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Interview: BFI’s Sam Dunn and Rhidian Davis on Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film

A still from The Woman In Black (2012)

A still from The Woman In Black (2012)

From the cape-swishing terrors of Hammer and the twisted portmanteau narratives of Amicus, through the underrated chillers of Tigon and myriad vehicles for titans of terror Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, to contemporary carnage courtesy of titles such as 28 Days Later and The Descent; it’s quite obvious that British cinema is steeped in the dark grandeur of the Gothic. Indeed, the recent success of The Woman in Black (2012) is further testament to this. In celebration of Britain’s Gothic heritage and British audiences’ on-going fascination with the macabre, the BFI has unleashed its Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season; a plethora of film screenings and special events throughout the UK providing a platform for Gothic horror classic and obscure. As part of this season the BFI has also been releasing many exclusive horror titles, including the long thought lost episodes of the BBC’s creepy anthology Dead of Night, the Ghost Stories for Christmas collection, which includes many adaptations of the work of M.R. James, an undisputed master of the literary ghost tale, and the obscure Sleepwalker, a genre defying title which meshes horror with scathing political satire to deeply unsettling effect.

With such unparalleled appreciation of all things Gothic happening across the UK, Diabolique couldn’t resist chatting with Sam Dunn, the BFI’s Head of Video Publishing, and Rhidian Davis, Season Organiser of Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, about Gothic horror and its many guises, why audiences still crave the embrace of this shuddery cinematic tradition, and what their seemingly unquenchable infatuation with fear reveals about our heritage.

DIABOLIQUE: What prompted the BFI to embark on this exploration and promotion of ‘the dark side of film’?

SAM DUNN: The BFI has a long association with key works from ‘the dark side of film.’ It has, for instance, been a champion of such key works as Murnau’s Nosferatu and Clayton’s The Innocents, having published both titles on DVD some time ago. We also have a history with the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas series.

Art for the Ghost Stories For Christmas Collection

Art for the Ghost Stories For Christmas Collection

DIABOLIQUE: The term ‘Gothic’ is used to cover a broad range of titles – what titles have you come across that really push the conventional definition of Gothic?

RHIDIAN DAVIS: It’s very hard to pin down the Gothic, which is a shape-shifting cultural tradition. For Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, we decided we wanted to trace the Gothic through following a set of archetypes over time, and tracking their transformations – sometimes into other genres or subgenres – rather than trying to arrive at a pure definition of the Gothic based on literary origins, or precise atmospheres. We felt this was more vital and interesting, and allowed for a greater plurality and range in the programming. Some balked at the inclusion of zombies in the programme, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell the story of vampires without also telling the story of zombies, and zombies are themselves changing. Like vampires they are becoming more fully developed, more human, more sympathetic, even more ‘soulful’ creatures. Increasingly we are seeing a trend towards zombies and vampires representing social classes and class conflict.

DIABOLIQUE: There has been a considerable resurgence in the popularity of Gothic horror cinema over the last few years. What do you think of the current state of horror cinema, and what kind of place do you think the Gothic holds in it?

DAVIS: The Woman in Black (2012), a classic Gothic chiller, was the UK’s biggest independent film release in 2012, and is now being granted the epithet of the UK’s most successful horror film of all time. This alone would seem to indicate that British horror films, aided by the resurgent Hammer Films, might be on the rise. The role played by the Harry Potter franchise can’t be underestimated here, introducing squillions of people around the world to a gallery of very British Gothic themes and grotesqueries, and of course to stars including Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson. Horror fans might recoil at the mention of Twilight, but the demonstrable audience for supernatural romance is encouraging film studios to take dark fantasy themes to the heart of mainstream production. Recent films like The Wolfman (2010) and The Raven (2012), and the glut of Dracula and Frankenstein films in pre-production would suggest that classic Gothic properties are riding high, and dark tales like Stoker and Black Swan show there’s vitality in the reinvention of the Gothic’s psychological and uncanny aspects.

DIABOLIQUE: With shows such as Being Human, The Returned, The Fades (which was sadly cancelled after only one series), The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and myriad vampire orientated fare, TV has now, more than ever, provided a home for horror, particularly Gothic horror. What do you think has caused this surge? And how do you think it compares with older examples of ‘hide behind the couch’ television?

DAVIS:  Things that were considered evil or monstrous generally turn out to be much more sympathetic as our values change over time, as we master our fears, and come to identify with the marginalised cultures and characteristics that often underpin the monstrous in the imagination. People aren’t so easily scared by what’s on screen these days, and the vampires, werewolves and un-dead spectres of the Gothic are really very mutable metaphors, which help to explore some of our more prosaic fears about sex, drugs, night-life, strangers, romantic entanglements, and each other. The magical and supernatural elements also speak to our longing for enchantment. It’s something that’s always there, but is perhaps magnified in a rational, over-built, digitally-augmented world. Our values are also changing, so that fantasy themes are no longer seen as the provenance only of children and young people. Monsters have become our heroes and fairy-tales have become our nightmares.

DIABOLIQUE: The BFI are currently releasing, many for the first time, examples of the Golden era of ‘Gothic television’ through their Flipside series. Can you tell me more about this project?

DUNN: For the last two years, the BFI has been working with the BBC to identify and license a number of important and much sought-after programmes from the BBC’s archives. [For example,] the Ghost Story for Christmas series from which we’ve previously published a handful of episodes, but it has long been our ambition to bring them all together as a box set. This year, with the BFI’s Gothic season, we saw the opportunity to follow up last year’s success with the Ghost Story releases, and to give them their DVD (and Blu-ray) premiere releases.

DIABOLIQUE: Titles such as Dead of Night – long thought to be lost – can now be discovered by new audiences. What was it about these titles that convinced the BFI to restore and release them?

DUNN: The BBC’s archives are full of great and important series, dramas and one-off TV plays, so it was really a case of short-listing the titles which we felt would appeal most to those people who got excited about our Ghost Story releases. Supernatural, for instance, is a series which is full of such top-grade acting talent that it seemed illogical that it had never had a DVD release. We are extremely proud to have been responsible for its long-overdue resurrection.

DIABOLIQUE: Sleepwalker is another curious title released this year. While it contains moments of chilling horror, it’s more of a satirical swipe at Conservative Britain in the early Eighties. What can audiences expect from it?

DUNN: Prospective viewers of Sleepwalker should expect the unexpected! Imagine if Lindsay Anderson had made a follow up to Britannia Hospital after overdosing on Argento films and you get an idea. It’s an extraordinary and unique film which time cruelly forgot, but which is incredibly deserving of viewers’ attention. The fact that it stars such fabulous actors as Joanna David and Nickolas Grace ought to be enough to excite most viewers, but knowing that Scottish director Bill Douglas makes a rare acting appearance is one of the many things that make this curious, brilliant film worth seeking out.

Schalcken The Painter (1979)

Schalcken The Painter (1979)

DIABOLIQUE: What can you tell me about the latest Flipside title – Schalcken The Painter?

DUNN: Schalcken the Painter is yet another one of those BBC titles which we knew was much sought-after, but which had never had a video release on any format. It’s a little different to some of the other titles we’ve been releasing in the Gothic and/or Flipside strands in that it blends fact and fiction in a way which is extremely rare, and incredibly effective. On the one hand, it’s a kind of arts ‘documentary’ that uses dramatic reconstruction to explore the work of Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken. On the other, it’s an atmospheric re-working of a story by one of the acknowledged masters of the ghost story, Sheridan Le Fanu. The result is a lavish, brooding and ultimately extremely unsettling work.

DIABOLIQUE: Long sought after, the Ghost Story for Christmas has been an immensely popular release. What do you think this tradition of spooky entertainment at Christmas, and its lasting popularity, says about audiences?

DAVIS:  For this project, we presented a new Archive restoration of The Mistletoe Bough, the earliest known Christmas ghost story on film. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the darkest nights of the year, when people would traditionally gather around fires, tell stories and sing songs, might bring out these kinds of yarns. People think that Halloween is the time for spooky goings on, but we shouldn’t forget that holly and ivy were symbolically important at Christmas to ward off evil spirits and pernicious pagans. There’s something inherently creepy about the way that some traditionally pagan rituals and symbols became Christianised and others demonised. The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas were broadcast every year on Christmas Eve, a highly charged night indeed, and one on which the sudden apparition of trees in the living room, Yule logs, evergreen branches and twinkling angels can create an atmosphere as eerie as it is comforting. We assemble these magical items and wait breathlessly for something to arrive…

DIABOLIQUE: As perfectly demonstrated by the various events and screenings of the BFI Gothic season, Britain has almost always produced an abundance of distinctive work in the horror genre. What do you think it is, or was, about Britain that coaxes many of its filmmakers to explore notions of the Gothic in their work?

DAVIS: It’s at the heart of our imaginative tradition, from Shakespeare and Marlowe to Milton – really exploding in the literature of the eighteenth century with the Romantics and the novel – but also in art with William Blake and John Martin. Britain has driven so many of the scientific and technological advancements that have built the modern world, but curiously has never fully embraced Modernism, at least not with the zeal of our European and New World cousins. We’ve always been inclined to let the past bleed through into the present. The sense of old and sometimes decaying power structures, buried or suppressed histories, and the legacies of past violence forcing their ways into the present are at the heart of so much Gothic horror.

DIABOLIQUE: Do you think British Gothic horror has certain traits or characteristics that set it apart from other Gothic horror?

DAVIS:  Importantly there’s a strong Celtic element in British Gothic. There are specific strands of mysticism and folklore emerging from those traditions, and also some of the more subversive elements, especially in the characterisation of the ruling classes as haunted, corrupt and vampiric. Our social and cultural histories are deeply wound into these stories, and the figure of one man, Lord Byron, has become a kind of colossus of the genre, making the model for Polidori’s original vampire and subsequently Stoker’s Dracula. Our love of period drama on film and television has also ensured a distinct and lavish attention to detail, from Hammer horrors to The Innocents and the BBC’s ghostly tales.

DIABOLIQUE: What you think is the enduring appeal of Gothic horror?

DUNN: Gothic horror continues to appeal to audiences for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, we love to be frightened and to have our sense of what we know and/or believe in challenged or interrogated. But we’re also fascinated by the dark and disturbing relationships – often sexual – that are depicted in many Gothic stories.

 

About James Gracey

James Gracey is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books). He has written for Film Ireland, Fangoria and The Quietus, and currently contributes to Paracinema and Exquisite Terror. He waxes lyrical about horror cinema on his blog, Behind the Couch, and likes nothing better than curling up on the couch with a glass of wine, and watching Italian horror films.

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