Film

A Metrograph Series Wrestles With the Gothic

From Frankenstein to Heathcliff, the monthlong “Goth(ic)” portrays the movies’ handling of the sinister literary genre

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In June of 1764, Horace Walpole had a dream. He was in a castle — a castle with an enormous staircase, not unlike the elaborate Gothic revival castle he had been building for over a decade, piece by piece, outside of London. At the top of the staircase was a hand — an enormous, inexplicable hand, clad in armor. It was, he wrote to his friend William Cole, “a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story.” Walpole — the son of the first prime minister of Great Britain, a member of Parliament himself, and the future Earl of Orford — would turn his dream into The Castle of Otranto, a novel that featured not only giant body parts clad in armor but also multiple cases of mistaken identity, princesses fleeing from lecherous old men, dark passageways, and a giant helmet falling out of the sky. Walpole subtitled Otranto “A Gothic Story,” and it would become the first Gothic novel. In the preface to the second edition, he explained that his novel was a reaction against the high “classical” style of fiction that was in vogue at the time. Instead of writing a “realistic” novel, or an unserious fantastical romance, Walpole tried to do both: How, he wondered, would real people react to ludicrous or fantastic events? Countless authors, from Mary Shelley to the Brontë sisters to Bram Stoker, spent the next 150 years attempting to answer that question.

Metrograph’s new retrospective, “Goth(ic),” spans the history of the cinematic gothic, a genre that is intimately connected to its literary predecessors. The wide-ranging series, which will run at the theater through the end of the year and includes over thirty films, features numerous adaptations of classic novels, including Wuthering HeightsFrankenstein, and, most notably, four direct adaptations of Dracula. (There are also non–Bram Stoker–based vampire films, from Near Dark [1987] to Twilight [2008].) But the program also covers art-house horror and low-brow pulp; Metrograph’s programmers have cast a wide net, a strategy that produces both benefits and drawbacks. “Goth(ic)” is such an expansive series that it will cater to viewers with diverse interests and tastes — attendees will be able to take in Rebecca (1940) one day, The Crow (1994) the next — but it sometimes wants for a guiding principle. “Goth(ic) cinema” is such a broad remit that the series, perhaps inevitably, feels somewhat incoherent, and some of the choices Metrograph’s programmers have made do little to quell the confusion.

The term “Gothic” conjures up Halloween-y images of cobwebs and graveyards and things that go bump in the night. If Metrograph’s slate follows any imperative, it is this so-called Goth(ic) aesthetic: Gregg Araki’s entertaining teen-focused horror-comedy The Doom Generation (1995), for instance, features heaps of skulls. But the series sometimes skirts the idea that really makes Gothic stories tick. In the purest works of Gothic fiction, an object or phenomenon in the story serves to literalize the traumatic or unspeakable. The four most canonical Gothic texts of the nineteenth century — Frankenstein (1818), Jane Eyre (1847), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Dracula (1897) — all exemplify this concept. In Frankenstein, young Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster who haunts him and kills his fiancée before he can marry her. (The homoerotic subtext of Mary Shelley’s novel is explored in James Whale’s excellent Bride of Frankenstein [1935], playing in this series.) In Jane Eyre — the most frustrating omission, particularly given the inclusion of Rebecca — Mr. Rochester keeps his mad wife locked in his attic as he woos his governess, a plot device that academics have argued has both feminist and postcolonial significance. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has yet to receive satisfactory cinematic treatment, Dorian remains eternally young while his portrait — also stashed away in an attic room — mutates to reflect his increasingly monstrous personality. Finally, Count Dracula represents both a foreign menace (an Eastern European man who threatens to devour and contaminate pure English blood) and an anarchic agent of forbidden sexual pleasure.

In these novels, buildings crumble, people appear outside windows at night, and dark secrets are suddenly and disastrously unveiled. But these superficial trappings do not explain the enduring popularity of Gothic fiction or of these frequently adapted stories in particular. The potency of the Gothic lies in its ability to address the unspeakable. In the highly repressive nineteenth century, Gothic fiction allowed authors to indirectly write about taboo subjects like sexuality and colonialism. Even in the considerably more open twenty-first century, Gothic modes of storytelling continue to allow artists and audiences to grapple with issues that they might otherwise have difficulty addressing — recent examples might include Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (bigotry), the underseen but excellent Anne Hathaway–starring indie Colossal (abusive relationships), or even the television program The Leftovers (grief).

Metrograph’s series is most successful when it sticks to this version of the Gothic. The perpetually timely Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a prime example of an original film that adopts the traditional Gothic ethos to great effect (the baby isn’t just a baby!), as is Andrzej Żuławski’s bizarre, hallucinatory sex thriller Possession (1981). In that film, Isabelle Adjani stops having sex with her abusive husband (Sam Neill), and instead gets it on with a slimy, many-tentacled thing (the tentacles aren’t just tentacles!). Some of the pulpier choices are less interesting, particularly the tediously sexist Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967) and Fascination (1979). The Crow, though an iconic cult film, has also aged poorly: It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for yet another story of a tortured man avenging the murder of his perfect girlfriend. But pulp movies can, of course, be smart and entertaining: Cult classic The Craft (1996) is a highlight here. In that picture, a group of four teen girls discovers they can do magic, and their struggles to control their power (and the temptation that comes along with it) play as an allegory for female adolescence. The difference between The Craft’s smart engagement with female experience and the lazy sexism of some of the other B movies in this series — like Fascination, which amounts to little more than softcore porn — is stark.

But the most rewarding element of “Goth(ic)” is undoubtedly the four adaptations of Dracula the programmers have chosen to screen. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922); Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi; Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), starring Gary Oldman, chart the fascinating evolution of the Dracula story and its treatment of sexuality over the better part of a century. None of these films deals satisfactorily with the colonialist undertones of Stoker’s novel, despite Lugosi’s (real-life) and Oldman’s (assumed) foreignness in their respective films. Sexuality, rather, has become the central theme of the Dracula myth onscreen, with all four of these films introducing elements of homoeroticism. When young Jonathan Harker, one of literature’s more boring protagonists, goes to visit Count Dracula in Transylvania, he finds himself the potential prey of a sexually omnivorous bloodsucker. In both Nosferatu and Herzog’s adaptation, Mina volunteers to sacrifice herself to Dracula in order to kill him and save Jonathan and the town from his violence — or, more accurately, from the homosexual threat he represents.

But in the original Nosferatu, it is clear that Mina, writhing in bed, is turned on by the Count. In the first Hollywood adaptation of the film, Mina becomes a vampire herself: After her encounter with Dracula, she is so overflowing with sexual energy that she attempts to seduce Jonathan. By the time Coppola was adapting the novel with Oldman and Winona Ryder in 1992, Mina was not a passive victim of the Count but his active love interest. Herzog’s film is the only one of the four to fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of the Dracula story. When Mina (here played by Adjani) sacrifices herself to the Count, the scene isn’t sexy — simply upsetting — and her sacrifice kills her. This visually stunning film, which features many Herzogian scenes of Jonathan hiking through the wilderness and which moves at a deadeningly slow pace, makes a simple and fatal error: It isn’t designed to appeal to women. Coppola’s film, which turns Dracula into a romantic hero despite his penchant for murder, knows its audience. Women have always loved vampires for the same reason that they have always loved horror films: Women’s lives exist in the realm of the unspeakable.

Indeed, the Gothic movement on the page was largely pioneered by women (Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë), and has always been concerned with marginalized people. The films in this series are overwhelmingly queer — from Bride of Frankenstein to Rebecca to The Hunger (1983) to Interview With the Vampire (1994), to name only a few — and many deal with the horror of the female experience. Strikingly absent from this wide assortment, however, are questions of race. Given the inclusion of William Wyler’s bland 1939 Wuthering Heights — starring Laurence Olivier as the “dark-skinned gipsy” Heathcliff — the absence of Andrea Arnold’s superb 2011 version, starring a black man, James Howson, is felt all the more. Other omissions in this vein include Night of the Living Dead (1968), a film in which a black man is hunted by white zombies, and Eve’s Bayou (1997), a voodoo-infused film by Kasi Lemmons about a black family in Louisiana.

The whiteness of the series is additionally disappointing given that one of the year’s most popular and thought-provoking films, Get Out, is a fine example of Gothic storytelling onscreen. In Get Out (spoilers!), Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) discovers that the rich white family of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is literally colonizing the bodies of young, attractive black people; the monster and the trauma of Get Out is whiteness and its implications, malformed into something as tangible as Dorian Gray’s portrait or Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Peele has described his film as a “social thriller,” but “social thriller” may as well be another term for “Gothic.” The trappings of Get Out are not cobwebs or castles but rather the signifiers of white American affluence — the family’s stately home resembles a Southern plantation. When Chris eventually escapes, he kills his captors with the signifiers of their whiteness: the taxidermied head of a deer, a boccie ball, Rose’s shotgun. Get Out is so vital in part because it addresses, from a Gothic perspective, unspeakable American traumas: white racism, black fear. Its phantom presence in the Metrograph series — along with those of other Gothic-infused movies that confront the specter of racism — reflects a common reluctance to reckon with America’s original sin. But “Goth(ic),” eclectic though it is, works wonders in one crucial respect: serving as an introductory guidebook to viewers venturing into the Gothic underworld for the first time. For those lucky ones, a rich cinematic and literary history lies in wait.

‘Goth(ic)’
Metrograph
Through December 31

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