All Things Gothic
Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein,' first published in 1818, was not the first Gothic novel – Horace Walpole’s 1764 'The Castle of Otranto' is usually credited with kickstarting the trend. But it quickly earned its place as one of the great Gothic and Romantic fictions. To celebrate the release of Haifaa al-Mansour’s swooning biopic Mary Shelley, Curzon Home Cinema has collected a group of films that play up the strange and bizarre, often with a dash of wicked humour.
Just seven years after the release of his brutal modern-day gangster drama Gomorrah (2008), Matteo Garrone directed the portmanteau fantasy drama Tale of Tales. Based on the collection of stories written by Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) and published posthumously in two volumes between 1634 and 1636, Garrone’s film veers from the Baroque to the Gothic as it recreates magical kingdoms populated by witches, strange animals and mismatched lovers. It’s an entrancing all-star affair that revels in decadence and its characters’ wild antics.
Feminist filmmaker Catherine Breillat also turned to a fairy tale in 2009, taking on the story of Bluebeard. But rather than remain tethered to the period in which the story is set, she created two parallel worlds. There is a straightforward re-telling of 'Bluebeard,' but interrupting it is a contemporary narrative of two girls reading the story. Their commentary offers a modern spin on the tale, which becomes all the more fascinating for it.
The narrator/interrupter is also employed in Rob Reiner’s glorious The Princess Bride (1987), surely one of the finest family films ever made. William Goldman’s screenplay, based on his own novel, has fun tearing up the fairy tale rulebook but keeping the sense of wonder intact, thus succeeding in having its cake, eating it and then going back for seconds. It’s one of the best comedies of the 1980s, launched the career of Robin Wright, features one of the greatest sword fencing scenes in cinema history and stars a who’s who of comedy greats in cameo roles.
Bram Stoker was another nineteenth century writer who waded into the murky waters of the Gothic for his most famous novel, 'Dracula' (1897). Just 25 years later, master German filmmaker F.W. Murnau presented his own variation on the story with Nosferatu (1922). We’re lucky to still have a chance to see this chilling, beautiful film. The family of Stoker were incensed with Murnau’s taking liberties with a novel that he had not purchased the rights for, took him to court and on winning the case demanded that all copies of the film be destroyed. Thankfully, some survived. If the film departs from Stoker’s narrative at times, the world it creates perfectly captures the atmosphere of dread that permeated the novel.
Another take on the vampire myth, injecting the genre with a refreshing spin, is Let the Right One In (2008). Tomas Alfredson’s film, based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s celebrated novel, tells the story of a growing friendship between a bullied boy living in a flat on the outskirts of Stockholm and a recently arrived girl who only appears to him at night. It’s a subtle tale of loneliness and attachment whose violence is more implicit than overblown. And if that weren’t enough, it features one of the best horror scenes set in a swimming pool.
Peter Strickland indulges in elements of the Gothic with his The Duke of Burgundy (2014). The less you know about the film the better, but it’s study of power relations between a couple (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) in a rural idyll touches on the fantastic to conjure up a seductive, alluring world.
Finally, there is Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Forget Disney’s 1991 animated film and their recent live-action remake, this is the only version of Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1757 story that you really need to see. From Jean Marais’ magnificent Beast and Josette Day’s rapturous Belle to a world in which inanimate objects come to life (including a corridor of wall-mounted torches), Cocteau’s film draws on Gothic elements, but his take on the tale remains utterly, gloriously unique.
[Words by Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the Curzon magazine]
The Gothic Fairy Tales collection is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema.