Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film

Davina Quinlivan considers the monster as a figure of loss and sadness as the BFI begins a season of ghoulish thrills

October 31, 2013

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film
British Film Institute
21 October 2013 until 31 January 2014

There is a room cloaked in darkness. A face emerges, ashen and mask-like, colourless. Spidery fingers clasp an unfurling document: a laboured gesture of movement. Then, eyes like hollowed pools, expressive of a kind of solemnity and dignity unexpected of such a strange and frightful creature. Here, we are intimately connected to this strange being, no longer a monster but a stranger whose loneliness has pierced our hearts.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) differs dramatically from previous incarnations of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s literary icon, precisely because it dwells so much on the monster’s pain and grief. While F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), where the vampire is famously portrayed as a creeping, impish voyeur, may have hinted at the complexity of Dracula’s terrible anguish, Herzog fleshes out the exquisite melancholia of the original text. His eerie close-ups of the creature, almost motionless, withdrawn and even afraid, remain in our minds long after the film has ended. Furthermore, Nosferatu the Vampyre’s infamous opening titles, which use documentary footage depicting the real-life mummies of Guanajuato in Mexico, announce from the outset the director’s fascination with Stoker’s configuration of pathos, despair and, most of all, an indelible sense of the loneliness that encompasses the realm of the monster.

Indeed, Herzog’s masterpiece is the vampire film par excellence that offers up sympathy to the monster – a sentiment echoed throughout the British Film Institute’s longest-ever season, titled Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. This emphasis on the “dark heart of film” reminds us of the emotional complexity of films such as Nosferatu the Vampyre and their invariably intertwined themes of loneliness and redemption. Dark hearts, indeed.

In addition to special screenings and events centred on Herzog’s classic, the BFI season is also accompanied by re-releases of Murnau’s Nosferatu (in selected cinemas from 31 October) and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining (on general release nationwide from 2 November). There will also be a chance to see seminal gothic films such as The Innocents (accompanied by an exhibition of objects from the film), The Curse of the Cat People, The Elephant Man and The Wicker Man.

According to Heather Stewart, the season’s creative director, the BFI intends to revisit the genre in light of recent popular successes such as the Twilight and Harry Potter films. But while there is a certain proliferation of vampires and witchcraft, there is a much more striking narrative running through Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. Herzog’s Nosferatu unmasks the monster as a figure of loss and sadness, and Stewart’s programming is dominated by some of cinema’s most lonely creatures (albeit perverse and twisted with pain): a season in which the lonely stranger reigns. 

While in Herzog’s classic retelling, Dracula’s existence is entirely defined by pathos and the horror of alienation, bereft of human contact and love, the BFI’s forthcoming DVD re-release of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) shores up a different dimension of loneliness set against the backdrop of a gothic mansion. Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898), The Innocents tells the story of a governess, Miss Giddens, and her relationship with Flora and Miles, two troubled and neglected children.

The most chilling moments of Clayton’s film play with our perception of reality and the tall stories children tend to tell: they claim to hear voices and blame their bad behaviour on absent people. Yet Flora and Miles are ambivalently attached to and, ultimately, possessed by such invisible “friends”, spectres whose presence serves as a substitute for real contact with living loved ones.

The director’s use of sound, in particular, creates an ethereal resonance, connoting the children’s fear and isolation, as well as embodying their loneliness and heartache as they come to terms with the tragic suicide of their previous governess. Indeed, Philip Brophy beautifully sums up Clayton’s striking use of sound in his 2004 book, 100 Modern Soundtracks: “deep hums, wind draughts, flapping pigeons and temperate breaths…generate a cinesonic horripilation”.

Beneath the veneer of its haunted house setting, The Innocents is about the corruption of innocence as we come to learn of the children’s witnessing of the sexual exploits of their former governess, Miss Jessel, and reckon with the knowledge of her abuse. The film’s ghostly subject matter is thus a pretext for a very troubling and real exploration of childhood, morality and the unloved: the loneliness of children adrift in a very adult world.

Similarly, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is, on the surface, a macabre and fantastic film, mythic and surreal, yet anchored in the reality of the Spanish Civil War during the early Francoist period. The stark enmeshing of the phantasmagorical and the blunt reality of the militarist regime bleeding into much of del Toro’s imagery creates a style of gothic not to be found in any other film of the season. Its narrative, like The Innocents and Nosferatu the Vampyre, thrives on the notion of loneliness, in this case a little girl’s retreat from the conflict that surrounds her.

Through Ofelia’s diminutive perspective, viewers enter her world via the golden branches of an autumnal Spain at war. As the film progresses, faeries and enchanted creatures begin to emerge from the trees and subsume the landscape. Ofelia’s loneliness engenders a torrent of “monsters” and a Pan-like faun, but instead of spiriting her away from the multiple horrors of war, it submerges her deep within a different kind of threatening universe.

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), rooted in social realism, has a certain tonal similarity to del Toro’s film. Here, the lonely protagonist, John Merrick, is a monster to all but his saviour, Frederick Treves. Although momentarily transformed by Treves’ kindness and friendship, he fails to evade the monstrous gaze of all Victorian society. Merrick’s laboured gasps, wheezing and distorted breaths characterise his screen presence, reminding us of his physical deformity and how infinitely alone he is in his suffering.

The themes of enchantment and loneliness are also dramatically transfigured in Jean Cocteau’s far less realist La Belle et la Bête (1946). An arrogant prince is cursed, damned to live out the rest of his years as a beast, all alone except for enchanted objects, spirited reincarnations of his fleet of staff. The film is well known for its use of chiaroscuro lighting and minimalist sets in which candelabra dance against heavy velvet backdrops, at once anonymous and sublime. Belle enters the beast’s world and transforms it, bringing salvation and, indeed, a lesson in humility and grace.

In sum, the films of Lynch, Cocteau, del Toro, Clayton and Herzog are all highly emotive and driven by differently realised themes of loss and loneliness. Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film concentrates on familiar themes and iconography: castles and vampires, hauntings and the occult, all of which feature prominently in the accompanying publication of the same name (with excellent essays by gothic aficionados such as Mark Gatiss, Mark Kermode and Kim Newman). But it seems rewarding to take a more questioning approach to what gothic means and to foreground the nuances of films such as Herzog’s Nosferatu. What is most interesting about the season is its implied focus on some of cinema’s most unloved, lonely and vengeful lost souls, envisaged in mythic proportions; it is the heart of the monster that is celebrated here and the intensity of emotion that anchors all the best horror films.

From Halloween until the new year, the BFI season promises to deliver ghoulish thrills and melancholic monsters. What better time to offer sympathy for the Devil?

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