Anatomy of the Aesthetic: What is Gothic Cinema?

Anatomy of the Aesthetic: What is Gothic Cinema?

Gothic is the pit of dread that lurks in your stomach as you walk up a dark staircase. It is the drop of cold sweat that runs down your spine when you enter a fire-lit room on a frigid night. Gothic is not able to tear your eyes away from the very thing that makes you want to close them.

But how do filmmakers replicate this feeling in their work? Creating a gothic film requires more than just dramatic lighting and smoke machines. This means taking the time to understand the fear itself.

History of Gothic

The idea of ​​Gothic has been around for centuries. It was first used as a derogatory term for “barbarian” as a way to describe the nomadic Germanic people who helped bring down the Roman Empire. At its core, it’s about fear of the unknown.

Then Horace Walpole borrowed the word to describe his creative Gothic novel, Otranto Castlein 1764. It started as a joke meant to fool the public with its authenticity but sparked an entire genre with its crumbling ruins and supernatural events.

Rebecca 1940. Image credit: The Criterion Collection

Frankenstein, Draculaand swamps Wuthering Heights All inspired by Walpole’s strange novel. But the extension of Gothic has spread far beyond the page since then.

Gothic cinema can be difficult to define because it lacks the established standards of the genre that generic horror has. If you’re not careful, the gothic horror genre can be completely swallowed up, its quirks and nuances forgotten.

Horror in the house

Horror is concerned with the world around us. The Scary Man and the Killer Traveler tell us that the world is dangerous and we should be afraid of it. But Gothic brings the fear closer to home. It tells us that danger is trapped inside the house, ready to strangle you when the lights go out.

In a physical sense, Gothic stories are often set in crumbling castles or empty ancestral homes that have been left to long-lost relatives. But it actually reveals the fear many people feel that the people they love will one day be taken from them. It is an inevitability, and it is an inevitability that Gothic stories exploit.

Watch the opening scene of Rebecca (1940) for example. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel, Rebecca is a ghost story about jealousy, anxiety and infidelity. In the first scene, a car drive under the moonlight becomes more and more twisty as it goes on, just like the story itself. The towering Manderley Hotel looks more like a tomb than a homely place.

Hitchcock perfectly captures du Maurier’s haunting description in this scene, but he also defines the core of the narrative. We only get one angle where the camera carefully pans up the drive. It’s claustrophobic, and feels exactly how Rebecca’s unnamed narrator spends most of the film.

Dim settings

Gothic films remove the one place we are supposed to be safe and replace it with despair. This is why films of this style appear devoid of color. When your world is hopeless, what do you need color anyway?

When you think of this genre it is synonymous with dark hues, soft light and deep shadows. Dangers are given ample space to hide in the corners of the screen. There is an edge of the setting that is sharp enough to draw blood.

But Gothic cinema is not devoid of the supernatural and the strange. Slashers may feature fantastically gory murders, and thrillers focus on the terrifying human mind. But goths deal with things that go bump in the night, and the ghosts of our past.

This goes right back to Walpole’s strange ghostly tale. For movies like Sorcery, the nun, or any other disappointing horror sequel you can think of. Who knew they would share the same sentence, not caring about the aesthetic.

There is a lot to be said about this genre. Strong sexuality for one thing. But the main thing to understand about Gothic art is the uniquely sinister tone that has been subtle but successful in terrifying audiences for centuries.

Featured image credit: The Criterion Collection

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