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English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 by Jonathan Rigby

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A Book Review by Cleaver Patterson.

In the Author’s Note introducing English Gothic – Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 – the newly updated edition of his comprehensive text on the British film industry’s contribution to horror cinema first published in 2000 – author Jonathan Rigby discusses the effect the popularity of DVDs and Blu-rays have had on bringing lost horror classics to a whole new audience, and in the process casting a fresh light on their subject matter. ‘DVD and Blu-ray have also provided fans with the opportunity to see old films in beautifully restored transfers that can elevate one’s opinion of even the most humdrum titles.’ A good summation also of the original book and its succeeding updates, including this new one. For what English Gothic does – as well as providing an in depth study of the subject of British horror films and their place within the wider collective of worldwide cinema – is to provide the reader with a treasure trove of titles which many are unlikely to have heard of before.

Opening with what initially seems a counter-productive statement, Rigby admits his brashness in pronouncing, in the first edition of the book, that the British horror film was dead. He goes on to claim that, particularly where horror is concerned, stating that something is dead is tantamount to ‘wishing it back to life’. So who better to write a book on a subject than someone with first hand-experience in the field? It seems Rigby, an actor, film historian and author, is eminently suited to dissect the complex subject of British cinema’s place in the niche area of the horror film.

The problem with books on film – whatever the genre – is how they can bring something fresh to the table. By their very nature films are a permanent, unchangeable, art form. Unlike the written word which can, like English Gothic itself, be updated for each successive generation, once a film is completed that’s it: a director’s cut or remake may be released in later years, but none of these can change the original. As a result there is not an exhaustive treasure trove of new facts to unearth, meaning books on the subject find it increasingly difficult to add a different angle to the history of the art form in general, or specific individual films. Refreshingly however, Rigby manages to bring the topic to life by focusing on individual core areas and practitioners, peppered with deeper looks at more obscure films – such as his highlighting of the 1970s penchant for combining sex and horror in films like the sleazy Scream and Die and hypnotic Symptoms, both made in Britain by Spanish born director José Ramon Larraz in 1973. Where he does choose more recognisable films, Rigby still makes the information sound fresh through easy yet authoritative prose accompanied by a choice of photographs of which many will appear new to most readers.

If a book is to be more than a mere selection of stills of what is often one of the most visually impactful branches of the arts, horror is not perhaps the easiest of film genres on which to focus. Though arresting to the eye these films have not always produced the most mentally stimulating material, meaning a book which approaches it from a serious angle is facing an uphill struggle. A few have attempted the task. However, with the occasional exception like film journalist Kim Newman’s pithy tome Nightmare Movies, the majority of such books are as dry as the corpses they feature, only of interest to film studies students or hard core fans intent on completing their exhaustive library on the subject. English Gothic manages however to buck this trend, combining informed, intellectual arguments with a visuality which compliments though doesn’t overpower the accompanying text.

The primary purpose of the book though is to inform, whilst remaining clear on the issue at its heart — namely the position of the English horror film within the broader field of worldwide horror cinema. With comprehensive knowledge of the subject — he has been commentating on the subject of horror for a number of years – Rigby puts forth a clear and concise case in chapters as broad as the subject being examined. In the year 2000 the initial publication was bookended by chapters encompassing several decades: the breadth of years during the periods between 1897 and 1953 and 1976 and 1999 and the number of pages allotted to them (thirty-five and twenty-seven respectively) is reflective of the state of British horror cinema within the same timespans. During film’s formative years and early heyday of the 1930s and 40s, horror, as with most areas of cinema, was dominated by Hollywood – the occasional light shone from Britain in the form of classics like the Ealing portmanteau shocker Dead of Night (1945), but these were generally the exception instead of the rule. History, as is often the case, repeated itself during the later years covered in the first edition of the book.

Cinema has of course, always been effected by the ethical and aesthetic climate of the day: films frequently act as barometers of the mood of the ‘real world’, with the horror genre often more susceptible than most to the fickle vagaries of public opinion. During the 1950s — with the age of scientific exploration in full swing and the ever present threat of nuclear war on the horizon — the horror genre, never slow to cash in on the social mores of the period, were quick to exploit the fears and anxieties of the public to their own advantage. Radioactive mutant insects ravaged the landscape whilst aliens in every size, shape and form appeared on earth in the hope of taking over the planet and its inhabitants. In the book’s second chapter Rigby uses the emergence of this subject — which could almost be seen as a sub-genre in itself — as a means of introducing the studio which would leave its mark on British horror, and cinema as a whole, Hammer Films: two years before Peter Cushing’s baron brought Christopher Lee’s monster, and the studio, to the attention of the wider public in the era defining The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Hammer had delved into the mysteries of space with the Quatermass Xperiment (1955).

The book also highlights the wider social and political effects of the horror film medium, highlighted for instance by the unrest which engulfed Britain for much of the 1970s. The country’s film industry – and particularly that of the horror genre – was effected by a crackdown on what was seen by many – and in particular the new Tory government – as obscene material. From the mid 1970s – when Hammer, was gasping its last with lacklustre productions like To the Devil a Daughter (1976), – until the turn of the century – when Britain again led the way with groundbreaking hits like the grimy Dog Soldiers (2001) – horror well and truly lay again in the hands of the large American studios, where attitudes towards censorship appeared more lenient. Teenage audiences were thrilled by big budget Hollywood chillers, with monster epics like Jaws (1975) and slasher franchises which started with Halloween (1978) and culminated almost two decades later in the self-referential Scream (1996) and its follow-ups. Now, with this updated edition of English Gothic, Rigby charts this British resurgence as we enter the first decades of the new millennium.

What justifies this new edition is Rigby’s argument for the resurgence of interest in horror cinema since 2000 and Britain’s input. The British film industry, particularly in the genre of horror, has always prided itself in making groundbreaking contributions to the field of cinema for a fraction of what Hollywood spends to achieve the same ends. At the height of its popularity during the mid to late 1960s Hammer – who to this day remain one of the most profitable film studios to emerge from Britain – were making wildly successful films on a shoestring budget, which tapped into the lucrative market of late teen and early twenty year old film goers. Now, as the book shows, the British have led the renewal of interest in the field of horror cinema, with a new kind of urban horror to which the genre’s core, adolescent audience, can relate to. In the same way that American cinema, during the closing years of the twentieth century tapped into a host of teenage fears and neuroses with smash hits like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), British horror cinema, as Rigby highlights, has found fresh vigour in the new millennium with a brand of urban horror which contemporary audiences understand. Films such as Scottish director / writer Colm McCarthy’s gritty Outcast (2009), set on an inner-city housing estate in Scotland, feel more real, and hence more horrific to modern audiences, than something featuring someone prowling a mist shrouded estate somewhere in central Europe. Of course where Britain now leads others follow, with films such as the American production Silent Hill (2006) giving its own meaning to twisted urban living.

Bringing the book up-to-date, Rigby focuses on these new chillers, and their directors, which have again put Britain at the forefront of the horror film industry. As with Hammer’s films made between the late 1950s and early 1970s, Britain during the last fifteen years has again begun to produce quality material, by filmmakers not afraid to push the boat out where edgy, genre defining work is concerned. Unfettered by the often suffocating constraints imposed by large studios, the British have not only set thematic patterns which the rest of the film world is following, but also brought a new group of young filmmakers to the public’s attention who have gone on to even greater success. The idea of a world overrun by the living dead, as seen in the British apocalyptic zombiethon 28 Days Later (2002), has been repeated by smash-hits 30 Days of Night (2007) and World War Z (2013), whilst the success of anarchic black comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004) set a new benchmark for humours splatterfests like the American Zombieland (2009). British born director / writer Neil Marshall, the brains behind the claustrophobic horror hit The Descent (2005) has since gained further industry recognition with his Emmy nominated directorial work on the television series Game of Thrones, whilst Ben Wheatley, director of the much lauded historical chiller A Field in England (2013), has helmed episodes of BBC’s long running cult drama Dr Who.

In his afterword to the first edition of English Gothic, repeated again here, writer and producer David McGillivray – who was partly responsible for miring the reputation of British horror in the 1970s with such sleazy classics as the cannibalistic Home-counties schlockfest Frightmare (1974) — claims in glowing terms that he was ‘personally delighted to have been given the opportunity to declare that I have learned something from every page ….’ of the book. He goes on to say that he ‘thought I knew my stuff, but Jonathan Rigby knows more stuff than me.’ If this is true, then in this updated edition Rigby adds more knowledge to his repertoire, making English Gothic the essential guide to the subject, for both academic and layman alike.

Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. News Editor for Flickfeast website, he contributes to a number of other publications and websites including Rue Morgue, Film International and Video Watchdog.

English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 was published by Signum Books in 2015.

2 Comments for English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 by Jonathan Rigby”

  1. Cleaver, An interesting point you make when you say: “By their very nature films are a permanent, unchangeable, art form.” Gwendolyn and I have frequently discussed the subject of the audience as a co-creator, and Chris has cited the critic’s ever evolving understanding of an individual film. Therein, it wholly depends on how you define film as a “permanent, unchangeable, art form.” If a film is shaped or co-created by the audience as they interpret it emotionally and intellectually, then it would mean film is only permanent and unchangeable if we ignore the intricate collaborative process by which a film is created. If a film can play differently for the contemporary versus future audience, which is based not only on individual personality variants but also social variants, then this would make any definition of film as a “permanent, unchangeable, art form” susceptible to criticism. This could especially be true for genre films that can be seen to capture a snapshot of the angst or anxieties of the time they were made, therein serving as an influential force in the context of how the film is experienced. Also we must remember that any review, critical appraisal or spectatorial experience is merely an incomplete understanding – a fragment of that singular moment in time. This raises the question of whether cinema is more greatly misunderstood than understood as a consequence of the foibles of reactionary first impressions. This in itself would mean that a film is in fact an impermanent and changeable art form. Of course it is true that a film is not as receptive by its nature to being updated as perhaps published texts are, although Lucas’ tampering with the Original Star Wars Trilogy and Ridley Scott’s various cuts of Blade Runner have impacted our reception of the original films/versions of the films. This can perhaps be evidenced through the comparative discussions. And is Sam Peckinpah’s director’s cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid not an example of how the director’s cut is not their final word on their vision for the film – their expressed desire that this be the version upon which we base our experience? So while books can be updated as you say for each successive generation, the impression of a film as a “permanent, unchangeable, art form” is perhaps an oversimplification of a film’s flexibility. As proponents of serious criticism we must be attentive to escape the temptation to pose definitive statements of interpretation, in place of questions to the points of inquiry that we raise. We are privileged to be in the company of notable writers here at FilmInt, and if anything they have set an example to propel film criticism forward with a seriousness of intent. While mainstream criticism champions the reactionary, there is a need for an accessible intellectual criticism that furthers the communal understanding of film. And in this approach questions posed are sometimes more important than definitive answers.

  2. Hi Paul. I think you misunderstood what I meant when I said that: “By their very nature films are a permanent, unchangeable, art form.” When a film is made – unless it’s remade (in which case it is not really the original film but a re-interpretation) or released in a ‘director’s cut’ (in which case again, it could be argued not to be the original film) – a film is permanent, and unchangeable. The version of Hammer’s Dracula (as we are talking about horror films we may as well use that as an example) which people watch now on their DVD or Blu-ray is the same one as seen by audiences when it was first released in 1958 (save for perhaps a few digital enhancements). In this understanding a film is unchangeable once it’s on been caught forever on celluloid, or whatever particular medium is being used at the time. I’m sorry that my criticism is not as ‘serious’ as other contributors to Film International, but sometimes the counterbalance of a layman’s view is equally legitimate.

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