While in LA for my Halloween vacation, I caught Nightcrawler at the theater near my hotel. Despite having to pay LA theater prices ($30 tickets for two tickets!?), I had heard so many great things about the film and knew I needed to see it.
As expected, the film was excellent and didn’t disappoint. I was so worried that the reviews I’d skimmed were misleading and that Jake Gyllenhaal’s “sociopathic” character was an embellishment of the term, but it wasn’t. The film was a great, dark-hearted thriller and a prime example of what I and other critics sometimes describe as
Most genre fans know what horror Gothic storytelling is. Morality tales that take common fears and dramatize them against shadowy and gritty backdrops. It’s not the slasher hacking his way through teens at a summer camp; it’s the ghost haunting an unfaithful lord in his castle. It’s not the rage virus spreading across a city; it’s the monster vs. the man trope, but in the end which one is which?
For decades now, Gothic is a genre now attributed to new settings, no longer restricted to medieval villages or eerie Victorian cobblestone streets. There’s been examples of Southern Gothic (Jugface) and of Ozark Gothic. Appalachian (Devil All the Time, Header) and even suburban Gothic (The Radleys, Gone Girl). Urban Gothic is my favorite however, clearly born by my upbringing and current livelihood in the major metropolises of America.
It might be confusing to differentiate between what Urban Gothic is and what is just another gritty crime story set in the city. I think what you have to look out for are a disregard for the need of a happy ending and a heavier emphasis on storytelling rather than action sequences. There are also usually very strong surreal or even blatantly supernatural elements within the settings and characters too, adding a somewhat mystical quality to the story.
Collateral, The Town, and similar movies are rough crime dramas set in gritty cities, but that doesn’t make them Gothic. There’s no air of mystery about the films. Nothing there to unsettle the viewer and heighten the experience. Take films like Nightcrawler though, or Sin City or 8mm, and the stories ascend from crime noir. Characters no longer just include criminals and cops. There are human “monsters” stalking about now. And those fist-fights and bank heists have been replaced by eccentric murders and manic imagery.
One of my favorite examples of Urban Gothic is Running Scared, starring the late Paul Walker. The movie didn’t really gain much in the way of praise, but I found it to be a smart film with a very unique feel to it. The plot, on its face, is a simple cop and crime caper, but quickly shifts towards more Gothic territory once modernized fairy tale characters and tropes come into play. The Blue Lady/Fairy Godmother now a prostitute. A city park druggie appearing beneath a bridge, much like a troll would. A pair of goblinesque killers, worse than any child-eating witch before them. These plot points, wrapped around the central crime story, changed everything about the movie, offering the audiences a deeper and darker story.
Another great example, and a more recent entry into the subgenre, is the new horror favorite American Mary. In my in-depth review of it I talk about how the movie succeeds by presenting a plot with several layers for viewers to delve into. It wasn’t a splatterfest that was simply put out for blood and gore’s sake. It was a fully fleshed story of a woman losing herself in a dark underworld and the surreal, yet still human characters around her.
For some other films to help you get a grip on what constitutes as modern Urban Gothic, I’d also recommend The People Under the Stairs, Zodiac, and Se7en. And don’t neglect some great books either! Stephen Law’s Darkfall nicely fuses Gothic horror with a modern high rise building setting and Christopher Rice’s New Orleans set A Density of Souls is an emotional and sometimes strange tale with noticeable Gothic influences.
(Post Note: I won’t even discuss just how Gothic the entirety of Batman and his native Gotham is. That’s a whole other post waiting to be written by nerds far better than me, but I will say it’s probably the best example of modern Urban horror Gothic.)