Among last year’s triumph of ‘Crimson Peak’ and the catastrophic screen adaptation of ‘Victor Frankenstein,’ Hollywood seems to have acquired a thirst for kitschy, punctual gothic melodrama.
Three-piece suits, clipped English accents, and high Victorian horror is on the list. But with endless remakes of ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Dracula,’ ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ and ‘Jane Eyre,’ and Guillermo del Toro even conjuring up innovative gothic elements, directors seem to be circumventing the rich store of gothic literature that already subsists.
‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe is arguably the matriarch of Gothic fiction, and her towering European castles, swooning heroines, scowling matriarchs, and brooding heroes are said to be part of the stimulus behind ‘Crimson Peak,’ according to Tom Hiddleston.
It is cited in Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ as one of the most terrifying novels ever written, and would be a significantly more entertaining adaptation than another fierce Jane Austen remake.
Instead of the like of Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson swanning about in empire waistlines, bemoaning the rules of polite society, we should have Signor Montoni twirling his greasy Italian moustache at the orphaned and beautiful Emily St Aubert. Shadowy sixteenth-century backdrops while the Gothic goes back to its medieval roots.
‘The Dead Secret’ by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’ continues to be remade over and over again without a trace of compassion, with directors criminally overlooking the frankly lively ‘The Dead Secret.’
Hell, even Wilkie Collins’s first novel, the wretched ‘Basil,’ was made into an even more dreadful film featuring Jared Leto treading on Christian Slater’s handsome face. Yet we are denied the liveliness of the emotional, prematurely aged Sarah Leeson, squawking and swooning about the Cornish countryside over a secret set to destroy all.
There is a handful of deaths, a blind husband, an overly zealous heroine of Elizabeth Bennett proportions, weights of gothic ruins, and a surly misanthropic uncle who, even though created in 1857, was destined to be played by Alan Rickman.
‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy is best known for ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’ and who could forget the BBC adaptation, with the doe-eyed Gemma Arterton moaning seemingly endlessly? But Thomas Hardy, in my opinion, was significantly better at terror than tears and crafts a tale with a frightful twist to rival even the one at the end of ‘Crimson Peak.’
There is a carriage with a corpse, a fatal love triangle, and a cliffhanger so good it is credited with inventing the term cliffhanger. Henry Knight hangs over the edge of a cliff, recounting the entire history of the world, in the novel’s adrenaline-fueled completion.
‘The Monk’ by Matthew Lewis
The gothic genre was all undertones, footsteps, and fainting before Matthew Lewis instilled a well-needed dose of incest, gore, and sex into the mixture.
There is a hideously deformed masked figure laying the foundations for the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ — or that is what he says; the truth is the mask conceals the fact he is actually a woman masquerading to join a monastery. Thus follows delirium, graveyards, nuns, and visions of Satan himself. It is the film we all deserve.
Admittedly, it was made in 2011 with Vincent Cassel as the titular monk, but it defaulted to gain any notable audience figures and did not transport the blood splatter and gore promised by the visceral novel.
‘The Jewel of the Seven Stars’ by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ succeeded to overshadow every other novel he ever wrote, which is a crying shame acknowledging ‘The Jewel’s glittering depiction of Victorian Egyptomania.
There is even more mysterious illness, a cat who helps save the day, and a mummy that can only be revived if transported to that most extrinsic and glamorous of places… Cornwall. Youthful, attractive people are falling in and out of love left, right, and centre, there are weights of mystery, plenty of blood, brooding doctors, and this is all before the mummy even awakes from its dreadful rest.
While not the first mummy horror novel, it is arguable that the title that universalised the genre. Whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate.
‘In the Roar of the Sea’ by Sabine Baring-Gould
While the names above may be more familiar, Sabine Baring-Gould has been largely omitted.
A flick through ‘In the Roar of the Sea’ shows what a humbling story this is, as Captain Cruel Coppinger swaggers about the Cornish coastline like Poldark going through a dark patch. He follows the spiky, elegant, and waifish Judith like a dog pursuing a bone if the dog were a Danish pirate and smuggler with a mean streak.
There is an entire section where Captain Cruel is on his knees before Judith shrieking that she is his “goldfish! His goldfiiishhhh!” If you do not want to see Nicolas Cage in this role, you are unmistakably dead inside.
‘House of Usher II’ by Raymond Bradbury
Most are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ but Raymond Bradbury’s sci-fi reimagining is less known.
While it is a short story, I have no uncertainty that Hollywood could weave its magic and remodel it into a feature-length — after all, look what came of the short novel ‘The Hobbit.’
There are robots throwing themselves into horrific situations while cackling with abandon, heaps of gadgets, animatronic bats, as the ‘House of Usher’ is rebuilt by an eccentric millionaire on Mars. This zany blend of high gothic and science fiction presents a cutting critique on censorship in one of Raymond Bradbury’s characteristic bleak futures and would be an utter oracular spectacular we probably only now have the technology to carry off.
‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan LeFanu
The original and decent lesbian vampire story, thus probably the reason we have the abominable ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers,’ ‘Carmilla’ is a tale of beautiful, waifish women touching each other inappropriately.
It is complex, psychologically torturous, poignant, and a worthy bet for a producer, as ‘Carmilla’ has already gained a fanbase in a modern adaptation as a YouTube serial. Die-hard fans of the show deserve a big screen, the blockbuster version set in its original period.
‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole
The preeminent gothic novel. The reason why we have the gothic genre. Maybe it would have come from somewhere else, but ignoring hypotheticals, Horace Walpole is the man we have to thank for ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ and everything in between.
‘The Castle of Otranto’ is a Monty Python-esque farce highlighting a giant helmet, much of nosebleeds, and a gang of motley warriors called The Knights of the Gigantic Sabre, who collectively wield a gigantic sabre. It is also, arguably, the first example of the portrait’s eyes following you about the room. Expect more swooning.
‘Anything from The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter
While all of the above standards are eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (or Victorian with a sci-fi twist), the more contemporary Angela Carter deserves an honourable remark.
Her twisted adaptations of classic fairy tales are pensive, mysterious, and encumbered with violent sexuality. Just how you would get ‘Puss-in-Boots,’ the tale of a debauched cat and his debauched owner banging every cat and lady in Paris onto the big screen is not a question I can answer, but it is worth a try.
Perhaps a more viable option is Wolf-Alice, the fiendish tale of a feral child left in the mansion of a vampiric duke.
In conclusion, stop bloody remaking the equivalent thing over and over again. There is a treasure trove of gothic literature out there just waiting to flash its ruthless essence.