By Cameron Kaercher
As a sub-genre in horror, gothic stories have specific defining characteristics. Gothic digs its roots in the uncanny, which can be traced back to the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud broke down the word uncanny and said that it relates to a feeling of familiarity that is put at odds with a feeling of unease.
One of the more classic Gothic stories is Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, “Rebecca,” which received a cinematic adaptation from Alfred Hitchcock in 1940.
This year, Netflix has taken another stab at adapting this story.
Lily James stars as a young woman who is stuck working for the stuffy Mrs. Van Hopper, played by Ann Dowd. As the two vacation in Monte Carlo, Van Hopper falls ill, which gives the poor worker a chance to breathe — and to fall in love.
Van Hopper spends her days running away from her work and into the arms of the mysterious Maxim de Winter, played by Armie Hammer. While the romance is a whirlwind and they are engaged within the week, de Winter seems haunted by his former wife.
As the new Mrs. de Winter (the young woman) moves into Mr. de Winter’s mansion, known as Manderlay, she learns that the titular Rebecca de Winter may be gone, but she is not forgotten.
Modern horror films, like “The Conjuring” series, have set up an expectation of what makes a house of horrors. The house the Warren family moves into in “The Conjuring,” has cobwebs everywhere and each light bulb flickers dramatically. In “Rebecca,” the haunted house is a lavish mansion with gorgeous portraits hanging in the hallways and perfectly trimmed bushes outside. You would feel comfortable living in the mansion, but your sense of security will be undermined by the dread of past love infecting this relationship.
In fact, as a ghost story, the plot of “Rebecca” sets it apart from other modern horror films.
The loss of Rebecca de Winter is so pertinent that she never has to be seen physically because she is always on the character’s minds.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t tropes of modern horror films that can be found in “Rebecca” (2020), as the unrealistic dream sequences and overly dramatic score by Clint Mansell remind the viewer that this is a 21st century horror film.
Director Ben Wheatley may have spent his career making quirky, dark comedies that go against the grain like “Sightseers,” but here he seems to move towards the mainstream.
Wheatley worked with his long-time cinematographer, Laurie Rose, but it does not feel like the same two men who constructed the terrifying black and white world of “A Field in England.” This film is just acceptably lit. When the characters are in the sun, it looks warm, and when they are wandering around dark corridors, it looks dark.
Acceptable might be the best word to describe this movie. While it does not try to capture Hitchcock’s genius as Gus Van Sant tried to with his remake of “Psycho,” it doesn’t change enough to really stand on its own.
The fact of the matter is, when Hitchcock adapted “Rebecca,” it won Best Picture that year at the Academy Awards and today it is still regarded as a high point for the director’s career. Wheatley’s adaptation had stopped being promoted on Netflix a couple of days after it premiered. If you are looking for a gothic story with a spoonful of romance to watch this Halloween season, you are better off with 2017’s “Phantom Thread.”