With Halloween just a few days away, there is no better time to scare oneself witless by watching some of the best gothic horror films ever made. From Christopher Lee in the first Hammer Horror Dracula flick to Nicole Kidman in The Others, we explore those gothic films that give you the chills for the stellar wardrobes as much as the plot lines and jump scares.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
This seminal gothic horror film weaves a devilishly suspenseful tale with the stunning backdrop of a New York City apartment building. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film's style is characterised by its minimalist, almost mundane costumes and set design, creating an eerie contrast to the ominous events unfolding. That said, Mia Farrow's costumes throughout the film have become iconic for their sculptural simplicity, influencing the likes of Miuccia Prada and Joseph Altuzarra. Costume designer Anthea Sylbert was tasked with making Farrow appear more normal than normal, so that the film's horror would be more readily believed by the audiences of the time. Hence, Farrow was dressed in plain '60s silhouettes such as babydoll and slip dresses, plus that iconic pixie haircut by Vidal Sassoon. Farrow's funeral outfit takes all the plaudits though, stealing the scene with a monochrome cross-hatched babydoll with a Peter Pan collar and billowing chiffon sleeves.
Directed by Terence Fisher, this iconic version of Dracula is a gothic masterpiece and was the first in the series of the Hammer Horror films. The film boasts sumptuous period costumes and an atmospheric backdrop that immerses you in the Victorian era. Christopher Lee's portrayal of the Count set an impossibly high bar for all future Draculas. As for Lee's style, he once remarked in an interview in Leonard Wolf's A Dream of Dracula: "I was always against the whole tie and tails rendition. Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak". We were half a century too late for a Favourbrook velvet jacket unfortunately.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Showcasing a peculiar blend of folk horror and gothic style, The Wicker Man is widely regarded as one of the best gothic horror films ever made (and also seems like a parable of the dangers of staying with one's in-laws at Christmas). Once again Christopher Lee is marvellous, not least for that arresting yellow jumper and tweed jacket combination. Meanwhile, the strikingly beautiful Britt Ekland does her thing in an array of folksy uniforms, and an brow-raising birthday suit.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo del Toro's dark and visually opulent gothic romance, is a feast for the eyes and a chilling descent into the macabre. Set in the late 19th century, the film offers a sumptuous and haunting backdrop with a decaying mansion, nicknamed "Crimson Peak" for its blood-red clay oozing through the snow. The ornate, yet decaying, costumes and the atmospheric production design play a central role in enveloping the audience in a richly stylized world.
Mia Wasikowska shines as Edith Cushing, a young author with a keen sense of the supernatural, whose marriage to Sir Thomas Sharpe, portrayed with a blend of charm and foreboding by Tom Hiddleston, leads her into a world of dark secrets. Jessica Chastain's portrayal of Thomas's enigmatic and sinister sister, Lucille, is a revelation. Both Edith and Lucille's costumes are stunning throughout the film, with the most lavish ball gowns with extended trains being a highlight. As time wears on, Lucille begins to wear rich layered velvet jackets and dresses, while Lucille's wardrobe shifts to heavy silk dresses with puff shoulders. For costume buffs and lovers of Victorian style, its a feast for the eyes.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Bride of Frankenstein is a cinematic gem that beautifully continues the story of Mary Shelley's classic Gothic tale. Directed by James Whale, this film is not just a sequel but a brilliant piece of art that stands on its own. It's a magnificent blend of horror, romance, and dark humour that defines the essence of Universal's classic monster movies. Boris Karloff returns as the Monster, a role he reprises with profound pathos, elevating his portrayal to an even more sympathetic and melancholic level. Elsa Lanchester's unforgettable performance as the Bride is a striking juxtaposition of beauty and the uncanny, complete with her iconic lightning-streaked hair and bandaged dress. The scenes featuring the two monsters meeting are some of the most iconic in horror cinema history. The film's gothic style is impeccable, with a chilling laboratory, a gloomy castle, and eerie, shadowy landscapes. The haunting musical score by Franz Waxman adds another layer of atmosphere to the film, emphasising the emotional depth of the characters.
The Others (2001)
The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is a masterclass in psychological horror, offering a chilling and atmospheric experience that lingers long after the credits roll. Set in the dimly lit corridors of a fog-shrouded, isolated mansion on the island of Jersey shortly after World War II, the film weaves a tale of paranoia, dread, and spiritual unrest. At the heart of the film's success is Nicole Kidman's superb portrayal of Grace Stewart, a devoutly religious mother of two photosensitive children. Her performance is riveting, capturing Grace's torment, vulnerability, and iron-willed determination as she grapples with eerie occurrences and the possibility that her home is haunted. The Others thrives on an aura of gothic ambiguity and shadowy suspense. The mansion itself becomes a character, with its gloomy interiors and heavy drapes serving as an extension of Grace's disquieted psyche. Kidman would look good in a bin bag, so it's no surprise to find that she even makes the austere and prim wardrobe of Grace look somehow modernist and contemporary.
The Shining (1980)
Based on Stephen King's novel, The Shining is a film that transcends genres, delving deep into the realms of psychological terror and supernatural dread. At the heart of the film is the menacing performance by Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a writer turned caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel. His gradual descent into madness is a tour de force of unhinged acting. Shelley Duvall's portrayal of his tormented wife, Wendy, adds a layer of fragile vulnerability that complements Nicholson's ferocity. The sprawling, empty hotel, with its eerie and iconic carpet pattern, becomes a character in itself. The cinematography, with its sweeping tracking shots and symmetrical compositions, is hypnotic, and the dissonant, unsettling score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind heightens the sense of unease.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960, Psycho is a cinematic masterpiece that redefined the horror genre. The film revolves around Marion Crane, a secretary who embezzles money from her employer and takes refuge at the secluded Bates Motel. There, she encounters the enigmatic innkeeper Norman Bates and ultimately meets a shocking and gruesome fate. The film is renowned for its suspenseful storytelling, exceptional cinematography, and groundbreaking special effects. However, the costumes also play a significant role in enhancing the film's atmosphere. Costume designer Vera Miles effectively used clothing to reflect the characters' personalities and contribute to the overall eerie ambiance. Marion's white undergarments, which she hastily packs before fleeing her life, symbolise her vulnerability and moral dilemma. Norman Bates's modest attire reflects his repressed and troubled nature, while his mother's attire adds to the film's unsettling undertones. The most iconic costume moment occurs during the infamous shower scene, as Marion is attacked. Her white slip is stained with blood, creating a stark visual contrast that intensifies the horror.