Welcome to the February edition of Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. To help you through the post-Valentine’s Day come down, we’ll take a look at a lesser known but fascinatingly unique gothic romance, Dragonwyck (1946).
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and as the haze of hearts, chocolate, and roses fades, we’re left to consider the notion of romance in the cold light of day. If there is any genre that warns about the dangers of falling too quickly for a fairy tale love, its gothic romance. The genre always toes the line between romance and horror, with a heavy focus on the darker side of “happily ever after.”
Dragonwyck was the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to win Best Director Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). His first effort is less famous but worth seeing for anyone interested in gothic chillers. Dragonwyck hits many of the classic beats of the classic gothic romance, all while challenging long-standing tropes and daring to blend genres equally.
Dragonwyck tells the story of Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), a young woman from a humble farming family in 1840s Connecticut. She dreams of a life far beyond the predictable world of her strictly religious parents and the local marriage that her sister is happy to settle for. One day, the family receives a letter from Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), a wealthy landowner in upstate New York. He’s searching for a governess for his young daughter Katrine. He discovered that the Wells family is distantly related to him (through marriage rather than blood). Because of this revelation, he’s decided to offer the position to one of their daughters as an act of charity.
Miranda sees this as her chance to escape and convinces her reluctant father to let her take the position. Once she journeys to Dragonwyck castle, she’s swept away by the beauty and glamour of the place and the people who inhabit it. She’s so taken that she willfully ignores a massive number of red flags — from the whispers of cursed family history to tales of the vengeful ghost of the family matriarch, to the depressed disposition of Nicholas’ wife, Johanna, and their daughter. She even turns her gaze from the political unrest between Nicholas’ landowning “patroon” class and the farmers who rent their acres and refuse to pay tribute any longer.
Even more troubling is the fact that Miranda begins to fall for the very married Nicholas. When Mrs. Van Ryn suddenly dies, Miranda discovers too late that there is far more to Nicholas than meets the eye.
The Making of A Dream
Dragonwyck was originally a novel by Anya Seyton serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck saw the potential to produce a lavish gothic production from the story, in the tradition of Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1944). Both were major hits and Fox was eager to cash in on audiences’ hunger for gothic romance. Zanuck bought adaptation rights before the novel had been completely serialized! Quite a leap of faith, but he believed in the source material.
Gene Tierney, fresh off her chilling turn as a possessive murderer in Leave Her to Heaven, stepped into the protagonist’ role as Miranda. Her character in Dragonwyck is naive, wide-eyed, dreamy, and romantic, but complex. She’s far less sympathetic than other gothic heroines. Tierney is an actress of exceptional skill with a knack for embodying complicated characters, and she plays a challenging role with aplomb.
The true standout performance of Dragonwyck is, of course, Vincent Price as the alluring and dangerous Nicholas. He brilliantly embodies every aspect of the ambiguous character. When Miranda is first falling for him, he’s so convincingly in love with her that the audience can’t help but fall right along with her. (The fact that he’s a young Vincent Price certainly helps! In fact, it makes Miranda’s blind eye for all his faults very believable. I can’t imagine the role working as well with any other actor.)
When Nicholas’ darker side begins to fully show, Price is so convincing that he horrifies and breaks the viewer’s heart right along with Miranda. It’s an important early role in Price’s career, as it helped define the charming, snarky, mercurial gothic villains that would become his signature.
“…Price is so convincing that he horrifies and breaks the viewer’s heart right along with Miranda. It’s an important early role in Price’s career, as it helped define the charming, snarky, mercurial gothic villains that would become his signature.”
It may come as a surprise, then, that Price had to fight for the part, as the studio heads couldn’t picture him in the role. Victoria Price recounted her father’s memories on the process in her biography of him, “I had to fight like the devil for this part,” Price recalled, “My bosses kept remembering me as the good-natured guy in Laura (1944) and I insisted I wasn’t that type.” Thankfully, the studio eventually came to its senses. Price’s work in Dragonwyck is an excellent early example of his signature role.
A Fable Ahead of It’s Time
Dragonwyck received mixed reviews at its initial release. Contemporary critics loved Price’s performance, but many thought the film shuffled too many themes for any of them to truly work. Vincent Price remains the best part of the film, but time has been kind to Dragonwyck. The film is unabashedly complex — juggling social commentary on American class systems, gothic romance, mystery, supernatural horror, and family drama. But today, when we are more used to genre-defying dark historical dramas, these competing elements are far less jarring. In fact, it’s surprising how seamlessly the film packs its many elements into a breezy hour and forty-minute runtime.
“[Dragonwyck] is unabashedly complex — juggling social commentary on American class systems, gothic romance, mystery, supernatural horror, and family drama.”
Dragonwyck’s American setting and grounded basis in history help it stand out among a sea of gothic thrillers. It follows a familiar structure, but instead of misty British moors, we visit the stormy Catskills. Instead of a heroine plucked from obscurity in the British working class, we get a Connecticut farm girl. And instead of a vaguely 19th-century setting, we are firmly placed during the 1845 anti-rent wars. These small changes create a uniquely American gothic romance.
But if there’s a single reason for horror fans to add Dragonwyck to their must-watch list, it’s undoubtedly Vincent Price. He’s a horror legend for a reason, and this film features him doing what he does best. He’s stylish, humorous, charming, and gets plenty of opportunities to show off his macabre star power. Dragonwyck is very much the Vincent Price show, and it’s well worth the price of admission. Figuratively speaking, since the available to watch for free on YouTube!
If you’re a horror fan with a taste for gothic romance, check out Dragonwyck for something a little different. It’s got all the elements you know and love, with some social commentary, an American twist, and Vincent Price in top form. Keep an eye out for a few influences that Guillermo Del Toro clearly drew upon for Crimson Peak (2015) as well! If anything, Dragonwyck will make you second guess any unhealthy crushes and make you feel a whole lot better if you were without a date on Valentine’s Day. Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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