Sheffield Gothic presents:
our Spooky Film and TV Picks for Halloween
Its a Gothicists favourite time of the year, so what better time than Halloween to share some of our favourite spooky recommendations! Whether you prefer Terror Gothic or Horror Gothic, if you like your frights to be strictly PG, or if you just need a break from slaying all that evil – settle in with our spooky picks. And if you like any of our recommendations, or want to share some of your own, don’t forget to tweet us at @SheffieldGothic!
Doctor Who “Midnight” (2008), S4E11
(Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Alice Troughton, and starring up the Eighth Doctor)
Doctor Who is one of my favourite series, and, in relation to the Gothic, Doctor Who adds well-known Gothic elements, such as werewolves and vampires into the Doctor’s journey. Yet, “Midnight” is different. “Midnight” does not clarify what the threatening being in the episode is. Even the Doctor just cannot identify what it is, and has become its prey. The story begins as a pleasant day trip, organized by a tour company called The Crusaders, for The Doctor to explore the planet’s sapphire waterfall. The problem begins when the shuttle accidentally stops, and one of the tourists starts to repeat The Doctor’s words, as if she had lost her capability of speech. Then, the story begins to unravel the terror and the true cause of evil. “Midnight” can be very old-fashioned in its exploration of the cause of evil, but it plays with the unknown really well, and it even shows the uncanniness of language and voice. Do we have our own ideas? Do we have our voice? Are we just repeating? Bonus: Alongside the handsome, heroic Doctor, played by David Tennant, you’ll get to see the baby-faced Colin Morgan, whom we also know as Merlin.
Alias Grace (Netflix, 2017)
This 2017 Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name might not have garnered the same buzz and attention as the The Handmaid’s Tale, but the 6 episode series is perfect for a Halloween binge watch with a difference. Alias Grace is the story of Grace Marks, whose story caused a huge stir in mid-nineteenth century Canada when she was arrested for the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. The story was particularly famous for two reasons: because Marks was featured in the life writings of Canadian settler, Susanna Moodie (from whom Atwood has frequently drawn inspiration for her poetry), and because of the strangeness of the case and Marks’ testimony. According to newspaper reports at the time, Marks appeared in court wearing clothes that had belonged to the murdered Montgomery and gave what many felt was a cold, emotionless testimony. Marks claimed that the murders had been orchestrated by fellow servant James McDermott and that she had been an innocent, forced accomplice, whilst McDermott claimed that it the blame lay with Marks.
The adaptation, like Atwood’s novel, retells a semi-fictionalised account of Grace’s story – from her family’s emigration from Ireland, to her life as a servant, to her time in Kinnear’s house – as she is visited by a doctor interested in her case whilst serving her prison sentence. Though perhaps only obviously Gothic in its subject matter, Alias Grace is a fantastic example of Gothic storytelling and cinematography. Grace, as narrator and focus point, appears at once vulnerably laid bare and always out of reach. Each time we believe we are learning the truth about the events of Grace’s life or what really passed at the Kinnear house, the show is careful to remind you that we can never fully trust what we are being told or being shown.
What the show does especially well is to capture slow, unsettling nature of Atwood’s prose. Canada in Alias Grace is inherently Gothic space, whilst the characters’ fascination with spiritualism and with female madness play into the conventions of the Gothic mode. The tension between the Grace we see on screen, the Grace of Marks’ own telling and the Grace as told and perceived by others is translated particularly well from page to screen, managing to capture the tone and feel of Atwood’s novel. If you like the slow, creeping Gothic and narratives that challenge the way we respond and accept ‘truth’, Alias Grace is a must watch.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Vampire fiction – whether that be novels, film, TV shows, comics, games and so on – is undoubtedly an extremely crowded genre, but Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night brings this genre a much need breath of fresh air. Amirpour’s film debut has been described as a ‘Persian-language American vampire western film’ and the ‘first Iranian Vampire Western,’ and honestly if that description doesn’t make you want to go and watch this film immediately then I don’t know what will. Centring an unnamed and lonesome ‘girl’ vampire, this isn’t just another tired rehash of Dracula or another vampire film regurgitating the same old narratives (complete with the same focus on the narrative’s male and often white lead), nor does it over-sexualize the eponymous girl as, for example, so many adaptations of Carmilla do. Instead this film does something different. Set in the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, the ‘girl’ stalks the city’s inhabitants in a slow paced but beautiful and eerie narrative. Stylistically shot, and accompanied by a stunning soundtrack, the film can best be summed up by the image of the girl wearing a hijab as she rides a scateboard through the city streets alone. This is, without a doubt, a vampire film to sink your teeth into.
What We Do in the Shadows (2019)
I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the TV series of What We Do in the Shadows for a while now – not only because it is bloody hilarious (pardon the pun) but because it is so self-aware in terms of the vampire in popular culture. As writer Stefani Robinson has commented, ‘what makes the show so funny, and gives us more story to mine from, is that these are not the glamorous, glitzy, shirtless vampires that you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s about the more mundane practicalities of being a vampire, which I just think is funnier.’
Staring Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Mark Proksch, and Harvey Guillén, the series follows four hapless vampires and their human familiar, Guillermo, as they attempt to host an orgy, evade pest control and take over Staton Island.
Particularly discerning viewers will no doubt spot all the homages made to various Vampire movies in each episode…key influences include Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Nosferatu, Interview with the Vampire, Vampire’s Kiss, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to name but a few. Look out for Tilda Swinton’s cameo – her casting is a stroke of genius with Swinton having previously played a vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). In fact every member of the Vampiric Council has played an on-screen vampire before, from Evan Rachel Wood in True Blood to Wesley Snipes in the Blade franchise.
As the resident art specialist, what I really love about the series is how the mockumentary format enables the writers to play with famous depictions of vampires through the ages by drawing on familiar artworks to be used as ‘stock images’ to illustrate each character’s past. The series has recently been renewed for a second season, so I’m very pleased that there will be more to see in 2020.
Gothic is simply a must-watch for any Gothic and Horror fan. Retelling the iconic story of Villa Diodati and events that sparked the creation of Frankenstein (1818) and The Vampyre (1819), Gothic centers on Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Clare Clairemont, Lord Byron, and his doctor John Polidori (or ‘Poor’ Polidori as Mary Shelley named him due to his frequent injuries) as they assemble in Geneva, telling Ghost stories amid a backdrop of thunder and lightning, themes of life and death, and a lot of drugs. This film has the seal of approval from the whole Sheffield Gothic coven so much so that we screened it at Reimagining the Gothic earlier this year. Get ready for Byron and Shelley’s much anticipated kiss, lots of human-shaped-automata, skulls, thunder and lightning, and a nightmarish episode based around Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ (1781). If that’s not enough for you, Gothic even features, as all great Halloween films should, an appearance from a friendly neighbourhood goat. My only criticism of Gothic is that it doesn’t feature a cameo visit from Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis: author of notorious Gothic novel The (1796), Lewis not only visited the group at the Villa Diodati, but his terrifying ghost stories purportedly excited P. B. Shelley’s imagination to such a height that he was found by the group:
“in a trance of horror, and when called upon after it was overpast, to explain the cause, he said that he had a vision of a beautiful woman, who was leaning over the balustrade of a staircase, and looking down on him with four eyes, two of which were in the centre of her uncovered breasts.”(Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. 1, pp. 257-258).
Making up for its lack of Lewis, this scene makes its way into Gothic, and like so many moments throughout the film this scene in particular perfectly encapsulates the wonderfully excessive, camp, and horrifying Gothic that is at the heart of the film. In other words, this film will take you on a very Gothic trip making it perfect for a Halloween watch – but remember: you can’t run away from your own fears!
Mushishi ( 1999 to 2002)
Mushishi is a 2004 anime adaptation of the manga of the same name, an anthology series set in a fictionalised 19th century Japan that follows a man, Ginko, who travels the country helping those who have been affected by supernatural powers or beings, known as Mushi. The show has no real plot or narrative arc, and each episode is its own contained story.
As is well documented, I’m the most easily scared when it comes to horror movies: I don’t do jump scares or gore. So when we do these recommendations, I always try to think of something a bit different (which, when you’re like us and you think everything is Gothic, is actually kind of hard) and I figured the rest of Sheffield Gothic might stop talking about me if I recommended Over the Garden Wall again. I was tempted to recommend the Studio Ghibli movie When Marnie Was There, a bittersweet ghost story about family, love and loss that mirrors the Gothic narratives of the late eighteenth century, but after deliberation I thought I had to choose Mushishi. The animation style is beautiful, and each story is so distinct: the supernatural is used to tell very real, intimate stories about human relationships, fears and emotions.