As the temperatures continue to rise and the hours of sunlight stretch further into the evening, I’ve found myself thinking about the “seasonality” of the Gothic. Gothicism, in all its forms, has a pretty established association with cold, dreary weather. Extremely bad weather is a hallmark of Gothic novels (see #7 on this list); similarly, Gothic movies usually make use of desolate autumn/winter landscapes and storms to heighten the foreboding tone. Even goth fashion is so ill-suited for hot weather that it has inspired a whole blog on the topic (where each photo submission gets a ranking of “gothiness” and “sweatiness”).
But let’s say you want to indulge in a Gothic movie that’s not plagued by wind, rain, or snow. Are there any films like that? Well, I’m glad you asked! Here are some Gothic films (or films with a Gothic bent) that turn that “winter weather” trope on its head and prove that the Gothic has a place under the blazing sun, too.
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man is perhaps an obvious choice here – it’s set in an island called “Summerisle“, after all. A young cop from the mainland is called out to an idyllic Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. What he finds is an island of people who have “reverted” back to occult, pagan ways, and believe that the outcome of their harvest will be determined by how well they appease the gods. As the summer solstice nears, it becomes increasingly clear that they are planning to deliver a very special gift to their gods… if you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t read up on it any further — just dive into this wild spectacle of a film and brace yourself for the final scene! For more films along this particular vein, browse the BFI’s list of British rural horror films (most set in warm weather seasons).
2. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Like The Wicker Man, Picnic at Hanging Rock finds its terror in repressed sexuality, missing girls, ancient and mysterious belief systems, and the desolation of the landscape. Picnic is set in a girl’s boarding school in 1900’s Australia, and centers around the mysterious disappearance of three girls and a teacher during an outing at a local geological anomaly, Hanging Rock. The warm, languid weather underscores the dreamy sensuality of the film in a way that the cold never could. This film also explores a theme central to Gothic stories of early colonialism: “the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.”
3. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
This Gothic horror film by Guillermo del Toro is set in blistering hot rural Spain during the end of the Spanish Civil war. The narrative takes place at an orphanage where a (supposedly) defused bomb is lodged conspicuously in the middle of the courtyard and the young protagonist strikes up a friendship with a mysterious ghost his own age – all while the adults around him struggle with their own issues. While metaphorical devices and magical realist imagery abound, one very heavy Gothic theme emerges: the real horrors of this world aren’t performed by evil supernatural forces, they are the work of ordinary humans.
4. The Monk/Le Moine (2011)
I debated whether or not to include this version of The Monk (it will hopefully become clear why in future posts!), but ultimately, it fits the bill. The film is an adaptation of one of the most infamous Gothic novels of all time, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, published in 1794. The story charts the downfall of a beloved monk in Medieval Spain as he faces (and fails to resist) temptation, leading him to become embroiled in sorcery, murder, and incest (yikes!). The wilderness outside the monastery is barren, dusty desert – making for some stunning imagery that starts looking pretty… infernal.
5. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
This is a 3 hour+ Polish film from over 50 years ago, but bear with me – this movie looks like no other. Sadly I have yet to get my hands on it, but from what I’ve seen and read, it’s an incredible Gothic psychedelic brew. The story-within-a-story follows a soldier on a hypnotic journey through a haunted desert in – you guessed it – Spain. The sweltering landscape is dotted with occult symbols and surrealist imagery inspired by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali. Intrigued yet? If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve found this post to be a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the film.
6. Black Narcissus (1947)
Nuns in an isolated convent tormented by the temptations of lust and jealousy always makes great fodder for a Gothic story. This one happens to be set not in Europe, but in the Himalayas, and is filmed in glorious technicolor. The beautiful, luscious surroundings (captured by Jack Cardiff’s award-winning cinematography) make life in the convent all the more unbearable.
While there are plenty of horror films set in the summer or in warm weather, I have chosen to focus here on films that are truly Gothic and align more with the “school of terror” (implicit, psychological), rather than highlight films that are pure horror/bloodfests. If you have a suggestion for a great warm weather Gothic film, let me know – I’d be happy to add it to the list!
Thanks for reading!