BFI Gothic: The dark heart of film

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

The British Film Institute programmes seasons at the Southbank Centre London and special events around the UK often. It’s a key part of what they do, and they do it well. However, BFI Gothic is by far the most exciting season of screenings and events I’ve been witness to. The UK wide celebration of film and television is on the theme of everything dark and daring, delving into ‘the dark heart of film’.

Split into four sections and key areas of gothic ideologies, the thematic focus gives a quick and easy reference guide to all things that go bump in the night. Monstrous, The Dark Arts, Haunted, and Love is a Devil each take a closer look at the aspects of what makes gothic film in content and context, how these films and their sources have influenced industry standards, and how they continue to attract audiences in droves.

BFI Gothic isn’t just a series of amazing screening programmes in cinemas. Brilliant restorations and re-releases of gothic classics such as British favourite The Wicker Man (1973) will be introducing new audiences to the thrills of great gothic imaginations. In cinemas, on DVD/BLU and online streaming, the season has been made so widely accessible it’s impossible to ignore its allure. Over 150 titles and 1000 screenings over the course of a four month stretch makes BFI Gothic the longest programme to date.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The accompanying guide is a one off compendium of the same title exploring the overall theme of the blockbuster project.  A range of articles looking into the appeal of the gothic in cinema, the love affair that lures audiences into the dark of the theatre on the morbid promise of a good old fashioned scare. Essays featuring writers from all disciplines of the film industry including filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman, scholars like Sir Christopher Frayling and Roger Luckhurst, and popular figures such as the actor Mark Gatsis and critic Mark Kermode. Beautifully illustrated with the iconic imagery of the showcase films, it’s very much a treat for film fans.

BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart describes the season as ‘filled with dread and fuelled by lust’, ‘reflecting the turbulent times we are living in’, and exploring ‘our deepest fears and hidden passions’. The project focuses on a British contribution affirmed in a rich history of literature and art that progressed to become the most loved characters on screen (Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde).  Gothic is taboo breaking in tradition and setting new ideology on what was accepted as on screen viewing.  The revolution of the gothic film genre paved the way for what chills we are accustomed to in many forms.

The Mummy (1932)

The launch of the programme in August began with Monster Weekend at the British Museum London.  Outdoor public screenings of Night of the Demon (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1932) gave a real kick start to unique venue screenings all over the UK with thematic relationships between the venue settings and the film landscapes.  In Northern Ireland the Belfast Film Festival team have programmed ‘The Haunted Screen’ in partnership with the BFI Gothic project, taking much loved features to thrilling old buildings and eerie historical houses.  In Belfast, the Queens Film Theatre started their gothic offerings with the witchcraft weekend ‘Burn Baby Burn’ featuring a wide variety of features, from modern favourite Rosemary’s Baby (1968), to black and white oddity Haxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922).  In Derry, the UK City of Culture 2013, an outdoor screening of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is the first of many BFI Gothic screenings.

The gothic phenomenon is an illusive natured beast that takes various terrifying forms. The attempt at a comprehensive study for public programming is impressive and for me shows the best face of the BFI as an institution. The films on offer are diverse and accommodating to all tastes, helping to reach the widest audiences possible and build an invested interest in film events and the importance of cinema as a cultural tool. Organiser Rhidian Davis should be very proud of the achievements of BFI Gothic’s scope. Like a wondrous ongoing festival with one common denominator that slots into the diary all too easily, no time off from the day job is required to enjoy BFI Gothic in its full intensity.

The good news is that BFI Gothic will continue to haunt our screens in the UK until Feburary 2014.  It seems like with Halloween crossed out on the calendar, the annual season of trick or treat had passed, but the dimly lit corridors of the cinemas will still hold as much suspense for audiences for long into the winter.  As the nights get darker, the extensive offerings of glorious fear increase in number and popularity.


I am a film article and review writer based in Belfast with a BA and MA in film studies. I love Asian cinema and documentary film. I’m fascinated by cinematography and adore animation. I’m opinionated and passionate, and just like any good cinephile would declare my investment in film knows no bounds. There’s nothing I won’t watch and very little I won’t have something to say about.

3 thoughts on “BFI Gothic: The dark heart of film

  1. What a wonderful and interesting post! I had no idea such events took place in the UK. Being American, I thought we had the monopoly on being obsessed with the macabre. Glad to see it isn’t so!

  2. Sounds worth catching. I recently watched ‘Haxan’ on Film 4, and it is a fascinating experiment from the 1920’s. As I no longer live in London, so have given up my NFT membership, I will have to see if anything comes to East Anglia, perhaps Norwich. Thanks for the information.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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