Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Gothic

I've been on a bit of a gothic kick this last fortnight. It started with The Art of Gothic documentary and Dracula (1958) on the BBC for Halloween.

Above, Christopher Lee as Dracula, emerging from his coffin. His suave, classy and ferocious interpretation of Dracula is probably my favourite. From interviews he seems to have a love/hate relationship with playing the role, and with Hammer Production, the British film company behind the 60s and 70s horror revival. Playing Dracula made him famous, but he was frustrated that the films ignored just about every line that Stoker wrote for the character. For the purists, you can find recordings of Lee reading the 1897 novel -- Stokers words and Lee's stentorian voice. *frisson*

The Good

As well as loving the above, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar I've munched my way though The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole (1764), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (1820), and Honeysuckle Cottage, P.G. Wodehouse (1975). Otranto is one of the silliest novels I've ever read. I rather liked it. Sleepy Hollow could have done with more talk about ghosts and less of food, but the writing was fantastic. And Wodehouse, what can I say. Always a pleasure. In this short story a dead aunt is exerting not a malevolent influence on the residents of her former house, but a soppy, sentimental one.

On Halloween itself we watched Don't Look Now (1973), an adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier supernatural thriller, The Wicker Man (1973) and Taste of Fear (1961).

Don't Look Now was very good, but I sense that the book would be better. The Wicker Man ... more on that below. But Taste of Fear! What a gem. Another Hammer horror film.

A young wheelchair-bound woman comes home for the first time in ten years to find her step mother (above, top) acting strangely. Her father's corpse keeps appearing and disappearing around the house. The doctor (above, below) seems to be in league with the stepmother. Yes, that's Christopher Lee again. He says its his favourite Hammer film that he was in, but I would say it's far from his best role. It might have been if they'd fleshed out his character a bit more, like they did with the chauffeur. 

Above is a photograph I took at the British Library yesterday. What an UTTERLY FABULOUS exhibition. It had handwritten Blakes, Brontes and Byrons, original models of Gothic houses, old film reels, paintings, set sketches from Hammer horrors. Do go see it if you're in London.

The Bad

You can't love everything as much as you want to. This book and this film are classics with legions of adoring fans but they are just not for me. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a famous ghost novella about a governess who keeps seeing the ghosts of the previous governess and the former valet about the place. They had an affair, and the governess suspects that the children know, and now their Innocence Has Been Tainted. Are the ghosts real, or are they hysterical projections of the governess's Victorian fear of sex? It is a good book as far as themes (oh my god the themes the themes) go, but frankly the writing is impossible. If pressed, I might even say rubbish.

Ah, The Wicker Man. A cult classic. Horror's answer to Citizen Kane, apparently. Appearing in Top Ten British Films of All Time lists since the 90s. Christopher Lee's self-professed best film he's ever been in. (Yes Lee again!) I make a habit of ignoring reviews before I see a film but these tid bits I gleaned from the IMBD. I can proudly say I didn't know what it was about before I watched it.

Now I've seen it I'm still not sure what I watched. I think it was conservative paranoia. Or possibly a musical. But it wasn't scary and I don't think it was very good. Perhaps in 1973 it would have struck a chord with me.

The best part of it was Edward Woodward. Not his acting, but just saying his name. And then saying it without the ds: Ee-war Woo-woo. Hours of fun.


Dracula, what have they done to you? *sobs*

The Gothic ... on my reading and watching list

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and more Hammer horror in general
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
M.R. James short stories
More Susan Hill -- I saw her speak at the British Library a week ago, she's fantastic
Finally finishing the epic The Castle of Udolpho

What have you been reading and watching for Halloween?

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