedrals or castles but in some cases were mansions very much like the one featured in The Haunting. Gothic also refers to a genre of literature that became popular in the late 18th century, most notably with novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Reilly’s Frankenstein. Common features of the Gothic novel would be haunted castles and mansions, a presence that continues to haunt the living, dark and eerie places, graveyards, an uneasy romance and/or a tragedy of some kind. The Gothic is also closely linked to themes of the fantastic, the uncanny, the marvellous and the horror genre. Women are also a prominent feature of the Gothic and a lot of the attention is sometimes focused on them; usually becoming the victims of a terrible presence, paranormal force or the actions of a mere mortal (but deranged) man.

Fred Botting, is his book, The Gothic tells a little bit about some of the chrematistics of the typical Gothic film:

Early films featured Gothic texts: Frankenstein, The Edison Kinetogram (1910) adapted Shelly’s novel, while scientists and vampires were the focus of German expressionists films like Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) which, with their grotesque villains and stylised sets, played on the gloomy artificiality of Gothic scenes of terror.

Gothic scenes of terror is exactly what we have with The Haunting. They are not Gothic scenes of horror with a grotesque villain, but rather Gothic scenes of terror. A terror that plagues Eleanor but is entirely unseen as in the following scene which I am about to describe now.

Luke and Dr. Markway are exploring the cold spot in the hallway outside of the nursery. Luke refuses to accept the idea that the cold spot is caused by a supernatural force. Even in this scene in the hallway, there are signs of the gothic everywhere around them. The dark wood of the doors and the intricate patterns carved into them, the fleur-de-lis wallpaper and even the robe that Markway is wearing is similarly patterned. The carvings of the children’s faces that adorn the doors frames seem to be hybrid of cherubs and gargoyles depending on the angle and lighting when you glance at them. All of these point toward a strong Gothic theme. The music, soft strings and a flute-like instrument aim to create a quiet melodramatic feel before the terror that builds up in the following scenes with Eleanor.

Gothic melodrama is another branch of the great Gothic tree and this film certainly incorporates some of those elements as in the next scene where Eleanor and Theo are in the bedroom talking but when Theo makes the comment ‘Well, why be mad at me? I don’t think you killed your mother’ it’s such a casual comment but has enough of a punch to knock Eleanor even further off the edge.

The following is an extract taken from page 314 of the Horror Film Reader by Alain Silver & James Ursini which tells of the most terrifying moment in the film:

The house continues to reach out to Eleanor. That night, after a spat with Theo, Eleanor is awakened by a man’s voice and a woman’s laughter. A face forms in the pattern on the wall and Eleanor, very frightened, speaks up and asks Theo to take hold of her hand. Her grip becomes tighter and tighter, compelling Eleanor to warn “Theo, you’re breaking my hand!” When Eleanor cries out, Theo is immediately awakened. That’s when Eleanor, along with the viewer, realises that somehow Eleanor has moved to the couch across the room and it was not Theo who was holding her hand. “Whose hand was I holding?” asks Eleanor, and once again there is a cutaway to the house itself.

The dead are not quiet in Hill House.

Another theme of the Gothic that is present throughout this scene is madness. The story of what is happening to Eleanor is presented in such a way that is a credit to the film, you never see if there is really a monster haunting Eleanor, you never see if there is a devilish Hugh Crain holding her hand, you never see if she is actually carried across the room by little ghouls. It is of course quite natural to believe that after the spat with Theo, Eleanor might have not wanted to sleep in the same bed with her and therefore moved away across the room to the couch. What you are left with is a lot of suggestion that something is going on here, but as a viewer you are never given the real proof for it. The vague outline of a face in the wall that glares down at Eleanor, but is it really a face? It is the same with the children’s voices, it seems to be something going on inside of Eleanor’s mind, as if she is haunted by her own experiences with her mother and possibly her guilt for her death. It is the only other explanation and it does not rely on there be being supernatural forces at work within the old mansion and it also fits in with the idea of the female Gothic.

The most prominent feature of the Gothic that is present in the film is of course the house itself (which can be found in Stratford upon Avon, Ettington Park). With its labyrinthine hallways and gigantic rooms, the patterns on the walls, doors and windows and the lighting all point directly towards creating the ultimate Gothic atmosphere which is also present in films like Psycho, Stephen King’s Rose Red and even the later films in the Night On Elm Street series. Hill House is simply the Gothic itself.

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