(As Stu Cummins has thrown his life away and got himself married this weekend - OWF's Ben Szwediuk has stepped in to give us this week's Top Ten Tuesdays). What is Goth? is a question regularly and- not necessarily without genuine curiosity- asked by the bewilderingly banal, or the culturally ignorant, of that subculture that embraces the world of shadow, and shuns the brazen vulgarity of the light. Those strange creatures that are moved by the macabre and decadent, with a shared propensity for certain literature, music, clothing and, of course, cinema- their identity marked most visibly to the masses by their adornments of eye-liner, black nail varnish and clothing that is- with rare exception- black. These people labelled crudely and broad-stroke by the word Goth will be accustomed to greeting such enquiries with an instinctively despairing sigh; a sigh that acknowledges both the nebulous and often vague philosophical nature of the answer, but also of the tedious and inevitable frequency of the question. Any discussion of the foremost Goth films, therefore is bound up in all such fraught subtleties, particularly of an existential nature, especially in the light of contentions in academia concerning the depiction of the literary gothic on screen, and whether this strips them of their inherently uncanny qualities. It is best, therefore, not to dwell on such things, and to embrace caprice, prejudice and whim for no reason other than to soothe the authors ego in detailing the ten most Goth films of all-time. What could be more decadent, more Gothic?
10) Dark City (1998)
The first of the films on this list from the one time auteristic director. Fresh from the unexpected financial success of The Crow, Alex Proyas was given a remarkable degree of autonomy and a similarly expansive budget. Proyas employed these resources to contrive a neo-noir thriller that explored the very nature of reality, perception, identity and freedom. In a version of earth rebuilt and reprogrammed each night by an alien race determined to comprehend human individuality, Rufus Sewell is the isolated hero that strives to recover his right to determine his own fate and see daylight once more. The result is a triumph in which the threat is not so much what lurks in the shadows, but the shadows themselves. A much neglected classic that pre-figured infinitely less poetic and cerebral works such as The Matrix and The Adjustment Bureau.
9) Labyrinth (1986)The second film in the list to feature the darkly angelic features of Jennifer Connelly whose virginal beauty drew gasps with her performance as the Labyrinths sixteen year old protagonist. Directed by puppeteer legend, Jim Henson, Terry Jones contemporary fantasy comprised all the elements that constitute Gothic archetypes at their most abstract. In what is David Bowies most exceptional performance in an uneven acting career, Connellys Sarah pursues her baby brother, whom she wished away in a fit of adolescent pique. In so doing, she encounters physical manifestations of her ego, femininity, sexuality in all manner of anthropomorphic entities that loom over her with fevered predation. Bowies Goblin king is both camp and sinister in a way that channels the very best of his pop personas and, while being both uncanny and enthralling, the film never shirks from being quite hilarious.
8) Nosferatu (1922)If anywhere the contention that the literary Gothic is robbed of its intrinsic quality of the uncanny, of the unknown, is truly realised it is in the various adaptations of Bram Stokers obscenely overrated Vampire novel, Dracula. However, in the case of Nosferatu, a silent and unauthorised film starring Max Schreck and directed by FW Munrau, the original text was manipulated and transcended in one of cinemas most iconic and enduring masterpieces. Schrecks primitive, animalistic Dracula was among the most chilling of the silent era, and Munrau used this sickening physiognomy to stunning effect as the actors hunched shadow became the monster that stalked Thomas Hutters Jonathan Harker.
7) Beetlejuice (1988)So many of Tim Burtons films could conceivably make a claim for inclusion on this list, but nowhere is Burtons overtly Gothic sensibility served than in the dark, comic tour de force that is Beetlejuice. Whereas in films such as Sleepy Hollow and Batman, Burtons neo German expressionist aesthetics are employed for mere shallow reasons of tone, here Burton is artful and considered in his application of these classic gothic tropes. The most all-American home is transformed into a playground for the dead as another world of malevolent spirits occupied the same physical space as that of an obnoxious modern family and their moody, delectable daughter, Winona Ryder. Michael Keatons performance as the eponymous ghoul should also be noted as the best of his career.
6) Suspiria (1977)
So much of Dario Argentos ouvre is inherently redolent of the gothic. Its anarchic and bewitching plot structures, its lavish and lurid tones with a masters invocation of surrealist portent. Suspiria is a film in which, whether by design or accident, Argentos daring and dazzling psychodrama comes together in an orgiastic and thrilling horror film that wracks the audiences bodies like an opium nightmare. If you ever wished to know what it would be like to be in the minds eye of an Edgar Allan Poe psychological breakdown, Suspiria is the film for you. A masterpiece of decadent, auteurist excess.
5) Hamlet (1996)-Dear Kenny Branaghs production of the Bards most revered play is among the most indulgent, ornate, complete and overlooked achievements in cinema. Eschewing the more obviously lurking shadow-beasts and metaphysical realisations of Gothic themes in the play- like those in adaptations by the likes of Zeffirrelli and Almereyda- the English thespians sprawling, lavish Hamlet is the one- by virtue of its respect for the original text- that most effectively realises the tropes of the gothic. Over four hours in length; not one word of Shakespeares play is omitted in a visual feast in which endless mirrors, doubles and dark machinations threaten our hero and thrill us as an audience. The only ever vaguely determinable nature of mind, spirit and self dissolve around the Dane- masterfully depicted by the director himself- in the most stunningly ambitious adaptation in all cinema. Branagh will never again scale such heights.
4) Lost Highway (1997)David Lynchs mercurial genius is itself a wealth of swirling Gothic archetypes from which he is saved- in career terms- by a similarly spectacular technical proficiency. But nowhere in his cinematic career is Lynchs vision, skill and gift more adroitly displayed than in this, his masterpiece, Lost Highway. From the films outset, the unease and implied dark dramatic ironies draw goosebumps. Familiar Lynchian tropes of backroad crime, otherworldy deserts, depraved pornography and unacknowledged fantasy come to the fore in a maelstrom of pitted psychological battles with perception and self. The very nature of a knowable consciousness comes under brutal assault by Lynch in a chilling carnival vision of the dark recesses of our dreams. One of the greatest films ever made.
3) Black Swan (2010)Drawing heavily from Argentos oeuvre, and particularly from the aforementioned Suspiria, Darren Aronofskys decadent, psycho-sexual melodrama is the most successful overt attempt to recreate the tropes of the classic gothic tale in a contemporary cinematic setting. As with Poes William Wilson, the narcissistic heroine ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, is stalked by a doppelganger, Mila Kunis, who slowly consumes and replaces her spiritually and sexually. Aronofskys masterful editing and gift for opulent aesthetic are well served in the most artful and ornate depiction of mental deterioration in contemporary cinema. A Gothic feast.
2) The Crow (1994)Almost a hideous stereotype now, of course, but this list would not be complete without Brandon Lees The Crow. Directed by Alex Proyas (see above) and elevating a cult graphic novel to iconic status. At its heart it is a simple revenge movie; a soul drawn back to a corrupt living world to punish those that killed him and his fiancée. Lees Eric Draven is malevolent, ruthless messiah- flanked by a raven that keeps him safe from his foes weaponry- that exudes a black charisma out of his every Goth pore as he scours the post-industrial hell-scape in search of those who wronged him. Lee died during filming as, thus, the movie had to be completed posthumously with some creative editing, but the film is in no way disjointed because of it. Although it is far from the best film on the list in and of itself, and though it may have launched a thousand ridiculous adolescent face paintings, The Crow is the suppressed rage of poets and artists everywhere burning their oppressors on a dark wind-swept night. The concept is simple, but the execution is exquisite.
1) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)The second silent film of Germanys expressionist era and, more than any other, brought to life the Gothic on our cinema screens, and the portentous set-design has become cinematic short-hand for imminent danger. The most obvious contemporary example being Tim Burton, for whom the films visual style provides an influence in all but a few of his works. Its framing device meant the film was told in flashback- making it one of the first films in history to do this- as well as using this framing device as a twist to throw into doubt the veracity of the events that went before calling into question the nature of reality and sanity itself. Everything about the film, from Werner Krausss haunted panther-like, stylized meandering, to the themes of the double and automotonism, to Herner Warms iconic set design, are measured to disconcert with immense precision. The film remains genuinely chilling after nearly a hundred years which is, in itself, a staggering accomplishment. Nothing since committed to celluloid has better understood the fragile beauty and uncertainty of the souls dark recesses. Robert Wienes The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a masterpiece that will endure for another century or more, and a film that no one- Goth or otherwise- should be without.