Monday, October 6, 2014

Make Mine Gothic Horror

This year I'm really getting the Halloween spirit, perhaps because it's my first living in my own house.  We've got pumpkins on the front porch (soon to be jack o'lanterns) and some spooky decorations on the mantlepiece.  Most importantly, I've been delving back into the creepy world of gothic horror, broadly defined.

Most modern horror leaves me pretty cold, perhaps because much of it amounts to a theater of the grotesque.  Since the advent of the ratings system horror films have been free to be as gory as they wanna be, unleashing a parade of grisly deaths and slashers stabbing naked teenagers.  The whole slasher genre reeks of misogyny, and horror film franchises that have followed in its wake, like Saw or Final Destination, focus on delivering shocking, bloody deaths.  These films are basically the modern day equivalent of circus sideshow entertainment or gladiator battles, and appeal to humanity's baser instincts.  I certainly have some base instincts of my own, but slasher/gore films were never an appetizing way for me to indulge them.

Older horror films had to be a little more creative and to rely more on the imagination of their audiences.  They knew that just a little blood and the suggestion of gore could be much more frightening than explicit, graphic violence.  Take for instance The Horror of Dracula, the first Dracula film by Hammer studios starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  It establishes an eerie, frightening mood from the beginning with a shrill, bombastic score and bright red titles over shots of Castle Dracula's statues.  The opening credits end with Dracula's name etched in stone, the score dropping suddenly into silence, and blood slowly dripping on the vampire's name.  The sudden inclusion of blood in a credits sequence is shocking, especially how the camera lingers on it.  Later in the film we don't see the stake go directly into a vampire's heart, but her blood curdling scream allows the viewer's imagination to create a scene for their mind's eye much more grisly than what would have been put on screen.  Much the same can be said for sexuality in these older films (Brides of Dracula is a good example), which must be suggested rather than explicit.

Most of all, I like my horror to be more about mood than killing.  Give me a dark, torch-lit castle, creaky wooden doors, a foggy graveyard at night, and haunted houses.  These are great places to spend a couple of hours on a dark October evening.  Some of the Hammer films are pretty lame, but their set designs are so amazing to look at that you barely notice.  The Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman's AIP studio flicks starring Vincent Price also manage to attain maximum creepiness through stellar set design.  Apart from a few exceptions, horror is a genre full of films with little artistic momentum behind them, produced cheaply and often carelessly.  I can enjoy bad horror films if they set the right atmosphere, and many of the bad ones get that very right indeed.

For instance, Son of Frankenstein is much inferior to James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the two best of the classic Universal horror flicks.  The stuffy Basil Rathbone lacks the unhinged, sullen spite of Colin Clive's Dr. Frankenstein, and there's a cute kid thrown into the story to boot.  That being said, the film is shot beautifully, and sets are absolutely gorgeous.  Much the same could be said for later Hammer Dracula flicks, which lack the power of the original, but still look fantastic.

Most horror films in the last last forty years have gone for shock and gore instead of mood and atmosphere.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.  There have been a few good exceptions.  Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu in the late 1970s, with amazing results.  Perhaps a similarly-inclined director today can go against the grain of the genre and revive the classic gothic tropes in interesting ways.

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