NIGHTMARE SCENARIOS: Incursions of the Unacceptable

 

 

English Gothic A Century of Horror Cinema, Jonathan Rigby

(Reynolds and Hearn, £17.99)

 

 

'From Hoffmann and German Romanticism, to the modern fantastic in horror films, fantasy has tried to erode the pillars of society by un-doing categorical structures'. - Rosemary Jackson (1981)

 

'Advance thee, O thou terror...' - The Revenger's Tragedy (1607)

 

This is a well-researched historical reference survey of British horror films by film critic and actor Jonathan Rigby. Rigby, who has a long association with Shivers magazine, is also the author of Christopher Lee the Authorised Screen History (2001), a book on Roxy Music and, more recently (2006), a companion volume to the present work, American Gothic Sixty Years of Horror Cinema.

 

English Gothic is organised into six main historical sections, although parts Two through to Five, a survey of 'Britain's Golden Age of Horror', comprise the core of the book. This was a period when, as Rigby says, 'the staid faćade of British filmmaking was ruptured by monsters of all kinds', and which reached its peak around 1968 when - to some outrage - Hammer Films won the Queen's Award for Industry.

 

That 'horror films' articulate and dramatise a perennial conflict between 'light' and 'dark', between 'normality' and its 'monstrous' intrusive opposite, is perhaps, an obvious, even simplistic (but nonetheless plausible) notion of their function. English Gothic provides a vivid, detailed exposition of the numerous cinematic sub-themes and mythic symbols encapsulating those unacceptable, anarchic factors which, because they contradict orthodox concepts of truth, beauty and seriousness - the 'pantheon of high culture', to quote Susan Sontag - subvert, and often derail, our cosy, humanistic status quo.

 

A preliminary section entitled 'British Horror In Embryo' precedes the four main chapters which are followed by a final section called 'British Horror In Retreat'. The book is introduced by an 'Author's Note and Acknowledgements' (2004), a Forward (to the First Edition) by Richard Gordon (2000) and a Forward (to the Second Edition) by horror queen Barbara Shelley (2002). There is Appendix dealing with 'Gothic on Television' and two postscripts by actor David McGillivray. All bibliographical references and references to quotations are contained in conventional Source Notes organised by section and gathered together at the back of the book. There is a Title Index to all films discussed and a mini-concordance of Alternative Titles, including titles in foreign languages. You will learn that Inseminoid is also known as Horror Planet, that Eros Exploding is another title for Secrets of Sex and Das Wachsfiguerenkabinett is German for Waxworks.

 

The text is broken into bite-sized segments introduced by semi-tabloid style headings such as 'Hammer Glamour', Decadence And Desolation', 'Grot Guignol' or 'Morbidity Makes Money' and there are just over one hundred encyclopaedic inset panels for key films.

 

Together with the plot synopses integrated into the narrative, these panels are one of the most significant editorial features of the book. Here the reader will find formalised information such as production company; production date; duration; colour register; technical credits and cast lists for each film together with a relevant black and white still. Each panel also incorporates two quotations from contemporary reviews and notices, ranging from The Wall Street Journal and trade papers such as Variety to genre magazines like Fangoria. The data panels reflect the core historical time-frame: the first comprises details from Hammer's pioneering The Quatermass Xperiment of 1954, while the last panel features To The Devil A Daughter from 1975 based on the Dennis Wheatley occult novel of the same title.

 

As is the case with any cinematic reference book, illustrations are a crucial factor. Here almost all are in high-quality black and white and are scattered throughout the volume. They comprise a mix of action-stills, promo publicity shots, press photo-calls, behind-the-scenes shots and posters. There is a four-page colour plate section featuring the same mix of trade adverts, novelisation book covers, action shots and press book artwork. There is a colour group shot photo-call with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price taken on the set of The House of Long Shadows (1982).

 

Among the action shots are some iconic images. These include Edith Evans as Countess Ranevskya in The Queen of Spades (1948), Christopher Lee and Yvonne Furneaux in The Mummy (1959) and a 'startlingly graphic' image of blond bombshell Vanda Hudson impaled by a knife in throat in a scene from Circus of Horrors (1959). Oliver Reed's histrionic transformation in Curse of the Werewolf (1960) is here, together with French Queen of Cool, Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's art house exercise Repulsion (1964). There is a crepuscular Christopher Lee, framed by cobwebs in a menacing moment from Theatre of Death (1965), not to mention the hilarious 'Do you mind if I smoke?' scene featuring Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming (1966). We also have a revealing, decadent image of Ingrid 'The Pitt of Horror' Pitt seducing Madeline Smith in The Vampire Lovers (1970), based on Le Fanu's 1871 novella Carmilla. The Vampire Lovers with its demonic female un-dead fiend, being just one of a series of controversial, possibly subversive, movies (many of these films were controversial at the time) described as part of the historical overview. We have a striking image of Billie Whitelaw as 'sinuous prostitute' Mary Patterson in John Gilling's 1959 shocker The Flesh and the Fiends, a re-telling of the perennial Burke and Hare Edinburgh body snatcher story. Rigby describes this movie as well ahead of its time with its 'uncomfortable mixture of black humour and gruelling violence'. Whitelaw, seething in the presence of a demented Donald Pleasance in the scene shown here, is the very incarnation of Convulsive Beauty.

 

Enthusiasts with an interest in behind-the-scenes detail will find a number of 'on-set' publicity shots featuring famous names both actors and directorial luminaries. Among many others there is Terence Fisher on set with Hazel Court and the always 'febrile' Peter Cushing for the Curse of Frankenstein (1956). There is Robert Day directing Boris Karloff in Grip of the Strangler (1957) and a shot of Sidney J Furie directing Doctor Blood's Coffin (1960) including a glimpse of young cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. Elsewhere you may find American director Roger Corman with Vincent Price on location in Norfolk for the Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Price is also pictured on set in Lavenham for the Witchfinder General (1967). There is a particularly alluring gem of a shot showing cult 'horror princess' Jacqueline Pearce in a coffin, lounging casually with a cigarette between takes while working on The Plague of the Zombies in 1965. Pearce also starred in the iconic role of Anna the Reptile in The Reptile, filmed back-to-back on the same sets as Zombies and was to resurface in the following decade in the wildly Camp role of Supreme Commander Servalan in Terry Nation's anomalous BBC sci-fi space opera Blake's Seven (1978-1981).

 

English Gothic has a comprehensive scope dispute its narrow editorial remit. It claims to be the first book to trace the rise and fall of the genre from its nineteenth century beginnings to the present day (2000), encompassing lost films of the silent era 'to Karloff and Lugosi chillers of the 1930s. This entails a survey from Charles Calvert's semi-occult The Wraith of the Tomb (1915), via Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926) to the recent 'zombie renaissance' films that play on more recent fears ('mad cow disease', biological warfare), inaugurated by 28 Days Later (2002). It is worthwhile noting that The Lodger, a Jack-the-Ripper subject starring contemporary heartthrob Ivor Novello, formed a link between the British film industry and German Expressionist chiaroscuro techniques studied by Hitchcock in Munich. Rigby also charts the curious relationship between fantastic horror films and the rise of television, explaining how, in 1954, Hammer/Exclusive launched into the SF/Horror market via a deal with the BBC to produce a feature film version of Nigel Kneale's serial shocker The Quatermass Experiment. Directed by Val Guest the movie was released under the title The Quatermass Xperiment, the 'X' being a tongue-in-cheek reference to the newly introduced X Certificate.

 

Unfortunately the book does not have a consolidated bibliography although sources of research are listed in the notes organised by section. Rigby provides references to key sources which can be easily followed-up by those wishing for recommended further reading. Rigby has consulted some key works on Gothic and the cinema including Punter's The Literature of Terror (1980), and Pirie's A Heritage of Horror (1973), both essential sources. Also listed are Durgnat's A Mirror for England (1970), Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies (1988) and several books by John Brosnan including Movie Magic (1974) and The Horror People (1976). He has also consulted, and quoted from, various memoirs and diaries from key figures including the censor John Trevelyan, actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and film directors Roger Corman and Roman Polanski among others. Christopher Lee's autobiography is entitled Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977).

 

The narrative of the survey draws upon the social history of popular entertainment and film history. Listed are Julian Petley's All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (1986) and The Gay Twenties A Decade of the Theatre (1958) by J.C. Trewin. There are references to Ealing Studios (1977) by Charles Barr and Roger Hutchinson's volume High Sixties: The Summers of Riot and Love (1992). Rigby also trawls periodical literature both fringe and mainstream. Here his sources include Time Out, The Listener, Picturegoer, The Stage and TV Today, Films and Filming, Sight and Sound, The Evening News, The Liverpool Echo, the Weekend Telegraph, The News of the World and the Radio Times. Among the genre and fan literature consulted we find The Dark Side, Fangoria, Fantasynopsis, Cinefantastique, The Goth: Magazine of the Gothic Society, Flesh and Blood, Midi-Minuit Fantastique, Little Shoppe of Horrors and The House of Hammer.

 

English Gothic takes the form of a straight historical survey of movies by all the production companies of the time, from Balcon's Gainsborough, home of bodice-ripping melodramas, through to Hammer, AIP and a host of others (Anglo Amalgamated, Lynx, Amicus, Tigon British, Titan etc.). Summary synopses are given for all the main features discussed. At various points in the narrative the culture of film production related to wider social events and changing attitudes, reflecting a kind of perpetual struggle against censorship, a 'high minded mania for social realism', and typically British straight-laced prudery and general anti-permissiveness.

 

Rigby is happy to pass critical comment, handing out plaudits and brickbats in equal measure. For example Tower of Evil (1971) is described as the 'daftest' film in the entire survey, offering the spectacle of 'reputable actors muddling their way through arrant nonsense'. In his considerations of the climax of The Legend of Hell House (1972) he says 'women-hungry trees, sentient ivy, giant death's head moths; British horror offers all these and more, but nothing so breathtakingly stupid as this'. On the other hand he praises the 'bewitching brilliance' of Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and Marc Wilkinson's 'lyrical and sinister score' for the same movie. Clearly a Christopher Lee fan, Rigby asserts, no doubt correctly, that Christopher Lee's Dracula amounts to 'the most revolutionary acting performance in all post-war horror movies'. He also enthuses about the 'lewd Z-movie vitality' and 'outrageously tacky proceedings' of Horror Hospital (1972).

 

Regarding the ill-fated Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) Rigby points out the unacknowledged dept to Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House (1932) and bemoans the fact that the script is 'virtually incomprehensible' and the film only worthy of attention 'because of its extraordinary cast'. With Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and a rare British appearance of the scream queen of Euro-terror Barbara Steele (resplendent in green body paint and horned head-dress) in lead roles this was clearly a disastrous missed opportunity, and Rigby makes no bones about it.

 

By contrast Death Line (1972) is hailed as 'one of the great classics of British horror', with a scenario that explores one of the issues 'closest to the heart of traditional Gothic. How far can a person 'degenerate' and remain human?' The tale has Donald Pleasance as a Holborn copper investigating a generation of inter-bred, cannibalistic, plague riddled, 'debased' humans inhabiting the London Underground near Russell Square station. Like zombies and the femme fatale, 'degeneracy' is a resonant theme of Gothic that finds its origins way outside the literary context.

 

In his first chapter Rigby makes inroads into the archaeology of early horror in the years before The Wraith of the Tomb. The earliest item mentioned, Photographing a Ghost (1897), a trick photography effort by George Albert Smith of the Brighton School of filmmakers, no doubt appealed to an audience fascinated by Spiritualism and psychical research.

 

A close look as subsequent fragmentary short films from this period reveals some trends and patterns that remained with British horror cinema in later years and continue to this day. Staple sources included the history of witch mania and puritan fundamentalism, sensational 'true crime' stories (the Red Barn Murder, the case of Burke and Hare, Jack the Ripper) and theatrical melodrama. The stage melodramas were sometimes, but not always, based on these true stories (Maria Marten, Sweeney Todd, and The Bells), others were stage versions of popular terror tales such as Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre. Examples of the aesthetics of 'extreme states' (Sontag) such popular dramas all shared in the same popular blood-and-thunder ethos of Penny Dreadfuls like Varney the Vampire (1845). Prawer describes the experiences of a contemporary theatregoer who attended a double bill of Frankenstein and The Vampyre in 1826.

 

Another thematic strand featured the 'exotic female' or femme fatale. For example, The Miser's Doom (1899) featured a vengeful female spirit, while The Wraith of the Tomb concerned the ghost of an Egyptian Princess and tells of her revenge on the archaeologist who stole her mummified hand. Heba the Snake Woman (1915), like more famous recent post-war horror films, featured a woman metamorphosing into a snake. Other similar examples include an early version of H Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She A History of Adventure and an adaptation of The Beetle (1897) a novel by Richard Marsh filmed in 1919 by Alexander Butler, featuring yet another mysterious Egyptian princess. As is self evident, Egyptian 'mysteries' and Egyptian mummies have continued to exert a powerful fascination for makers of horror films up to the present day.

 

The early case of Heba the Snake Woman is an example of 'gothic' horror with roots in ancient fears of female sexuality. Obvious mythic parallels can be cited such as the Genesis story of Eve and ancient Greek Myths of the Gorgon Medusa and the legend of the demonic snake-woman, Lamia sometimes identified with Lilith.

 

As Mario Praz has shown, the image of the Medusa and the theme of tainted 'Medusean Beauty' were favourite preoccupations of the Romantics that by the end of the nineteenth century (the era that saw the birth of the cinema) had mutated into the Decadent-Symbolist image of the femme fatale.

 

The juxtaposition of the fatal woman with the snake was taken over into film from art images such as Delville's 'Idol of Perversity' (1891) and Franz von Stuck's highly successful painting 'Sensuality' (1889). Von Stuck's painting was so popular that between 1889 and 1912 he produced no less than eighteen versions with variant titles such as 'Vice' or 'Sin' all depicting a voluptuous female drapwd in a monstrous snake. Explicit examples of this theme surfacing in the post-war period include both The Snake Woman (1960) and The Reptile (1965). Hammer's The Gorgon (1963), with a script by John Gilling, is described by Rigby as 'a cold thoughtful exercise far removed from the popular conception of Hammer as a schlock factory for simple minded adolescents'. Here the ghastly Megaera, 'last of the legendary Gorgons', played by dancer Prudence Hyman, acts as a kind of agent of warped retribution, inflicting the lovers of her female alter-ego, Carla Hoffmann (Barbara Shelley), with hideous death by petrification. Unfortunately The Gorgon is flawed by the feeble make-up and risible coiffure of snakes worn by Prudence Hyman.

 

Apart from those authors already mentioned, immediate literary, rather than pictorial, sources for the early horror cinema included Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth) and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, soon became a perennial favourite, and The Bodysnatcher (a reprise of the Burke and Hare case) conditioned any number of thematically similar films. W. W. Jacobs The Monkey's Paw was an early adaptation and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle's Study in Scarlet was transferred to the screen with James Bragington as Britain's first cinematic Sherlock Holmes, in 1914. It would seem that that the horror genre is rooted in the nineteenth century and the macabre themes of popular Victorian literature and theatre.

 

Rigby precedes his discussion of the early cinema with some notes on the era of the original Gothic craze (1760-1820), an era which provided the film industry with one of its most famous monsters, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1816). Of course the other notorious 'monster of filmland', Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), was a product of the Eighteen Nineties - an era that saw a second flowering of new style Gothic literature closer in tone to the films that were also of product of the time. It was symptomatic of what Rigby in a later chapter terms 'Britain's disintegrating horror tradition' that most of the themes outlined above occur in the parodic production Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), a movie 'obviously conceived as a lark'.  Here, as Rigby tells us, we find a Whitechapel setting derived from Dickens, complete with town criers, knife-grinders, blind beggars and brassy prostitutes. The script is crammed with references to Jack the Ripper, Burke and Hare and Wilde's Dorian Gray. There is a 'necrophile morgue attendant', a crimson-dressed Fatal Woman and sly references to Sweeney Todd. Apparantly the production team was only sorry that they could not include an appearance from Sherlock Holmes to round off this 'demented gazetteer of English Gothic clichés'. This inevitable tendency towards intentional or unintentional self-parody illustrates how 'horror' inhabits a cultural space on the border between a theatrical sensibility of extreme states and the equally theatrical sensibility of Camp. Because Camp incarnates the supremacy of style over content, it also incarnates the ascendancy of aesthetics over morality, thereby diluting or eroding the constraints of 'high art'.

 

We should not forget that 'horror' is the dark-side of the fantastic, where the term 'fantastic' is used to denote a wide-ranging aesthetic mode that might include ancient myth, the Satyricon, eschatology, apocalyptic literature, folklore and demonology. The popular heritage of Elizabethan/Jacobean Tragedy and its antecedents in Medieval Romance, the Danse Macabre and ancient drama, such as the Oreseia of Aeschylus and the dramatic works of Seneca, also provide literary models for the horror genre. Think of the image of the dead man's hand in the Duchess of Malfi. It is intriguing that, while the 'Golden Age' of British horror film coincided with a revival of Jacobean Tragedy in the theatre (Trevor Nunn's Revenger's Tragedy in 1966-1969 and Titus Andronicus in 1972), it was not until the nineteen nineties that these source works started to appear in British cinema. Discounting Griffi's Italian 'Tis Pty She's A Whore (1972), starring England's Chelsea Girl Charlotte Rampling, late examples of this reversion to source being Middleton's Changeling (1994) directed by Marcus Thompson, and The Revenger's Tragedy (2003) directed by Alex Cox and featuring Derek Jacobi and Christopher Eccleston.

 

But, of course, the fantastic is disreputable: once, the predominant interpretation of the phenomenon, among both professional academics and ordinary readers, was a facile conflation of the fantastic with 'escapism' and 'otherworldliness'. Although this approach was challenged in the nineteen seventies, it is still a view that is widely held. Many readers still presume to judge the fantastic mode as trivial and not 'serious'.

 

Furthermore, from the time of Plato onwards, the fantastic, especially in its macabre or horrific form has long been the object of hostility.

 

The Vincent Price vehicle Theatre of Blood (1972) satirised the cultural pretensions of high art with its blood soaked tale of a crazed Shakespearean actor taking revenge on his critics, inflicting terrible murders modelled on killings and atrocities from Shakespeare plays. One suspects that when Andre Breton, in Limits not Frontiers of Surrealism (1937), identified the role played by the fantastic in revealing the latent, not the manifest, content of the age, he disclosed the true reason for this conventional hostility. In performing this function, he explained, 'the pleasure principle has never avenged itself more obviously upon the principle of reality'. The legions of decency and proselytisers of the ascetic ideal cannot ever tolerate such a 'nightmare scenario'.

 

In The Republic, where, in the interests of state-controlled education (the dictatorship of reality, the suppression of desire) the authorities supervise 'the production of stories', grotesque and bizarre myths such as the 'foul story' of Ouranos and Cronos, are condemned as theologically and morally 'unsuitable'. For Plato all tales of ghosts, spirits and the 'hateful chambers of decay that fill the gods themselves with horror' must be outlawed in the interests of maintaining the 'fighting spirit' of a militarised garrison-state run by a Spartan style totalitarian elite of masters posing as guardians of the 'good'. Nevertheless, as Rosemary Jackson has explained in her keynote work Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), the attempted expulsion of 'transgressive energies' from the ideal society is doomed to failure. These transgressive forces (they comprise: eroticism, violence, madness, laughter, nightmares, farce, dreams, blasphemy, lamentation, absurdity, uncertainty, female energy and all forms of excess) remain exiled on the frontier of acceptability, not expelled as Plato demanded - for that is impossible - but marginalised to a shadow-world, twilight sphere of the disreputable. Waiting, always waiting, poised to stage an atavistic return, or incursion of 'darkness', into the comfort zone of normality. That horror movies are vehicle for the unwelcome return of such socially unacceptable elements, elements that perturb the 'pantheon of high culture', is also one of the main themes of English Gothic. For instance, in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) directed by Peter Sasdy, Christopher Lee's reconstituted vampire Count is a nemesis figure, a 'thing of darkness', embodiment of 'a powerful attack on Edwardian double standards'. He appears in the film as merely a half-seen presence lurking in shadow 'only emerging to deal several bloody blows' at bourgeois hypocrisy.

 

Again, discussing The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) directed by Terence Fisher, Rigby observes how the director 'excelled at showing bourgeois banality ruptured by the intrusion of the inexplicable and the abnormal.' This principle is exemplified in the scene where Karl (a 'helpless, twisted wretch' played by Michael Gwynn) disrupts the Countess Barscynska's musical evening, crashing through French windows to expire at Frankenstein's feet. Rigby points out that the motif of the shattered French windows was to appear in several other films from the same director.

 

However, as is well illustrated by the closing scenes of The Vampire Lovers, the forces of reaction usually reassert dominance via, to quote David Punter, 'the ritual purgation of the disordering element', a tendency that reinforces a reactionary rather that subversive interpretation of the stereotypical horror scenario. It is perhaps ironic that it requires the combined efforts of four male representatives of the prevailing (patriarchal) order led by Peter Cushing ('the General') to eliminate, by impaling and decapitation, the 'evil' (disruptive) influence of one voracious female vampire. On the other hand, Punter's idea of the 'problem of the undead' should, perhaps, be borne in mind. In many of the most successful horror films the hero-villain incessantly returns to wreak further havoc, to 'fight another day and reappear in endless sequels', thus implementing a central feature of Gothic as an aesthetic mode that, among other things, charts the impossibility of total repression.

 

As a psychic symbol the villainous Gothic monster (the vampire, the serpent woman, the cat-girl, the mutant and the brute) remains a testimony to a compulsive element in human nature. An element that, in the words of S. S. Prawer, will always strive 'to live more intensely' through the medium of the terror film: 'we cross frontiers, we test limits, we enter realms in which fear and delight are not strictly separated.' In Gothic Horror the repressed elements always return in some form or guise and the cycle of perturbation and reaction continues... indefinitely. As if to illustrate this point Hammer produced two more episodes in what became known as their 'Karnstein Trilogy' - Mircalla/Carmilla was reincarnated in the persons of Yutte Stensgaard and Katya Wyeth in Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil. However the tide had turned against this style of Gothic and Twins of Evil was, for the time being, outperformed at the box office by the true blockbuster of 1971, TV spin-off feature, On the Buses.

 

In summary English Gothic, by concentrating on the 'Golden Age of Horror', explores all the dimensions of the gothic mode. The films show how producers and directors worked in both 'traditional' (costume gothic) and contemporary (modern dress) style.

 

Furthermore, the book explores the various fluid overlaps with other genres (exotic adventure, crime, science fiction) and marginal subcultures (paganism, occultism and the esoteric) and its osmotic interaction with sleazy exploitation cinema (Cover Girl Killer, 1959). Black humour and satire exemplified by The House in Nightmare Park (1972) starring Frankie Howerd) are also covered.

 

Augmented by external influences both Continental (Marquis de Sade, Gaston Leroux, German Expressionism) and from the United States (Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Guy Endore) these are the genre features that characterised the British Horror Film; the main dimensions of Gothic film.

 

In its diverse forms and formats (main features, supporting features, art-house and 'portmanteau' anthologies) with its recurring obsessions (vampires, Satanism, spooky houses, mad scientists, monsters, mutants, Armageddon, degeneracy, fog, plague, cannibalism, zombies, sadomasochism, deranged families, aliens, revenge, resurrection, low-life, serial killers, mutilation) the horror film evolved through various developmental phases. The historical trajectory sketched out by Rigby is a threefold affair. He posits a preliminary phase of early development, comprising the inter-war period and the early 1950s. Chronologically this period was followed by a main phase of development from around 1954 to the mid-1970s. Lamented as 'the gradual extinction of Britain's Gothic strain', the latest phase is defined as a phase of decline (although it includes Clive Barker's Hellraiser, 1987) and covers the late 1970s to the present millennium. The decline can be attributed to various factors, including the precarious economics of the UK film industry and box office fashions.

 

It is the case that the Golden Age of British Horror coincided with a resurgence of 'Monster Culture' in the US stimulated by the 'shock package' TV syndication of pre-war films from the Lugosi/Karloff era. Exemplified by magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland (1958-1983), Monster Culture was initially nostalgic and, therefore, the full-colour English Gothic horrors, starting with The Curse of Frankenstein, appeared new, glossy and innovative.

 

However, by the mid-seventies film fashions had changed. This was reflected by a new wave of American gore-fest product, spearheaded by directors like David E. Durston (I Drink Your Blood, 1972), George A Romero (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) and, from Canada, David Cronenberg with They Came From Within (1975). Furthermore, whereas the English Gothic films and Corman's Poe cycle tended to glamorise the juxtaposition of sex and death in a style that caused some outrage among the defenders of public probity, some of the new mainstream horror films from the US displayed a reactionary tendency.

 

Whilst The Texas Chainsaw Massacre confronted its audience with a macabre inversion of all-American 'family values' and deranged 'frontiersman' ethics, both The Exorcist (1974) and The Omen (1976) exhibited, as Ramsey Campbell has noted, a much more traditional, moral-theological perspective. These contrast starkly with British examples such as Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. It is noteworthy that, in Anthony Shaffer's screenplay for The Wicker Man (1972), the alien, 'monstrous' incursion takes the form of a Christian policeman who, at the climax of the film, is ceremoniously immolated by the nature-loving community of 'pagans' he stigmatises as degenerates. In The Exorcist on the other hand, the Devil (predictably) inhabits the youthful body of an adolescent girl (evil equates with youth, women, profanity and blasphemy) and is only cast out by the 'self-sacrifice' of white, male, Christian clerics in a triumphant validation of conventional, orthodox 'faith'.

 

The first horror film of the post war period to be a contender for The Oscars, clearly The Exorcist conformed very neatly indeed to the worldview and tenets of the incipient Moral Majority movement (established on a formal basis in 1979). Its seems that, faced with the post-modern hi-tech, venereal body horror of Durston and Cronenberg, the reactionary Biblical fundamentalism of the Exorcist, The Omen cycle and an impending wave of 'teen-terror' slashers initiated by Wes Craven, British horror films were outgunned and, possibly, outclassed, in terms of mass box-office appeal.

 

Weighing in at 320 pages, this is a well-produced glossy medium-sized paperback. The cover, in tasteful black, white and red, shows a scene from Dracula (1957) with Melissa Stribling in a clinch with saturnine, Byronic Christopher Lee in the title role. The pictures are, as previously noted, mainly black and white stills with the exception of the few colour plates and posters adorning the back cover. They are crisply reproduced on quality paper and, together with Jonathan Rigby's trenchant judgements, qualify as one of the main assets of the book. As noted above, the text is punctuated with encyclopaedic data boxes at strategic intervals while the narrative incorporates capsule summary plot synopses in italic font throughout, enhancing random browsing.

 

The lack of a name index is a disadvantage and the onus is on the reference reader to access the book by film title, however this is not a major obstacle and the volume is, without doubt one of the most indispensable guides to this genre of British movie-making.

 

         © A.C. Evans 2007

 

 

References and Further Reading

Bade, Patrick. Femme Fatale: Images of Fascinating Women. Ash & Grant, 1979.

Eyles, Allen. Ian Allan Film Albums 2: Horror Film Album. Ian Allan, 1971.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. Methuen, 1981.

Prawer, S. S. Caligari's Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford University Press, 1980

Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Fontana, 1960.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present. Longman, 1980.

Sontag, Susan. Notes on 'Camp' (1964), in Against Interpretation. Vintage, 2001.

Sullivan, Jack (ed.) The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and The Supernatural. Viking, 1986.