Gothic Horror Cinema Essay, Research Paper
The genre of Gothic horror film has existed almost as long as the cinema itself, and it has always fascinated me. As the definition above suggests, the word can be loosely used to define any horror story with suitable settings, but such themes as disturbing dreams, desperate, undying love and melancholic romanticisation of death are also usually important in Gothic cinema.
The following is a brief and superficial overview on Gothic horror film and some classics of the genre.
Directed by Robert Wiene in 1919, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari was one of the first Gothic horror films. Although the more usual Gothic environment was replaced by disturbingly dreamlike sets, this incredibly inventive story of dream, madness, love and evil is thematically more truly Gothic than any of your average graveyards-castles-and-living-dead spook flicks. Being also the film that first introduced the character of a mad doctor to a horror audience, The Cabinet ★★★★ remains a first rate masterpiece nearly eighty years after its original release.
It is obvious that there are few things more Gothic than vampires. This was to be noticed by the world in 1922, when the German expressionist F. W. Murnau made the first ever film adaptation of Bram Stoker?s novel Dracula. Although the Count was called Orlok, and the story was set in Bremen instead of London, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: The First Vampire) was so identical to Stoker?s story that major legal trouble for Murnau followed right after the release. The Count was portrayed by Max Schreck (whose last name is actually German for ?terror?) as an undead bestial bloodsucker. In the story, the vampire can only be brought to rest by a woman who shall willingly give her blood to the beast until the sun rises, and the vampire turns to dust in a well-known scene. Many scholars describe Nosferatu as the best film ever made in the vampire genre.
Released ten years later, Tod Browning?s Dracula,1931 gave the character of the Count a different treatment – the one that we now call ?the classic Dracula?. (B?la Ferenc Dezs? Blask?) Bela Lugosi?s Dracula dressed in an elegant Victorian suit and a black and red satin cloak, and was closer to a mysterious, charmant aristocrat than a blood-thirsty monster. Despite the fact that neither the film or its sequel Dracula?s Daughter ,1936 Lambert Hillyer were cinematic masterpieces, Lugosi?s immortal portrayal of Dracula would be copied by many, but never quite duplicated. The maestro himself was extremely dedicated to his work, and actually lived the last years of his life in the fantasy world of his films – he was finally even buried in his Dracula cloak.
Shortly after Browning?s Dracula, another classic Gothic novel was made into a film. James Whale?s 1931 film Frankenstein was a simple and popularized version of Mary Shelley?s philosophically very complex novel, but nevertheless stands out as a prime example of traditional Gothic cinema. The immortal sequence must be one of the best remembered scenes in the history of horror. Throughout the film, Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) manages to squeeze an amount of dumb emotion through the monster?s deformed face – particularly in my favorite part, the (partly cut-out) scene where he has thrown the young girl to a lake, thinking that she will float like the other flowers. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein(1935) was even more remarkable, and has then become one of the most respected films in the genre.
The 60’s and the 70’s were, in many ways, the golden age of horror cinema. In Great Britain, the legendary Hammer Films produced numerous re-made classics, often based on classic stories about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf and the Mummy. Usually starring Christopher Lee (Christopher Frank Carandini Lee) as the monster and Peter Cushing as the pure-hearted hero, some of these films were based on traditional Gothic themes and some of them were set in traditional Gothic surroundings. Vast majority of them, however, were both.
Hammer’s stunning series of Dracula films, starting with Terence Fisher’s seminal Horror of Dracula,(1958) laid the basis for a whole new vampire renaissance in cinema. Lee’s masterful portrayal of the vampire count was based on Lugosi’s stylish gentleman bloodsucker, with some additional sophisticated decadence. Whether it was Lee or Lugosi who was the true Dracula shall always be argued, but Hammer’s films were definitely scarier, more seriously Gothic, and generally less B-like than Lugosi’s Draculas.
It wasn’t just the British directors who were making European Gothic film in the sixties. After the genre was finally popularised by Hammer during the ’60s, European auteurs (particularly Italian and Spanish) were free to make their own versions without having to worry about their success. Although these movies had to copy some of their style from the British classics in order to remain popular, some directors showed genuine talent and made classics of their own. These included the Italian Mario Bava, a talented visualist, whose films were filled with beautiful Gothic imagery. Many of those films, including La Maschera del Demonio, (1960) ?Mask of Satan? which is regarded as one of the genre’s cornerstones, starred Barbara Steele who soon became known as The Queen of European Horror.
Although the Victorian morality strictly prevented the publication of graphic erotica, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novel Carmilla was clearly a veiled story about lesbian love. The story had already been filmed in 1932 by Carl Dreyer – even if his artistic, dreamy and disturbing Vampyr, (1932) ?Castle of Doom? was only very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novel. Lots of remakes and versions of Carmilla would appear on the silver screen during the sixties and the seventies, more often than not emphasizing the erotic elements of the story and the thrilling presence of the female vampire.
The style was born in the early sixties with Roger Vadim’s Et mourir de plaisir,(1960) ?Blood and Roses? and soon such European directors as the French Jean Rollin were directing numerous bizarre fairytales with blood, fangs and naked women. Rather typically for French horror, Le Frisson des Vampires ,?Strange Things Happen at Night? and Requiem for a Vampire,(1971) Caged Virgins? were visually beautiful films with a little or no storyline. Hammer also contributed to the trend; first with the acclaimed The Kiss of the Vampire,(1963) and then with a series of films based on Carmilla: The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil were of traditional Hammer quality. The trilogy was a success, and played a great part in popularizing the sub-genre.
On the other side of the Pond, Roger Corman was independently writing, producing, directing and shooting cheap exploitation films at an astonishing rate. He concentrated mostly on best- selling subjects: science fiction, monster movies and – of course – spooky Gothic horror, my own favorites. In 1960, Corman started his series of Edgar Allan Poe film adaptations with The Fall of the House of Usher. Most of these quickies starred Vincent Price (Vincent Leonard Price Jr.) as a paranoid nobleman, obsessed with either ancient family curses or the idea of getting buried alive. Stories took place in old, spooky castles and dungeons with exquisite rusty torturing equipment (often the same sets, just a bit differently arranged and lighted).
Although the series was made with a small budget, and some of the stories were almost indistinguishable from each other, even critics had to agree that there is a surprisingly small amount of unintentional comedy in the films. Usually they didn’t even look cheap. Corman was no Ed Wood jr. – his unique vision and Price’s brilliant aristocratic anxiety lifted Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia and other classics far above B-status.
It can be argued whether this genre finally died with the coming of splatter in the 80’s or not, but the state of the Gothic film scene today is hardly impressive. Of course, there are some exceptions.
Some of Tim Burton’s films – most notably Batman and Batman Returns – have really impressive Gothic settings in a modern city instead of medieval castles, even if some of the traditional spirit might be lacking. It is this style of magnificent “post-Gothic” visuality that seems to be the spine of modern Gothic films – The Crow for an excellent example.
Most of the traditional Gothic tales have also been re-remade again in the 90’s – this time by respected directors and with big budgets. Both Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola★★★★ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh★★★★ claimed to be ‘the film adaptations on this novel to end all film adaptations on this novel’. Granted, they are technically excellent, remain loyal to the original stories (although Coppola’s film emphasizes the theme of undying love just a tiny bit too much) and have very impressive Gothic settings of my likings. At least they are not starring Tom Cruise as the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire did. Some might disagree, but some of the feeling and honesty of the classics is no more present in this genre today.