by Melissa Strong
Period movies offer creepy psychodrama and mysterious plot twists perfect for Halloween viewing. If you enjoyed The Witch and The Woman in Black, consider The Others (2001): the time, 1940s. The place, Jersey, U.K. The literary connection, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. A woman isolated with her sickly children and weird servants in a remote country house. Strange occurrences ensue. Things are not what they seem, and someone isn’t telling the truth. Who is haunting whom? Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, starring Nicole Kidman.
Another good option is Fingersmith (2005), a three-hour BBC miniseries. The time and place, Victorian England. The literary connection: Sarah Waters’ Booker Prize-winning novel. Sue is a streetwise fingersmith - a pickpocket - while Maud is a lady set to inherit a fortune. Yet neither is what they seem, and both scheme to exploit the other even as they develop mutual affection. Trickery, betrayal, and commitment to an insane asylum ensue. Directed by Aisling Walsh, with Sally Hawkins, Imelda Staunton, and Tywin Lannister, I mean, Charles Dance.
The unusual and unforgettable Jane Eyre has been adapted for the screen many times, with at least one version per decade since 1910. The time, early nineteenth century. The place, northern England. The literary connection, Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. Feisty Jane challenges expectations that she has nothing to offer as a young woman others see as “poor, obscure, plain, and little.” She falls for her boss, even though he’s moody, mysterious, mean, and unwilling to answer questions about what he’s hiding or the strange goings-on at remote, fire-prone Thornfield Hall.
Most adaptations of Jane Eyre struggle to live up to their potential. It’s tempting to create an imaginary greatest-hits version comprised of the best parts of various films, Frankenstein style. Until the late twentieth century, too-pretty actresses often played Jane, such as Joan Fontaine (1943) and Susannah York (1970). Rochester, master of Thornfield, also tends to be insufficiently crusty, creepy, and Byronic. Orson Welles gets it right opposite Fontaine. Less convincing are William Hurt (1996), Ciarán Hinds (1997), and Michael Fassbender (2011), though their respective Janes - Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samantha Morton, and Mia Wasikowska - fare better.
In Angels and Insects (1995), a Jane-like governess, Matty, joins forces with a down-on-his luck scientist to teach some rich kids about natural selection and survival of the fittest. Set in Victorian England and adapted from A.S. Byatt’s novella, Matty beats the scientist to solving the mystery of the Usher-like Alabaster family. Directed by Philip Haas, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Mark Rylance.
Moving to early twentieth-century London, The Prestige (2006) is an underrated mystery thriller directed by Christopher Nolan before he became the Elvis Presley of cinema, surrounded by yes people to encourage his every self-indulgent whim. The literary connection: Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel. Two rival magicians vie for top dog, incurring ever greater risks to themselves and others while raising questions about reality, illusion, science, ethics, and teleportation. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play the magicians. With Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, and (shocker) Michael Caine. There’s also a surprise cameo by a music icon I won’t name, so you can be surprised too.
With options like these, who needs Freddy or Jason? Give the aliens and cursed videotapes a rest, and curl up with some corsets and crinoline. I’ll put on the tea kettle.