From Nosferatu to Twilight, gothic films have explored what frightens us – and why we are willing victims of our fear. A few days before Halloween, and as the BFI begins a nationwide season, Michael Newton is seduced by horror, sex and satanism
Beyond high castle walls, the wolves howl. The Count intones: "Listen to them! The children of the night! What music they make!" And those words usher you into a faintly ludicrous cosiness, the comfortable darkness of gothic. For gothic properties are altogether snug, as familiar as Halloween costumes – a Boris Karloff mask, the Bela Lugosi cape, an Elsa Lanchester wig. So it is that many of us first come to the form through its parodies; I knew Carry On Screaming! by heart before I saw my first Hammer film. And yet, within the homely restfulness, something genuinely disturbing lurks; an authentic dread. And watching these films again, we find behind both the security and the horror something we perhaps did not expect – a visionary poetry motivating it all.
Gothic is one of Britain's greatest cultural exports, moving quickly to Germany, then Ireland, then America, and then much of the world. The form originated in the 18th-century novels of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, set far from England in a historically remote, dream version of Catholic Europe. Then came the 19th century's series of gloomy fables:Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the marvellous ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James and MR James. Over the last 100 years, gothic film has meant first of all the screening of these archetypal tales, and then the adaptation of their mythic spirit to modern life's still darker rigours.
A suspicion lingers among some that gothic answers only to the teenager's melodramatic instincts (TS Eliot diagnosed a taste for Edgar Allan Poe as fatally adolescent*), its terrors as ultimately unserious as saying "Boo!".
The gothic is only one kind of fantasy film, close to fairytale, and (though they share a border) distinct from the horror movie that it may be said to have spawned. (It is surprising how little actual violence there is in the best gothic films.) It presents an infected realism, one where the everyday facts of life are unhinged by an intervention from elsewhere. Through such disturbance, anything can come to seem gothic, though the more intimate and ordinary the better.
Towards the end of his career, the excellent late-Victorian gothic writer, Arthur Machen looked back on his work. He saw that he had been trying to capture the revelation of spiritual beauty he had found as a child in the physical landscape of Wales. And he regretted that in attempting to write something of that wonder, he had recast the numinous as dark and malevolent. Gothic had presented a way to express his sense of wonder, but had perversely manifested that wonder as wickedness. So it is that all gothic films – some of the finest movies ever made – raise the question as to whether dread can contain a form of visionary beauty. For gothic is one of the few places where our culture allows for the ineffable, for that which does not fit our reasonable schemes. Yet it does so by finding pleasure in the apparently unpleasurable, attraction in disgust and beguilement in fear. Part of the meaning of a film such as The Curse of Frankenstein is that the villain doesn't feel things as a sane, thoughtful person should, but resembles instead a cool surgeon, a scientist, a hardened killer. The irony is that we are invited to share these responses, not to feel too much disgust – to look, and not turn away.
To 19th-century writers, a fiction of supernatural terror was a "German tale", and so it is entirely appropriate that the first great wave of gothic classic films were, likewise, German: Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920), FW Murnau's astonishing Nosferatu (1921) and Faust (1926), and Danish director's Carl Theodor Dreyer's superb German-French production, Vampyr (1932). These are old movies, but they are far from naive; even the makeshift quality of their special effects adds to their uncanniness, like a haunted doll's house, or, as in Faust, an atmosphere of some mechanical skeleton-riddled Renaissance Rathaus clock. People looking for slick shock will be disappointed; the virtue of these films lies in the "streamy", associative way in which they tell their tales, communicating strangeness through a succession of irrationally interconnected images. It was this mode – in which film could come to seem a form of trance – that the Germans bequeathed to all the best of their gothic successors.
After the great silent gothic films, the baton passed to Hollywood and Universal Studios, as the meeting point for a number of European talents: Brits in exile such as Karloff and James Whale, and German migrants such as the German cinematographer, Karl Freund. Whale's two Frankenstein films and Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) play out in an imagined Mitteleuropa, replete with moustachioed landlords and peasants in lederhosen or dirndls. In Dracula, an insipidly urbane modernity is seduced by the over-acting that signals the lost past. In the chaos on set during the making of that film, Freund took over, and he is certainly responsible for its wistful, faded charm, best glimpsed in the mysterious fleeting shots of Dracula's white-clad brides. But Universal's tour de force, and one of the greatest films of the 1930s, is Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a movie that begins with Lord Byron declaring his delight in Mary Shelley's "pretty chills", and that explicitly sets out to expose the darkness in such prettiness. It is both the most vicious of the Universal horrors and, not coincidentally, the campest and funniest. A vein of ironic and grotesque fancy runs through it, tinged with Wildean subversions. Karloff's Monster is alternately childlike in his curiosity and bestial in his rage; he lurches between being a source of terror and an object of pity.
Gothic began with exotic locales set in the distant past; one of the Victorian period's innovations was to draw this alien otherness back to Britain itself, to the here and now. This discovered gothic quality within everyday life found one of its finest expressions in the American work of French-born director Jacques Tourneur, especially the brilliant Cat People (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944)** and Night of the Demon(1957). All three films present a character unable to credit the supernatural, or even suspicious of the imagination as such. In Cat People, our hero Ollie (Kent Smith) is an apple-pie-eating, all-American, chisel-jawed guy. His unreflecting faith in enlightenment, progress and psychiatry contends with the archetypal, the superstitious, the fact of human evil. European heaviness in the shape of Irena (Simone Simon), his Serbian cat-woman wife, drags this chipper American down; for the first time in his life, Ollie is unhappy. "I love silence. I love loneliness," purrs Simone Simon. There is no pursuit of happiness for her. Irena believes her trouble is one of the soul, an unfortunate property that no American in this movie would want the inconvenience of possessing. (The idea of the soul captivates gothic films from Dracula to The Devil Rides Out, though most tend to express that fascination through ssaults on the body, achieving carnality in sexual desire or in gore.) Troubled by Irena's Balkan heaviness, tempted by normality, Ollie strays romantically; this must be one of the few films of marital infidelity where the other woman is a breezy, swell type of home-making gal, and the wife seems an unreadable.
There have always been good British supernatural films – Ealing Studios' Dead of Night (1945) and Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949) are particularly impressive. Yet for most people, British horror means Hammer. When Hammer Studios turned to the horror movie in the late 1950s, to distinguish themselves from their Universal forebears they presented not black and white darkness, but brightness. Shot in Eastmancolor, the first batch of Hammer Horror movies – Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein(1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) – are among the loveliest-looking British films of the decade. If this is horror, it's one closer to Poe's decadence than to Saw IV. The early Hammer films offer a last gasp of British romanticism, the solid sets drenched in a soft brilliance of shadows, of greys, reds and blues; when these films stray into the far woods, it's always autumn there, never spring. The leaves fall, and the light shines golden and clear; compared with the well-lit contemporary look of the "angry young men" films, Hammer's mournful sumptuousness must have been even more striking. They play out a 1950s reverie of contagion, lust and post-Suez anxiety.
Roger Corman's 1960s American gothic films – especially his stylish series of very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, blessed by the presence of the wonderful Vincent Price – have more lurid vitality than their British rivals. Yet even here we may detect a shade of Ingmar Bergman, another sign that through that decade, European existential downheartedness would win out over American gusto.
That same year, here in Britain, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out portrayed comparable fears, the young becoming the hypnotised prey of a warlock of a certain age. The satanic rite at this film's centre is pretty much how Ronald Reagan imagined one of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. However, the Dionysiac celebrants at this orgiastic 60s happening aren't beautiful hippies, but late-middle-aged suburbanites. The stockbroker belt turns out to be holding in a lot of disruptive desires.
In the era of The Manchurian Candidate, the anxieties expressed in Rosemary are found everywhere; with the similarly pregnant heroine of John Bowen's interesting BBC play, Robin Redbreast (1970), just as with Edward Woodward's entrapped puritan policeman in the Anthony Shaffer-scripted The Wicker Man (1973). Gothic requires victims, and, above all, inexplicably semi-willing ones; it is not just being taken over that provides the terror, but our knowledge of our collsion in the process, our inner compulsion to give ourselves over to desire, to death. Gothic tenders us a porous self, susceptible to invasion, where our subconscious mind is our private Fifth Column. In vampire films, the "victim" is a kind of addict, consciously repelled, unconsciously attracted. Through the best gothic stories, sleepwalkers, the mesmerised, the entranced and enchanted, stalk. The 60s and 70s could connect their radical absence of will to mind control, propaganda and the hidden persuasion of advertising; with brainwashing, the world had gone gothic. And with some of the advances in brain-scanning and nanotechnology, it looks set to stay that way.
In the 1970s, the finest purveyor of British gothic was no longer Hammer but the BBC. TV and radio were then, after all, the uncanniest of all the media – the stranger within the home. In a series of fantastic short films for Christmas, as well as in such anthology series as Dead of Night, the BBC (and especially Lawrence Gordon Clark) turned out a number of small masterpieces: Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968), Gordon Clark's The Signalman – Dickens adapted by Andrew Davies – (1976) and Leslie Megahey's Schalcken the Painter (1979) especially stand out. The entrapped self so vital to gothic was everywhere here. Much contemporary horror imposes on the mind; these great ghost stories insinuate themselves into the imagination. The stories proceed by implication, by hints and glimpses; things turn on fractures in perception, on double-takes, on our uncertainty about what we see or hear. The fear comes from images too quick to be taken in, from sounds on the edge of notice, in the strangeness of the natural world.
In the contemporary stories, gothic became a vehicle for social criticism, especially in the admirable Dead of Night. In Don Taylor's "The Exorcism", a spectre is haunting a home counties middle-class Christmas dinner; it's a Marxist Märchen, a gothic Abigail's Party with a leftwing conscience. In John Bowen's "A Woman Sobbing", a great feminist fable, the fear coalesces around the woe that is within marriage.
In the cinema of this era, there are so many great works that it is hard to do more than list some of the very best – The Exorcist, Suspiria or The Shining, all movies that place the gothic at the heart of modern life. Yet, in my view, the finest gothic films of the period were those that most measured up to the power of the past – the place where, after all, ghosts come from. There were spirits abroad too; elemental forces from the dark ages and spooky stone circles on children's TV. Into the electric world intrude elements that displace modernity – ghosts, monsters, devil worship and, for some rationalists, religion itself. The objects of fear prove archetypal; their origins are in eternity. In one of the few cinematic remakes to bear comparison to the original, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979) powerfully engages with the gothic past and with Germany's lost cultural inheritance. David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) is a Dickensian fairytale of London, a sombre and beautiful film, one that reminds us that gothic may provoke tears as well as shudders.
These works and others show our continuing need for the Victorians. The people of the 19th century stand both for the repression that we imagine ourselves as having refused, and for the lusts and guilt that we suppose were once repressed. In gothic, the Victorians are our necessary other, embodying all we reject, all that we hope we are not. The place of repression is the place of sex, summoned up by its opposite; as for the Victorians themselves there was medieval Dracula, troglodytic Mr Hyde. One great strength of gothic is its power to merge together the long‑ago and the troubled present. So it is that in the last decades came Buffy, Blair Witch, cool bloodshed and twilight. The form seems as vital as ever. Gothic may be unhappily in love with the past, but it undoubtedly has a rosy future. Its fears are perennial, apt for rediscovery by each generation, both in new works and in the undead images of celluloid.
BFI Southbank, London, SE1
Starts 22 October
Until 29 November