Video Watchdog called it: “A definitive work”, while SFX warned “Essential… Don’t even try and discuss British horror films until you have read it”. Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015 is a crucial text for all horror fans, providing a comprehensive look at the evolution of British horror film since the inception of the industry in the late 1800’s. 2015 sees a new updated, revised fourth edition, to bring English Gothic into the 21st Century, with films listed as recently as the beginning of this year.
In recent years, writer/actor, Jonathan Rigby has established himself as a leading expert in the field of horror cinema commentary, criticism, and historical analysis. Not only is he also the author of Christopher Lee: The Authorised Screen History (2001), American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema (2007), and Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema (2011), he was at the heart of the two acclaimed BBC series hosted by Mark Gatiss, A History of Horror and Horror Europa, serving as a consultant for both shows. His valuable commentaries for related film DVD or Blu-ray releases (the most recent being Arrow Films, The Hound of the Baskervilles) consistently demonstrate an unrivalled depth of knowledge in the field. In similar fashion, this new edition of English Gothic provides a veritable feast for both curious newcomers and serious students, harnessing the power of Rigby’s rich mastery on the topic, whilst delivering a wealth of information that is sure to satiate even the hungriest of appetites.
It seems only fitting — in typical grand old gothic tradition — that the book should come delivered in the form of a weighty tome; a clichéd descriptor maybe, but one surely fitting for such a dense work on the theme. Tracking gothic cinema right back to its origins in literature, on through the stages of Grand Guignol theatre, and up to the birth of cinema, Rigby leaves no stone unturned; the core of the book charting the peak “classic” years with the inception of the iconic Hammer horror period, right through to modern day blockbusters such as The Woman in Black (2012), and the consequent revival of British genre fare for the modern age. The tone of the text, bursting with authority and information, never once loses focus. Never once does it become wrapped up in the tortures of dry academia — like so many other serious books on the subject tend to do. Rigby’s passion continues to shine through each and every page and, yet, the author doesn’t make the mistake of descending into anywhere near grating fan boy chirping and blind enthusiasm either. He remains strongly in the center ground of just the right balance of highly informed prose, accessibility, gravity, and fervour. What this amounts to, in essence, is something solid, impressive, and entirely immersive.
This new hard-backed edition from Signum is beautifully packaged. The glossy pages display a banquet of mouth-watering images and with everything neatly indexed and compartmentalized — including an entire chapter on gothic television — making the layout perfect for both bite-sized browsing, or diving in to fully engross oneself. This said, once started, it proves very difficult to put down!
We were lucky enough to catch up with the author and ask him about this new edition, gothic cinema, and his forthcoming projects. This is what he had to tell us…
Diabolique: This couldn’t have been a worse week really to talk about English Gothic, given the recent death of the King of British horror, Sir Christopher Lee.
Jonathan Rigby: Yes, I know. That was very sad. On that Thursday I had to do a whole bunch of radio and television interviews. As a result, because I was running around from place to place, I didn’t really have time to take it in. It hit me a bit later.
Diabolique: And Christopher Lee is of course on the cover of your book, we are here to talk about.
JR: Yes, indeed.
Diabolique: What did he mean to you, in terms of shaping your interest in horror in those early years?
JR: I think I had an innate interest in horror from a very early age. The first film I ever saw, to my knowledge, was You Only Live Twice. The only thing I remembered about that, when I was a boy, is when Karin Dor plunges into the piranha pool, and that was the sort of horror highlight! So I think I was always interested in horror. In the early seventies, my father — what a delightful man he is (laughs) — he used to send me to bed about seven o’clock and then he’d get me up shortly after the News at Ten to watch the horror film that was showing. The one that really did it for me was when I saw Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. It was the first television showing I believe. That blew me away, that film.
So Christopher Lee was very much tied up with my initial interest in horror, and, of course, Peter Cushing.
Diabolique: I hear you were such a fan of Lee that back in the seventies you used to try and catch him on the Pro Celebrity Golf?
JR: Well, men of a certain age seem to share this. Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith — who I have known for years — when we first met, we made the same observation. We were so keen on Christopher Lee that we used to watch Pro Celebrity Golf just in case he turned up; which he frequently did! Subsequently, I have found there are loads of ‘men of a certain age’ and maybe ‘women of a certain age’ too — because of course he had a huge female fan base — who did exactly the same thing. So it was kind of a rite of passage. You tuned into Pro Celebrity Golf to see him in his 1970’s checked trousers.
Diabolique: So, for this new revision of English Gothic, you talk about the resurrection of British horror in recent years, when you had previously declared the genre dead?
JR: British horror was dead around the time I wrote the book originally, which was why I pronounced it dead. In just a couple of years after the book first came out, this amazing renaissance happened, so it came back to life. It is now, if you like, undead — which is quite a nice way of looking at it. But there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these ‘undead’ British horror films. So, since I had the opportunity to update the book, I thought let’s talk about them.
Diabolique: The book goes up to really recently doesn’t it?
JR: I think the last film I deal with in there, in any detail, is The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which came out on New Year’s Day this year, I think.
Diabolique: Very current! Were you writing it up until the last hour before it went to press?
JR: I was! It went to press in February.
I think it is very important to cover these new films. I very much doubt I will update the book again, so this is the last edition. I am really glad that I had the opportunity to bring it up to date, because it really is a quite substantial renaissance period now.
Diabolique: How would you define the cultural identity of British horror film these days, or would you even consider it to have one (do you think it has become more Americanized)?
JR: British horror, and British film in general, have always struggled with the Americanized thing because, of course, they have always wanted to appeal to American audiences in order to make some decent money; to make money beyond the domestic market. So horror films were no different from films in general in that they would generally get some fading Hollywood star and put them into their small British films to appeal to an American market. The early version of Hammer films did that a lot. So we have tried to accommodate the American market a lot, and there was certainly a period when slasher films ruled the roost, when we were basically copying American models. But in the classic days of Hammer, Hammer films were defiantly British.Diabolique: Hammer films aligned with a very British literary tradition. Do you see that same British sense of identity in modern films, or do you think that died out with classic Hammer?
JR: Well, in terms of drawing on a literary tradition I don’t see a great deal of that now. It’s not very obvious when it occurs. But, I think there is definitely a cultural identity in modern films, if only because so many of them are in the social realist area of being set on housing estates, or so called ‘Hoodie horrors.’ I think those films draw very specifically on British anxieties and fears of the 21st Century; they are very British I think.
Diabolique: Do you think they still relate to a gothic tradition in any way?
JR: I think here and there. Yes, I think so. There’s always a sort of demonic threat, social realist or not. Gothic is a very slippery word. But if you are thinking the pure gothic of costumed films, set in mouldering castles, with crypts and satanic villains and fatal women and all those, then no we’re not seeing much of that. But you never know and that might come back. After all, the revived Hammer films put Daniel Radcliffe into period costume for The Woman in Black.
The Woman in Black is a very effective film that attracted younger audiences. Obviously you are putting classic scenarios — that lots of people, including me, will be very familiar with; we will be thinking we have seen it all before. But, you’ve got to remember the younger audiences have not. And I think an attractive haunted house movie, like The Woman in Black, was a very clever way of turning young audiences on to that kind of stuff.
Diabolique: How do you feel about modern horror, do you miss the classic days, or do you embrace it all?
JR: Horror films, among horror fans anyway, are very much bound up with nostalgia. It’s part of the human condition really. It’s very normal that your preferred films tend to be the ones you encounter when you are younger. Yes, one can of course embrace the new ones, and watch them with great interest. And watch the various trends and developments, which I think I do with a reasonable coherence in the extra section of English Gothic. Of course, you can experience these new things but I don’t think they will ever quite get you like films did when you were much younger. Horror is, to a great degree, for younger people. It has generally been marketed at younger people. So, as people get older, the ones they enjoy the most are the ones that were made when they were the target audience. That does not mean you can’t look at the new ones and admire, and dislike some of them, of course.
Diabolique: When you originally wrote the book — because it is so researched and detailed — how long did that process actually take?
Rigby: The original edition was written between 1996 and 1998. Then it was tweaked furiously all the way up until publication in 2000. The research involved…I had people helping me, there was a lot of research.
Diabolique: Pre-internet too!
JR: A lot of people have been kind enough to say English Gothic was a new type of film book in many ways at the time given and that it didn’t only offer critiques, it also offered hard fact. That’s become a lot more standard since, but you are right, the original research, a lot of it, was pre-internet. So, I was traipsing down to the British Film Institute library a lot.Diabolique: Do you know how many films you actually watched as part of that process?
JR: Well, I mean David McGillivray says in his foreword, which was written fifteen years ago now, which is still very funny in a typically David McGillivray way — I say this in the nicest possible way, but he’s very abrasive in a very charming way (laughs) —, he says “unlike a lot of authors, Jonathan Rigby has seen most (not all obviously) but most of the films he writes about.” Of course it’s impossible to have watched all of them. But I watched the majority. I think for the original edition of English Gothic around about 600 films were covered. Then just in the later sections another 400; that just shows you how incredibly productive this new horror boom is. As I said in another interview, and I haven’t done the sums, but it’s quite possible that more British horror films were made in the last 15 years, than in the entire 20th Century, which is crazy.
Diabolique: This is something that has sort of crept up on us hasn’t it? There were not very many British horror films for quite a while, then suddenly loads. But the fact that there has been a boom is a fact that still remains quite obscure. It’s only when you see it identified in print, in English Gothic, that it becomes clear that there is a movement going on there. Because most people, and I include myself in this, are unaware that there is a revival in British horror to such the extent as demonstrated in your book. Even the press and media don’t tend to really mention it do they?
JR: Well, this is a point I make in the end of the book. I mean, you’re a fan and somehow the sheer scale of it has passed you by but the general public haven’t got a bloody clue! I think the original British horror film was helped along by this very iconic name “Hammer,” to identify with. There were loads of films that weren’t made by Hammer that also attracted that name. I think that’s something the new boom hasn’t got. Even people who flocked to see The Woman in Black, they neither knew nor cared it was a Hammer film. So that’s the job “new” Hammer has to do, to really stamp that back in the public consciousness. And you’re right, apart from a few broadsheets that have written about it, the rest of the public are completely clueless that this is happening; which is strange given that there are so many hundreds of the damned films.
The extra section of English Gothic is 35,000 words or thereabouts, and it was a big project to keep track of all these films. To try and organize them into some coherent genre was very difficult because it’s so huge. There is already a separate book about modern British horror films called Urban Terrors by MJ Simpson — he only goes up to 2008 and he made a tremendous stab at organizing that. There’s another one coming out later this year by Johnny Walker, so people are already trying to write books dedicated specifically to the boom. What I was doing with English Gothic, of course, was just bringing the existing book up to date.
Diabolique: You do mention Dave Pirie’s classic text, A Heritage of Horror, in English Gothic. Was that an inspiration for English Gothic?
JR: Well yes, I mention his book in the first sentence, and I mention it in the last. I got his book in 1974, and at that stage I was 11, and I think quite a lot of it went over my head. But then he wasn’t that much older at the time himself, he was only in his early 20’s, incredibly. He started writing it when he was still a teenager, which is staggering to me. The original edition of A Heritage of Horror is a classic. It influenced me a lot. At the beginning of my book I quote this, he made the basic statement about British horror — which has been contested by other people but nevertheless it is a very powerful, strong statement — he said that, “horror is as indigenous to us (British) as the Western is to America.” That was a real revelation at the time. A Heritage of Horror is a great book, and he’s a delightful man, because I have met him.
Diabolique: Have you got a Holy Grail film, a lost film, or something you have been trying to track down, which has come out of the process of writing your books on gothic film?
JR: You know, I am very fond of silent films, a minority interest today I am sure. In the companion book to this (that may be reissued next year, or the year after), American Gothic, I was able to go into the silent era in much more detail — that book finishes in 1956. The tragedy of the silent era is, and I don’t know what the actual figure is, but something like 70% of the films are gone. There are a lot of films I mention in English Gothic that I would like to track down. There is one film called Silent House, which I didn’t even mention in the original edition of English Gothic and I have since seen it; it’s not quite a horror but one of those mystery thrillers that sort of flirts with horror. It was a great thrill to find that finally. So yes, there are certainly some Holy Grails but I suppose it would have to be a lost film, which you know of course, lost films do sometimes turn up again. There was a novel published in 1897, just a few months after Dracula, called The Beetle by Richard Marsh, for about the first 15 years of their parallel lives The Beetle actually outsold Dracula. In 1919, there was a film made of it. To my knowledge the only film made of it. It was a kind of Egyptological thing about the spirits, and an Egyptian priestess. The film version I would love to see. But as far as I am aware it’s gone, lost.
Diabolique: How did the launch go? I believe you had your friend Reece Shearsmith (League of Gentlemen) there alongside you, didn’t you?
JR: It went really well. The first half of the evening was me and Reece, just sort of talking with a few clips. The second half of the evening was an A-Z of British horror that I did with a whole bunch of clips. It went down very well.Diabolique: You have another gothic related book coming out soon I believe, this time focusing on European Gothic?
JR: Ah well, I think I have that set for April (2016), so it will have to be finished by the end of the year anyway. And yeah, I am loving that. It’s a funny thing. I have watched so many European horror films in my time. It’s only now that I am watching them again with a view to specifically write a book about them. Again, trying to organize that is a challenge. I am doing France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. I am not going out to Eastern Europe or Scandinavia, because the book would become ludicrously large if I did (laughs). That’s for another book, which perhaps somebody else would write. Euro Gothic, I am enjoying a lot. I am loving reacquainting myself with Paul Naschy and Jesus Franco, and, of course, Bava and Argento.
Diabolique: There is definitely a distinct difference between Britain and Mainland Europe, in the way they interpret Gothic, don’t you think?
Rigby: Oh yes, I think national characteristics. I know it’s a cliché, but inevitably national characteristics show through in the national product. Again, it’s a cliché but European horrors tend to be wilder and more dreamlike, more unhinged, and more explicit in many ways — but particularly where sex is concerned. Whereas the British approach to gothic is more restrained. I suppose it depends what mood you are in. You might want to watch the British horror as it’s more restrained, and because everything is bubbling under the surface not quite being unleashed, it’s all the more powerful. Alternatively, the European ones, where all the weirdness comes leaping out of the screen at you, it’s a difference in temperament. I am happy with either, but yes there most certainly is a difference. One of the great differences, because of the great literary tradition that you mentioned earlier, British horror films tend to be a lot more “coherent” narratively speaking. The European ones, they replicate dream states very often. Hence the fact the narrative doesn’t necessarily go from A to B. British horror films tend to be more traditional, narratively speaking, in that regard.
English Gothic is out now via Signum Books.