James Bell (ed.), Gothic: A BFI Compendium, BFI, ISBN: 978-1-84457-682-1, £15.00, 2013.
Barry Forshaw, British Gothic Cinema, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN: 978-1-137-30031-7, £16.99, 2013.
Various, BFI ‘Gothic’ Film Classics, Palgrave/BFI, each £10.99
Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1960)
The full version of this article appears in Splice Volume 7 issue 1, the full contents of which is here.
‘Gothic’ is big news at the moment. In autumn 2013, the British Film Institute unleashed a season spanning several months at the BFI Southbank with related events and screenings taking place in suitably spooky locations across a significant portion of the British Isles. This was good news for those of us who would like to persuade our children that there is more to vampires than Edward and Bella, but the season, spread across four themes – ‘Monstrous’, ‘The Dark Arts’, ‘Haunted’ and ‘Love is a Devil’ – does beg a question: what is ‘the Gothic’ in this day and age?
A sensible place to start, you’d think, would be the BFI’s own tie-in Compendium to the season, edited by Sight & Sound’s James Bell, who did a splendid job with the similar 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock to coincide with the 2012 retrospective. As with the earlier publication, the Compendium consists of a multitude of pieces (which range from a few hundred to around four thousand words in length) that address particular areas, and, as with the season it accompanied, there are four over-arching sections each consisting of three or four lengthy essays, which are then interspersed with shorter pieces. It is nothing if not comprehensive and the editor deserves credit for marshalling over 40 contributors and coming out the other side with something as coherent and engaging as this. If there is a slight whiff of ‘the usual suspects’ about the contributor list, – Kim Newman, Mark Kermode, Christopher Frayling, et al – well, the expertise on display is undeniable. And the editor has managed to spring a couple of surprises – one of my favourite pieces, on ‘Children of the Night’ is by Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) auteur Guillermo del Toro, who writes about scary children from fairy tales onwards with real thoughtfulness and some panache.
If there is a weakness in the content it lies in the rather mechanical nature of the articles, which tend towards the Sight & Sound template: contextualising introduction followed by a selection of case studies, then some concluding remarks that either summarise what has gone before or speculate as to future directions. Nothing wrong with that, but over 40+ pieces it gets a bit samey. What cannot be faulted are the production values of the tome, which is full colour throughout its 160 pages, almost every one of which features at least one and sometimes several illustrations.
Barry Forshaw contributes an essay on the British Gothic to the BFI book and his recent book on the subject is well-informed and breezy, mapping the territory from the literary origins of the Gothic inventions most beloved of cinema, Dracula and Frankenstein, to the present day resurgence (of which this book is a symptom) with the likes of Ben Wheatley’s films (Kill List, 2011, etc.), via Hammer, Amicus, et al. At first, the chapter on Universal’s 1930s incarnations of the classics seems a misstep in a book about British Gothic film, but Forshaw convinces by foregrounding the British involvement both in front of and behind the cameras. I was less persuaded by the chapter on the Gothic influence on TV (the BBC’s ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ tradition, Hammer House of Horror, etc.) – this is not in dispute, but I am not sure that the 12 pages devoted to it here is the place for that discussion; in trying to cover very conceivable angle rather than concentrating on the core subject the author can’t do it justice. Elsewhere Hammer understandably gets a more than fair hearing, but writing at time when many of the key films from the studio are getting their first Blu-ray release in restored versions, Forshaw’s appreciation actually feels more vital, and he does not neglect the more disreputable figures and films, such as the work of Pete Walker (Frightmare, 1974, etc.)
Forshaw’s approach is opinion- rather than research-centred, and he is not afraid to appear out of step with the conventional view. I detected a diffidence towards Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), which is widely regarded as a copper-bottomed classic of the Gothic tradition, and the definitive adaptation of Henry James’ story ‘The Turn of the Screw’. He evidently feels that the ‘narrative imperative’ of the story is sacrificed in favour of the stunningly evocative visuals (which he nonetheless applauds), which isn’t the sort of view that gets much of an airing. Similarly, he praises comparatively lavishly some films which have been neglected: the Amicus ‘portmanteau’ film Scream and Scream Again (1970) is applauded for subverting expectations of British horror cinema at the tail end of the Hammer boom, and Sidney Hayes’ Night of the Eagle (1962), which I have to admit to not previously having known of, is described as ‘one of the most effectively made, tense and effective British supernatural films ever made’ (p. 115).
A downside of this ‘the opinions expressed herein are my own’ approach, however, is the complete absence of a bibliography. The author is not, and would not claim to be, an academic – his beat is essentially genre fiction, especially crime and horror – and, in fact, it is precisely his non-jargony prose which makes British Gothic Cinema a recommended read for students looking for a primer on the topic. But, published as part of The Palgrave Gothic Series, described on the title verso page as ‘accessible but scholarly’, this omission feels like an oversight. Academic and educational publishing is not good at sticking up for itself and is having a bit of a rough ride from those who believe that the ‘open access’ publishing model is a viable alternative for scholarly publishing. I personally remain unconvinced, but it is up to publishers to make the case for their ongoing usefulness and skills base, and it strikes me that a template for any ‘accessible but scholarly’ book should include a basic bibliography both to reinforce the authority of the material and present readers with directions in which they can pursue their interest.
Palgrave, the publisher entrusted with the BFI Publishing list, published eight titles in the BFI Film Classics series to tie in with the Gothic season – four new, four expanded reissues. If the production values of the Forshaw book do not match the energy of the prose, they cannot be slighted in the case of the Classics, as they remain as high as when they were being published in-house, with extensive colour and black and white illustrations appearing on high quality paper. The four new titles are on the original Nosferatu (Kevin Jackson), The Shining (Roger Luckhurst), Pan’s Labyrinth (Mar Diestro-Dópido) and The Innocents (Christopher Frayling).
In The Shining, Roger Luckhurst, a professor at Birkbeck College, offers a variety of approaches to Kubrick’s film, famously resistant as it is to a definitive reading. The author makes a virtue of this, lobbing ideas in from all directions, including some interesting ones from an area of his particular interest, that of telepathy and its representations in culture. In a phrase borrowed from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, he locates the events that take place (or do they?) in the notorious Room 237 as being ‘the navel of The Shining’ (p.58), the point in the film that all the events lead to – and from – and which is, in Freud’s words ‘the spot where it reaches down into the unknown’. Luckhurst has already made the point that The Shining is a film without an identifiable subjective point of view, and this scene is the clearest example of that – we don’t know whether we are witnessing Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) visions, Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) actual experiences, Wendy’s (Shelley Duval) imagined horrors or Halloran’s (Scatman Crothers) telepathic insights – and is thus an encapsulation of Kubrick’s approach to filming the more generically familiar source material of Stephen King’s novel. It is precisely this lack of mooring for the audience, Luckhurst argues, that is responsible for the over-riding sense of unease and dread that hangs over the film.
Interestingly, Luckhurst almost entirely ignores the scene that often causes most head-scratching among audiences; that of Jack’s escape from the supplies store in which he has been incarcerated by his terrified wife. Until this point the events of the film can be entirely interpreted as the descent into out-and-out psychosis by a man whose sanity is already precarious; but the unlocking of the door by the unseen ‘Grady’ makes this reading ultimately unsustainable. I would have liked to know whether Luckhurst regards this as either the ultimate expression of Kubrick’s contempt for King’s genre conventions (and audiences) or an outrageous pulling of the rug from beneath the beliefs of the sceptics.
Kevin Jackson’s Nosferatu is a cornucopia of fascinating details surrounding the film’s production: for example, its specific setting in time (1838, way before the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula , on which it is based) alludes to an actual outbreak of plague in Bremen, so presumably giving an extra frisson of authenticity for original audiences. Jackson gives prominence to the figure of Albin Grau, officially the film’s designer but actually a much more influential figure who was committed to the occultist movement in the years immediately after World War I and would boast that Nosferatu was ‘the first authentic occult film’ (Jackson also believes the film’s director, F.W. Murnau, to have had more than a passing interest in occult matters). The author is generous in crediting his sources but he is no slouch in this area; his previous book, Constellation of Genius (2012) is a day-by-day account of Modernism’s breakthrough year 1922 – the year of Nosferatu’s release. Accordingly the material on the film’s staggered release across the globe, and its consequent suppression by Stoker’s widow Florence, feels almost like a treatment for a Da Vinci Code-like thriller (only rather better written), as prints of the film pop up in different forms in different territories, each pursued by the intransigent Mrs Stoker. In a nice touch, the illustrations provided from the film are in the colours of the original tinted version (blue for night, etc.), a reminder that early cinema wasn’t always in black and white.
Jackson dedicates his book to his friend Sir Christopher Frayling (‘The van Helsing de nos jours…’), who himself contributes a Classics volume on Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Perhaps unlike Barry Forshaw (above), Frayling feels that Clayton’s film is at least the equal of the Henry James short story and, in some ways, an improvement. Sir Christopher has done more than most to popularise the Gothic and amongst his other achievements (Rector of the Royal College of Art, Chair of the Arts Council) he is already the author of a delightful BFI Film Classic on William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936). It is disappointing, then, to report that The Innocents is a bit of a chore. A large chunk of the book – around 50 of its 114 pages – is devoted to the development of the script as it is passed between William Archibald (author of the play based on the James story but pre-dating the film), John Mortimer and Truman Capote, with director Clayton’s extensive notations reproduced from his original documents, now in the care of the BFI’s Special Collections Archive. While I am sure there are Capote scholars who will be thrilled to learn precisely which lines of dialogue he contributed, the rewards for the less invested reader aren’t so obvious.
Mar Diestro-Dópido’s discussion of Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, is a rattling good read, offering as it does a pretty thorough grounding in the social and cultural contexts of Guillermo del Toro’s international fantasy hit. The author skilfully places the film in relation to both the director’s other work and the ongoing conversation about the impact of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. There isn’t an enormous amount in the way of textual analysis, but read in conjunction with Auteur’s own Studying Pan’s Labyrinth (Tanya Jones, 2010), this really is the proverbial ideal introduction to the film.
Additionally, the four reissued ‘Gothic’ Classics are on Dreyer’s Vampyr (David Rudkin), the Herzog Nosferatu remake (S.S. Prawer), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (David Robinson) and Cat People (Kim Newman). All of the books have unique cover artwork (Cat People is my favourite), continuing the trend initiated in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the series launch, and thus moving away from a series ‘look’, which I slightly regret but it does appear to have given the Classics a shot in the arm. All the resissued volumes have new forewords and/or afterwords, and, as already mentioned, all are very handsomely produced.
But after all this, are we any nearer answering the question I posed at the start: what does ‘the Gothic’ mean today? Well, not really. In fact, it is hard to escape the conclusion that these days ‘Gothic’ is really a posh synonym for ‘horror’ used by the cultural elite to try and obscure the fact of their interest in a disreputable field. In The Shining, Roger Luckhurst suggests ‘the Gothic’ is a pre-twentieth-century phenomenon: ‘Twentieth-century horror is secular in a way the Gothic is not, because the Gothic clings to a Christian metaphysic of good and evil, justice and punishment’ (p. 87). This initially seems to be as good a one-line definition as any, until one considers the definitive twentieth-century horror, the slasher film, in which the murders are reactionary ‘punishments’ for such ‘offences’ as pre-marital sex and extreme playground bullying. But the slasher is indeed just about the one sub-genre of horror that is excluded from the literature reviewed here: even 35 years after Halloween (1978) and 50 years (!) after Psycho (1960 – which, to be fair, merits a mention in the BFI Compendium for its ‘old dark house’ iconography), there remains something fundamentally unwholesome about the extreme functionality of these films, generally unadorned by supernatural trappings or literary antecedents. It would appear that there are still dark corners that are stubbornly refused canonical status. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a BFI Film Classic on Hostel (2005) any time soon. For the health of the genre, we should probably be grateful.
The full version of this article appears in Splice Volume 7 issue 1, the full contents of which is here.