English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby

At the end of this exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) film-by-film history of English horror cinema, Jonathan Rigby quotes Anne Billson on the special place Gothic has for the English:

‘Horror thrives best when emotions are bottled up, and no one bottles them up quite like us.’

I’m not sure this is true of all horror. I’d say the US horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which put an end to the 20th century’s main British horror boom, are more about political than emotional repression — when they’re not simply about pure, primal terror, that is. Certainly, they don’t work in that stiff-upper lip way Hammer’s fairy-tale Gothics do. Perhaps that’s why the term ‘Gothic’ seems so much more appropriate to English horror cinema. (Though Rigby has also written books on European Gothic and American Gothic.)

Although Rigby mentions a welter of early horror films in his first chapter (covering 1897 to 1953), things (as well as Things) really kick off in 1954, with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, which made a marketing virtue of its ‘X’ certificate (brought in by the BBFC in 1951, to exclude under-16s). That film’s success led to the ‘First Flood’ of British horror (as Rigby titles the chapter), most of which were science fiction horrors, or the sort of costume-drama Gothics that Hammer were to make so much their own.

Right from the start, British critics and censors did their best to act as the repressing super-ego to these horror films’ blasts of unleashed id, complaining of a surging tide of boundaries-testing ‘sex and sadism’ (that nowadays seems merely quaint), which lead to a slow choking-off of this initial horror boom in the first half of the 1960s, when horror filmmaking in Britain seems to have been dominated by costume Gothics (not just Hammer, but Roger Corman’s Poe films, too), alongside some respectable one-offs like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Repulsion. (Michael Powell, with his 1960 film Peeping Tom, became the sacrificial lamb to the repressive critics’ slaughter.) With the social changes of the 1960s, that critical repression flipped into outright prurience by the early 1970s, when a glut of US investment led to the films Rigby covers in a chapter called ‘Market Saturation’. After Hammer finally went to the Devil (literally — their last film being 1975’s To the Devil a Daughter), Rigby lumps the rest of the 20th century into a single chapter titled ‘British Horror in Retreat’.

Jonathan Rigby

That’s where the first edition of English Gothic ended. In this new (2015) edition, there’s a new chapter, ‘Risen from the Grave: 2000–2015’, covering the period which contains, among other things, Hammer’s own resurrection, its most characteristic film being (again) in period costume (The Lady in Black).

Perhaps it’s notable that Hammer had their success at the same time as the Carry On films. Both relied for their character on British prudishness, and both failed to adapt to the changing mores of the latter half of the 1960s (trying and failing in, for instance, Carry on Loving on the one hand and Dracula 1972 A.D. on the other), finally giving way to pulpier home-grown product which was far less repressed, and less finessed (Prey, Frightmare) — which themselves failed in the face of the fully explicit, overseas-made films of the video-driven 1980s.

I wonder if perhaps the horror genre will always have two opposing strands to it: the shocking, gory, explicitly violent side and the more dreamy, surreal, Gothic side. As people get tired of the excesses — or used to the shocks — of one (too much blood, or too little), the other has a breakout success. Hence, for instance, the boom of ghostly and surreal Asian horror films at the turn of the millennium, which then gave way to the excessively physical terrors of the Saw franchise five years later.

Some of my favourite British horror films have their feet in both camps — Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, for instance — but I much prefer the dreamy, supernatural, Gothic side: chills rather than shocks, and spooks rather than psychopaths.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacobs Ladder posterIn a perfect world, I’d never listen to, or read, film reviews. One of the best cinema-going experiences I ever had came as a result of an impulse decision to go and see a film I knew nothing about. It was, I think, 1991, I had a Wednesday afternoon off, and I just happened to overhear one person saying to another “…this film called Jacob’s Ladder…” Right, I thought, I’ll go and see this film called Jacob’s Ladder. Somehow, I even managed to walk into the cinema without seeing the poster, so I really had no idea what sort of film it was going to be.

Jacobs Ladder 01

I sat down (in a mostly empty theatre — a circumstance which added a certain efficacy to some of the film’s early scenes) and at first thought, “Oh dear, it’s about Vietnam.” I’m not a great one for war films, generally. But then it changed from being about Vietnam to Tim Robbins waking up on a subway train thinking he’s missed his stop, getting up and going into the next carriage to ask a starey-eyed woman if he’s missed it (and she just stares at him), and then noticing a drunk lying on a seat by the door. As he gets off the train at the next stop, Tim Robbins notices that the drunk seems to have a tail. I thought, “What the hell’s going on?” But, in a good way. And, partly because Tim Robbins’ character was also obviously thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” (though, for him, in more of a bad way), it soon became obvious that this film, Jacob’s Ladder, was the perfect film for me to go and see without knowing anything about it, because it was a film all about finding out what the film itself was about. And, as it was full of weird, unsettling, spooky, or even horrific moments (faceless men leering from a car that’s almost run you over, a heaving party at which Tim Robbins’ girlfriend seems to be dancing — or more than dancing — with a demon, a nightmare gurney-journey into the nether bowels of a rather unhealthy hospital, Macauley Culkin), it was, as luck would have it, just the sort of thing I liked anyway. Jacob’s Ladder has since become a favourite film, one that works just as well now I know what it’s about, but I always remember, whenever I watch it, how much I enjoyed that initial viewing for never having seen a trailer, or heard a review.

Jacobs Ladder 02

Ever since, although I do listen to and read film reviews (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s podcast is a Saturday afternoon after-work fixture), I initially only pay attention as far as finding out the bare basics of what a new film is about, then, if I decide it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see, I add it to my LoveFilm list and don’t concentrate much on the details, unless it sounds like a real stinker. (And Mark Kermode tends to let you know if it’s a real stinker. Vociferously.)

Pan's Labyrinth posterA case in point is Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing the mere mention of the title of this film in Empire magazine about a year before it came out, and instantly knew I was going to have to see it. After that, I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of what it was going to be about, and was deeply rewarded. Pan’s Labyrinth was, amazingly, so much more than I could have ever hoped it would be.

But with Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth I was lucky. Because I also thought, from a brief summary, that Sucker Punch might be a film I’d like. After all, it seemed to mix the escape-into-fantasy-worlds and psychodrama strands of Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth, so how could it fail? Well, by being a loose anthology of sub-adolescent pop video fight-outs with no plot, sensibility, emotion or meaning, is how. I should have listened to Dr Kermode. He hated it from the start. I didn’t watch this film, I endured it.

In a perfect world, some benevolent, perhaps web-based, vendor of books, films and music would somehow, perhaps through analysing my copious purchase history, get to know exactly what books, films and music I like, and issue increasingly spot-on recommendations, so I could repeat that Jacob’s Ladder/Pan’s Labyrinth experience on a daily basis. But though I’ve been dutifully rating my purchases from Amazon, and plugging my reading habits into Goodreads for some time now, still, whenever I look at the sort of thing they recommend I find myself thinking, “On what planet is this what I might like..?” I mean, they haven’t even worked out the basics, yet. (For instance, that though I buy Doctor Who DVDs, I don’t buy the new series. Guh! And my buying a Woody Allen box-set may mean I’m interested in the man’s films, but that doesn’t mean I like them so much I’d want to buy them again individually. And why, oh why, can’t LoveFilm let me forget last year’s foray into Carry On films? It’s practically all they’ve been recommending since!)

Perhaps it’s that, if even I can’t define the thing I’m looking for in films, books, and music, in each of my many moods & wants — the best way I can think of describing it is “humanity, and magic” — how can I expect a computer (devoid of humanity and magic as it is) to understand?

Or perhaps it’s that adjective, benevolent, I got wrong?