Understatedly Spooky Films & Miniseries

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This past weekend, I was really excited to find out that a new miniseries of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White had come out on the BBC earlier this year. I loved reading The Woman in White way back when and I still enjoy gothic and sensation novels that take place in the nineteenth century. There’s something comforting about the historical distance of it all that makes me less afraid.

It turns out, though, that historical distance is only comforting when the story is being conveyed through the written word (or through an old film). Transferred to the screen and adapted to our current norms, loving everything horrific and scary, those nineteenth century gothic novels can still be too much for the faint of heart. My husband isn’t a big fan of thrillers, especially when they’re simultaneously in the form of period dramas and miniseries, and so I settled down to watch The Woman in White while he was away for the evening and I hate to say I didn’t even make it two minutes into the first episode. Too many scary elements came together and I knew that I had no hope.

I’m consequently in even more of a bind when it comes to watching films to get into the October mood than I am when it comes to choosing books. Like I said in my Understatedly Spooky Reads piece, I love everything that surrounds Halloween, but I hate its actually scary parts, no matter how much I try. (As a kid, I even used to get scared watching Hocus Pocus. Imagine.) Lee will have you covered when it comes to proper Halloween films closer to the end of the month, but here are a few mildly spooky ones for those of you who have my level of scare-tolerance.

Phantom Thread – I know what you’re thinking – this isn’t a Halloween film!!! It’s about fashion!! And that’s all true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t spooky as can be without being scary. It’s a decidedly cold weather film – coats and dreary English countryside homes aside, it’s chilly at its very core. It’s also one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s masterfully constructed, absolutely gorgeous, has a stunning soundtrack, and gives me so many sophisticated Hitchcock vibes that I can’t handle it. Add to that a grumpy haute couturier, his rebellious muse, amazing 1950s fashion, and a twisted love story, and you have the perfect film for this time of year.

A Series of Unfortunate Events – I had a love/hate relationship with Lemony Snicket’s writing when I was little. The first few books came out within a year of each other, and I remember ordering them from that little Scholastic Book Fair booklet we’d get every year (remember those?) and then reading them on the bus home from school. They were mildly scary, but as a child of divorce who didn’t live with either of her parents, I wasn’t that phased by them. Their biggest flaw at the time was that they weren’t Harry Potter. (My husband was another story – his sister likes to tell me how he was so scared of them he wouldn’t sleep if the books were in his room. Needless to say, he won’t watch the miniseries with me either.) As more of the books came out, I kept reading them, despite some mild annoyance towards the narrator and great annoyance towards Count Olaf.

I can appreciate the narrator much more now. The metatextuality and self-parody speak to me as an adult who learned to love parody and satire oh so much, and I love how all of that has been adapted in the Netflix miniseries. I’m speeding through the second season of it now (I had kept it for this time of year), and I absolutely love it. I’m still extremely annoyed by Count Olaf, but I appreciate that the absurdity is what keeps it all spooky but not scary.

Arsenic and Old Lace – Based on Joseph Kesselring’s play, the 1944 film is a dark comedy and stars Cary Grant. Taking place on Halloween, the story unfolds as Grant’s character – a writer about to get married – finds a corpse in the window seat of his old family home. An eccentric cast of characters take part: spinster aunts who murder bachelors, a brother who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt, a plastic surgeon, and a serial killer. Absurdist and dark, it’s the perfect film to watch this week.

Practical MagicPractical Magic’s been in the media a lot lately, having celebrated its twentieth anniversary earlier this month. It’s the perfect Halloween film for those of you who are easily scared because while it’s about witchcraft, it’s a feminist romantic comedy and family drama at its core. Based on the 1995 novel by Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic tells the story of two sisters born into a family of witches who face the consequences of a curse cast by one of their ancestors, dooming the men they love to untimely death. Accidental murder is thrown into the mix, and the film takes a darkly humorous turn as the sisters face their witchy fate. It isn’t an absolute favorite film, but it is one I enjoy. It’s also the exact vibe I want from my Halloween films, so I’m sad general taste has moved away from it and more towards horror.

Rebecca –  Yes, we’re obsessed. Yes, it’s on every list we make. But do you wonder why? It’s perfect for every occasion, and the Hitchcock film is as amazing as the novel in its own way. I’m making a super spicy cauliflower soup for dinner tonight and then settling down to rewatch the film with my grandmother and a glass of wine. Do the same.

Great Expectations – You always see Great Expectations around Christmas. The story of a young orphan who seems his fortune change as he leaves his aunt and uncle’s forge to study in the city and become a gentleman thanks to a mysterious benefactor, turn of luck and fortune seem to be something that always appeals to society around that time of year. Still, I see Great Expectations as more of a spooky autumn film. After all, the story is less about Pip and more about Mrs Havisham to me, and what about Mrs Havisham isn’t spooky? Jilted at the altar, Mrs Havisham has confined herself to her home, leaving everything as it was on the day of her wedding, forever wearing her white (and now tattered) dress and not moving a thing – even her wedding cake sits in the dining room table and a lone shoe – a sign of ill luck – on her dressing table. Gillian Anderson gives the character and extra dose of spookiness in the 2011 BBC adaptations, and I highly recommend the miniseries at this time of year.

Addams Family Values – This is a more classic Halloween film and the Addams Family is Lee’s domain so I won’t say too much more, but I love love love this sequel and I do so more than the 1991 The Addams Family. It’s less traditionally scary, and it provides incredible social commentary that keeps it relevant up until Thanksgiving. If nothing else, watch its Thanksgiving pageant.

Strangers on a Train – What did I say about historical distance? It makes thrillers easier to bear, and nobody does thrillers better than Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train is one of my favorites. A criss-cross murder mystery, the story begins when two strangers meet on a train and one of them suggests that they exchange murders… and then actually goes through with it. It’s a thrilling classic, and my love for it came back after I saw a West End production of the story in January of 2014.

Gosford Park – If Downton Abbey were spooky. A murder mystery by Julian Fellowes and staring Maggie Smith, Gosford Park is the perfect spooky period drama. More cold weather, more dreary countryside houses, more 1930s vibes, it’s wonderful entertainment for a chilly October night.

Harry Potter – I grew up with Harry Potter and rewatching the movies used to be my go-to at this time of year. Spooky but wholesome, it was perfect. Despite all the Voldemort horror, wizarding school was comforting and I loved it. I hope to come back to it one day, once I forget all about J.K. Rowling’s constant commentary. If you’ve managed to avoid it all, then I highly recommend a seasonal trip to Hogwarts.