This essay is about the gothic landscape in film; how it was first created, how it evolved into a format we all recognise and how that format continues to evolve.1 We are so used to horror movies and gothic chills that we rarely consider not only the difference between the terms gothic and horror, but also the means by which both are rendered in a movie: gothic being the affect (mostly the mise en scene, the music and characterisation) and horror being the effect. A gothic movie uses shadow, strange lighting effects, claustrophobic interiors, strong Technicolor, distortion of geography or of rooms, a sound track that creates tension, is set at night, has forests, abandoned castles, and ruins and lonely fog-filled moorland and graveyards lit by lightning amongst other effects. It may be another remake of Dracula, but may equally be a passionate love story such as Wuthering Heights or Suddenly Last Summer, a reimagining of Macbeth by Akira Kurosawa in Throne of Blood or James Whales’ warped comedy of manners, The Old Dark House. Gothic scenarios are about heightened emotions contained in alienated landscapes and distorted architecture.
A horror story, on the other hand may or may not use gothic trappings, but is about the effect or result of narrative conditions which encapsulate death by various unpleasant means. The gothic needs no blood, horror cannot do without it. Horror is a more prevalent movie style, the gothic being a much rarer commodity requiring much scene dressing and additional atmosphere which horror does not have to deliver. This may be seen in any contemporary zombie movie where the action takes place in daylight, involves normal people, uses minimal prosthetics (or CGI) to reproduce body parts that explode, and has no setting except the quotidian reality of the modern day (think of the recent 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers or Cockneys v Zombies).
The gothic is a scenario, a scene set for the anticipation of horror. Horror is the revelation of violence in the décor of the gothic; gothic is an ambience, the horror an action within it. In its entirety gothic represents a mode of representation for a new sensibility. It is the map of the border of our imagination, a not quite real world at the edge of consciousness, always illuminated by the shadow of night and the rays of the moon. It is the night-world inside our heads, always suggesting questions of a psychological nature (think of the expressionist sets for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or even the strange Freudianism of Curt Siodmak’s The Wolfman or of the twisted psychopathology of Lance Comfort’s Daughter of Darkness). Even Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Demons of the Mind are films less about monsters than psychopathic family relations, whilst Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Dario Argento’s Profundo Rosso revel in psychopathology). Existential crises punctuate the genre too. In The Wicker Man the very landscape of Scotland is alienated and made ‘other’ to accommodate Howie’s final crisis of belief. There is ontological disturbance too, where the very stability of objects and people become uncertain (that peculiar ventriloquist’s doll in Dead of Night; the ‘ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw and in The Others or David Lynch’s concerns over identity in Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway: ‘dream[s] of strange desires wrapped inside a mystery’). Indeed all this suggests more than the mere materiality of physical horror.
Gothic horror has much also to do with religiosity (think of the imagery of resurrection or crucifixion in The Bride of Frankenstein) and much to do with the borders of the material. The state of ‘personhood’ implies physical and spiritual boundaries. When these boundaries of privacy are breached, the self becomes imperilled. It is in the confrontation with the ‘not me’ that the self becomes subject to spiritual angst. The gothic represents that continual confrontation with absolute otherness often represented by skewwiff and claustrophobic architectural space: the anticipatory corridor, the erotic space of the victim’s bedroom, the dead space of the vampire’s grave. Film makers soon discovered the alien environment of the hotel room (Psycho; The Shining; Hostel; Vacancy) and the fear of being in unfamiliar places.
To be haunted by ghouls, pursued by zombies, howled at by moonstruck werewolves is a means of imaging within the material but transferred to an elsewhere into which we step as an audience. It has long been a truism that the very cinema is a haunted space inhabited by celluloid ghosts. This ‘other’ place requires an outline, a décor and a geography. This world lay ready at hand in a landscape of ruins.
This landscape of otherness and opposition has transformed
as modern life has moved on. The gothic is essentially the return of
‘history’ as modernity. It is inhabited by a bestiary
of the modern: vampires; werewolves; mummies; zombies; ghouls; homunculi;
dark angels; ghosts; demonic animals; aliens; psychotic murderers. Every
modern teenage slasher tale takes on the characteristics of one or more
of the creatures in the gothic zoo, whose insatiable appetites for destruction
are fuelled by a mixture of blood, electricity, radiation and the full
moon, themselves the mystically charged emblems of ‘life’.
Such life creates living creatures which are the antithesis of the natural,
but which are the product of the modern mind, hell bent on replacing
the living with the supernaturally undead.
Indeed, although it may appear surprising that the gothic
landscape is described in detail in the early literature, the castles
and forests are usually attached not to Transylvania, or imagined towns
somewhere in middle Europe, but to Spain, France or Italy and nowhere
in all the literature are characters described as wearing the acid greens,
blood reds, blacks or purples so beloved of many of the great gothic
film makers. We know what gothic characters should wear, the original
writers of the genre did not. Indeed they would have been surprised
by the way, F W Murnau, James Whale, Curt Siodmak, Terence Fisher and
Jimmy Sangster, Roger Corman, Dario Argento or Jorge Grau would have
interpreted the specifically gothic genre for the screen.
Indeed, it is the theatrical reproduction of gothic literature throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than the original books, that has formed the basis of filmic interpretations, theatrical productions often refining or even redefining the way a gothic character is perceived. Such theatricals began just over thirty years after the first books appeared and were often elaborately staged. Playgoers between 1792 and 1825 could visit the Little Theatre or New Royal Theatre in the Haymarket, the Royal Coburg Theatre (the Old Vic), the Old Drury Lane, the English Opera House (the Lyceum) or Covent Garden to get ghoulish thrills from The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles by J R Planche, Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre, Edward Fitz-Bal’s The Devil’s Elixir or his Flying Dutchman, whilst at the end of the century there were shows a-plenty based upon Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula, with Frankenstein still as popular as ever.
During the Christmas period of 1887, for instance, the Gaiety Theatre put on a ‘melodramatic burlesque’ (a musical pantomime) of Frankenstein by ‘Richard Henry’, the combined pen name of Richard Butler and H. Chance Newton, who were well known for writing amusing and light-hearted spoofs. The play was in three acts and six scenes, including ‘a laboratory’ and the Italian Alps, all of which were interspersed with comic songs and slapstick. Frankenstein was played by a Miss Nellie Farron and the monster by Mr Fred Leslie, while an unlikely vampire count called Visconti was played by Mr E. J. Lonnen. It is interesting that by the last quarter of the nineteenth century the idea of putting vampires and Frankenstein in the same environment was so established that it needed no explanation.
It would be the flawed masterpiece by Henry Irving’s stage manager Bram Stoker that would become the staple of theatre and film. Dracula was published as a novel in 1897, but gained no real attention. The book made a modest return until film makers and theatrical impresarios saw its potential. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film Nosferatu broke copyright and was suppressed after Mrs Stoker sued, which meant that the book would remain a drawing-room melodrama even inTod Browning’s official movie version, adapted as a screenplay from the stage play by John L Balderston and Hamilton Deane.
On Valentine’s night, 1927, the Vampire Play, Dracula opened at the Little Theatre in the Strand and played for many months before transferring to the Garrick where it was equally successful. The play was in three acts with an epilogue. It consisted of the study of Jonathan Harker’s house on Hampstead Heath; Mrs Harker’s boudoir; again, the study of Jonathan Harker’s house; and the coach house at Carfax (which was now set on Hampstead Heath rather than Purfleet as in the original book); Lucy was already ‘dead’ before the curtain rose, and as an amusing twist, Deane introduced the action with a little humorous warning speech and a nurse waited in the foyer for those overcome with the vapours (a trick repeated in James Whales’s Frankenstein). The play was preceded by a selection on the piano forte, which continued during the interval.
Dracula caught the attention of both playgoers and critics despite its awful dialogue, which was noticed by all the reviewers from the Sunday Times and the Morning Post the next day, to the Observer a few days later. So risible was the dialogue that the Observer offered a parody:
Mr Lomath pronounced the word ‘personally’ as if it were spelt ‘Pahrs O Nally’ and said ‘Sahr Vis’ when he meant ‘service’.
Miss Patrick talked about a dreadful ‘Leth Are Gee’ which afflicted her ‘Leems’.
Nevertheless, the Tatler reviewed the production at the Garrick and while disparaging the play as ‘sensational crock’ and considering it ‘crude’ in execution, still found space to admire its shock value, shocks which sent those of a ‘limited intelligence’ on a visit to the foyer nurse. At the Little Theatre version, the critic admitted to the fact that he‘leaped out of my skin’. The reason for the terror was simply the excellent effects which consisted of
The mysterious appearances of Count Dracula, with his white face, red eyes, and Satanic wig, the sudden blood-curdling screams from the lunatic asylum next door, the crashing of a picture from the wall, the opening of doors and the turning of chairs – all these disturbances leave their impression on the audience plunged for the most part in total darkness and half-choked at moments by that ghastly vapour which stole through the bedroom-window of the unfortunate Mrs Harker and indicated the coming of the disembodied were-wulf [sic] to suck the life-blood from his victim’s throat.
Horror-melodrama theatre faded with the advent of the talkies (it did not vanish until the 1970s), but it had time to profoundly influence Tod Browning. Browning, a former magician, was attracted by the potential of the freak show and travelling carnival and although he was an expert on ‘black’ literature and the stories of Poe, he preferred to remain for the most part in the visual and visceral world of the ‘carny’, which indeed is the setting for The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a film that Browning was to see and admire. Browning’s main love was criminality brought about by magicians and illusionists and those out to deceive. He remained fascinated with ‘mirrors, facial masks, concealed rubber pieces for wounds and burns, fake heads and limbs, [and] all the paraphernalia of magicians’. This fascination with cinema as an extension of a theatre of illusion came to a climax in Freaks with its last shots of the woman-headed chicken, a ‘character’ that had interested Browning for many years. And yet Freaks also turns illusion on its head, as Browning used real side-show entertainers for his film rather than have actors create them from make-up and prosthetics.
The Universal classics of the period 1931 to 1941 were often based upon theatrical rewritings of Dracula and Frankenstein, rewritings which stripped out extraneous action or characters, a tradition that is clearly seen in the Hammer films of the 1950s to 1960s, which were essentially Victorian melodramas loosely based upon literary monsters. The other method was to create work with a rather flimsy relationship to a literary title, such as the films produced by Roger Corman which were based upon Edgar Allan Poe titles (The Tomb of Ligeia, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial). It would be necessary to get out of the ‘static’ theatrical mode of presentation if movie makers wished to make gothic film rather than badly rendered theatre and it is that particular conundrum that has forced film makers to reconsider the filmic visuality of the gothic.
The turn to thinking about the gothic in terms of the movie camera began in New York when Thomas Edison realised that his kinetoscopes, which he had first unveiled in New York entertainment parlours in 1894, needed better films that would hold the attention. His original efforts were soon transformed by the success of his horror short, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots which he followed with Frankenstein. With the narrative dramatically curtailed, the film ran for a mere seventy-one minutes, changing the story to suggest the monster was a projection of Frankenstein’s mind forged from necromantic desire and created by magic. With special effects, strong costumes, make up and hand-tinted film, the first showing was on 18 March, 1910, the film preceded by a spoiler warning the audience of the blasphemous nature of the storyline.
In Europe, directors may have still used theatricality (as was the case with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), but that had already begun to be superseded with a radical approach to shooting scripts which were influenced (as indeed was the stage) by Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism and the work of Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russe. Gothicism would soon become a matter of a new total visual language determined by set design, musical accompaniment and, above all, cinematography, which managed to turn the mundane objects of horror cinema into alienated and spectral substances: doors open and shut on their own; coffin lids slide across the boxes containing the vampire or somnambulist; whole towns exist only as painted and bizarre designs; walls bend and distort, replicating the insanity of the main characters; shadows move of their own accord; coaches travel without drivers.
Above all, silent European cinematic gothic horror was exemplified in the body of the monster, whether Max Schreck as Nosferatu, Max Nordau as the somnambulist Cesare, Robert Wiene as Dr Caligari or Rudolf Klein-Rogge, playing the inventor/magician C. A. Rotwang who brings the gothic into the heart of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. German expressionist cinema remains a weird world of shadow and light, theatrical makeup and the stagy rhetorical gestures of silent film, but it is also a powerful world of floating images and of monsters who combine stillness with spastic urgency, their spectral gliding and glances to camera the basis of dream-like fear.
In finding a language for the gothic, European film makers found that all the literary paraphernalia of the stage and of the literature that prefigured it were redundant when they came to be translated into visual images. They had to start with the essence of the cinematic and so the visual image predominated in place of the logic of a literary narrative. Where the literary was needed (especially in explaining vampire lore in an age not yet used to vampires) it simply slowed down the visual thrust of the movie as a whole. In finding a visual corollary for gothic literature and theatre such cinematography found its own unique ‘look’.
Such cinema productions were closer to the weird mental landscapes of the Brothers Grimm, E. T. A. Hoff man, Heinrich Hoff man or Hans Christian Anderson than they were to the world of English gothic, for despite Nosferatu’s evident debt to Stoker’s Dracula, it is a film conceived in a make-believe world of plague-bearing rats, crumbling Hanseatic towns and the atmosphere, as well as the costumes, of the 1840s. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is even less historically specific, creating a spatial never-never land or Hanseatic dreamscape inhabited by bizarre fairground hucksters, insane asylums, sinister doctors of psychology, somnambulistic killers and mad lovers, themselves the product of the psychic disturbance following the First World War.
Hollywood was momentarily cowed into submission by the German onslaught, but Frankenstein was ripe for remaking, especially as ‘live’ horror events became more and more confined to the fair or carney show, as movies advanced to sound effects, make up and settings far superior to anything found onstage or in a fair. Carl Laemmle’s production of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, mixed ‘ray-gun’ gothic with mad science, stolen brains and middle European landscapes to produce a quite new vision of the gothic as a fantasy landscape inhabited by ‘crazy’ scientists, hunch-backed assistants, loping monsters, graveyards, old barons, burgomasters, ‘Bavarian’ villages, electrical storms, graveyards, grave robbers and the first appearance of enraged peasants marching to burn down the windmill where the monster is trapped. The costumes and mise en scene in the film produce a strange but wholly unconscious dissonance between the imaginative period in which the story is set and the very modern world of the 1930s with which the film costumes its characters, a dissonance made more acute in The Bride of Frankenstein, which has a prologue that includes Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley dressed in the period costume of 1818, even though the main body of the film reverts to the 1930s.
In his trilogy beginning with Frankenstein and progressing through The Old Dark House to The Bride of Frankenstein, Whale produced the gothic landscape that has so firmly fixed itself in our imaginations. By combining the expressionist camera work of the German school with a naturalism partially the result of a sound track with spoken dialogue, Whale was able to naturalise German experimentalism and crate a sound and visual landscape in keeping with realism, but in touch with imaginative space, creating a non-historical fantasised present day, both familiar and strangely exotic and ripe for offering the possibilities of imaginative exploration. Such fantasized representations of the present day were reproduced in Universal’s ‘quickies’ such as The Black Cat, a film which featured both Lugosi and Karloff in an art deco palace stocked with modernist devices, but built over a former First World War fortress whose cavernous interior has the correct modern analogues of dungeons and torture chambers.
Quite different from Whale was the Danish director Carl Dreyer, working at the start of the sound era, who was able to put together the remarkable Vampyr, a dream-like meditation on Sheridan le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’. The tale had interested Dreyer as an experiment in a genre and he sent his researchers out to find locations that were infused with Poe’s sense of the outré. The film, which features a mad doctor, peasants with scythes who substitute for Death, a local river that is symbolic of the Styx, is cut with strange sound and lighting effects and with shadows that dance and play without accompanying bodies, has one character astrally project into the main character’s hotel room, and the hero, Allan Gray, astrally project in order to solve the mystery, appearing in two places at once, even being carried in a coffin. We are never sure what are simply hallucinations and what is truth, the whole producing a set of alienating affects including disquieting non sequiturs in the dialogue and peculiarities in the shooting. Produced when Universal were making Dracula, Dreyer’s film dispenses with the narrative that is so necessary for the former film, instead opting for a visual language that itself dispenses with linear narrative all together in order to reinforce the hallucinatory values of the film medium. Between 1919, when The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was produced, and 1931, when both Frankenstein and Vampyr appeared, film makers successfully liberated themselves from the world of gothic fiction, creating, instead, a new space, that of gothic film.
Sympathy for the devil was what Curt Siodmak created when he rethought the werewolf mythology for The Wolf Man in1941. The film’s central character Larry is the estranged son of Sir John Talbot, whose transformation into a werewolf is akin to an accidental and unfortunate disease similar to schizophrenia (there is even a painted advert for ‘Saneman Products’). Larry Talbot was played by no subtle Hungarian or well-educated Englishman, but by Lon Chaney junior, whose bulky appearance, open expression, love of girls and practical backwoods handyman skills made him the perfect American innocent abroad. The monster is not monstrous, but pitiable, a victim of circumstance. Although the film is supposedly set in Wales and Larry is meant to be an aristocrat, the film makes no concessions to Britishness and the characterisation of the policeman and the staging of the final hunting party are pure American in look and origin, the whole plot rethinking and reworking older ideas and inventing a new psychologised folklore. The gothic landscape is no longer the castle, but the forest where werewolves and gipsies roam, wolfbain flourishes, and where the light source is projected upwards onto trees painted a wet gloss black. The whole film is reminiscent of German folk tales rather than Welsh sensibilities. The set itself was even a reworking of the village in Frankenstein. The gothic is never wasteful of its gifts.
It was Hammer which returned to the gothic after it had been superseded by science fiction. Of course they returned to Universal’s renditions of Dracula and Frankenstein, now improved with Technicolor renditions of blood, much attention to female décolleté, vampire fangs and dramatic musical scores. By the early 1970s Hammer had perfected the gothic melodrama (Plague of the Zombies; The Mummy’s Shroud; Rasputin; The Blood Beast Terror) using good casts, strong storylines and excellent sets and for a few years such stories worked well, creating as they did the highpoint in colouration, with sets designed on the themes of red and green, purple and black, colours which went on to influence subsequent goth culture around the world. Yet only a few years later gothic movies had become stale and repetitive, substituting sex and fangs for strong storylines (for instance The Satanic Rites of Dracula), and this, combined with general loss of revenues in the industry, meant that inexpensive innovation would have to replace older style gothic comforts. The results were that gothic trappings were ditched for more realistic backgrounds, especially as Hammer turned to television production in the early 1980s with Hammer House of Horror.
Roger Corman’s great series of films which paralleled Hammer’s productions, but were based upon Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, took a different tack. Instead of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, Corman brought audiences his tortured visions of Poe’s insane and delusional central characters (played by Vincent Price or Ray Milland), whose lives had been warped, as often as not, by the machinations of an evil woman. In Corman’s work the gothic is laid on thickly with an emphasis on cemeteries, tombs, vaults and premature burial; his time-mouldered castes and abbeys are filled with cobwebs, candles and decrepitude, with sealed rooms, torture chambers and dungeons; his natural landscapes filled with fog, gravediggers and hallucination. Corman’s favourite colours are black, grey, purple and red. Unlike Hammer’s Victoriana, the world of Corman’s nightmares, although set in England between 1820 and 1840 (with suitable ‘milords’), have the moss-draped trees and fetid atmosphere of the American south rather than southern England.
In the 1970s, the natural landscape would itself be transformed into gothic nightmare. In Witch Finder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, the idyll of the British countryside is contrasted to the horror and madness of the action. Nevertheless, even these changes could not save gothic movies, swept away as they were by a new generation of horror set in the contemporary world of fashionable Washington (The Exorcist) or New York (Rosemary’s Baby), which substituted modernity and Satanism for Dracula and Victorian shrubbery. By the 1980s there was little left of intelligent gothic scripting after the onslaught of slasher movies and ‘video nasties’, which concentrated on teenage audiences fearful of illicit sex and obsessed by the angst of being cut to ribbons by maniacs in sorority houses or log cabins.
Whereas Hammer enjoyed popularity because of the anticipatory presence of Christopher Lee, in Corman’s films it is the continuous tortured presence of the main protagonist (essentially Vincent Price endlessly reprising his role from Dragonwyk) that holds the attention, the scripts eschewing Hammer’s naturalistic dialogue for the tortured convolution of Poe’s language and the surreal camerawork of dream sequences displaying the madness and the disorientation of the central character. Unlike Hammer, Corman was not trying to escape his filmic ancestors and any close viewing of his films will reveal references not only to German expressionist camera work (for instance the use of the camera eye in The Pit and the Pendulum, [The] Premature Burial and Ligeia), but will also reveal little touches from the Universal repertoire, where references to Frankenstein, Dracula and The Black Cat may be found. Last but not least, where Hammer produced melodramas, Corman went back to the origins of gothic theatre, his visual style closer to the theatrical work of Monk Lewis in the 1790s than to the cinema he was creating to rival Hammer’s productions.
Nevertheless, it was from these very sources that gothic-style movies were resurrected in Europe. The original interest in American and British gothic technique would result in homages to Corman in films such as Argento’s Suspiria or mere copycatting of the latest American box office hit such as l’Antichristo (based on The Exorcist), or even the Anglicisation of directors in order to drum up international success, as was the case with Riccardo Freda who was billed as Robert Hampton when he released Lo Spectro as The Ghost.
This reinvention of the tropes of gothic film occurred in Italy, where there had been no real history of gothic writing. Movie makers in Italy, for instance, fascinated both by whodunnits and the gore of slasher films, successfully combined the two genres in the giallo, or yellow film, both a homage to British yellow back novels crime writing and American pulp fiction. Yet the Italian imagination was divorced from the more Anglo-Saxon aspects of Gothicism. Instead, directors such as Dario Argento in films such as Profundo Rosso, Tenebrae and Terror at the Opera substituted contemporary glamour and eroticism, American-style police and innovative and gruesome murders with strong storylines, surprise endings and sets drawn from baroque Italian mansions, to modern apartments, brutalist Futurist squares and bars straight out of Edward Hopper paintings. This, combined with a dizzying camera technique and unexplained surreal set pieces (throbbing brains; mechanical dolls; reptiles pinned to the floor; mass attacks by ravens) created a profoundly unsettling and unpleasant ambient background to what were, in essence, slasher video nasties.
British and American style also influenced Spanish directors such as Jorge Grau, whose The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue was both influenced by British horror and set in Britain. It would take some years before Guillermo del Toro would develop a form of Spanish ‘dark fantasy’ that combined the repressed historical trauma of the Spanish Civil War with the fantastic and baroque gothic in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
One of the joys of much of gothic films is an attentive audience learning to navigate the repeated place names: the Borgo Pass in Dracula, the University of Ingolstadt in Frankenstein, Klausenburg in The Horror of Dracula, real place now displaced onto a map of imagination. Where exactly is the ruined windmill or the crazy tower housing Frankenstein’s laboratory and how near the town are they? Why does Larry go to see the gipsy in the wood at night and in the fog in The Wolfman? Or perhaps the viewer will linger at the various hostelries and inns (with their garlic and fear of strangers) on the way to the forbidden Castle Karnstein in Twins of Evil, or the forgotten graveyard by the forest in Taste the Blood of Dracula (which was actually Highgate Cemetery in North London), or even visit the fog-bound alleyways, brothels and gin palaces and crowded warrens of a forever-benighted Victorian East End in which Dr Phibes or Jack the Ripper (The Werewolf of London; The Hands of the Ripper; From Hell) and Dr Jekyll are always waiting to transmogrify into our scariest or wildest dreams (for instance in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde).
In Universal, Hammer and Anglo-American movies the world is populated by monsters that are anticipated with love from their fans: Universal’s stalwarks Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Dwyte Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Lon Chaney Junior and others such as the eccentric servant Una O’Connor, the exquisitely camp Ernest Thesinger, or David Manners, always the hapless romantic lead, and everyone transfixed as Colin Clive screams ‘It’s alive’. Hammer brought us the delights of Ralph Bates and Damien Thomas in frilly shirts; Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and a host of comfortable television character actors, as well as a bevy of beauties from the Collinson twins to Ingrid Pitt and Linda Hayden; Corman and Anglo-American brought wondrous maniacs like Vincent Price or Ray Milland and their doomed spouses Hazel Court, Barbara Steele or Elizabeth Shepherd. These are the ancillary pleasures of familiarity with screen stars denied us in gothic fiction or the sets of gothic theatre, thrills which may be repeated endlessly in television reruns on the Horror Channel or in aficionados collections of dvds.
There is a strong argument that would see gothic movies nowadays as nostalgia, as passé, something from less scarier times, gentle and friendly reminders of a lost yet familiar world. In one sense this is true, as gothic gives way to the horrors of bodily prosthetics and eye watering 3D, mostly set in America’s major cities or more remote backwoods. Curiously, the gothic has had a resurgence in children’s films (even Wallace and Gromit were not immune) and in the work of Tim Burton, whose own movies pay homage to the greats (Vincent Price as the ‘mad’ scientist in Edward Scissorhands), but tone down the filmic quotation to accommodate more sedate and whimsical thrills (The Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride and perhaps, less obviously, Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which are not immune from Burton’s ‘not-quite’ serious tone either). Where the gothic has had a resurgence is in the confluence of technology and terror and in the demon-filled, suburban world of Japanese (Ringu or Ju-On: The Grudge) and other non-western movies (especially Thailand and Korea), which have re-invigorated the visual impact of many worn-out gothic trappings with startling nightmare visions that only the movies can produce.
1. This essay was originally published
in an abridged form in Chapter 8, Clive Bloom, Gothic Histories:
The Taste for Terror 1764 to the Present (London; Continuum, 2010)
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