Modern Gothic: Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies, Oh My!
The modern gothic film genre is something of a phenomenon. Around the turn of the millennium, or, as Will Smith wanted us all to call it, the Willenium, a new take on an old setting found a prominent place in pop culture. Modern Gothica heavily influenced by things such as The Matrix, Scream, and Nu Metal in its infancy (particularly by acts like Powerman 3000, Rob Zombie, and Evanescence). However, it still managed to make a unique mark on the cultural psyche, despite these heavy influences.
Modern Gothic: An American Tale…kind of…
The Gothic aesthetic returned to the public consciousness with pomp and flourish. Not too much, however, as the genre was intended to be cool without being mainstream. We all remember those kids; many of us WERE those kids. It had to balance being almost edgy with being cool to remain relevant. In so doing, the Modern Gothic movement melded the steampunk underground with Hollywood flash. It revived a morbid curiosity with the supernatural, something which in 8000+ years of human existence has proved it will never truly go away.
You Want My Hot Take? Ginger Snaps Beats the Brakes Off Twilight
In its newest visage, this supernatural bend slid into some skin-light leather, threw a dark and stormy filter on the camera, and boiled that angst down to a genre of guilty pleasure movies. I struggle to call these projects films, as they were more akin to events where sexy steampunks collided with angsty werewolves all over a highschool history book.
The variety, given the seemingly narrow scope of the genre, was impressive. The stories told ranged in time from the Dark Ages, to modern day, to the semi-near future. They also spanned the Western world, telling tales across Europe and North America. Hell, there were even a few movies about Canadian werewolves.
Modern Gothic: Old World Monsters, New World Writers
Ancient legends of magic, vampires, and plagues formed a beautiful collision with futuristic science, zombies, and…more plagues. In this new realm, swords and bows are carried alongside guns in dark and bleak worlds and dusty post-apocalypses. Over the coming years, we would see dozens of versions, combinations, and reconfigurations of these elements and settings.
Projects like Ginger Snaps, Underworld, and Resident Evil even spawned series’ for themselves. Self-contained stories like Van Helsing did not, and apparently for arbitrary reasons. The aesthetic was clearly working, but Hollywood themselves didn’t even seem to know why, or how to keep it going. Yet, despite this initial fumbling of the content, they successfully found the formula, and have kept it alive to this day.
Why Do My Subheadings need to Contain the Phrase Modern Gothic?
Filmmakers had found updated ways to mimic Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” model of finding the grey area between sci-fi and horror fantasy. It was an exciting take on a classic genre. So exciting, in fact, that twenty years later, it’s still floating around. As of this writing, Resident evil is getting a reboot, Underworld is still putting out a sequel every three or four years, and new stories like I, Frankenstein are still being greenlit every once in a while.
Modern Gothic: No Love from the Critics
Now, none of these projects were big award winners, unless you count The Matrix films. None of these projects are considered groundbreaking. I’ve always felt The Matrix Trilogy was more of an inspiration to modern gothica, rather than a part of it. The argument can be made that The Matrix was an early member of the modern gothic movement, but for our purposes here, we’ll plant the Matrix firmly in the sci-fi realm. Admittedly, a sci-fi that has a leather fetish, but that’s beside the point.
These Subheadings Are Not an Accident. Oh, uh, Modern Gothic Something Something
The point is, this genre wasn’t being lauded by the Academy. Still, on the whole, these movies were financially successful and culturally popular. They were fun, edgy, and sleek, so they didn’t HAVE to be ground breaking. These movies accomplished everything they set out to do without being Academy award material. They were exactly what they advertised. There was no bait and switch, no agenda, no higher purpose. Just gothic adventures for a modern audience.
These scripts are apparently popular among actors and directors, as well. They attract big enough names to bring in big audiences, and enough big action to keep them. They garner pretty large budgets from the studios, which means most of these movies have some pretty sick action scenes.
Modern Gothic: Lights, Camera, Over The Top ACTION!
However, we know that fun action alone isn’t enough to build a returning audience…is it? If not action, what gave this movement staying power? Modern gothic cinema never tried to be anything other than what it claimed to be. Similarly, these movies never claimed to be anything more than what they were. What you saw in the trailers was what you got in the feature. They were simple. Even when the lore was six films deep, it was relatively easy to follow. The audience didn’t need to see any of the other entries in any series in order to understand what was going on in the movie they were watching at the time.
Those projects that did overreach didn’t last. Movies that tried to have a message, or say something significant withered on the vine. The message of the modern gothic genre is “look at how cool this is!”
Modern Gothic: Stick to the Script, Kid
Modern gothic is more or less formulaic. It has some fun, if overused, trope. These tropes would be roadblocks to many other kinds of film, creating cringe-worthy pieces of film history. However, a curious thing happened with the gothic movement. Instead of being ashamed of these cringe moments, it embraces them. The tropes, formulas, and cringes are built into the DNA of the genre. It snaps the collar of it’s leather jacket, bares its bloody fangs, and dares you to laugh.
These Subheadings Are About To Go Off The Rails
Almost every film in this genre utilizes at least one of these tropes, and most keep all of them in heavy rotation. Tropes like slo-mo action, forbidden or impossible love, or a particular blend of vernacular and Elizabethan English. And blood. Dear god there is so. Much. Blood.
I’m Not Kidding. Watch Ginger Snaps. You’ll See.
Normally, the tropes work within the framework of their inspiration. In a strange turn of events, it is almost as if the source material works within the tropes in the case of modern gothic movies. And those inspirations were wide and varied. Some were adaptations or inspired by video games, like the Resident Evil series. Some were loose adaptations of an existing mythos, like I, Frankenstein or Van Helsing. Others were new takes on ancient myths, like the Underworld movies.
Others still played directly to a portion of the genre’s target demographic, zeroing in on a subset of their watchers. Ginger Snaps did this by being a series of teen dramas with a supernatural element. They stayed juuuust enough in the gothic territory to make the cut, and therefore earned their lasting position within the genre. This highlights the subgenres found within this greater body of work. When viewed together, all of these movies clearly belong to be organized together. They have more in common with each other than with other action movies. However, when viewed individually, sometimes the dots are hard to find.
Then Tell Me How Twilight Changed Cinema History.
Take Underworld and Resident Evil, for instance. Arguably, these are the two biggest franchises in the bunch. When viewed as a pair, they seem to have very little in common. Resident Evil, when viewed in this context, almost has more in common with the Mad Max films. However, when you gather its peers around (movies like Doomsday), the connection becomes clear. In this context, Mad Max similarities can be recognized as inspirational works rather than neighboring projects.
Don’t Sue Me, Stephanie Myers
The best franchises in the genre also have another key similarity. Series like Resident Evil, Ginger Snaps, and Underworld know how to be fun. They know their audience, they know their place, and they know their time. They recognize what makes them fun and gives them appeal. The audience is given enough lore to understand the rules of the game, but the details don’t tend to be intensive or extensive. Simple explanations, giving way to action-packed fight and chase scenes. Vampires have been fighting werewolves for centuries. Then, boom, shots fired, werewolves roar, blood shoots everywhere. Umbrella Corporation unleashed a virus that turns people into zombies, and now humans are on the run. Then, kablam, burning a flock (or rather, a murder) of zombie crows with the hero’s psychic powers. Confused by the psychic powers? That’s okay; they take them away immediately so you’re not confused anymore.
In the transition scenes that carry the characters between action scenes, they delicately develop their characters. They never give them too much characterization, so as not to take up too much valuable killin’ time on talking scenes. However, they give you just enough development so that the characters don’t feel like cardboard cutouts in a shooting gallery. You’re never deeply invested in anyone, but you accept them as people, and when, on rare occasions, twists are thrown your way, you are pleasantly surprised and refreshed. The audience doesn’t require that these tricks be thrown into the mix, but they are fun and exciting when they come around.
It’s Just This Lowly Writer’s Opinion.
Much like this article, these movies focus heavily on action. The average action movie has three minutes of action for every seven minutes of exposition and transition. Thirty percent of the average film in this vein is action scenes. It can be reasonably estimated that the modern gothic genre bumps the ratio just a bit, giving the audience a fifty-fifty split. Five minutes of setup will take place, and then five minutes of crazy action will erupt on the screen. Those extra two minutes keep your heart pumping while you watch the movie, but they don’t take so much away from the story that you stop caring entirely. You don’t care a lot about the plot, but you care enough to see how things play out in the next entry in the franchise.
The action itself is a delicate work of art. It is always over the top, but never inducing cringe. Perhaps critics would cringe, but that’s kind of their job. The average viewer recognizes the setting is over the top, the story is simple, and the characters are supernatural creatures. Therefore, the over the top action is warranted and justified. When Saline cuts a villain in half, and his bisected parts slide apart with a gross, wet sound, we accept it in this world. Van Helsing fights vampires with a boomstick and a crossbow, but we don’t bat an eye. When characters can run at superhuman speeds in leather suits that barely allow them to breathe, we don’t question it in the slightest. They have earned it through their world building. They establish themselves as serious movies, but don’t expect to be taken seriously.
It Just Also Happens To Be the Correct Opinion.
The gothic movement has always romanticized the supernatural. Vampires may have been scary, but Dracula was seductive. Frankenstein may have been a mad scientist, but his creature was beautiful. Maintaining this historical pillar of the material may in fact be a large part of the appeal. Blending fear and curiosity, disgust and attraction, ducks under the mind’s defenses and draws the audience near. It takes things that is seen as a fetish or nerdy or weird, and makes it cool.
This genre showcases that a movie doesn’t have to be deep. It doesn’t have to get a Marvel-sized budget. It doesn’t even have to have a top-notch story. For a movie to be good or beloved, it doesn’t need any of these classically good things. It can have plotholes like swiss cheese and still garner a cult following. Everyone talks about those award winners, but those are not the movies that people often restart the moment it ends, or binge the entire series on a weekend and refuse to leave the house until they are done. The modern gothic movement falls squarely into guilty pleasure territory, and those are the movies people truly love. They don’t reach the top 100 lists, but I guarantee the folks who watch them have seen them more times than you’ve seen Gone With The Wind.
Ginger Snaps. Go Watch it. Seriously.
Sometimes, viewers just want to switch off, grab some popcorn, and watch some vampires fight some zombies. They want to put on their bummy pants and cheer when Alice discovers her psychic powers. Simple, occasionally mindless, entertainment is still good. And, frankly, there should be more of it. Not every meal needs to be steak. Sometimes, you just need a greasy cheeseburger.
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