Ghost stories become much spookier when they’re from another time, especially the Victorian era. Sure, there are plenty of scary haunted house films that take place in the present day, from Lake Mungo to The Shining. But there is something about a candlelit house, creaky floorboards, and exorbitant amounts of lace found in gothic horror that turn the fright factor up to 11. It’s harder to hide from what lurks in the shadows when it isn’t so easy to flip on a light switch.
These 10 films are presented in no particular order, and aim to show a variety of approaches to period horror, from the typical Victorian gothic ghost story to films based on Japanese folklore.
10. The Awakening (2011)
Like many movies about Britain, The Awakening takes place after World War I. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) travels the country and works with police to debunk supernatural hoaxes. She’s also a ghost hunter on the side (respect the hustle). So, she is contacted by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate ghost sightings at a boys’ school in the English countryside. Coming in with a healthy amount of skepticism, it becomes difficult even for Florence to deny what’s happening. Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) makes an appearance as Maud, the house’s maid.
Nick Murphy, known for his TV work, directed this spooky British period piece. Hall’s performance as Florence is central to the film’s success, as the plot gets a little bumpy towards the end. Regardless, it is a fun supernatural period piece that’ll quench the thirst of anyone who loves a good haunted house tale.
9. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a divisive one. But, it is also ambitious and massive in scope, spanning centuries and countries. Coppola’s film follows the same plot as the gothic novel. Barrister Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania and the castle of decrepit Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). However, Dracula has other plans: seduce Harker’s fiancee, Mina, who he believes is the reincarnation of the love of his life.
This is a wild film, full of weird orgies, sex with a wolfman, and a lot of Gary Oldman cackling. Oldman’s performance as Dracula really pulls this film together, since, sadly, Reeves as Jonathan Harker leaves something to be desired. Outside of the performances, Coppola creates a beautiful look at Victorian England contrasted with the wilds of Transylvania, from set design to the costumes of Eiko Ishioka, whose work on this film won her an Academy Award. No matter how you feel about this film, it can’t be denied that it is gorgeous, sexy, and bizarre.
8. Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo Del Toro’s 2015 Victorian horror film, Crimson Peak, was surprising to many horror audiences. While trailers presented as one thing, mainly a terrifying ghost story, it was mostly another: a haunting gothic love story gone wrong. Don’t worry, there are still ghosts.
Crimson Peak is gorgeous, with the massive and dilapidated mansion at the film’s center. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith who marries the devilishly handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves to his old countryside mansion with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). This mansion contains quite a few secrets which Edith must uncover to save herself. It is another film that exemplifies Del Toro’s visual style, one full of color, details, and whimsy.
7. Haunted (1995)
Period horror pieces seem to enjoy sending skeptical doctors into a haunted house to confront their demons. Haunted is no different. Dr. David Ash (Aidan Quinn) is a professor of parapsychology and spends his time trying to debunk the existence of ghosts. His studies send him to Edbrook Manor which is claimed to be, you guessed it, haunted. As he tries to debunk the haunting, he must confront his own chilling past.
6. Kuroneko (1968)
The Western canon of horror film isn’t the only place to find haunting paranormal period films. Kuroneko, or The Black Cat, is an adaptation of Japanese folklore directed by Kaneto Shindo. The film takes place during civil war in the Heian period of Japan (794 to 1185). During this period of civil war, a woman and her daughter-in-law are murdered, leaving their spirits to haunt the land and seek revenge on any samurai that passes by. They appear as beautiful young women, luring the samurai to an illusory mansion, then tearing out their throats like cats.
Kuroneko captures themes of brutality and nihilism both through its contents and its black-and-white composition. If you’re looking for a period piece that doesn’t take place in a Victorian setting, check this one out.
5. Kwaidan (1965)
Kwaidan, literally meaning ghost stories, is another example of Japanese period horror filmmaking, this time as an anthology film. Director Masaki Kobayashi based the film on a collection of Japanese folktales of the same name. The film consists of four short stories tackling various supernatural themes, from heartbreak to jealousy to vengeance.
Kwaidan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966. Horror doesn’t always get such high accolades, so you know this film must be something special. Again, if you’re looking for a horror film not drenched in the Victorian gothic, give Kwaidan a shot.
4. The Others (2001)
The Others is perhaps one of the best examples of a paranormal period film, exuding the kind of dread found in the creepiest of old houses. Nicole Kidman plays Grace Stewart who owns a large old house in England where she lives with her two children, Anne and Nicholas. They aren’t ordinary children. They have a strange illness that makes them sensitive to light. This means the house must be dark at all times to keep them comfortable. She hires three new maids after the previous ones disappeared. But when they arrive, strange occurrences begin around the house, making Grace question if the house is haunted.
Again, like many British films, The Others occurs during the final days of World War II, a horrifying event in itself. This film receives praise for its ability to scare the audience without jump scares and tons of special effects. It also is known for its shocking ending, but i won’t spoil that for you here. You’ll just have to have a late-night screening of The Others.
3. Shadow of the Vampire (2001)
Love Nosferatu? Then check out Shadow of the Vampire, the fictionalized account of the making of the quintessential horror film. John Malkovich plays director F.W. Murnau who is set on making an authentic vampire movie. To play Nosferatu, Murnau hires Max Schrek (Willem Dafoe). Schrek is taking the role of creepy vampire very seriously. Almost too seriously.
The film is based on of the rumors that the actual Max Schrek was truly a vampire. Shadow of the Vampire creates a narrative based on those rumors and to offer some kind of explanation to Schrek’s off-putting behavior.
2. The VVitch (2015)
You’ve heard of The VVitch, which some claim to be the best horror film of recent memory, or at least of 2015. In 1630, a family is exiled from town for being a little too pious. They must travel into the wilderness and make a home on their own, despite whatever may lurk in the woods. Then, the children start disappearing. The parents blame their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), of being a witch. But the real question is: Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Eggers really takes you back in time with a script written in the vernacular of the 1600s. He painstakingly researched everything from that period, from language to costumes. It is a true period piece, and a successful one at that.
1. The Woman in Black (2012)
If you love Harry Potter and horror films, then The Woman in Black might be for you. This was the first film I remember seeing Daniel Radcliffe in after his iconic role as Harry Potter. It’s a big deviation from the wizarding world, that’s for sure. Radcliffe plays the lawyer Arthur Kipps, who travels to a remote village to settle an estate. But, as Victorian horror movies usually go, there’s a dark secret in the house and the villagers all know about it.
The Woman in Black is surprisingly scary and features a strong performance from Radcliffe. You get to see Harry Potter in a suit plus a creepy old house. What’s not to like?
Honorable Mention: Penny Dreadful
It would be a mistake to at least mention Showtime’s masterful Victorian horror series, Penny Dreadful. Despite its rather abrupt, and disappointing, ending, it is one of the best recent examples of horror television. Eva Green is stunning as the series’ troubled protagonist, Vanessa Ives. Gothic horror icons, such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Dorian Grey make appearances throughout the series. It’s any horror fan’s dream.