SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

'WELCOME TO THE DARK SIDE: A PANEL DISCUSSION' / BFI LONDON SOUTHBANK (23.10.2013) ~ Kim Newman and Sir Christopher Frayling discuss all things gothic at the movies!

On a cold, especially dark, wintry night, just a few days short of Halloween, a quintet of horror 'hexperts' gathered in Screen 1 at the BFI's London Southbank to launch a new season devoted to all things gothic in horror cinema called 'Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film'. Screenings over the next few months will include such Universal delights as Bela Lugosi's DRACULA to Fulci's glorious 80s gore and existentialism hybrid; THE BEYOND, with NOSFERATU (both Murnau and Herzog) hammering home in-between.

On the panel at the BFI's gothic launch debate: Sir Christopher Frayling (tonight's Chair and author of Nightmare: The Birth of Horror and Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula); Kim Newman (author of the Anno Dracula novels and Nightmare Movies); Marina Warner (Professor of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and author of From the Beast to the Blonde and No Go The Bogeyman); Roger Luckhurst (Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College and author of The Mummy's Curse: A True History of a Dark Fantasy) and Rhidian Davis (the BFI's 'Cultural Programme Manager' and curator of the Gothic Season). Playing to a packed auditorium at the BFI's largest screen, the five fingers of death took to the stage, huddled together in seats a little too squashed together ensuring a sense of co-conspirators whispering about unspeakable things in the darkest corner of a Hammer Horror-style 17th Century Inn.


I never understand why so many onstage Q&As at film events squeeze the guests so close together. Personally, I want to see director, interviewer, actors scattered randomly around the stage in their own personal space and instead of the usual carafe of water on a rickety table in front of them, a goblet each of thick, blood-like red wine at their mercy; volatile sparks of opinion spewing forth (because film debate is often too 'safe', too mannered: I remember the sorely missed Michael Winner once berating a young member of the BFI's audience trying to ask a question for not looking in his direction as he spoke but glancing - unavoidably - instead at the member of staff passing the microphone to him, the question eventually asked of Winner being described as "very dull"; Harmony Korine once replying to a question about "Could you describe the process of making a film?" with, "Yes, I make a film" and Nic Roeg, upon being asked to go into detail about the financing of WALKABOUT, replying, "Do I really have to?").

Being sat shoulder to shoulder and sipping water ensures a far politer turn of phrase when disagreement takes place but there was still some polite (and sometimes quite tetchy) disagreement to come and a fully lit fuse of a question from the audience that instantly rattled any complacency on this long night of gothic celebration at the BFI.

One idea considered by the guests at the start of the debate concerned the use of technology in horror cinema, and how mobile-shot found footage and internet streams from modern horror films (even Ghostface in the SCREAM franchise now films his own stabbings) are a natural follow-on from all the lab technology used in Universal's Frankenstein to revive the dead.

Modern horror has adjusted its settings to move with the times, from the girl spirit climbing out of a TV set in RING (1998) soon after a cursed videotape is played, to the recent PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series' home-CCTV and cam-shot crowd-pleasing shocks or a little further back there was David Cronenberg's cassette-cruelty of video nasty zoning-in body horror seen in 1983's VIDEODROME (or the same director's update to gaming gore from 1999's eXistenZ) - technological advances may well have dictated how horror cinema has presented its scares to a modern-day audience of baying bloodthirsts.

Kim Newman, during the BFI debate, seemed to downplay the importance of technology in gothic horror, following a wonderful comment about Frankenstein being, for him, less about the science and more about 'bad parenting'. Rhidian Davis disagreed, claiming that technology plays a far more important role in cinematic fear and always has done; horror movies constantly adapting to the technology of the time.


Surprisingly, after a good hour of enjoyable but entirely personal and academic opinion on what gothic is, the mood changes a little with some anti-intellectualising of horror cinema creeping in to the debate. The panel seem to admit that even analysing what 'gothic' itself is could negate the effect of the films that are said to be that way - perhaps 'gothic' as a genre is born naturally, not cultivated deliberately. The success of the Twilight movies is praised by Rhidian Davis from the BFI as adapting to current interest in the gothic romance genre; and even the book FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, soon to be made into a movie, are labelled 'gothic' by him. He then details Robert Pattinson from the TWILIGHT series, leaning over a young beautiful victim, fangs bared as being impossibly romantic and gothic in equal measure, to which the panel laughingly tell him to 'calm down'! The TV series TRUE BLOOD is described as "TWILIGHT with more sex".

Vampires are cool these days - and a young person's lifeblood. As much as TWILIGHT is not a horror franchise I personally feel sucked in by, not enough to want to follow - it's still a valid vampiric experience for the audience it is targeted at; either teenage girls perhaps with raging hormones or BFI cultural programmers.  Kim Newman has said before that a film not being one for which you are the target audience doesn't negate its worth as a movie. Still, I have to admit, I haven't actually seen any of the TWILIGHT films (forsooth - shame on me!) and so I make a note that I should, because - I have a feeling I may well be surprised and enjoy what I find. I don't know though - maybe!

"Kiss me Robert .."

Back to the criticism of film criticism itself and a question from the audience raises the idea that many of the greatest gothic horror directors would laugh at the intellectualising taking place on the BFI stage. Directors such as Terence (DRACULA) Fisher and Mario (TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) Bava who it is suggested would be against the intellectualising of horror as 'gothic' and were just after providing us with a bloody good scare. But then there has always been a divide between established thought about horror icons and our impressions of them, and reality. Kim Newman at the recent London FrightFest introduced a screening of the unexpectedly violent and sexed-up Peter Cushing starrer/ shocker CORRUPTION (a film atypical to our image of Cushing's more classic gothic roles as Victor Frankenstein and Van Helsing and rarely seen today - although recently revived on uncut Blu-ray and DVD releases in the US and UK) with the observation that Christopher Lee is often seen as the more 'decadent' of the Cushing/ Lee pairing, endorsing the wilder lifestyle, while Cushing is often portrayed as a gentle, distinguished man mourning the loss of his wife Helen.

While I can vouch for the kindliness - and the gentleness - of Cushing from meeting him after a talk he gave while I was still in my teens, Newman pointed out in his introduction to CORRUPTION (and an idea quite shocking, perhaps, to enthusiasts) that Cushing readily took on the wilder trappings of stardom at times, especially in his earlier years, with rumoured affairs with co-stars and an enthusiasm for a more decadent lifestyle rarely talked about since (I admit, this was something I had also never heard spoken of before myself; certainly not in public!). The shock of CORRUPTION perhaps wouldn't be as shocking had it starred, for instance, Christopher Lee in the role of a crazed, corrupted surgeon. Because we know Peter Cushing as the gentlemen of horror, his perverted, crueller characters in films are less often celebrated as the kinder (even homely) cruelties of Baron Frankenstein or the holistic heroism of Van Helsing are. I'm not sure, to be honest, that my mind will be swayed away from Cushing's established badge of honour as the kind gentleman of horror that so many claim he was - a facet celebrated recently in a novella from Stephen Volk called 'WHITSTABLE' (pub: Spectral Press) that sets the actor up as a defender of modern day evil in a cruel, real world.

The Gentleman of Horror kills someone...
All the panel then, seem to discount the examples of Fisher and Bava from a member of the audience as being one trick ponies of horror, uncaring about the embodiment or symbolism of the gothic genre and only caring about the raw, blood-spattered nerve of horror itself and the filming of it without consciously considering their work in intellectual terms (not that there's any reason they should). It's a nice anti-establishment comment that I fully approved of, but I wouldn't be able to justify such a suggestion at all - and neither it seems can the panel.

Hilariously, Newman hinted in earlier comments to Professor Luckhurst regarding the suggestion (agreed by Luckhurst himself) that over-analysing horror is not a cool thing to do for some students of the craft or even for horror fans, and may lead to some such disgruntled people, "calling . . " (and imagine Newman dramatically leaning towards Luckhurst at this point, in a way that reminds of Christopher Lee's cloak-swirling seduction of the innocent in the Hammer flicks of old) ". . you a dick!"
Newman also reminds us that Fisher and Bava both pursued projects that could be seen as leaning towards the intellectual side of horror (Bava directed episodes of the Italian TV series Odissea, based on Homer's poems Iliad and Odyssey). We had already been reminded earlier on in the evening by the panel that H.P. Lovecraft, though perhaps more often seen as a writer of multi-tentacled and crowd-pleasing weird horror tales, always considered himself an intellectual author. There is some talk too of the famous gathering of writers and intellectuals at Byron's house, kept inside by the unnaturally wild weather outside for one long weekend during a creatively fateful summer in Geneva, that it was Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein, born one night from a feverish dream) who could be viewed as the least intellectual of the arty, bohemian crowd she was hanging out with and yet went on to come up with perhaps the most famous and celebrated gothic novel of all time.

It's pointed out by Kim Newman that Stephen Volk (screenwriter on Ken Russell's untamed 1986 horror extravagance GOTHIC; a film that detailed in flamboyant, hallucinogenic brushstrokes that undeniably creative weekend of excess and madness among Byron and Shelley and friends) is sitting in the audience; a rather perfectly-timed discovery as Volk himself contributed to the BFI's accompanying book that goes alongside their Gothic season and will also be appearing at a night celebrating his own mock-TV Halloween broadcast that scared BBC viewers to death back in the early 90s - GHOSTWATCH, as part of the celebrations). In fact, Newman's outing of Volk's presence in the audience: "I can see his head shining under the lights" is perhaps the most gothic and frightening observation of the entire night.

GOTHIC (1986)

Gothic - the movie, and Volk's celebrated meeting of creative minds with Ken Russell (which Newman goes on to praise) and (for some - including myself - sheer genius, for others plain revolting) resultant explosion of genuine gothic cinematic madness splotched across the screen in dark, rich, velvet-kissed visuals and tortured, horrific symbolism, is perhaps bizarrely not a film chosen to be shown in the BFI's Gothic season. There are also few modern or upcoming examples of the genre in the season, with a reliance on old school scares, as are the clips chosen by the panel on the night - is modern gothic less a thing of real horror, more likely found on a big budget TWILIGHT set?

At the recent London FrightFest horror movie event, one film - THE BORDERLANDS (2013), stood out as being especially 'gothic' to the bone. Set in the West Country it follows an investigation by a team sent by the Vatican to investigate paranormal activity at a local church.



Bathed in influences from M.R. James to Lovecraft, THE BORDERLANDS revels in crumbling brickwork and gothic spires and underground tunnels that head close to the depths of Hell itself and in which the very earth moves as a threat - a film that perhaps heralds in a gothic revival among independent horror film-making.


The work of Angela Carter is also discussed by the panel tonight. Marina Warner has an especial obsession with the work of Carter and Sir Christopher Frayling also knew the author personally. The students Warner teaches are as interested in the work of Carter today, she tells us, and are as inspired, as she herself was with this author's work. Angela Carter's brand of fairy tale-felt, erotic gothic has never diminished and she is, perhaps, the clear master of the craft. Warner celebrates the gothic as being, for a woman (though she admits that men will find themselves feeling this way too - and I can vouch for myself in that particular grouping!) all about the eroticism of horror; the exploration of the sensual. It's discussed that Christopher Lee was the first actor to really portray the Count with such deliberate erotic intent; fully cloaked-up at all times with blood-rushing desire: seduction often a greater incentive than feeding, revenge or power.

The work of Angela Carter emphasises the nature of corrupted innocence in the gothic and is clearly represented in the pre-pubescent girl from the short story (from Carter's own collection 'The Bloody Chamber'); The Company of Wolves and her dreams of Red Riding Hood's seduction in the shadow of the big bad (but very real, and very much a man) - wolf (symbolic not just of nightmare, but of coming-of-age). The emphasis on innocent seduction and the idea of man being 'the beast' (and remember to "beware men whose eyebrows meet") leads to Marina Warner's choice of clip to be shown to the BFI audience as coming from Neil Jordan's 1984 film version of THE COMPANY OF WOLVES as her particular highlight from the Gothic Season (all the panellists, except for the BFI's Programmer for some unknown reason, get to choose a highlighted moment from the festival to be shown in a two minute snippet).

After the clip is shown (a sequence in a wood cabin with an especially bloody but achingly animatronic transformation of man into wolf), Sir Christopher Frayling tells us how Angela Carter told him once that she loved the movie version of Company of Wolves (and all the movie versions of her work), despite everyone agreeing that the effects are now dated to the 80's gleeful reliance on painfully stretching bones to represent screaming werewolf transformations (an effect also memorably used in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). These effects though, remain startling and horrific to a modern audience still, and far superior to the more commonly used CGI effects used in horror film-making today and that seem to cancel out the pain of any metamorphosis into monster.

Warner's choice!

Kim Newman chooses a clip from Bela Lugosi's DRACULA (1931), a moment where the Count awakes from his slumber. Newman points out that his chosen clip isn't his opinion of what is the most gothic moment in the BFI Season, instead it reveals the moment that his interest in horror was date-stamped. He always remembers the awakening of Lugosi's Dracula in his tomb from a late night TV screening as being his own 'Right, that's it ..' moment - the point where gothic horror had gripped him by the throat for life. Interestingly, Newman points out that in the film's remastered state you can clearly see the giant-sized creatures in the tomb that sleep alongside the count, less obvious on other prints although for Newman, the sighting of an armadillo in Dracula's tomb (for no real reason and perhaps entirely out of place in Transylvania) is also a favourite touch for him in this enthralling sequence we get to watch on the big screen.

While the remastering of the DRACULA print has brought the tomb, the Count's awakening, and the animals that live alongside him into fresh focus, I also noticed during Kim's clip that Dracula's footprints in the soil leave behind steaming, smouldering pits in the ground as he treads across the tomb, reminding me of the gothic Doctor Who adventure THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS in which the Egyptian/ Alien god Sutekh's black-cloaked and helmeted servant treads across the rug at a countryside mansion, walking calmly towards his victim, footprints still smouldering in the floor behind him as he walks, eventually this creature's black-gloved hands bear down on the shoulders of his terrified victim; more smoke; more burning into flesh; more terrible screaming. Pure gothic thrills for Saturday night teatime at the BBC in the 70s!

Newman's choice!
Professor Roger Luckhurst chooses an especially wonderfully gruesome clip from George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as his choice of classic chosen moment from the Gothic season and all the panel comment on how surprisingly nasty the film still is. Indeed, the use of the living dead in horror has consistently reflected society's concerns and fears - most obviously in the follow-up to this movie - DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), in which a modern shopping centre reflects society's greed as well as its fine ability to be eaten alive by zombie hoards.

Luckhurst's choice!

Sir Christopher Frayling next, and he chooses a creepy moment from THE INNOCENTS (1961) where a young child and her governess suddenly witness a black-cloaked woman appear standing by a pond at the end of the garden. It's a masterclass of visual focusing to allow scares to appear almost off-camera (and the panel notice how much of the horror in the clip is introduced almost as an aside - to be spotted slowly, instead of slammed down in front of the viewer). There is also deliberate darkening of the image in the edges of the screen and a blending of shapes and shadows that you never really know whether they are something nasty you should be spotting or just a shadow in the trees: true gothic enticement! It's actually the scariest clip of the night, if only in terms of audience reaction - we become one with the governess wondering what the child sitting beside her is staring at and who she is singing to - that fixed-stare of the child gives way to the quiet stillness of the apparition of a black-clad lady by (or more in) that garden pond right in front of us (faraway enough to almost wonder if our eyes are playing tricks and clear enough to know they can't be) and then - like in all good ghostly tales, like in all the best gothic horror; the dark figure is gone; the garden quiet and still, but shadows lurking in every corner. Because the figure, even if not a ghost, has to be hiding somewhere.

Frayling's choice!
If there is any conclusion to the night's debate at the BFI's Welcome to the Dark Side enthralling panel discussion on the nature of gothic film among five of the genre's most celebrated masters and admirers of the craft, it could be that the genre is always going to be one that starts and ends with any film being 'as gothic as you want it to be' - whether that's found mobile phone footage and uploaded YouTube clips for new generations of horror fans to be scared by or in the gothic mansions and the sparking laboratories of the old Universal and Hammer classics. Some may go weak at the knees at the sight of Christopher Lee seducing a young lady of the house in her overly tight corset while others may swoon at Robert Pattinson's fictional fanged romance with Kristen Stewart bleeding effortlessly; perfectly even (for a time) into a real life romance of the kind that dominates the tabloid headlines. While modern gothic horror may be seen as today's rock 'n' roll, I reckon every generation claims the same right of passage. Interestingly, for such an almost ancient and established genre, one that's even today perhaps overly celebrated by the establishment instead of admired by the outsider as a modern state of bad grace - 'gothic' is always going to be a rightful possession of the young; among those who endorse the genre as a lifestyle, rather than spend too much time thinking about it.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
© Seat at the Back - Cinema Magazine/ 2013

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