French Gothic Horror

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on July 08, 2013 in Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Guest Blog tagged with , , , ,

I wanted to dedicate the first nationally-specific blog to France because it is a country that had not, until recently, developed a distinct horror tradition or generated a stream of genre-specific productions.[1] As Guy Austin has argued, the reason for this is that France has historically favoured director films and realism over genre films and fantasy, particularly as the latter have tended to be associated with the foreign market (2008: 43). The search for a gothic strand within what presents itself, essentially, as a collection of unconnected pieces that often fall into other filmic categories like the fairy tale, science-fiction or the fantastique, proved an interesting challenge. I mentioned last week that France has often preferred to use terms such as roman noir to describe texts that Britain and America would label ‘gothic’, so I was interested to see whether it could be possible to trace a filmic gothic narrative, particularly after Angela Wright’s proposition that British gothic owes a huge debt to France’s literary tradition (2013: 12). An early frustrated search for French screen adaptations of one of the country’s most famous gothic novels, Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera / Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1909-1910), seemed to indicate that this endeavour would be far from straightforward. What follows is a rough sketch of some of my findings. Although they should not be taken as final, authoritative or definitive – I have, for example, left out a number of films that simply did not apply to any of the categories I prioritise below – they should give readers an indication of the wealth and variety of the gothic material produced by this country.

Despite its popularity in England and America, Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1909-1910) has yet to see a major French screen adaptation

A Horrific Overview: From Georges Méliès to the New French Extremity

At the end of the nineteenth century, one of France’s (and the world’s) first filmmakers, the illusionist Georges Méliès, was already toying with the ‘spooktacular’ possibilities of cinema. His The Haunted Castle / Le Manoir du diable (1896) showed the symbiotic role of special effects and the fantastique: the supernatural qualities of vampires or ghosts provided the perfect excuse for visual experimentation. Stop-track motion could, for example, show a vampire bat turn into a man. The results would, in due course, become part and parcel of the visual language of horror films. A good example is Abel Gance’s Help! /Au Secours! (1923), another landmark of cinematic innovation, which is set in an allegedly haunted castle and whose eighteen minutes of duration constitute a pastiche of all things gothic.[2] In the style of Ann Radcliffe, the various ghastly visitations, including anything from moving statues to skeletons and full-grown feline beasts hiding behind closed doors, are revealed to have been an incredibly elaborate hoax to discourage the hero from spending a night in the castle. Jean Cocteau’s later Beauty and the Beast / La Belle et la Bête (1946) would go on to make use of the fantastique to update one of the world’s favourite fairy tales. Although not strictly a horror film, Cocteau’s masterpiece would influence late twentieth century gothic writers such as Angela Carter. 1955 saw the release of the suspense-horror, Diabolique / Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), a film about the plotting and murderer of an adulterer by his wife and lover and the haunting that ensues. Based on the novel She Who Was No More, by Bileau and Narcejac, and remade in 1996, this still stands as one of France’s most well-known entries in the horror genre. In fact, it anticipates Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) in its driving homewards of the gothic plot, its mingling with the thriller, and its solid grounding of this tradition in a suburban milieu.

The supernatural explained: Abel Gance’s ‘Help!’ (1923)

I have intimated that France’s relation to horror has been patchy and that no series of films had previously cohered into a full-blown genre or cycle of films. Part of the problem derives from the difficulty of determining what we consider French cinema. The case of French-American director Jacques Tourneur is an important case in point. His work for RKO with Val Lewton gave birth to two of the most famous horror films of the 1940s: Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), both of which did much to inscribe gender issues at the core of the genre. France has also, of course, a long tradition of collaborations. Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness / Les lèvres rouges (1971), a recently recuperated lesbian vampire art-horror, and The Legend of Doom House / Malpertuis (Harry Kümel, 1971), a surreal gothic horror that centres on bloodlines, secrets and a cursed house, are only two of the best examples. But these are normally, perhaps rightly, shelved under Belgian horror, despite being co-productions with France and West Germany. Similarly, Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997) boasts a French director with a personal cinematic vision, but the film is, in many respects, an American product.[3] Spirits of the Dead / Histoires extraordinaires (1968), even saw Roger Vadim, to whom I will return, co-directing with Federico Fellini and Roger Malle in a portmanteau film based on three Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. This is not the first French adaptation of a Poe’s work: Jean Epstein had already directed The Fall of the House of Usher / La Chute de la maison Usher in 1928, a subtle and atmospheric feature that attracted the attention of dramatist and actor Antonin Artaud, and 1913 had seen the adaptation of ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’ as Dr Goudron’s System / Le système du docteur Goudron et du professeur Plume (Maurice Tourneur). This short story had previously had a long and successful life in the stage of the grand guignol thanks to the hand of André de Lorde.

‘Spirits of the Dead’ (1968) adapts Poe’s ‘Metzengerstein’, ‘William Wilson’ and ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’

In recent years, horror in France has bloomed, if the reason for this is not entirely clear. The influence of the more extreme cinema of auteur directors such as Marina de Van (In My Skin / Dans ma peau, 2002) or Gaspar Noé (Irreversible / Irréversible, 2002) – what has been called ‘cinéma du corps’ – and their success may have created the sense that a stronger, more direct cinema was needed. The more general recuperation of the supernatural and the fantastique in hybrid films such as the Buffy-esque Bloody Mallory (Julien Magnat, 2002), the occult prison drama Maléfique (Eric Valette, 2002) or the adventure epic Brotherhood of the Wolf / Le Pacte des loups (Christophe Gans, 2001) may have also been decisive in establishing a need to go beyond realism. Finally, the development of convincing special effects may have paved the way for a more spectacular form of horror cinema. Regardless of its origins, the solidification of what has come to be known as the ‘New French Extremity’ has seen this country producing very self-conscious zombie flicks, such as The Horde / La horde (Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher, 2009) or Mutants (David Morlet, 2009), ghost stories like House of Voices / Saint Ange (Pascal Laugier, 2004), quirky splatter flicks such as Inside / À l’intérieur (Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, 2007), Sheitan (Kim Chapiron, 2006), Frontier(s) / Frontière(s) (Xavier Gens, 2007) or The Pack / La meute (Franck Richard, 2009), and more nihilistic art-horrors such as the Bataille-influenced Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) or futuristic eco-nightmares like that of Eden Log (Franck Vestiel, 2007), where the bodies of workers are fed to a gigantic tree that produces energy to keep the rich world above functioning. These often recur to a recognisable gothic imagery or use gothic tropes.[4] Even the slasher, a genre that has obvious ties to late 1970s and early 1980s American horror, has seen a spate of success in films such as Deep in the Woods / Promenons-nous dans les bois (Lionel Delplanque, 2000), Six-Pack (Alain Berbérian, 2000), High Tension / Haute tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003), Them / Ils (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006) or High Lane / Vertige (Abel Ferry, 2009). As a result, some French directors are forging strong genre identities outside their country of birth. Alexandre Aja, for example, is responsible for the Hollywood blockbusters The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006) and Piranha 3D (Alexandre Aja, 2010), both remakes of key films in the history of American horror.

New Corporeal Extremities: The Body Gothic of ‘Martyrs’ (2008)

These developments are entrenched in the past two decades, but, as I hope to have shown, this does not mean that France does not have a horror tradition. What it does mean, however, is that the body of films that constitute the genre is more dispersed. In the following two sections, I turn briefly to France’s various incursions in the gothic subgenre to show that it is indeed possible to sketch a sustained engagement with this tradition.

Gothic Adaptations and French Monsters

I have already mentioned the popularity of Poe adaptations in French horror. In fact, adaptations of gothic tales have dominated part of France’s horror output in the twentieth century. Maurice Tourneur’s Carnival of Sinners / La Main du diable, from 1943, updated the Faust myth via the well-known short stories ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, by W.W. Jacobs, and Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’ in a film about the fate of one Roland Brissot (Pierre Fresnay) who buys a lucky talisman that grants him all he wishes. The hand, as is expected, eventually comes at a higher price than originally anticipated. Jean Renoir’s made-for-TV Experiment in Evil / Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1959) adapts The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) in a more or less straightforward way but adds a disturbing rape scene that aligns Hyde’s various vices with those of a decadent libertine. The Hands of Orlac / Les Mains d’Orlac (Edmond T. Gréville), from 1960, updates the novel by Maurice Renard. It also, interestingly, features Hammer Horror icon Christopher Lee in the role of the cunning Nero the magician, who cheats pianist Stephen Orlac into believing his newly-grafted hands belong to a murderer and have taken on an evil life of their own. Roger Vadim’s …Et Mourir de plaisir (1960), translated as Blood and Roses, uses Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous lesbian classic Carmilla as the backbone for its story. The film revels in its gothic scenery, which is exploited both architectonically and in sublime terms, and revolves around a ménage a trois between a vampire and two lovers. Frankenstein 90 (Alain Jessua, 1984) went even further in its attempt to modernise the work of a gothic writer, Mary Shelley’s in this case. Its clumsy monster, which plays for easy laughs by breaking glasses accidentally or eating spaghetti with his hands, eventually turns into a financial Moghul that enslaves Frankenstein himself. The film’s conclusion is ground-breaking for the utilitarian spin it gives to what is, amongst other things, a tale about man’s desire to play God: the monster, named Frank, manages to amass a fortune through the exportation of other reproductions of himself that may be used as household robots.

A lost gem: Vadim’s ‘Blood and Roses’ (1960) was the first to make the lesbian references in Sheridan LeFanu’s ‘Carmilla’ explicit

Gothic monsters have, more generally, been a popular feature, and often the driving force, of French gothic horror. I have mentioned Kümel’s work, but more iconic is the sexploitation cinema of Jean Rollin.[5] His The Rape of the Vampire / Le viol du vampire (1968), actually composed of two short films, kick-started a cycle that would lead to the more sustained efforts of Caged Virgins / Requiem pour un vampire (1971), Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (Jean Rollin, 1975) or Fascination (Jean Rollin, 1979). Rollin’s films often mix irreverent nudity and softcore sex scenes – not incidentally, a number of his actors worked in the porn industry – with a trademark interest in gothic locales, often abandoned castles, opulent  mansions and deserted gallic villas. His films are interesting because, beyond their artistic pretences (and the use of colour, mise-en-scène and camera pans often reveal this intent) they literalise a sexual dimension that scholars have been arguing since the 1980s is inherent to the vampire myth. More recently, Claire Dennis’ celebrated Trouble Every Day (2001) drove this point home by blurring the boundaries between blood-sucking and sex in a very disturbing face-licking scene. Rollin’s The Grapes of Death  / Les Raisins de la mort, from 1978, is said to be the forefather of gore cinema in France, with its violent scenes of decapitation and cannibalism. His other two zombie entries, Zombie Lake / Le lac des morts vivants (Jean Rollin, 1981) and The Living Dead Girl / La morte vivante (1982), also go some way towards establishing a distinct splatter aesthetic that was recuperated by Baby Blood (Alain Robak) in 1990. This rare instance of pregnant horror chronicles the horrific journey of Yanka (Emmanuelle Escourrou), whose womb is invaded by a snake-like creature. As it grows inside her, the baby demands increasing quantities of human blood and eventually grows to be a Lovecraftian monster on a mission to regain control over humanity.

The abattoir scene in ‘Fascination’ (1979): An accomplished example of Jean Rollin’s erotico-macabre psychedelia

Beyond their genre roots, monsters have also been recuperated for a more social or political purposes. The festering and creeping corpse has been given an unusual melodramatic treatment in They Came Back / Les Revenants (Robin Campillo, 2004), a film that very explicitly eschews abjection and replaces the lumbering undead with a group of old-age revenants who must learn to speak and interact socially. The problems that this raises at the level of governmental policies is interesting (i.e. who should subsidise their disability), and becomes a timely echo of I Accuse / J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919), in which war casualties come back from their tombs to lay accusatory fingers on living civilians. From a different angle, the film Poltergay (Eric Lavaine, 2006) uses the figure of the ghost to explore, through a form of camp pastiche, the return of the repressed. However, the silenced voices of the gay community are channelled here through the beats of Boney M’s Rasputin, rather than the more traditional creaking doors or gloomy whispers.

Pensioners walk back from the grave in ‘They Came Back’ (2004), the basis for Channel 4’s new series ‘The Returned’

Mad Scientists and Beauty Terror

French horror has also seen its share of human monsters and has developed a particular interest in the mad doctor with a dangerous fixation. In the sci-fi hybrid Man with the Transplanted Brain / L’homme au cerveau greffé (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, 1971), for example, a brain surgeon with a failing heart transplants his brain into the body of a car crash victim. But the most distinct and sombre of these human monsters  is perhaps the titular character of the Doctor Petiot / Docteur Petiot (Christian de Calonge, 1990). This TV film explores the horrors of anti-Semitism through the historical figure of serial killer Marcel Petiot, who allegedly injected war escapees with cyanide and burnt their bodies in a coal stove. His prefiguring as a gothic villain or vampire is achieved through characterisation (he often appears laughing manically and he travels at night) and make-up (dark set eyes on a pale frame that give him a ghoulish look). Petiot allows for an interesting critique of the horrors of  Nazism that avoids lazy conflation and centres on the desperate lives of the men who come asking for Petiot’s help in crossing the border.

The gaunt, vampiric figure of a historical serial killer in ‘Doctor Petiot’ (1990)

Shock Treatment / Traitement de choc (Alain Jessua, 1973), followed soon after Man with the Transplanted Brain and also made a strong social commentary. Starring the international actor Alain Delon, the film centres on a rejuvenation treatment that involves a continued number of injections. It is eventually revealed that the hormones used for the mysterious jabs of eternal youth are extracted from the dead bodies of the racial minorities whose labour is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the beauty clinic. Shock Treatment is as much a commentary on the poor conditions of immigrants as it is an indictment to the dangers of the contemporary cult of youth. Eyes without a Face / Les yeux sans visage (Georges Franju, 1960), a masterpiece of French horror, also explored the darker side of beauty canons. Through its heroine Christiane (Edith Scob), who sports a characteristic mime mask reminiscent of that of The Phantom of the Opera, the film proposes a curious rewrite of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1932) that emphasises paternal guilt. Beauty terror is encouraged here partly though Christianne’s father, a surgeon bent on returning his daughter the face she lost in a car accident he was responsible for. Eyes without a Face also stands as one of those rare occasions where aestheticized art meets visceral horror successfully: the final product is much more interesting for its apparently incongruous assemblage of modernist cinema and the fantastique as well as for what it says about the connections between identity and our external bodies. The film would have a tremendous influence on other films, most notably Jesus Franco’s Gritos en La Noche / The Awful Dr Orloff (1962) and, more recently, the surgical horror of Pedro Almodóvar’s La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In (2011).

The hypnotising beauty terror of George Franju’s ‘Eyes without a Face’ (1960)

Concluding Thoughts

It is difficult to establish a gothic tradition in France, but this is not because the country has not toyed with this artistic mode. In fact, it has favoured monsters (particularly vampires and mad scientists) and adaptations of gothic Anglo-American texts. Instead, what seems to come out of this brief survey is that the country has persistently returned to this artistic mode, but never with the intention to establish a genre identity. This is more largely true of other European countries like Finnland or Hungary, who, at given points in time, have found it useful to resort to the gothic as a register that allows them to deal with either the internal logic of the country’s social and familial structures (The White Reindeer) or their conflicted history (Taxidermia).[6] David Kalat notes that this has an obvious knock-on effect in how we have perceived the international significance of the country’s horror output ‘because the question is more what influence each individual film may have had, which of course varies’ (2003: 265). The differences here are between the impact and legacy of a studio like Hammer Horror, with a clear sense of identity and nationality, and a number of separate landmark films. The ease and urgency with which the gory films I described in the first section have been taken up and labelled ‘New French Extremity’ indicate there is a contemporary desire, whether French or international, to see a cogent pattern in these instances of horror, and to provide a historical narrative for them. Ben McCann, for example, has recently proposed that contemporary horror in France shares a number of qualities that may be connected to ‘a profound scepticism towards the broadening of the European Union and a fearfulness of the ramifications of flows and movement across and through French frontiers’ (2013: 283). However we choose to read these films, their existence exposes an allegiance to a tradition that, although interrupted and sparse, has given birth to a number of influential and significant gothic films. It also shows that France is growing to embrace a genre it has often loved in the dark.

Faustian pacts loom large over the soul of Roland (Pierre Fresnay) in Tourneur’s ‘Carnival of Sinners’ (1943)

Works cited

Austin, Guy, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction, 2nd edn (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008)

Hunter, Jack, Psychedelic Sex Vampires: Jean Rollin Cinema (London: Glitter Books, 2012)

Jones, David J., Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-Cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011)

Kalat, David, ‘French Revolution: The Secret History of Gallic Horror Movies’, in Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema across the Globe, ed. by Steven Jay Schneider (Godalming, 2003), pp. 265-82

McCann, Ben, ‘Horror’, in Directory of World Cinema: France, ed. by Tim Palmer and Charlie Michael (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2013)

Rollin, Jean, MoteurCoupez! : Mémoires d’un cinéaste singulier (Paris: E/Dite, 2008)

Wright, Angela, Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820: The Import of Terror (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).


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[1] With the exception, perhaps, of Jean Rollin’s work, which I consider below.

[2] I am not including the films of Louis Feuillade here, as I consider that their focus on suspense and deception entrench them firmly within the thriller tradition. This is not to say that they do not display or share gothic concerns.

[3] It is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, belongs to and American franchise and wad produced by Americans. The larger question here is the relation between film, studio and director, and which of these we believe responsible for a specific visual style.

[4] David J. Jones closes his Gothic Machine precisely with a consideration of this new French cycle and its connection to first-wave gothic fiction (2011: 192-5).

[5] Surprisingly, very little has been written on him. The only existing monograph in English is Jack Hunter’s recent Psychedelic Sex Vampires (2012), although this is comprised largely of a reprint of two articles that had appeared previously in journals like Necronomicon, and, in French, Rollin’s memoir MoteurCoupez! (2008).

[6] See my first post for the details to these films and screen captions.

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