What Is a Gothic Movie?

by Derek M. Kwait
Tim Burton is widely regarded as the king of gothic cinema.

Tim Burton is widely regarded as the king of gothic cinema.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Most people can tell a gothic movie when they see one, but they might have difficulty pinpointing exactly what it is that makes a film "gothic." The wide variety of movies considered gothic complicates the question, because not all of them are scary, violent or gory -- some are even meant for children. Yet in spite of their differences, all gothic movies share certain characteristics.

Atmosphere

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of gothic movies are their macabre, phantasmagorical settings. The feel of gothic movies is brooding and moody, an effect achieved by low-key and indirect lighting that creates plenty of shadows. Most are set either indoors in ancient labyrinthine castles, such as "Dracula"; in dystopic cities with smoggy skies and no trees, like any incarnation of Batman's Gotham City; or in grotesque parallel universes, such as Halloween Town in "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Introspective Characters

The dark atmosphere of gothic movies serve to reflect the troubled nature of their main characters. Protagonists in gothic movies are usually deeply flawed anti-heroes who must wrestle with their own weaknesses, their own dark pasts, and their own insecurities, while also dealing with their external crises. This results in gothic protagonists often spending time alone introspecting, and it is why gothic movies often contain monologues. Victor Frankenstein in "Marry Shelley's Frankenstein" is a good example of this.

Death

Gothic movies are obsessed with death. Although not every gothic movie contains a death, dying is never far from the minds or realities of gothic characters. A major plot point of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is Cesare's prophesy of Alan's death the next day. Similarly, although few people die in any of the Batman movies, the death of Batman's parents and his own mortality constantly hover in the background

Grotesque

Gothic movies thrive on grotesque imagery. This theme was established early on in the genre with the horrible appearance of relatively graphic bloodsucking scenes in "Nosferatu." Grotesque themes and images even extend into gothic movies ostensibly meant for children -- Jack Skellington's hideous face when trying to be scary, or the climactic scene in "Coraline," in which the Other Mother transforms into a black widow spider in a giant web, among many other examples from those movies.

About the Author

Derek M. Kwait has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh and has been writing for most of his life in various capacities. He has worked as a staff writer and videographer for the "Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh" and also has training writing fiction, nonfiction, stage-plays and screenplays.

Photo Credits

  • Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images