List of must-see films for the Murder Mystery section of my taxonomy of horror sub-genres.
Gosford Park (2002) Dir. Robert Altman
Robert Altman’s masterpiece of a murder mystery covers a range of political themes, most of which are construed as class issues. Within class conflict, the film addresses concepts of nationality, gender, and the politics of refusing to serve in the First World War. In terms of nationality, as I mentioned in this list, relations between Britain and Scotland are not now, nor have they really ever been, particularly favorable. Gosford Park draws a clear connection between class and nationality, with Britain accounting for the majority of high society and Scotland providing domestic help (a dynamic that foregrounds class to the detriment of a thorough understanding of colonialism, but at least Altman’s trying). The gender relations in the film almost exclusively revolve around money—which men have money, which don’t, how they wield it to get what they want from women, and how women have to manipulate men to get it themselves. Finally, there are a few small mentions of WWI service, and more specifically what not serving looked like or meant depending on a person’s class. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) managed to stay out of the war himself, instead turning a profit by supplying the military with…something? It’s not really clear. Meanwhile, the estate’s butler Jennings (Alan Bates) was a conscientious objector and served time in prison (his exemption from service apparently having been refused) and now has a criminal record, making him a minor suspect in Sir. McCordle’s murder.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) Dir. William Castle
This is, sadly, the only Vincent Price film on this list, but it was the first one I saw him in so I absolutely had to include it. Like the other films on this list from the 1940s and 50s, a main component of the character development has to do with overbearing, violent, misogynist men and women who are helpless (in different ways) to get away from those men. In House on Haunted Hill, Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) seems to absolutely loath his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), who hates him right back. He threatens her verbally and physically, and for her part she generally quips right back, but it’s clear that she’s scared of him. She becomes less sympathetic, predictably, when it is revealed that she has faked her own suicide as part of an elaborate plot to killer Frederick, claim his fortune, and run off with her lover Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal). The plot eventually falls apart, of course, and both Annabelle and David are killed, their bodies disposed of in a vat of acid. The film is also notable for its willingness to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. This is used primarily as a framing device, but there are lines throughout that Price delivers directly to camera.
And Then There Were None (1945) Dir. René Clair
And Then There Were None is a relatively predictable, b-flat Agatha Christie adaptation, with a well constructed mystery and meticulously detail-oriented plot. I’m including it here primarily as a historical example of what orientalism looked like in 1940s (horror) film. For those unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism. His argument revolves around an analysis of representations of Asian, North Africa, and the Middle East as being directly linked to imperialist projects in those parts of the world. Moreover, these representations are designed to maintain cultural subjugation of these people through exoticism, fetishization, romanticization, and paternalism.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Dir. David Fincher
This film could also be discussed in connection with rape-revenge films, although the narrative doesn’t necessarily revolve around Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) rape or her retaliation against Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) (which is horribly graphic but also immensely satisfying). The film also opens up the opprotunity to discuss concepts of gender and disappearance or invisibility, financial abuse in disability (rather than relationship) contexts, and the ideological foundations of antisemitism. There’s also a discussion to be had about molestation and child abuse, although this part of the narrative adds little to the conversation already had be existing films (and TV shows) that deal with this subject.
Rebecca (1940) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Everything that I said above about gender and power with regard to House on Haunted Hill is not only applicable to, but is amplified significantly in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel by the same name. Like Gosford Park there is a bit of class consciousness, in that the second Mrs. de Winter (who is significantly not named in the original novel or in the film) is a paid companion when Maxim de Winter meets and courts her, and after their marriage she is suddenly the mistress of an enormous estate. As a fan of the book, I don’t love Hitchcock’s adaptation, which in large part has to do with his approach to female characters (that is, flat and evil or flat and insipid; either way, women in his films rarely constitute actual characters). The film does maintain a small amount of the queer subtext from the original novel, although used in the film to pathologize Mrs. Danvers more than anything else. Considering the film from a 21st-century perspective, it’s a fairly solid example of what non-physical abuse looks like, and can help situate problematic representations of romantic love historically.
Image credit: USA Films © 2001
Author: Geneveive Newman