- 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.

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...

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