- David Thompson

Welcome to the blog for FROM OUT OF THE SHADOWS a season of films celebrating the Gothic on film. Below you'll find more information on the films themselves, and why we think they're worth your attention. Click on the titles in the 'WHAT'S ON' section to see write-ups on each of the films that we're showing, while if you look back in the Archive Section, you'll find a little more about the Gothic in relation to the city where we're screening and the odd extra tidbit that we couldn't quite fit in anywhere else. Have a good look around. We hope you find it interesting. With any luck we'll see you there... it's going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, 21 September 2009


DIR: Guillermo Del Toro
SPAIN 2001 108mins

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is Guillermo Del Toro’s finest film to date. Better even than the much lauded PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006). It is – to all intents and purpose – a perfect feature film. Faultless. It doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Why then does it seem almost overlooked?

Perhaps because the year the film came out was the year of 9/11, and after that, everything that the film had to say about fear and terror, changed. Perhaps...

Perhaps it is because the film, though undoubtedly a Horror film, is not so much a ghost story, as a story with a ghost in it. You could almost take the supernatural out of the film and it would still function as a drama.

But I have a feeling it is because the film is so poetic and people are not always, or perhaps were not at the time, so open to Del Toro’s particular brand of poetic horror.

‘The poetry works better in the garage,’ Jean Cocteau once said in response to critics of his film L’ETERNAL RETOUR (1943) who though the lover’s castle more poetic. But like Cocteau, Del Toro knows the value of placing his poetry amidst more mundane/realist settings, the better to make his audience connect with it.

Like Mario Bava (MASK OF SATAN (1960), BLACK SABBATH (1963), KILL BABY KILL (1966)) and Georges Franju (EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)) before him, Del Toro deals in a variety of Horror that is not so much about making us jump, or grossing us out as it is about getting underneath our skins. His is a cinema that finds beauty in the monstrous and poetry in shadows. He makes films that are ‘uncanny’, images that create a frisson of dreadful excitement and deeply felt emotion. His is a cinema, of the Sublime.

Set in an isolated orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Del Toro marshals all the elements of the Gothic Romance (begun in Walpole’s CASTLE OF OTRANTO, and continued and perfected through Maturin’s MELMOTH THE WANDERER, Beckford’s VATHEK, Mathew Lewis’ THE MONK etc) to tell his tale.

Walpole’s Otranto began with the helmet from a suit of armour falling to the patio of the titular castle, where it would remain for the rest of the book; a sudden eruption and constant reminder of the past; of things hidden, part forgotten, but demanding to be dealt with. Del Toro uses a bomb.

On the night that a young boy disappeared from the orphanage the bomb fell, but did not explode. Since everyone is too busy fighting the war, there is no-one to take the thing away. So it sits, there, like a statue, in the middle of the school yard: a reminder, a threat, waiting to go off.

And go off it will, as the secrets of the past, that simmer beneath the surface of the story’s present, boil over and erupt by its end.

The innocent hero who must venture into darkness; a hidden treasure; the bomb; the cave/world beneath – here represented by the basement of the orphanage which is (literally and metaphorically) the gut/heart of the building and ultimately the mystery, the place where the tragic event of the past took place...

All of these elements are core to the Gothic as a genre, and core to THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE as a film.

The use of a single main location, a building that almost seems to have a soul – the castles and cathedrals and doom laden homes of the literary Gothic, is here an orphanage. An orphanage that, if one looks carefully, bares architectural resemblance to the locations of Mario Bava’s Gothic masterpiece KILL BABY...KILL, much the way that the interior of the main location in PAN’S LABYRINTH resembles that of the ‘Wurdulak’ segment of Bava’s portmanteau horror film BLACK SABBATH (AKA THREE FACES OF FEAR), as if Del Toro is paying his respects not only to the masters of the literary form, but to the cinematic descendents that have followed it, and preceded him; acutely aware that he is part of a storytelling heritage. And an extraordinarily rich one at that.

Watch out for the way he delineates day and night in the film. They are almost two different worlds. Day is brightly lit, baked dry, sweltering. Night is cool and not only filled with shadows, but also with a highly stylised use of colour: cold blues contrast with warm yellow/browns and splashes of green and red.

As Del Toro described it to Pedro Almodovar, the producer of the film: ‘We’re going to shoot Sergio Leone days and Mario Bava nights’... and that’s exactly what he did.

For those not familiar with Bava’s work - and he’s not exactly a mainstream figure – his films were typified by an extremely stylised, expressionistic use of colour. Colour which may not be logical in terms of available source, but which contributed enormously to the emotional impact of his films. He had a painter’s sense of light and colour, and used it accordingly to evoke feelings in his audience. Del Toro - with his cinematographer of choice Guillermo Navarro – does the same.


Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH...

More from BLACK SABBATH...

Mario Bava's KILL BABY...KILL!

You can see this sensibility at work in all of his films. Even the ostensibly ‘light weight’ comic book adaptation HELLBOY (2004) and its sequel HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008) (though of course they are nothing of the sort if you’re willing to delve a little deeper) are suffused with an incredibly sophisticated use of colour as a means of conveying narrative and emotional information.

It is my firm belief that Del Toro is one of the finest film makers working today. Not just because he is a consummate craftsman in terms of his visual style, but because he cares passionately about his films in their totality. He is not flashy for the sake of it. He is determined that his films be as satisfying emotionally as they are intellectually – they are more complex than simple allegory, as befits a man obsessed by symbolist painters, folk lore, fairy tales and late Victorian/early Edwardian writers of ‘weird’ tales such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and MR James, as well as the later authors of cosmic horror like H.P Lovecraft.

What is so refreshing about Del Toro is the care and attention to the writing as well as the images...

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is structured to rhyme and echo; certain elements deliberately reflect and comment on each other. It is also a circular narrative, it ends with much the same set of images with which it begins, but by the time we get there, we have a whole new understanding of what we are seeing. A whole new perspective.

In the course of the film, pay attention to the details: for instance, the way the ghost looks like a cracked porcelain doll. It is frightening to see it at first, but we are meant to feel sorry for this ghost, not just afraid. It is at once an image of beauty and fragility, as well as one of tragedy and fear.

The kitchen when the boys sneak in at night to get more water, looks like an ogre’s kitchen; the hanging knives and scissors seem oversized and threatening.

To return to the colours, notice how almost nothing is truly white. White, as a symbol of purity is rarely allowed in the film – look closely and you’ll see that almost everything that seems white is in fact off-white, yellowed and stained, as if tainted. Nothing is quite what it seems, nothing is simply one thing or the other. Nothing is entirely pure... the war taints everything, and everybody’s actions.

There’s so much in this film, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Discovery is part of the joy. It is such a well made film, such a perfectly paced, perfectly judged film... I just want you to sit back and enjoy it. Be moved as I was. As indeed, I am every time I see it. Because every time I see it, I find something new. Something more...

As an example of the Gothic onscreen this is superlative, demonstrating beyond doubt that the Gothic is about more than creaking doors and looming castles. It is a style that can be applied almost anywhere, a mode that can still – despite the clichés – produce stories of great depth, intelligence and terrible beauty.

The Gothic is still relevant, still powerful, still very much alive. You’re going to fall in love with this film. Just wait and see...

Text by Neil Snowdon


DIR: Neil Jordan
UK 1984 95mins (18)

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES was a slightly belated addition to a mini-revival of one of the more neglected of the repertory of gothic monsters, the werewolf. Even Hammer, who had done so much to revive the fortunes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, only managed one outing for their shape-shifting cousin.

Perhaps its power has been diminished as the untamed wilderness of which it was an embodiment has been swallowed up by the spread of urban civilisation: a victim of habitat destruction like so many species.

The lycanthropic surge at the turn of the 80s saw the release of John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) and Michael Wadleigh’s THE WOLFEN (1981), both of which stranded the creatures in the modern city, and Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING (1981), in which a new age forest retreat made for a perfect sanctuary and hunting ground of tamed wilderness.

THE COMPANY OF WOLVES - released a couple of years after these films - draws out the werewolf theme from the gothic primer of the fairy tale. In something of a triumph for independent producers Palace Pictures, this modestly budgeted British film received its premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square on September 21st 1984.

The film was adapted from her own short stories by Angela Carter, in collaboration with the director Neil Jordan, himself an author turned director. Her collection The Bloody Chamber had explored the thinly concealed substrata of the fairy tale, that relic of the oral tradition of storytelling long since consigned to the nursery. Carter had also edited and introduced two volumes of fairy stories published by the Virago press, the first of which was retitled The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book for its US edition, highlighting the female provenance of the tradition.

These children’s tales bore a wealth of secret knowledge, allowing a feminine perspective on life to be voiced, and it is those voices which give structure to the film, through a series of nested stories which respond to and unfold from each other.

Carter also knew her Freud, and the film is soaked with imagery drawn from his theories on the interpretation of dreams and the nature of the uncanny. But the feminist writer and anarchist spirit begged to differ with the bearded Viennese figure of authority, whose theories didn’t, of course, apply to himself (a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, after all).

This story is one in which an adolescent girl interprets her own dreams and finds her own path through the woods, learning to become the author of her own self. She refuses to be subsumed by the stories told by others and the version of the world which they would impose upon her. As such, the film argues for the vital importance of the fairy story and the fiction of the fantastic in general, of the need to re-imagine the limits of the possible. It also challenges the role of fearful victim commonly ascribed to the female characters of gothic fictions, as represented on the cover of the magazine we see lying on the young girl’s bed at the start of the film. Stray from the path, Angela tells us - in contradiction to granny’s aphoristic commands - and explore the dark spaces beyond the village’s safe boundaries. The tales of terror you’ve been fed may well prove illusory when fearlessly faced...

The film opens in the world of external reality, but it already seems at some remove from the everyday. A Volvo drives through an autumnal oak wood, paced by a racing Alsatian, until it reaches the drive of an old Georgian country house and the plunder of a trip to Sainsbury’s is unloaded.

The camera glides into the house and up the staircase, the walls becoming increasingly grimy and dilapidated as we ascend, until finally we discover a young girl locked in the disarrayed sanctuary of her room. This is the place where the mad woman in the attic of gothic fiction would be hidden away, but the girl has exiled herself, locking the door from the inside. Her bedroom mixes the standard paraphernalia of teenage bedrooms with relics of a childhood soon to be left behind.

Posters of New Romantic pop stars abut Beatrix Potter and Ladybird fairy tale books, the latter perhaps giving a hint as to how these stories have become neutered over time. The antique toys which perch on the shelves give a glimpse of older childhoods where such expurgations may have originated, staring down with glassy Victorian eyes.

The screenplay specifies a poster of Lon Chaney as the WOLFMAN (1941) being on the wall, declaring a direct link with gothic cinematic antecedents, but this is absent from the final film. There are only so many symbols and meaningful objects you can pack into a small span of space and time.

On the door, a white, bridal-looking dress hangs and sways back and forth in the breeze blowing through the open window, as if animated with its own inner life, struggling to unhook itself from the clothes hanger and fly free. This may be a homage to a similar symbolic image at the beginning of Powell and Pressburger’s film I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING (1945), another tale of a woman who decides to stray from the path set out before her, in this case the road which leads to the highlands and islands of Scotland and an opportunistic marriage into wealth and society.

In Angela Carter’s published screenplay, the girl in the room is named as Alice, bringing to mind another young adventurer into dream worlds. She is thus separated from her dream double, Rosaleen. It is Alice rather than her sister who meets her end in the borderlands of dream during the first exploration of the forest’s edge, a graphic enactment of the death of childhood. But in the film, she remains anonymous, unnamed other than by her sister’s hissed ‘pest’, and thus more closely linked with the Rosaleen of her inner world. The womblike inner sanctum of her room is the atrium of the dream world, and the camera leads us weightlessly through the window towards the dark forest, the Grimm heart of the primal stories.

This forest is the central gothic locale of the film, and one which indicates a journey into an inner landscape. The village huts, the church and even the gravestones have an amorphous, rounded shapelessness which suggests this interior nature.

Insofar as the overarching clusters of soaring columns and the stone-carved foliage of medieval cathedrals seek to emulate the forms and the hushed ambience of the forest, it could indeed be said to be the birthplace of the gothic spirit, the wildwood constantly threatening to encroach upon the narrow compass of civilisation.

The borderlands to which the real Rosaleen consigns her sister are still filled with the transformed objects of her room, the personal materials from which her dream world will be fashioned. Freud’s theories of the uncanny are realised as the inanimate comes to life, those Victorian toys, creepy enough in themselves, taking on the oversized menace of nightmare avengers. Semi-organic organ pipes blast out gothic chords and enormous mushrooms emphasize the dank darkness of the forest. The tree trunks seem to have the striated, reddish consistency of muscle tissue, an inner world literally built from fleshy matter. But this is only the edge, a territory still connected with the waking world. As with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories, which excavate the strata of the mythical matter of Britain, the heart of the story lies deeper within, and we must venture towards more immaterial, symbolic realms.

The forest was built on a couple of sound stages at Shepperton Studios, and it never loses the feel of a stage set, an enclosed environment. This is entirely to its advantage, and in keeping with the notion of an inner landscape. The mixture of props and painted backdrops and the freedom to play with lighting effects creates artificiality perfect for the telling of a fairy tale. It enhances the enchantment, the feeling of being told a story, of being led through a series of book-plate illustrations in an old Edwardian tome.

It is similar to the mood created in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), where we are entranced by the painted backdrops of a landscape which takes off where the studio set ends, the yellow brick road winding through fields and up over the hills to the distant horizon. Powell and Pressburger’s recreation of the Himalayas at Shepperton for BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) exerts a similar spell, with its beautiful glass paintings of lush distant valleys and pastel blue mountains visible beyond the set of the nun’s missionary school. The forest set of the ‘Woman of the Snow’ episode of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology of Japanese ghost stories KWAIDAN also bears a strong resemblance, and similarly creates a self-enclosed atmosphere of the uncanny through lighting and the striking non-naturalistic use of colour. These are atmospheres - relying as they do on the creation of a painterly look by the cinematographer - which the virtual palette of CGI, for all its manifold marvels, cannot hope to recreate. Indeed, the work of artists has a strong influence on the look of designer Anton Furst’s sets. Samuel Palmer, in particular, is a primary source, as a look at paintings such as Coming From An Evening Church and The Magic Apple Tree will affirm.

The film is peopled with a solid cast of dependable British character actors. Principle amongst these is Angela Lansbury, who plays Rosaleen’s grandmother, the source of the old wives’ wolves tales she is told.

Lansbury portrays the grandmother as an outwardly comforting figure who betrays steely hints of malevolence in the glints of light which reflect from the lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses. Her stories encourage a fearful and conformist view of the world in which the other, that which is different, is to be shunned. The poisonous core of these tales is like the maggot found wriggling inside the seemingly perfect apple which Rosaleen picks up from the ground of her garden.

When Rosaleen starts to formulate her own stories, they are essentially ripostes to her grandmother’s tales. It is something of a story duel. Rosaleen reshapes the matter of her granny’s stories and uses them to work out her own burgeoning feelings. Tentatively testing her tales on her mother, she challenges the view of the world offered by the received wisdom of the older generation. This is evident in her final story through the inclusion of the vicar - for whom her granny has nothing but open contempt - as a figure with compassion for and acceptance of the other, the wolf-child.

Rosaleen’s empathy for this scorned outsider turns her granny’s stories inside out, and exorcises the fear at their heart. The wounds are now inflicted by the supposedly righteous, driving the despised innocent back into her underground retreat of alienated introversion. The wounds of the wolf-girl will never wholly heal, and her tears will flow forever, filling the well from which she emerged and to which she now returns.

The vicar is played by the redoubtable Graham Crowden, who reads his passages from the bible with much the same quizzical cadences he used to read passages from history as the eccentric bicycle riding teacher in IF… (1968). Also on hand are Brian Glover, who plays Brian Glover to a tee, and Terence Stamp as the immaculately tailored devil, holding what apparently is a pygmy skull before him, as if he’s working up to a soliloquy.

This was Stamp’s first film in some while, having retreated into self-imposed exile for reasons unveiled in his evocatively elegiac autobiography Double Feature. The suit was the price of his appearance, and excellent value it was too. Remarkably, Neil Jordan wanted Andy Warhol for the part, and Andy was indeed interested, but circumstances conspired against the fulfilment of such a startling cameo.

The gaily attired huntsman who Rosaleen meets towards the end of the film was played by the dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese, who was later to be the artistic director of the Millenium Dome show, for his sins. His performance is archly mannered, every movement carefully considered and balanced, as befits a dancer. He brings a muscular physicality to his transformation scene that lends it an intense immediacy that elaborate effects couldn’t have captured. With his blue brocaded frock coat, tricorne hat and high riding boots, he could be the original model for some of the New Romantic pop stars that deck the real Rosaleen’s walls. Could this in fact be ‘the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention’?

Post-punk Goth singer Danielle Dax makes an effective silent appearance as the protagonist of Rosaleen’s final story. She plays the pitiful wild child, rejected by the world into which she tentatively emerges, sheltered for a short span by the vicar before crawling back into realms below.

Sarah Patterson in the central role of Rosaleen bears much of the weight of the film, and she does so admirably, portraying the innocence and freshness of her character, but also the fortitude and questioning nature which leads her to forge her own path. Patterson didn’t follow up on this initial foray into acting, but has recently appeared in two films by English director Lisa Gornick, ‘Do I Love You’ and ‘Tick Tock Lullaby’.

Mention should also be made of the fine score by George Fenton, which incorporates elements of Irish folk music and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, the latter rising to lush heights as Rosaleen climbs the largest tree in the forest. Fenton has gone on to be a prolific composer for film and TV, as he already was at the time, and has scored many of Ken Loach’s films as well as providing the sweeping orchestrations which accompany the awe-inspiring photography of the BBC’s PLANET EARTH (2006) series.

The film is visually ravishing and full of beautiful poetic images. The sensual red of experience mixes with the pure white of innocence as blood in milk, blood on snow and tears staining a white rose red. The latter image brings to mind the drop of menstrual blood staining the white daisy petal in the 1968 Czechoslovakian fairy tale fantasia VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS, which could be considered something of a sister film to THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. Both represent, through the forms of the fantastic, the breaching of a young girl’s innocence and the encroachment of the cares and experiences of adulthood, but both show their young protagonists taking control of the symbolic landscapes in which their fables unfold and ultimately embracing the change which has come upon them.

The moon occluded by the blinking of a superimposed eye is an image which also appears in the ‘Woman of the Snow’ episode of KWAIDAN mentioned above, and could be seen as representing the ever-watchful gaze of the omniscient overseer of the subconscious. Freudian protuberances are ubiquitous, whether they be the tumescent pump of the well at the centre of the village, rising above the wet, shadowy darkness of the shaft like a westernised Shiva Lingam, or the suggestively gnarled and knobby knot at the base of the tree which Rosaleen climbs. The bright red of Rosaleen’s riding hood shawl makes her stand out vividly against the drab, earthy colours with which the village peasantry are clothed.

We also briefly see carts filled with glittering gemstones being pulled along rails emerging from mine shafts, suggesting a new, neighbouring locale for further fairy tales, extending perhaps to a whole continent of contiguous storybook worlds. There is a whole menagerie of symbolic beasts scattered throughout the film. Crows, toads, rats, owls, hedgehogs, storks, lizards, snakes and spiders; All the creatures of fear and magic, looking on with disinterest from branches and rocks, just as they do during the night-river journey in Charles Laughton’s film of Southern fairy tale gothic, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).

The film ends back at the Georgian house, back in Rosaleen’s bedroom. As the magazine cover had foretold, her dream is indeed shattered. Things will never be the same again. For once you have strayed from the path, the complex kaleidoscope of the imagination is shaken from its stasis and can unfold into an infinite array of possibilities. The only boundaries are those of the mind. And they are very wide indeed.

Text by Jez Winship


DIR: Alan Gibson
UK 1972 96mins (15)

Hammer tended to locate Christopher Lee’s Dracula in some vaguely defined nineteenth century mittel-Europe, which road signs or directions given to harried coach drivers would place as being near a Germanic sounding town called Karlstadt.

Truth to tell, the fearful peasantry tended to sound more West Country than Westphalia, and the heath-land and beech woods were hardly the Black Forest, but the notion was there.

The Count did make it to Victorian England in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), carried in desiccated form by Roy Kinnear’s unwitting salesman and unleashed by Ralph Bates’ fin de siècle seeker of decadent sensation. But he immediately retreated to the ancestral castle for the woeful SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), a low point in the studio’s output which makes such derided efforts as PREHISTORIC WOMEN (AKA SLAVE GIRLS (1967)) and THE VIKING QUEEN (1967) seem like minor masterpieces in comparison (they’re certainly a great deal more entertaining). The general weariness displayed by all involved, and the desperate resort to liberal lashings of tawdry gore must have occasioned a rethink; and the most obvious way to refresh the Count? Introduce him into a contemporary setting...

In the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 60s - the implications of which were working themselves out as the new decade progressed - a rural European setting in thrall to the feudal class divisions of a previous century, no longer had much resonance for a popular audience. Michael Reeves’ 1968 film WITCHFINDER GENERAL had set a new standard for the representation of a particularised English past of squalid rural brutality, which made Hammer’s fairy tale locales seem even further removed from the times. It was time for Dracula to come down from his castle. This was, after all, what he had done in Bram Stoker’s novel, making arrangements to move to London in order to take full advantage of the steam-driven technologies of the modern late-Victorian metropolis.

The title DRACULA AD 1972 foregrounds this move to the modern era, but the opening of the film eases us towards such jarring modernity with a fatal struggle to the death between the Count and his arch-nemesis Van Helsing atop a careening carriage a hundred years earlier. This nod towards an Anglicised version of the Western convention of the assault on a speeding stagecoach - an extended version of which was played out towards the climax of Tim Burton’s Hammer homage SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) - is an indication of the generic elements which will be added to the usual gothic mix in this film and its follow up, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

The writer of both, Don Houghton, had already displayed his propensity for such miscegenation with his two Jon Pertwee DOCTOR WHO scripts, INFERNO (1970) and THE MIND OF EVIL (1963), which used plot structures borrowed from the disaster movie and the Cold War thriller, and he was later to create a self-reflexive country house murder mystery within which to house the strange metaphysics of the SAPPHIRE AND STEEL (1979) universe. The Count’s meagre remains, which we have seen in previous films are more than enough to effect a resurrection, are buried beyond the pale of the graveyard where Van Helsing is interred. There is a definite sense that these adversaries need each other. They are the twin poles of a Manichean worldview, each defined by the other’s opposition. The resumption of this eternal struggle will almost be a relief to them as they find themselves adrift in the rapidly shifting social milieu of the 70s.

The shock of the new is rather neatly conveyed by a camera pan away from a close-up on Van Helsing’s tombstone, which reveals that it is now surrounded by the encroaching rubble of demolition in preparation for subsequent redevelopment in the 70s style. And that means concrete. From the bird song in the rural Victorian graveyard where we have just witnessed the dual interment, the camera pans upwards to witness a jet plane roar overhead. It is a century-bridging cut which directly echoes a similar effect in Powell and Pressburger’s A CANTERBURY TALE (1944), where the hawk sent into the air by one of Chaucer’s pilgrims is transformed into a spitfire as we are shifted into the modern Kentish countryside of the Second World War.

Director Alan Gibson gives us some sweeping wide-angle lens panoramas, a technique on which he seems quite keen, to give an impression of this disorienting new world. Concrete overpasses spanning busy roads, the dizzying heights of steel and glass office blocks, and traffic choked London streets. It is little wonder that Dracula, once reincarnated, opts to stay in his small oasis of Victorian gothic revival. Remember, this was the era in which British Rail wanted to demolish the Gothic railway temple of St Pancras, presumably to make way for something along the lines of the brutalist civic centre now facing it in an architectural version of a Sergio Leone standoff.

The seeming irony of the Count taking refuge in a church, albeit a deconsecrated one, perhaps taps into a deeper sense that such figures of darkness can only have a meaningful existence in a world in which faith is still central. Van Helsing similarly takes refuge amongst the Victorian furnishings of his book-lined study, a scholar’s retreat which his granddaughter Jessica likens to a mausoleum. So is this really an analysis of the soul’s desolation, the isolation of the individual in the shadow of God’s absence from the world, in the manner of Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT (1962)? Er, not really, no. But it does reflect the wilful demolition of the past and the values which it embodied which was being carried out at the time. Many have seen the confinement of Dracula within St Botolph’s church as a failure of nerve, but I find it entirely appropriate for the period. A crisis of faith, be it cultural or religious, is a threat to sacred monsters and sacred architecture alike.

The Count’s servant seems to have changed little over the century, save in his foppish fashions and modish hairstyle, but we must assume that he is a direct descendant in the same way that Peter Cushing’s strangely named Lorrimer Van Helsing is the grandson of the original vampire hunter. The book ‘The House of Horror’, an official version of the Hammer story, was to be issued the following year by Lorrimer Publishing, which explains such peculiar nomenclature. Is there a genetically inherited component to evil henchmanhood being hinted at here?

The name Johnny Alucard is a bit of a giveaway, and it doesn’t fill us with confidence in his mental acuity that Van Helsing needs to painstakingly doodle an acrostic in order to figure it out. It also reminds us of other ‘hipster’ characters such as John Cassavetes’ jazz playing Private Eye of the nightclub world, Johnny Stacatto. Indeed, the name would seem to be more suggestive of a beatnik milieu, and it seems at times as if Houghton is drawing more on memories of this era (or the films which embodied it) for his view of youth cool. This would explain the inexplicable enthusiasm which Marsha Hunt evinces for a ‘jazz spectacular’ at the Royal Albert Hall. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, maybe?

Johnny is at the centre of a ‘hip’ Chelsea set which is first seen ‘freaking out’ the squares in a posh Kensington pad. These unfortunates have their house invaded by the happening sounds of Stoneground, who churn out uninspired grooves of lumpen heaviosity in the background. It was to have been The Faces, but alas, the ‘Ground had a pre-existing contract with the distributors, Warner Bros., so the services of Rod and the boys were not called upon.

The opening party scene demonstrates the level of authenticity we can expect in the depiction of contemporary youth culture; it is more convincing than the hippy festival in CARRY ON CAMPING (1969), but only marginally so. The dialogue is the big letdown of the film. Its risibility obscures the fact that there are some interesting ideas at play elsewhere. It’s perfectly possible that the whole thing is intended to be satirical, in which case we are laughing along with the script rather than at it. The babbling inanities of the supremely irritating ‘comical’ member of the cool inner circle would certainly mark him out for imminent death in any horror film made ten years on, particularly given his penchant for practical jokes of the leaping out from behind a gravestone variety. Why he chooses to dress in a monk’s robe is anyone’s guess. Caroline Munro’s pogoing dance moves do exude an infectious enthusiasm, however.

Munro, whose first significant film role this was (playing the exquisite corpse of Vincent Price’ wife in THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES (1971) wasn’t much of a stretch) went on to become something of a fantasy film favourite in the 70s, appearing in such timelessly entertaining fare as CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974), AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) and becoming a Bond villainess in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), before disappearing along with the rest of the British film industry. Adam Ant paid tribute to her iconic status (as he had already done with Diana Dors) by casting her in his video for Goody Two Shoes.

Stephanie Beacham, as Van Helsing’s granddaughter Jessica, displays a splendid example of a feather cut hairstyle, bested in 70s film only by Jane Fonda in KLUTE (1971), and sports a variety of purple clothing on her way to 80s Dynastic soap queendom. She also starred in Hammer rivals Amicus’ period gothic AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973), in which she was menaced by an ambulatory disembodied hand.

Meanwhile, Marsha Hunt arrives fresh from inspiring The Rolling Stones hit Brown Sugar, having had a daughter with Mick Jagger in 1970. She went on to have a small part in the little-loved (I like it) concluding film of Lindsay Anderson’s Travis trilogy, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982), by which time the afro is long gone.

If the execrable dialogue can be enjoyed in its own right, the same can probably not be said for Michael Vickers’ intrusive, heavy-handed score, with its endlessly repeated horn riff and flailing guitar mangling. For this they ditched the reliable services of long-running Hammer composer James Bernard?

Much more impressive is the electronic music used to accompany the black mass scene, appropriately enough a track called Black Mass from an LP by White Noise.

White Noise were a temporary studio union of young technical wizard David Vorhaus and Unit Delta Plus, better known as BBC Radiophonic workshop legends Delia Derbyshire, who also provided electronic sounds for the 1973 film THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and Brian Hodgson. The music is a genuinely disturbing blend of distorted vocals, ‘musique concrete’ screams and electronically processed drum sounds, and it builds the ritual to a pitch of hysteria climaxing in Dracula’s resurrection. It demonstrates what a vital role a good soundtrack can be in helping to create an evocative atmosphere. Not even Johnny’s lame invitation to ‘dig the music, kids’ can entirely dispel its power.

Whilst no classic, DRACULA: AD1972 is really much better than its lowly reputation would give it credit for. Peter Cushing gives his usual sterling and committed performance, and displays a touching tenderness in his scenes with Beacham. The contemporary setting allows him to indulge in his chain-smoking habit, and he is able to bring an absolute conviction to such exchanges as: ‘let’s just hope you’re wrong about this whole business’…‘I wish I was, Inspector. I wish to God I was’. Christopher Lee lends his usual looming presence, and the duels with Van Helsing(s) which bracket the film have a real physicality.

There is an intriguing homoerotic undertow to the film, as Alucard pleads with his anagrammatic master to be bitten and exposes himself with a look of expectant ecstasy. Lee approaches with a grimace of distaste, and the camera shies away from the actual bite (the vampire’s kiss) but Alucard attains the ‘power’ he craves and proceeds to pass it on to Jessica’s boyfriend, whilst the women are simply led to Dracula to be drained and discarded. The film dwells on the banality of everyday, kitchen sink environs, such as the car wash in which Jessica and her boyfriend talk, and the night-time launderette outside of which Johnny trawls for victims. New gothic locations are also put forward, such as the Cavern, a subterranean club space in which the usual elements connoting neglected antiquity such as cobwebs and cracked stonework are now self-conscious props.

This being a late period entry in the Hammer Dracula cycle, the methods of despatching vampires are becoming correspondingly baroque, and there is a nice bit of business in which the elements of a morning wake-up routine, the shaving mirror and the shower, are used to deadly effect. But of course, a film which proudly displays the year of its making in the title will always offer the pleasures of period detail. Look, there’s the number 19 to Finsbury Park, a Routemaster yet! And there’s Battersea Power Station, still belching out smoke and yet to be a Pink Floyd cover! And there’s some vintage Chelsea and West Ham graffiti, although the fact that they are placed neatly one above the other with no sign of erasure, and are daubed in a similar hand suggests that the art department was at work in this case (I hope they had permission). Really, this is just a film to sit back and unashamedly enjoy.

Take Jessica Van Helsing’s advice: sit back, relax and indulge in ‘a quiet bit of mind blowing’.

Text by Jez Winship


DIR: John Gilling
UK 1966 91mins (12A)

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES was made at a time when Hammer was basking in the success of their prestige production SHE, which had been released with great fanfare in 1965.

Quick to seize on their enhanced profile, they sealed an 11 picture deal with 20th Century Fox and Seven Arts (later absorbed into Warner) which meant American money would be coming in. However, the terms of the contract meant making and releasing those films in a little less than two years!

SHE had been a big budget affair by Hammer standards - they even travelled to Israel for some location shooting - but now it was back to the trusty studios at Bray. These were based around the old mansion at Down Place in Windsor, where Hammer had been transforming the gentile middle England milieu of rural Berkshire into a landscape of gothic terror since Dracula’s castle was erected in its grounds in 1957. The readily identifiable nature of the surrounding countryside, with its beech woodlands and bracken speckled heath-land, is one of the things that gives Hammer’s gothic films their unmistakably British feel, whatever the supposedly remote European setting.

Nearby Oakley Court could serve as a convenient manor house façade, as it does here, and, after Hammer had moved elsewhere, for later films such as VAMPYRES (1974) and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). Today it is run as a hotel - ideal for a gothic getaway if you’re in the mood.

If SHE had seen Hammer being relatively lavish with the spending, their subsequent output saw them resort to more penurious ways. Films were shot back to back on the same sets, the art directors ringing cunning variations with a bit of creative redressing. The first films to be shot thus were DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) and RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966), the titles revelling in the emphatic assertion of the central characters’ authoritatively sinister nature. Christopher Lee fully returned to the Hammer fold to finally reprise his signature role, alongside his gleeful if historically dubious portrayal of the Russian royal confidante, and perhaps as a consequence, these films were given the greatest priority and cash.

Made under rather more straitened circumstances were the back to back productions that followed: THE PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE (1966) - shooting on the former getting under way after a one week breather following the completion of RASPUTIN.

Both films share a setting of nineteenth century Cornwall, THE REPTILE scattering a few props of a nautical nature and blowing in the dry ice sea mist to convert PLAGUE’s tin mining community into a fishing village. PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES opens with the rising hysteria of James Bernard’s theme music, characteristically spelling out the title in a strident sequence of chords. Da-da-DAA-da! The African drumming and miniature totemistic dolls to which we are immediately exposed indicate that these will still be traditional zombies of cinematic voodoo provenance. The shuffling hordes of flesh-eating creatures created by scientific catastrophe or as a symbol of social malaise had yet to become the standard image conjured by the word. The pounding voodoo drums echoing through the cavern and the stark outlines of the African ritual masks, both traditionally seen as signifiers of the ‘primitive’, are contrasted with the stolidly aristocratic setting in which we meet Sir James Forbes and his daughter Sylvia, its Victorian clutter betokening a perhaps excessive accumulation of civility.

This also tends to suggest that Cornwall is seen as a new locale for the primitive, a place where such ritualistic conjurations might not seem too out of place. The locals certainly take violent umbrage at the local doctor, all but blaming him for the plague which has cursed their village and which he has failed to diagnose.

There is a feeling that he is not too far away from a sacrificial lynching. Native inhabitants may or may not agree with such a portrayal, but it allows for Cornwall’s air of mystery and sense of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom, whilst suggesting a degree of superstitious yokeldom and mumbling backwardness of the ‘we don’t like strangers ‘round ‘ere’ variety.

Sam Peckinpah was still drawing on this view of the Cornish when he came to make his controversial 1973 picture STRAW DOGS. Neither film is likely to be highlighted by the local tourist board.

The primitive characters in PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES are from the opposite end of the social spectrum, however. We are soon acquainted with the lofty arrogance of the local aristocracy, as Sir James and Sylvia’s coach is interrupted by the local fox hunt. Writer Peter Bryan and director John Gilling eschew the romanticism often associated with hunting in films such as Powell and Pressburger’s GONE TO EARTH (1950) and even Roger Corman’s last Poe adaptation, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). Here, the hunters are brutish and animalistic, as much of a pack as the dogs they follow. As the coach pulls into the village, they ride through with a disdainfully proprietorial air, as if they are asserting their authority over the land and all who live in it. They callously scatter a funeral cortege which obstructs their path, upsetting the coffin and spilling its cadaverous contents.

The face of the corpse which the camera zooms in on seems to be gasping in outraged shock. The dead man’s brother can only pound the stones of the bridge in impotent rage.

This powerful scene sets up the central class conflict which drives the plot, ratcheted up and painted in such broad brush strokes that it can be said to amount to class hatred. The red of the huntsmen’s coats is associated with the blood of the villagers, which is used to reduce them to undead slavery. The human victims are essentially regarded as no different to the foxes which they hunt (and yes, this is a good piece of anti-hunt propaganda, too).

The anti-aristocratic theme is no stranger to gothic fiction, of course. Its villains have always tended towards the titled end of the social spectrum, and partially reflected the indulgence in all manner of excess and taboo-breaking decadence towards which the landed gentry directed their wealth.

Lord Byron - whose escapades on the continent certainly cemented the bad reputation of the English aristocracy abroad - was a direct influence on the anti-heroes and seductive monsters of subsequent fiction, Bram Stoker’s Dracula included. Hammer had upheld this line of descent; its two most famous characters were a Baron and a Count, after all. But the character of Squire Hamilton and his pack of bloods stand apart from this lineage in that they conspicuously lack any trace of charm or even dark seduction. The scene in which the young thugs draw cards to see who will be the first to ‘take’ Sylvia makes their attitude towards women clear. They are there to be used, a further example of their assumption of universal ownership. Presumably, the attempt to create zombies out of the female characters in the film is not in order to add to the labour force at the tin mine, either, as the ghastly rictus grin of desire and hunger on the resurrected Alice’s face makes all too evident.

Few of the regular Hammer repertory company grace the cast of PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES, but Michael Ripper is on hand to give his usual redoubtable performance, this time as the village bobby who assists Sir James in his endeavours after initial scepticism.

Ripper returns to his civvies for the follow up, THE REPTILE, and gives perhaps his definitive innkeeper portrayal, a role which he made his own in the Hammer world. Ripper is one of the great British character actors, and deserves recognition beyond the cult circles afforded by his genre work.

Andre Morell is wonderful as the aristocratic scientist Sir James, pitting his rational world view against the supernatural forces at work in the village. It’s a part which could almost be seen as a Victorian reprise of his portrayal of Bernard Quatermass in the third BBC serial featuring that arch advocate of scientific rationalism, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1958 also featuring Michael Ripper as a bobby, incidentally). His moral outrage and open disgust at what he discovers going on is powerfully expressed.

Marcus Hammond as the voice of the peasantry, John Martinus, is also splendid. He portrays someone whose barely suppressed hatred and rage comes crashing against his sense of complete powerlessness. He largely avoids the pitfalls of playing country as bumpkin and his character is thus genuinely affecting. Meanwhile John Carson does sterling work as the stiffly formal squire Hamilton, his jaw firmly set in a permanent clench of outrage at the very idea that anyone might oppose his authority.

The young leads are, it has to be said, rather uninspiring. But Jacqueline Pearce is superb as the ill-fated Alice, her long, straight black hair yet to be cropped to the severe crew cut she would later sport as Servalan in BLAKE’S 7 (1978). Her character suffers from a wound which will not heal, a very resonant piece of symbolism which forges a connection, conscious or otherwise, with a recurrent pattern of myth, that of the fisher king. This wound is linked to the desolation of the surrounding land, in this case the mysterious plague which is laying waste to the village population.

Pearce imbues Alice with a deeply felt sadness, as well as the feeling that this was a person who had previously been full of vivacity and life. Pearce apparently suffered from claustrophobia at the time, which must have made her confinement to a coffin unbearable.

Make-up artist Roy Ashton does marvels with limited resources, creating a look of peeling decay for his zombies and dressing them in sackcloth which emphasises their abject nature. This cast off packing material suggests that they are valued less than the products of their labour, little more than ambulatory sacks of potatoes.

John Gilling’s direction is fine, particularly in the celebrated fever dream in which the dead come to life, shot with disorientating angles and an expressionistic colour palette. In this scene he is immeasurably helped by the music of James Bernard, who reigns in his customarily forthright style to provide a musical accompaniment full of subtly disconcerting dissonances, all the more powerful for being muted and underplayed.

PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES was released as the lower half of a double-bill with DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, a classy pairing which would have satisfied any discerning patrons of their local ABC in Streatham or Sidcup or elsewhere in the provinces. This was a time when many small towns or suburbs still had small cinemas which tended to show less prestigious releases, usually in value for money double-bills. With the big studios concentrating on family musicals such as THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and widescreen epics of the David Lean School, it’s arguable that smaller budgeted genre pictures appealing to a more everyday local audience give a more accurate insight into the contemporary zeitgeist. There is certainly an undisguised contempt for the upper class on display in PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES, a whiff of revolution in the air, which would have been calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the more working class viewers which would have formed Hammer’s core audience.

This reflects the shifting social attitudes, the erosion of deference, which characterised Wilson’s Britain. It is still left to Sir James Forbes, the customary Hammer figure of the learned scholar of moral authority and well-bred bearing, to provide the force of opposition, however. His honorific may have been earned rather than inherited, but he is still essentially an Establishment figure.

James Carreras, son of Hammer founder Enrique, was on his way to a knighthood (an honour also recently bestowed upon Christopher Lee, of course) and the company would soon be awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry. Hammer was edging towards a certain level of respectability itself. You can only take things so far, after all. This is Britain, you know!

Text by Jez Winship


DIR: Jack Clayton
UK/US 1961 100mins (12A)

THE INNOCENTS (1961) is probably the finest ghost story ever put on film.

Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING (1963) runs a very close second (Mario Bava’s KILL BABY... KILL! (1966) and Guillermo Del Toro’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) are fighting it out for third).

Between the two of them you can pretty much see where Kubrick stole everything that works about THE SHINING (1980). That is, everything that’s actually spooky, unnerving or scary.

Kubrick however is too much the rationalist to fully embrace Horror as a genre. It’s the irrational that scares us most here. The unknown. The dark. Primitive fears perhaps, but ones that remain despite centuries of intellectual probing.

It’s the dark, the shadows that are so beautiful and so terrifying in THE INNOCENTS, filmed in glorious black and white by Freddie Francis. But even more terrifying are the moments when our fears step out of the shadows, to stand before us in the daylight, staring back at us unblinking. Such are two of the key moments in THE INNOCENTS, as a dead woman is seen standing at the far side of lake amid the reeds/rushes watching us. And in the school room, when Miss Giddens – our protagonist, played by Deborah Kerr – hears weeping from behind her and turns to see the same dead woman sitting at a desk, crying.

A moment later the dead woman is gone, perhaps was never there. Perhaps, was little more than a shade on poor Miss Giddens’ mind; a trick of the light; a momentary daydream... but as she approaches the desk to clear away the slate the children left behind, she finds it wet. The tiny splash mark of a single tear [has been left behind]...

It is one of the most beautiful scenes in horror, one of the most perfectly filmed. And let us make no bones about it, this IS a horror movie. It is trying to scare you. But it is not one of the baser examples of the genre. It is Horror at its most refined, its most adult. It is terror. It is goose bumps on your arms, it is the tightening of your scalp, it is the small but audible and entirely uncontrolled gasp of realisation that what you fear is real. It is the cinematic equivalent of the short stories of M.R. James. It is every bit as good as THE TURN OF THE SCREW, the Henry James novella on which it is based. It is one of the most refined, most intelligent, and most perfectly realised horror films ever made.

You’re in for a treat.

It was made in 1961 by director Jack Clayton – best known at the time for Social Realist picture ROOM AT THE TOP (1959) – from a script by John Mortimer and Truman Capote, though it was Capote who added the final layer of Gothic detailing, the multitude of watchful cherubs that sometimes crawl with insects; the flowers in the house that are always shedding petals, especially when touched by Miss Giddens.

It takes some of the hoariest of Gothic clichés and breathes life into them by playing them as absolutely serious, absolutely real. Miss Giddens exploring the darkened house at night, candelabra in hand, dressed in flowing white nightgown is – out of context – surely the most clichéd thing imaginable. But in the hands of Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis, as acted by Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde, and in the context it is given in Capote’s writing, it is superb. It is everything it out to be. Everything the genre CAN be. Wonderful, and magical, and terrifying.
But Clayton and Capote take the film beyond the usual clichés, even those they’ve brought new life to.

They play up the ambiguity. Is this real? Or is it all in Miss Giddens’ mind? A haughty uptight governess of religious upbringing, probably a virgin, alone in a rambling house with only a house keeper and her two charges... and the memory, the taint of something wicked, something sexual in the figures who haunt the place, literally or metaphorically; it’s left almost entirely for you to decide.

The performances are pitch perfect all around. Deborah Kerr is absolutely at the top of her game, while the children are nuanced and understated, Clayton being sure to portray them not as demonic, but merely as children. Only the circumstances and inferences surrounding them begin to make us think they might be more than they seem...

And here again is the brilliance of Clayton’s approach. He resolutely refuses to take the easy route, to go for anything like cheap thrills. As a result, the inference is so much darker, and stranger. Have the children been abused? Are they in fact possessed? Are they simply shadows/reflections of the former governess – Miss Jessel - and wicked valet Peter Quint? Both of who are dead, but whose influence and character continues to pervade... tainting the isolated splendour of Bly House.

Do their ghosts still walk these halls, and perhaps inhabit the children’s flesh?

Or is Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) losing her mind? Is her repressed Victorian facade beginning to crack?

Is she, ultimately, the villain of this piece? Or the victim? Watch and see. There’s very little certainty. The ball is in your court.


Text by Neil Snowdon


DIR: Terence Fisher
UK 1958 82mins (12A)

It’s still my favourite film of Stoker’s novel.

Ever since I saw the end tacked onto the beginning of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (Hammer’s second sequel, though the first to feature the return of Christopher Lee as the definitive screen Count). I think that I was nine years old when I first saw it – taped off the telly late one night by my dad.

Then, it was just about the most thrilling, exciting film I’d ever seen. Even at that early age I was predisposed to like it: I had a taste for the Gothic and the Macabre, but was too sensitive a child to enjoy contemporary set horror films. The gore and the closeness to the world I knew and lived in made it all too frightening. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) left me leaping into bed from six feet away in order that I didn’t let my feet get within range of anything that might be lurking in the shadows underneath.

But DRACULA (none of your American HORROR OF... thank you very much) was incredible. Much that affected me so deeply, I don’t think I recognised/understood until much later. Seeing it again as an adult I realise that so many of the things I respond to today can be traced back to my first viewing of Terence Fisher’s masterpiece: to the acting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, to the cinematography of Jack Asher, the script by Jimmy Sangster, to the careful, precise and entirely committed direction of Terence Fisher.

The fact that it also gave me a fondness for women in Victorian attire is quite beside the point...

I didn’t see the Universal DRACULA (1931) until many years later, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi in the role that he made a caricature long before Sesame Street got hold of it. I’ve never liked that version. Almost nothing about it works for me. I don’t like Lugosi in the film. I think it’s probably the worst film Tod Browning ever made (based on the few that I have seen and which can still be seen). If you want to see what the man was capable of check out FREAKS (1932). A truly remarkable film guaranteed to give you goose bumps to this day.

Only Dwight Frye as Renfield makes any impact in the Lugosi film. He is the saving grace of it. The only thing that is creepy, disturbing, transcendent of the dull drawing room drama that he’s imprisoned in: the only aspect that comes close to the mood and power of Stoker’s still brilliant novel.

That film has its supporters. But they are wrong. Hammer’s DRACULA is better. It is also one of the best, and most influential British films ever made. But Hammer’s reputation has fallen so that it is thought of now in the mocking - if warmly so - terms of the kind of cheap campery that began to creep into its output in the seventies as it began to lose its decade long grip on the zeitgeist. THE EXORCIST (1973), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASACRE (1974), HALLOWEEN (1978), these films made the period set stories of Hammer almost cosy, quaint, despite a few last gasp attempts at something stronger near the end (DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972) was particularly promising, as were parts of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976)).

Though THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) had really put them on the map - and made the world sit up and take note when it made a fortune - it was DRACULA that really defined Hammer Horror as a style unto itself.

Classy; rich (some might say over ripe); lurid; sensual; melodramatic; quivering with barely repressed sexual tension, and presented by all concerned with a sense of pride and professionalism. These were no simple cheap shockers pumped out to make quick cash. Though that was undoubtedly on Hammer’s mind as a company, its repertory cast and crew were solid professionals who believed in what they were doing and believed in doing their best. Non more so than Terence Fisher, who came to directing comparatively late in life, and who found in this particular brand of lurid Gothicism – he always said his films were ‘Fairy tales for adults’ a phrase that hits the nail right on the head – something that brought out the very best in him.

So, why is it so good?

Well, for a start, it solves ‘The Problem Of Dracula’ efficiently and dramatically. And while it may continue to take enormous liberties with its literary source, it nonetheless keeps in mind its point and tone. It is – as Stokers novel was in its day and remains still – thrilling, and scary, and in many ways erotic. Not that the censors of the day would let it get away with anything too overt. There is no naked flesh on display, and yet the sexual undertow, lifted straight out of the novel, is palpable. Because he can’t show too much – and quite frankly Terence Fisher was a man of too much taste to want or need to anyway – Fisher concentrates on the moments leading up to a sexual encounter and the moments after. The scenes in which Lucy and Mina both wait in anticipation of Count Dracula, knowing what they do is somehow wrong, are incredibly well wrought, Fishers teasing use of camera and editing in perfect sync with James Bernard’s tremulous score to bring us to the very height of erotic dread.

Any suggestion that one is reading too much into things with regards to the films overt sexuality, need only see the look on Mina’s face as she returns just after dawn from the night in which she has first encountered Dracula. If it is not the very definition of ‘the cat who got the cream’, I don’t know what is. Indeed having played her prior scenes as uptight, and buttoned down, the playful moue and hungry eyes of Mina in this scene is quite a revelation.

‘The Problem Of Dracula’ is that we know too much. The very name displaces so much cultural water that t is impossible to enter a film called DRACULA and not know already that the man is the villain. He is evil personified in Bram Stoker’s novel. And though he would in later days come to be portrayed more in the tragic/Byronic mode, Hammer sticks to the book. He is a figure of fear. Evil personified. Appetite incarnate.

But in adapting the book, it becomes difficult to then portray the scenes of Jonathan Harker’s innocent arrival and later imprisonment in Castle Dracula, the slow revelation of the Count’s monstrous nature, without the audience losing interest, refusing to suspend their disbelief.

How do Hammer solve the problem? They make Harker just as knowledgeable as we are. They make him a man coming to Castle Dracula as a kind of undercover agent. A man intent on killing the fiend. If we know the novel, we’re pulled up short, surprised by this sudden revelation. If we don’t, we’re at least not looking at Harker as a fool to be walking into such an ominous castle and not suspecting anything.

Actually, here Bernard Robinson’s set design pulls a quite brilliant coo. Castle Dracula (in part due to budgetary consideration I’m sure, but also due to Robinson’s brilliance at his job) is not the Production designer’s Gothic wet dream that so many Hollywood productions make it. It seems nonsensical that anyone would walk into a place that screams doom at them, without the slightest hint of nervousness.

Hammer’s film is different. It is quiet, no birds sing in the vicinity of the Castle, and there are no servants. The place seems deserted. But is more conceivably the home of a Count/nobleman fallen on hard times, than a place that proclaims itself the very seat of Satan on this earth. Is it sinister? Yes, especially as night falls. Is it unsettling? Certainly. It is also believable, while being strangely unreal. The details are unusual; not quite right. It is, as Fisher would have it, a kind of fairy tale... but a fairy tale of the very darkest kind.

This sense of a ‘dark fairytale’ is at its height in the cinematography. Cold greys, deep blacks, calm browns, the bright vibrant red of blood, but also sickly greens and highlights of lavender and blue.

The concision of the storytelling is a thing of beauty. Fisher tells his tale directly, moves his camera for a reason - emotional or narrative. His framing is impeccable, and his work with cinematographer Jack Asher assured.

Just look at the scene in which Jonathan Harker awakes from an encounter with Dracula and one of his brides. He awakes in his room bathed in warm orange light. The fire is barely flickering, almost out, like the candles, wisps of blue-grey smoke rise from both. Everything within the frame is pertinent. By the light coming through the window, we already know that the day is almost over. Harker has been unconscious for quite some time; whatever happened to him was serious. At the same time, it pre-empts later scenes, lays groundwork for suspense: we know that night is coming, and by now we know that means the Count is coming. Danger is coming. At the same time, a sense of doom is building. We don’t believe that Harker is safe in any way. We’re not sure he will survive. The dying candle, the last flickering flame in the grate, the setting of the sun, all reflect Harker’s (and by extension at this point our) position, the waning light (and thus the gathering dark), the flickering flame of his life, the dying embers of our hope.

The following sequence, as Harker sets out to find and finally destroy Count Dracula in his lair, is so impeccably put together, so well executed, and so powerful that its impact has made it a cliché. Every horror film that followed in the wake of DRACULA’s success used this kind of scene. And yet, to see the original, on a large screen, in a good print, is to appreciate the impact it must have made at the time. Not only is it a thrilling sequence in its own right... NOTHING like this had ever been seen before. The biting, the staking, the blood, the horror, had all been off screen before. In this film they were front and centre. And in very full colour.

When you’re watching pay particular attention to details – the placement of skulls near Dracula’s tomb – as carefully placed in the frame as anything in a painting by Caravaggio; the shadows that ensnare and imprison poor Harker at the crucial moment.

Details like these are apparent in every scene, and damn near every frame... it is an astonishingly well made film. A film that should be up there near the top of any list of Greatest British Films. Britain lead the way with this kind of stylish, adult treatment of a genre thought of in Hollywood as ‘Kids Stuff’.

The French were quick to see Terence Fisher’s talent for what it was and lauded him. We should do the same.

We have a rich history of fantastic literature that was once disreputable, but of which we are now, quite rightly proud. Has it not been long enough that we can accept these – at the time - hugely popular films in to the ranks of Classics? Treat them with the respect that they deserve? As much respect as is afforded to their literary forebears?

This film... indeed these films, when at their best, are glorious. We should be proud.

Text by Neil Snowdon

Sunday, 20 September 2009


DIR: James Whale
USA 1932 71mins (PG)

After the enormous hit of DRACULA (1931), it was inevitable that Universal Studios would turn to FRANKENSTEIN as their next Horror film.

What was perhaps less certain was just how much better a film it would be, how much further it would go, and how important it would be.

To all intents and purpose, with FRANKENSTEIN (1932), James Whale defined the Gothic cinema as we know it today.

Born of a synthesis of Whale’s British sensibilities and macabre sense of humour (his delightfully dark sense of fun would be brought to the fore in the INVISIBLE MAN (1933), and more particularly THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)), his background in theatre (FRANKENSTEIN is nothing if not wholly aware of its own artifice/heightened irreality) and the influence of German Expressionism (Whale was a professed fan of THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI (1920) whose skewed lines and dramatic use of light and shadow can be seen in slightly more accessible form here – less jagged and Germanic, indeed one might call Whale’s particular brand of Gothic styling ‘English Expressionism’), James Whale created a style which remains the basis for everything which has come after it in British and particularly American Gothic/Horror film making.

Just look at Tim Burton if you don’t believe me. Quite apart from the fact that Whale created what amounted to a ‘house style’ which was quickly aped and bastardized by Universal, the films of Tim Burton are absolutely of an ilk with Whale – if to a very different end. Taking Whale’s heightend reality, his self aware artifice and combining it with urban Americana, Burton created what is in essence the dominant form in mainstream Horror & Fantasy today, a style which I can only describe as ‘Pop Gothic’, at least twice removed from its original source. More often than not it is used today to push Horror themes in to the realms of fantasy, the stylisation providing a barrier/comfort zone that keeps the audience at a safe distance from the themes, action and ‘Horrors’ on screen.

When Burton does what he does, it’s fun. It’s silly. It’s sometimes sentimental and perhaps even touching. When Whale did it, it was poetry.

Even today I think people are surprised by how direct and confrontational the opening of FRANKENSTEIN is. It doesn’t shy away, as Henry (not Victor as in the book) Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye in another unforgettable role) watch a funeral, waiting for the mourners to leave so that can dig up the body.

It is richly macabre, and deliciously funny in a way few American directors of the time might have dared. Something in the British character allows that we laugh at death, embraces gallows humour. Indeed it’s there in the figure of the gravedigger early on, a salt of the earth type lighting his pipe as he works - and again as Henry and Fritz begin to dig the body up, flinging shovels of dirt over their shoulders, directly into the face of a statue of the Reaper himself.

Here’s mud in your eye, eh Mr. Whale?

I’m not sure anything in Hollywood had been quite so aggressively stylised as this at the time. The ‘Dutched’ camera angles, the hard cuts, the obviously painted backdrops and sets... in the hands of lesser artists, these might have been death for the film, keeping the viewer at a distance from the film. Instead Whales stitches the whole thing together quite beautifully. The performances are pitched – for the most part – just so. The angles and action are grandiose, as is the sound (still quite primitive, but just listen to it – it’s not a mistake – whale knows what he’s doing). The sound of being shovelled onto a coffin is terrifically loud and heavy. It’s almost a physical shock to hear it. This film is not what we thought. It is not the delicate, laughable Horror film of the past that we thought it might be – almost quaint. It’s right there up close, staring at death right in the face... spitting in its eye, just like our main character.

This is not to say the film is without fault. Certainly some of the plot scenes between sights Frankenstein at work, and the creature once awakened are tedious in the extreme; one can’t help thinking that they must have seemed out of place even to audiences at the time.

However, these scenes are comparatively few and are so overwhelmed by the scenes in which Boris Karloff appears, as to be instantly forgotten.

It is not for nothing that FRANKENSTEIN made Karloff’s name. His is an extraordinary performance, better here I think even than in his return to the role in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The pathos in his acting is astonishing. The pain and torment he conveys without words is incredibly moving.

For many years, I lumped Karloff with Lugosi – a one note actor famous for a single iconic role. But Karloff was truly outstanding. His breakout role here is a tour de force of subtle pantomime and childlike emotion. Later he would shine in a number of films for producer Val Lewton, where more than ever he showed just how good an actor he could be, beyond the cheap scares that Universal tried to reduce him to (remember that in the US Horror was mostly thought of as ‘Kids Stuff’). His versatility and flexibility was displayed for all to see, never more so than in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), which I urge you to see, and hope dearly that we might screen in a future follow up to this (our first?) Gothic season.

In many ways the Gothic is Horror at its most poetic. Melodramatic, certainly, but so suffused in velvety shadows as to be luxurious, almost decadent in the very sensuality of its imagery. It is an emotional form of storytelling, deeply embedded and engaged with our subconscious.

Strangely, for all the velvety shadows, it is a scene in bright daylight which is perhaps the key scene in this film and key to the appeal, and the strength of the Gothic in general...

A young girl is sitting throwing flowers in a lake, watching as they float on the surface.

Frankenstein’s creature, recently born, kept in captivity, tortured by the hunchbacked assistant, abandoned by his repulsed father/creator has escaped. He encounters the girl, who does not shy away, but invites the creature to play... an innocent child, who does not reject the other, who does not see the creatures supposed monstrousness, its deformity.

The little girl shows the creature her flowers, shows how she smells them, and throws them in the lake ‘see how they float’?

She gives a flower to the creature. And it too sees the beauty and the joy within the game... but then there are no more flowers left to throw, no more pretty things to float so beautiful and serene upon the water... but the girl is pretty, and she smells nice, and he wants to make her happy. Perhaps she will float too...

Beauty, dread, horror and pathos all at once; few other genres are quite so potentially rich as this. Though it is often maltreated and cheapened, there’s so much more to Horror and the Gothic than many would have you think. More to it than meets the eye...

Why don’t you come and see?

Text by Neil Snowdon

This is where the FREE SCREENING will take place. Walcot Mortuary Chapel. A suitably macabre place, don't you think? It's free, but ticketed, so give the cinema a call, or pop in for your tickets...

Saturday, 19 September 2009


Bath is a city of rationally planned Georgian architecture, its perfectly proportioned neo-classical facades reflecting a belief in the power of reason and the balanced harmony of the universe. It is the city of Jane Austen, of her witty and bright tales of social etiquette in which everyone eventually finds happiness within the pre-ordained social order.

But above these geometrically aligned terraces rises an incongruous edifice, encircled by a Victorian graveyard. This is Lansdown Tower, the retreat in later years of an alternative presiding spirit of the city, William Beckford.

Beckford was a dissolute aristocrat, who had resolutely squandered his considerable family fortune and been obliged to spend a good deal of time living abroad following an ‘indiscretion’ at Powderham Castle. He had already erected one oversized tower at the centre of his gothic residence at Fonthill Abbey, which had collapsed like Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER. Undeterred, he had rebuilt it in even grander style, and this one stayed up until several years after impecuniousness had forced him to move, when it finally succumbed to the inherent instability of the architecture of dreams.

He amassed a huge library, partly through bargain-hunting trips to revolutionary Paris, where desperate aristocrats were parting with their possessions at knock-down prices. This collection contained many volumes on magic and the occult. Such interests are manifested in VATHEK, the novel upon which his literary reputation rests, which was published against his will in 1786.

It is a piece of fevered orientalism backed with genuine scholarship which details the excessive transgressions of the titular Caliph, who indulges his every desire on his path towards eternal damnation. Many of the defining elements of gothic are on display. The aristocratic figure whose acts put him beyond the moral boundaries of society; the pursuit of occult knowledge and sensual pleasure as ends in themselves, towards the fulfilment of which any means become acceptable; the dwelling upon the physicality of horror and the grotesque; the encounter with the supernatural, usually in a malicious form, and the imposing architecture of the gothic edifice, here represented by the Caliph’s palace and tower, and by the labyrinthine vaults of the hell to which he is finally condemned.

The novel is Beckford’s contribution to the founding literary canon of gothic, and testament to a life which was lived in a similar spirit. His tomb lies in the graveyard that was largely constructed so that he could be buried in the shadow of his tower. It bears an amended quote from VATHEK, which allows him the possibility of a salvation denied to his characters. The original words evoked the immediate impact of the irrevocable decree of hell which fell upon the Caliph and his companions: ‘Their hearts immediately took fire, and they, at once, lost the most precious gift of heaven: HOPE.’

Gothic as a literary form flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The term refers to the architectural style of the medieval period and to the romantic attraction of the ruins from that era. It emphasises the degree to which these stories revolve around the return of, or sometimes to, a past considered more barbaric and bloodthirsty.

The use of a term from architectural history as a mark of an artistic movement also demonstrates the central importance of buildings to the form. The ruined, or at best poorly maintained castle or abbey was the essential setting for the early gothic novel, making its appearance in such works as Horace Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO and Ann Radcliffe’s THE MYSTERY OF UDOLPHO. Such edifices, with their labyrinthine corridors and hidden chambers, are still essential to the descendants of the gothic novel in their purest form. The nature of the gothic edifice may change, however. As time progresses, we inherit a new set of pasts, an expanded array of histories upon which to draw.

The buildings of the Victorian gothic revival provide a rich new set of locales, and there are plenty of imaginative possibilities to be explored in the monumentalism of much modern architecture. The 70s children’s tv series KING OF THE CASTLE took place in a tower block of the mind and the late Hammer offering THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA makes a gothic tower out of a steel and glass office block. The lowering masses and block-like solidity of 70s concrete brutalist monuments is surely ripe for use as a locus of gothic menace, too. The bewildering, disorienting spaces of the Barbican would provide the perfect backdrop for a mix of J.G. Ballard and Algernon Blackwood.

Perhaps the ultimate gothic edifice, and one drawn entirely from the imagination, is Gormenghast, as described, with the palpable physicality arising from the artist’s visual sense, in Mervyn Peake’s novels.

Here, the edifice effectively describes the entire world. The retreat into the enclosed, labyrinthine spaces of the edifice signify a retreat into an inner landscape, the stones and mortar of its confining walls effectively the bones of the skull. The preponderance of subterranean spaces, dank recesses and hidden basements, represent the lower depths of the mental mansion. It’s no surprise that Freud touched on matters gothic in his essay on ‘The Uncanny’.

Gothic is a fiction of darkness, both literal and figurative. Its major action tends to take place at night, or in interior spaces where little light penetrates. It is in many ways the inverse shadow of the culture of the Enlightenment, an instinctive irruption of the irrational into its world of balance and considered empiricism. The mysterious darkness of the gothic world occludes the daytime world of the knowable and measurable.

Whilst the Romanticism of the nineteenth century shares some of the wild imagination of gothic, it too is essentially in opposition to its spirit. If the Romantics sought out the Sublime in the awesome spectacle of nature’s grandeur, the gothic imagination retreated to its subterranean depths. Romantic poets might gaze upon the majesty of the Alps and reflect upon the immensity of creation. The writer of gothic fiction would have us descend into the dank caves below, where Frankenstein’s creature would be brooding on revenge.

Gothic thrives on fear and horror, recoil and revulsion. It is inward-looking and introspective, shrinking from its encounters with the unknown, which threatens to force entry nevertheless. Romanticism actively seeks the experience of terror and awe which comes from an encounter with the sublime, and which leads to an expansion of the imaginative perception of the universe. Both approaches lend themselves to the possibility of insanity if taken to excess, but they are different orders of madness. One arises from sensory overload, an inability to draw back from overwhelming immensity, the other from a disconnection from the world, or an apprehension of some essential disorder manifest within it.

The vogue for gothic literature, as much disparaged then as it was to be in its later forms, lasted from about 1765, when THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO appeared, to 1818, when FRANKENSTEIN and Jane Austen’s satire of the form, NORTHANGER ABBEY, were published.

FRANKENSTEIN has been identified by Brian Aldiss as the birthplace of modern science fiction, which he declares to be ‘in the gothic mode’. The gothic continued to be influential as a flavour throughout the 19th century, in the novels of the Brontes and in the dark urban labyrinth of Dickens’ London. But its most significant rebirth was in the revival of tales of the uncanny and supernatural in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Again, a rationalised era of technological progress produces its own spectres lurking beyond the circle of the gaslight.

Of the canon of gothic tales and monsters which would be transmogrified from literary to cinematic form, only Frankenstein’s creature could really be said to have been born from the original movement. And that from an end work rather than one written at its height. The rest were the products of the Victorian and Edwardian imagination; Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and Sheridan le Fanu’s CARMILLA; Robert Louis Stevenson’s JEKYLL AND HYDE, infused with the later top-hatted, caped and caned spirit of Jack the Ripper; Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLE’S the most famous and overt of Holmes’ several encounters with the gothic; the figure of the revenant mummy, inspired by the fin de siecle craze for Egyptian archaeological revelations; the vengeful ghosts of MR James, who emerge to punish those who uncover that which should have remained buried; and the latecomer, Guy Endore’s 30s novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS.

A great many gothic films and novels continue to return to the atmospheric, fogbound setting of this steam driven, gaslit era, and particularly to its emblematic city, London. But it is in the dark shadowy cavern of the cinema that the gothic has found its ideal home, and to which it has come to roost (hanging upside down, enfolded in black wings, of course). It is here that a pale-faced figure stands at the head of a monumental stone staircase and invites us, in a thick Romanian accent, to ‘listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!’

And it is here that an oak door opens, and a broad shouldered figure with heavy workmen’s boots and a block-like head shambles into the room and slowly turns round to face us. This is where we begin…

Text by Jez Winship

Neil Adds: We really need to show Mario Bava's classic KILL BABY...KILL! if we have another Gothic season. Quite apart from the fact that it is brilliant, just look at this. The Spiral Staircase in Beckford's Tower:

And THIS shot from Mario Bava's film...

I wonder if there's any way that we could show the film INSIDE Beckford's Tower?