- 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.

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?

1 comment:

  1. Just came across this post in a search for an image of William Beckford's tombstone.

    I think it's unfair to call Beckford 'dissolute'. He was solvent and in control of his life and his faculties to the end. If anything, he held up very well under society's pressures.

    It's also wrong to say he 'squandered' his fortune. Again, if anything, he didn't spend enough on Fonthill Abbey, and was said to have been cheated by the gimcrack work of his builder. Had the work been done better, Fonthill Abbey could still today stand as one of the great houses of Europe.

    True his fortune was considerably diminished, but as Lansdown shows, he remained a man of means, respect and influence to the end of his long life.