It’s the week before Halloween, and yet it still doesn’t feel like fall. Let’s spend the week catapulting ourselves into the spooky mood by watching holiday-adjacent old movies. I’m sorry, but we’ve all seen Hocus Pocus too damn many times.
How in the world had I made it this long without having seen the 1946 gothic romance Dragonwyck, which is set in a gloomy baronial mansion in upstate New York and helped create the villainous persona that would earn Vincent Price his permanent place in the canon of popular culture?
The movie, adapted from a bestselling historical fiction novel by Anya Seton, follows Miranda (Gene Tierney), a young Connecticut farmer’s daughter who receives an opportunity to work as a companion to the daughter of a wealthy kinda-sorta cousin in upstate New York. Nicholas Van Ryn (played by Vincent Price, of the unsettling yet alluring horror movie voice) is a patroon, an immensely rich and powerful descendant of the original Dutch colonial landowners, who retained huge tracts of land and borderline feudal rights over the tenants well into the 19th century. This being a gothic romance, he lives in a big sweeping monstrosity named Dragonwyck. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it was one of the many influences that Guillermo del Toro wove into Crimson Peak.
“As one whose previous acquaintance with ‘Dragonwyck’ was nil, even unto a lack of knowledge of what the formidable title means, this reviewer is unable to tell you just how faithfully the film, which came to the Roxy yesterday, images the book,” confessed the 1946 New York Times reviewer, who added: “But this we can tell you without reference: the one-hour-and-forty-minute film is indeed the most grandiose and obvious repetition of the Bluebeard story that we have seen.”
I don’t want to spoil anything, but even without the trademark goatee you’ll have the oddly hot Price clocked as a wife-murdering rich boy within approximately 15 minutes after his appearance on the screen. “His moments of suave diabolism are about the best in the film,” noted the Times reviewer, who is absolutely right. Apparently he had to fight for the role; according to a writeup on TCM.com:
In her book Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, Victoria Price recounts the difficulty her father had in getting the role: “...having made such a success of the villain in Angel Street [Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 Broadway play], he was convinced that to play a similar role on screen would be a great boost to his career. But first he had to convince Mankiewicz and the studio heads. This was not that easy. ‘I had to fight like the devil for this part. My bosses kept remembering me as the good-natured guy in Laura (1944) and I insisted I wasn’t that type.’ Furthermore, Mankiewicz, who had produced The Keys of the Kingdom, could only think of Vincent as the portly prelate he had played in that film a long shot from the tall, dark, handsome Van Ryn that he had in mind. Determined to convince Mankiewicz, Vincent lost all the weight he had gained, auditioned, and won the coveted role.”
The movie does that incredible “women’s picture” loop-de-loop of acknowledging the desire to do something other than marry whatever local guy your family likes and moving into a domestic arrangement that bears a greater resemblance to postwar narratives about suburban living than a real-deal 19th century rural New England community—“A woman ought to get a man first, then want him,” her pipe-smoking father grouses—then presenting the risk that your lust for the finer things (“peaches out of season and the feel of silk sheets against your young body,” the obligatory creepy housekeeper puts it) will get you shackled to some power-tripping nightmare of a man. And yet, nothing expresses unease with power imbalances within the home quite like the gothic romance, an entire genre about houses where something is very, very wrong.
If you have any familiarity with Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Victoria Holt, or Mary Stewart, none of the plot twists will shock you. Frankly I’m not sure they even count as twists, so much as they are beats you know to expect and therefore ratchet up the dread. It’s like watching one of those slasher movies from the 1980s, in that you spend most of the movie wanting to yell, “No, Gene Tierney, don’t do it!” and “Gene Tierney, what are you thinking?”
Let me tell you what, though—the payoff when Tierney goes to find out what Price has been doing in his attic room all this time is incredible. Dude has basically been spending a lot of time reading about Nietzsche on the internet and decided that, actually, there is no rational reason that conventional notions of morality should apply to him. Don’t ever tell me these mannered, aggressively theatrical products of the studio system aren’t frightfully relevant!