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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog

Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees • Location: Athens, Georgia
• Member since: March 2004
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Fantasy Box Set #4: Victorian Gothic Films
June 8th, 2005 6:33AM

As another hot, muggy summer settles in, I find myself longing for mist-shrouded moors and chills of suspense. In that spirit, I offer this fantasy Victorian Gothic DVD set. The ingredients for a good gothic story as I see it are an isolated, mysterious setting (preferably a mansion or castle with lots of locked doors and shadowy corridors); an innocent young heroine who’s in peril; and an older, enigmatic, often sinister man who may represent love, sex, danger, or some combination of the three. Victorian novelists like the Bronte sisters really mastered this formula, and to this day the Victorian setting seems most appropriate for these plots. I’ve also restricted my selection to black-and-white movies, which seem to me so much more appropriate for this genre than color.

Although it’s not a gothic as I’ve defined the genre, The Innocents (1961), based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, warrants mention here as a top-notch Victorian suspense movie that must be released on DVD. I’ve also been forced to omit two marvelously atmospheric films because they take place in a modern setting: Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (which was actually based on Jane Eyre, the mother of all gothic romance novels). Another great title, which you can read more about in my Olivia de Havilland fantasy set, is 1952’s My Cousin Rachel, an interesting gender-switched variation on the gothic plot in which the male lead is the innocent young protagonist and the older woman is the enigmatic, sexually experienced character. It’s based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, who also wrote Rebecca, the film version of which is one of the greatest gothic films in a modern setting ever made. Rebecca is the only one of these films to be made available on DVD thus far (with the exception of Wuthering Heights, which is long out of print), but all of them deserve a DVD release. They’re wonderful viewing--thunderstorm optional.

1. Wuthering Heights, 1939. An undisputed classic whose absence on DVD is both baffling and agonizing. Although it doesn’t try to cover the entirety of Emily Bronte’s novel, its bleakly captivating visual landscape and the passionate performances of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon still make it probably the most satisfying and atmospheric filming of the novel. (Actually, the omitted chunk of story is the part that contains the standard gothic situation as I’ve described it, but never mind.) The only real liability is the inappropriately sentimental musical score by Alfred Newman, which tries to make this fierce story of obsessive love into a conventional romance. (The Ryuichi Sakamoto score for the 1992 remake is far more effective.) Fortunately, everything else about the film resists that sappy interpretation. A must see.

2. Jane Eyre, 1944. The Charlotte Bronte novel this film is based on is probably the most influential gothic romance in literature. Like the previous title, this film version cuts out a big chunk of the source novel, but it’s hard to beat the brooding atmosphere and the casting of Orson Welles as saturnine Mr. Rochester. When his deep, resonant voice calls out “Jane...Jane,” you’ll understand how it can pull Joan Fontaine straight across the country to him. The 1983 miniseries starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke (recently released on DVD) is more faithful to the novel and very satisfying in terms of story and performance, but it doesn’t match this classic for gothic mood.

3. Dragonwyck, 1946. Gene Tierney plays Miranda Wells, a restless farm girl who’s always dreamed of something more in life. When her mysterious cousin Vincent Price invites her to his mansion to be governess to his daughter, she gets a taste of the glamorous life, but also a lot more than she bargained for. Price is marvelous as the arrogant, elegant aristocrat, both sexy and dangerous. This is the only title in my set based on a 20th-century novel (although the setting is the 1840s), and the film improves substantially on the episodic, digressive parent work by Anya Seton. Dragonwyck is apparently widely available on DVD outside the U.S.--what gives?

4. Uncle Silas (a.k.a. The Inheritance), 1947. This little-known English film is based on a gothic novel by 19th-century writer Sheridan Le Fanu (author of “Carmilla,” the inspiration for every lesbian-themed vampire film ever made). It features Jean Simmons as the innocent young girl who finds herself in danger when her sinister Uncle Silas decides to get his hands on her inheritance. The very, very young Simmons is a touching heroine, and there are some genuinely creepy sequences. Don’t settle for the god-awful 1987 remake, The Dark Angel, in which Peter O’Toole camps it up as the wicked uncle. Another Le Fanu gothic novel, The Wyvern Mystery, was more recently (and very loosely) adapted with Naomi Watts, Derek Jacobi, and Jack Davenport. It’s available on DVD and is worth a rental.

5. The Woman in White, 1948. This adaptation of the classic novel by Wilkie Collins features Gig Young (Teacher’s Pet) in one of his rare leading roles. He and Alexis Smith are the protagonists, who must save fragile Eleanor Parker from the wicked machinations of Sidney Greenstreet. Greenstreet is, as always, a wonderful villain who relishes his wickedness; check out the scene where he ogles Smith while she’s undressing! The 1997 remake with Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell isn’t bad either (and has a different ending)--but it, too, is unavailable on DVD. It looks as if the real villains are the studios, for hoarding these movies instead of releasing them.

Coming soon: Fantasy Box Set #5...

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