Cinema Gothic: The 21st Century

Here we are at the end. I’m wrapping up a day late, but that’s ok. Here is our entry into the new century. Since it currently marks 13 years (not enough to divide into two separate posts, I figure), I have eight final entries to flesh out the century in film thus far. From ghosts and demons to psychosis and the mysteries lying in-between, these are tales for our generation that harken back to classics past.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Director: Guillermo Del Toro. Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz. Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve. Country: Spain/Mexico.

The Devil’s Backbone is a wonderful character-centered story set at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War that nonetheless chills to the core. Del Toro knows how to make a sequence truly eerie, as he does with the early sequences focusing on the ghost of a little boy haunting the orphanage. The film tackles many important themes: fatherlessness, age, weakness, and the line between superstition and reality, though through a particularly humanist philosophy. Del Toro, in his usual way, ventures into the grotesque without loosing an appealing style at the same time. A spiritual sibling to the director’s later Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is a highly-acclaimed work and a fresh take on the gothic ghost story.

The Others (2001)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar. Screenplay: Alejandro Amenábar. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, Alakina Mann, James Bentley. Studio: StudioCanal. Country: USA/Spain.

Remarkable atmosphere, terrific performances by a true ensemble cast, and a great twist in the climax that pulls everything together make The Others a wonderfully enjoyable film that still thoroughly harkens back to the cinematic ghost stories of the past, particularly The Innocents. The children are remarkable actors, as are the trio playing the new servants. There is a strong engagement with traditional Catholic doctrine that viewers should find interesting if they are familiar with it. All in all, a wonderful European-style ghost story.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson. Screenplay: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman. Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott. Studio: Lakeshore/Screen Gems. Country: USA

If you are going to make an exorcism film, you can’t copy The Exorcist. You have to do something different, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose does, to great effect. The story is that of a Catholic priest on trial for neglect after the death of a girl he was attempting to exorcise demons from. A perfect blend of horror film and courtroom drama, the horror plays out primarily in flashbacks, but the tension builds within them. Meanwhile, the courtroom drama raises questions that will linger with the audience long after the film has ended. Was the girl psychotic, or is it possible that she was actually possessed by supernatural forces? Particularly due to the convincing performances of A-list actors such as Linney, Wilkinson, and Carpenter, the film is totally believable and all the more chilling and thought-provoking.

The Orphanage (2007)

Director: J.A. Bayona. Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez. Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla. Studio: Warner Bros. España. Country: Spain.

Guillermo Del Toro not only directed one of the best ghost stories of the 21st century (to date), but he acted as producer on another one. The Orphanage is a rather heartwarming (and heartbreaking, at times) tale set in an old orphanage where a group of children was poisoned many years prior. Wonderfully weaving in the tale of Peter Pan and really dwelling on the maternal instincts of the main character, portrayed compellingly by Belén Rueda, the film compels a greater amount of compassion than typical of such a film, yet it still has plenty of more than adequately creepy moments.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Director: Tomas Afredson. Screenplay: John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar. Country: Sweden.

This is easily one of the best vampire films ever made. Visually capturing the snowy starkness of the suburbs of Stockholm in 1981, the film has a depressed (and depressing) element to it that somehow works for the story. It’s not a happy story. It doesn’t even have a particularly happy ending. Possible as nihilistic as a story about something supernatural can be, the wonderful storytelling and haunting, barren aesthetic are perfectly matched for the overall philosophy of the film. Remade in America as Let Me In, both versions are worth seeing, well made yet bringing something different to the table.

Shutter Island (2010)

Director: Martin Scorcese. Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow. Studio: Phoenix/Paramount. Country: USA.

One of the most celebrated directors of our time has created one of the best horror films and psychological thrillers of our time. Martin Scorcese builds anxiety and tension like a pro, winding us through the story of the widowed U.S. Marshall whose wife and children have died, and who now is investigating the practices of a mental hospital on a remote island. We are, at times, bombarded with the intensity of the environment: a 1950s asylum with its blend of old-style and modern treatment practices. At the same time, we are hit with the lead character’s own psychological trauma. The film builds to a climax, and we see elements drawn from such previous legendary films as The Wicker Man and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Truly a masterwork by a master director and featuring a master cast (not just anyone can pull Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, and Max von Sydow into the same film). This is filmmaking brilliance.

The Woman in Black (2012)

Director: James Watkins. Screenplay: Jane Goldman. Based on the novel by Susan Hill. Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White. Studio: Hammer. Country: United Kingdom.

See my review here.

The Conjuring (2013)

Director: James Wan. Screenplay: Chad and Carey Hayes. Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor. Studio: New Line. Country: USA.

See my review here.

(Cover image: a still from The Devil’s Backbone.)

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