Gothic Adaptations and Literary Mysteries
by Kristin Battestella
Although some of these contemporary movies and miniseries based on books are better than others are, the literary adaptations herein exude plenty of gothic atmosphere, mood, and mystery.
The Limehouse Golem – Sublime frocks, décor, carriages, and top hats accent the 1880 bodies in the bed, poisoned cordials, and bloody riddles opening this 2016 serial killer about Londontown adapted by Jane Goldman (X:Men: First Class) from the Peter Ackroyd novel. Red gore, orange lighting, and green hues befitting the title join pink and gold dance halls, sing songs, and theatrical cross dressing as Bill Nighy's (Underworld) Inspector Kildare avoids the sensational headlines and public bloodlust in favor of handwriting analysis and murderous journals. Messy footprints, missing police reports, and polluted crime scenes don't need any modern stylistic intrusions – the intercut discovery mixed with on stage recountings of the kills, disjointed past and present point of views, and non-linear editing are unnecessary. Fast moving abusive childhood flashbacks within murder trials when we've hardly met everybody make the focus of the story unclear, the assistant constable repeats everything the inspector already knows just for redundant audience exposition, and the gay comments about Kildare are useless. Famous names, library clues, dance hall girls, jealous playwrights, and life imitating art plays let the evidence speak for itself, piecing together the case with scribble in the book margins, secondhand shop keeper connections, and inspector deduction. Distorted voiceovers, violent slicings, backstage nudity, accidents on theater stairs, and religious undercurrents set off the deceased's recounting of the crimes in fantasy-esque flashbacks repeated with each suspect as the killer. These brutal horror reenactments compete with the song and dance flashbacks, but they also help blur the investigation as important details aren't shared with the kangaroo trials, distracting the audience as information is given and taken for shock value or cinematic reasons when key evidence, set ups, and relationships would be obvious if anyone but Kildare was paying attention. The persons of interest, backstage investigations, play clues, deflection, and one on one interviews are better once the flashbacks stop and the real time case proceeds. There must be a reason why the crimes have stopped – what we need to know is given in the opening scene – and all the back and forth delaying belies viewers into how little time has passed and why the police are unaware the killer hasn't struck again. Longtime viewers of British period mysteries may see through this faulty veneer with padding misinformation and meandering backstory in need of tighter direction rather than style over substance. Fortunately, there's an interesting mystery, multiple suspects, numerous kills, and suspicious ties between them as the execution order counts down to the finish. The infamous show must go on no matter how many people die for it, and this is fun for fans of Steampunk style mysteries.
Rebecca – Artistic ingenue Emilia Fox (Merlin) – companion to wealthy gossip Faye Dunaway (Don Juan DeMarco) – is smitten by the suave yet mysterious Charles Dance (Bleak House) in this 1997 three hour Masterpiece adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. Sublime style, flapper headbands, candlelight, and long stem cigarettes add to the whirlwind 1927 Riviera's scenic drives, classic convertibles, and charming hats. Unlike the immediately gothic gray scale of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version, vivid color and visual depth layer this initially idyllic romance. Our unusual couple have each been shy, lonely, and sad, but Maxim de Winter admires this young lady's innocence and honesty compared to the gilded aristocracy. Picnics, boat rides, a silly girl, a foolish old man – can they make a go of their differences? The dangerous curves and perilous drives suggest something slightly sinister brewing amid glimpses of the unforgettable and beloved by all Rebecca. It's been a year since her death, yet everyone must remind Maxim of his late wife upon this surprising second marriage. The newlyweds return to the lovely English gardens and proper decorum at Manderley, the estate where the Emmy winning Diana Rigg's (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers won't let go of the first Mrs. DeWinter's memory. The household reception is awkward and chilly – the coastal brightness turns darker thanks to shadow schemes, lighting changes, and the looming silhouettes of both Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Despite being a large estate with a west wing facing the sea, the hefty staircases, huge windows, and great fireplace feel congested, closing in on the new, nervous Mrs. as she gets lost wandering the shuttered parts of the house, breaks priceless statues, and hangs her head like an admonished little girl. She doesn't fit into the upper class routine, but the brooding, often misunderstood Maxim doesn't want her to become like those other cruel, aristocratic dames. Everyone is so heavy handed, formal, and not just unhelpful but resentful of how unlike Rebecca she is, and the couple regrets returning home to the rocky cliffs, beach side cottages, and distrustful staff. Crazy hermits, past gossip, vogue cousins too close for comfort, recreating previous fancy dress balls, and one big costuming faux pas strain the relationship further, but she can't exactly ask her new husband about why the pieces on how Rebecca drowned aren't coming together. Her room is still kept as is, almost in worship where our devoted housekeeper can express her creepy vicarious and pathetic intimacy, re-enacting brushing her madam's hair and laying out her perfumed night gown. Was Rebecca really so perfect? If she wasn't would anybody actually say so? Her presence is overwhelming – not because of any actually supernatural mood or ghost, but because the obsessed Mrs. Danvers won't let anyone forget, placing the fanatical pressures of her devotion on the second Mrs. de Winter. Foreboding strings add more ominous, however the suspense is certainly helped by Maxim's not coming clean on his life with Rebecca at the start. While some scenes are very similar to Hitchcock's vision, this is also closer to the novel, and even if you've seen other adaptations, viewers are swept up in wondering how the secrets will play out in the finale. Fog, vintage boats, watery evidence, mistaken identities, inquests – the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's life and death come to light, but our servant oversteps her bounds with cruelty, jealousy, and bullying suicidal whispers just to assure the Rebecca everyone thought they knew and loved won't die. Though more romantic than true crime, the fresh love and warped liaisons are told swift and honestly as the scandalous true colors are revealed with fainting spells, medical discoveries, fiery rescues, and kisses in the rain. Indeed all the gothic staples are here with period mood and performances to match.
The Moonstone – This five part 2016 series based on the Wilkie Collins novel opens with funerals, church bells, top hats, and tombstones before gloomy Yorkshire estates and a family cursed to unhappiness thanks to the eponymous plundering. Flashbacks to the pleasant year before recount the colorful gowns, piano music, painting, kissing cousins, and birthday gifts. There are, however, prowlers, suspicious visitors, dangerous beaches, melodramatic maids, rival suitors, and awkward dinners. This was not the day to quit tobacco! One and all pass around the diamond – broadcasting its whereabouts before immediately suspecting the “gibberish speaking” foreigners among them of its theft. The hysterical birthday girl doesn't want a public scandal, refusing to speak with the police who bungle the case with a contaminated scene thanks to a meddling maid made obvious by the ominous music. Men are worried about rectifying their reputations over the lost gem, but one wonders why they go through the trouble when the lady herself impedes them amid nonsensical red herrings, cluttered pacing, spliced editing, and foreboding fake outs. The revisiting flashbacks and present conjecture interrupt the tension with coming and going scenes or up and down stairs transitions stalling the seeking of clues while questionable colonial aspects, off humor, and poor acting parodies the deduction with overly pompous, long winded dialogue, and faux sophistication. London to Yorkshire travel looks instantaneous, and timeline breaks should bookend episodes only instead of deflecting the mystery. A ham-fisted superintendent, busybody relations, and back and forth blaming contests hinder the case further with stupid snobbery. Itemized prophecies with clues, convoluted letters, second hand evidence, and missing people string the messy in the wrong direction. The meandering points of view and uneven framing don't build characters or suspense, and viewers already have precious little sympathy since our supposedly so in love cousin so adamant about the girl and resolving the theft up and left for an entire year. Timely deaths, mysterious wills, suspicious marriage proposals, and coastal rescues finally provide something incriminating halfway thru Episode Four as love sick letters recount how the subservient people of the house were lost amid all the upper class hullabaloo. Eyewitness unreliability and laudanum stupor add to the painting clues and prospective motives while secret passages and potential suicides culminate in jeweler trades, bank stakeouts, and bodies at the hotel. Although this comes together in the last half hour, the presentation continually goes back to the night of the crime where it never should have left all the action in the first place. Characters themselves ask how they are always back where they started, but the insipid performances can't disguise the Twelve Days of Christmas cumulative – each hour adds a superfluous person who knows what happened then who travels to read a letter revealing what happened the Monday after the Wednesday that the moonstone was stolen. Such treading tires impedes the game afoot, and there's never a sense that anyone is closer to solving the mystery. This is fine for audiences who like period piece whodunits, yet such an audience is already well versed enough to be frustrated by this piecemeal structure. The series is twice as long as it should be when a streamlined, feature length design would have sufficed. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Labyrinth – Christopher Smith (Black Death) directs medieval heroine Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), bad girl Katie McGrath (Merlin), Malfoy in a greasy wig Tom Felton (Harry Potter), gigolo writer never seen writing Sebastian Stan (Avengers: Infinity War), annoying creep Emun Elliot (The Paradise), and the under utilized John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) in this 2012 two-parter based upon the Kate Mosse book. Opening scrolls set the 1209 Carcassonne scene with Catharism sects, reincarnation, and Holy Grail secrets before contemporary archaeology digs and caves with ancient writings. Although the men's armor looks cheap, the medieval costumes have the right silhouette – healers, herbs, and woodwork create period detail while scenic bridges, horses, and country beauty belie ominous bodies in the river, missing fingers, and mysterious books. Unfortunately, this telling of two tales at once is immediately confusing with lookalike sisters both introduced in sex scenes with the same man and a modern woman who takes on this archaeology thing after a bad break up, goes into a cave during an earthquake, and is rightfully chastised for her amateur contamination of the site. While a book can go back and forth per chapter, this television film juggles too much. The Old Speaketh is try hard and everybody in France speaks unaccented English as crusader persecutions are intercut with good cop/bad cop interrogations. Secret brotherhood meetings, double crossing contacts, another corporate woman introduced with a nooner – we're still meeting everybody an hour into the story thanks to the spliced presentation. Longer scenes building tension between the sisters, car accident shockers, and hooded rituals with candles and daggers better show the medieval past and present, and the two parts should have had all the past action naturally building to the present intrigue. Why tell in a current research montage when we can see that past suspense? The uneven structure cheats with women from different times in the same frame or place just for visual effect, delaying the storytelling with attempted edgy. Hot guys in the pool, iPod mentions – leave your number by typing it into some man's phone, is that for real? – and forced chemistry aren't as interesting as a Book of Potions or religious protectors. Secret society bad guys chase something so important one moment only to call it an irrelevant loose end the next, people with answers go unutilized, and clues are waiting in an inherited house but nobody goes there. A righteous thug with a silencer shooting people for not going to confession and information easily given that should have come sooner are too convenient as neither past nor present is primary thanks to no sense of danger and the thin women's tropes such as the one-dimensional illegitimate naked bad girl scorned threatening a man with cries of rape. It's also tough to enjoy the trebuchets, sieges, fire, and cemeteries when all the miscast, messy, mansplaining men are so weak in battle. Although the opening scenes suggest a mystical connection, there is no point to these separate stories being told in parallel. Neither receives the attention it deserves, leaving the medieval hollow despite serious topics and the present lacking an intelligent mystery that doesn't know its audience. While the men in such adventures can handle the Holy Grail, reincarnation, immortality, and get the girl; with women the medieval must be all jealous affairs and a soap opera sappy choice between a lover or the greatest religious and archaeology discovery ever. Boo!