On European Gothic Horror Film

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on July 01, 2013 in Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Guest Blog tagged with , ,

I am delighted to be guest blogger for the month of July. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of four blogs that explore my current thoughts on the state and development of gothic horror in Europe. These derive from very preliminary work on the filmic side of my Spanish Gothic research project, as well as a series of screenings that I recently curated and introduced for the TRAUMA group at Manchester Metropolitan University.[1] I will be focusing more specifically on the outputs of France, Italy and Spain. This decision is made on the grounds that these countries have shown a more pervading and sustained engagement with filmic gothic and that the vast swathe of national specificities and histories which colour and shape horror in the European context makes any other study onerous at best. These blogs are intended as tasters on specific genre film histories that, as I will show, have not just been strongly influenced by more mainstream (Hollywood) horror but have contributed to a broader articulation of filmic gothic. The blogs thus reflect my current investment and interest in models of transnational cinema and their possible application to the study of the gothic in film – particularly adaptation and national myth-making.

This first post introduces the area of European gothic horror film and explains 1) why it has been critically overlooked, 2) why it is interesting, and 3) why more scholars should be turning their attention to its many delights. This first blog entry will also serve as a mini-introduction to discussions centring on Europe and the gothic genre.

Still from Robert Wiene's 'The Hands of Orlac' (1924), the first in a number adaptations of Maurice Renard's novel

On European Gothic Horror Film

The privileging of Anglo-American fiction in Gothic academia was, at least initially, inevitable, if only because Gothic Studies as a discipline was not itself institutionalised until the 1980s.[2] A focus on the need to trace a continuum in these two given traditions necessarily overlooked the exponents of the gothic in Europe, not the least because the gothic is primarily connected to cultures that have had a strong Anglosaxon influence.[3] Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik suggest that this neglect might also be a direct consequence of the popularity of postcolonial studies, and poignantly note that ‘there have been more critical engagements with colonial and postcolonial aspects of Gothic writing than material published on the way in which European and American authors have raided, translated, appropriated and influenced each other’s work’ (2008: 2). The cross-fertilisation or cultural exchange that adaptation entails is, if slowly, finally being acknowledged by Gothic Studies through the publication of Avril Horner’s edited collection European Gothic (2002), and Elbert and Marshall’s more recent Transnational Gothic (2013). Gothic monsters are largely ubiquitous and it might be more useful, as Neil Cornwell points out, to think about the gothic in Europe as the result of ‘[a] number of extra-literary models that were [and are] internationally shared’ (2000: 28). This does not only entail the decentring of Anglo-American Gothic as some form of ‘pure’ or original canon, but acknowledges European influences in the work of authors from those countries. Such an approach would, for example, be interested not just in how The Castle of Otranto (1764) or The Monk (1796) gave rise to a number of imitations in European literature, but also in how Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis’s writings may, themselves, have been influenced by Piranesi’s etchings or the French revolution, respectively.

Welcome to Hungary: 'Taxidermia' (György Pálfi, 1952) shows body horror is alive and well, and living in Europe

Such debates are equally applicable to film. The field of European Gothic cinema has been virtually ignored: only a few landmark films, mostly German expressionism but sometimes the Italian giallo, are often cherry-picked and added to the landscape of Gothic horror film. There is no doubt that this is mainly a consequence of availability: American horror films have traditionally had higher production values, have been distributed more widely and have been more generally available (Schneider and Williams 2005: 2). But there is an additional, and in this case perhaps more pressing, problem related to classification and nomenclature. What constitutes a horror film? And what, besides settings and the reappearance of recognisable stock characters, defines the gothic in film? Much like French literature has historically lacked a ‘gothic’ category and has preferred to refer to this type of literature as roman noir or the fantastique, there is little consensus, let alone a canon, on what should constitute European gothic. Although I do not claim to have the answers to these questions, I am purposely lax in my use of the term gothic, and apply it to designate both films that use a trademark Gothic aesthetic and more straightforward horror genre products. Unlike other scholars who have problems with acknowledging the visceral side of horror, I understand ‘disgust’ to be a category that is inextricable linked to the Gothic tradition, with its investment in the macabre and the grotesque. This lenient or permissible approach will, hopefully, allow me to go beyond the more obvious adaptations of gothic classics and to look at films that deserve critical attention for their innovation or rechanneling of gothic preoccupations.

Finnish Gothic: The shape-shifting witch of 'The White Reindeer' / 'Valkoinen Peura' (Erik Blomberg, 1952)

Continental Europe’s relation to the Gothic is long-standing. The novels of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Regina Maria Roche or Charlotte Dacre use the indeterminate, remote, sometimes sublime, landscapes of Italy, France, Spain and Germany as the settings for tales of excess and tyranny. As Fred Botting has noted, there is an obvious religious rationale behind such choices: ‘English protestant culture is distinguished from the southern European, and thus Catholic, background which is constructed as both exotic and superstitious, fascinating but extreme in its aesthetic and religious sentiments’ (1996: 49).[4] This has logically meant that Europe often figures strongly in adaptations of key Gothic works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – the latter being of particular interest because James Whale’s film of the same title (1932) was the first film to market itself as horror. However, Europe is important to the history of the genre in its own right: Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón’s early illusionist cinema of attractions gave shape to the fantastique and toyed with the connections between the supernatural and filming editing techniques such as stop-track motion. German expressionism gave rise to a number of European Gothic nightmares avant la lettre: from the monsters in The Golem (Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, 1915) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) to the killers in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and The Hands of Orlac (1924). The later twentieth century would also see the development of Euro Horror and the s/exploitation cycle in countries such as Spain, France and Italy. Recent scholarship shows a recuperation of these films by cult followings in Western countries like America (Olney 2013: xi), and part of my intention in these blogs is to bring together what is, in essence, a pool of very diverse texts that have been produced under very different socio-cultural contexts.

Gogol’s hellish demons: 'Spirit of Evil' / 'Viy' (Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, 1967)

As Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick and David Huxley note in their introduction to European Nightmares, it is not surprising that Europe has proved a breeding ground for horror: its constantly shifting geographical boundaries, its uncontainability (what constitutes Europe?) and its ‘multi-voicedness’ (2012: 1-5) all resonate with the Gothic ethos. But this dis/unity is, simultaneously, what poses the greatest risk at a critical and scholarly level. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik warn that Europe’s ‘cultural, aesthetic, economical, political and ideological demarcations are far from clear’, and that therefore ‘European cinema cannot be pinned down to a small number of production strategies, or reduced to a limited series of intentions or ideological perspectives’ (2004: 1-2). The following blogs will therefore explore individual national cinemas, more specifically those of France, Italy and Spain, whilst bearing in mind their relation to the wider context of European cinema.[5] As will become apparent, it is not my intention to essentialise a nation’s Gothic output. This would be difficult in a country like Spain, where some autonomous communities such as Galicia, the Basque country or Catalonia have languages and a distinct sense of nationality. Instead, I will limit myself to identifying running trends, significant auteurs and relevant adaptations that might open up these countries’ Gothic cinema to a wider audience. Ultimately, as Daniel Hall has argued of French and German gothic literature, European filmmakers often recur to the gothic as a way of ‘responding to contemporary concerns and raising them in an accessible form’ (2005: 12). Although there will be no space for sustained readings of the social and political messages of the films at hand, I hope these blogs will help contextualise Europe’s assiduous refashioning of the Gothic and that they might open our eyes to a myriad of texts that have fallen out of the Gothic radar.

Jean Genet meets Poe in Harry Kümel’s surreal piece 'The Legend of Doom House' / 'Malpertuis' (1971)


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Works cited

Allmer, Patricia, Emily Brick and David Huxley (eds.), European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe since 1945 (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012)

Botting, Fred, Gothic (London and New York: Routledge, 1996)

Cornwell, Neil, ‘European Gothic’, A Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 27-38

Elbert, Monika, and Bridget M. Marshall, Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)

Hall, Daniel, European Connections: French and German Gothic Fiction in the Late Eighteenth Century (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005)

Horner, Avril (ed.), European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002)

Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik (eds.), Le Gothic: Influences and Appropriations in Europe and America (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Mathijs, Ernest, and Xavier Mendik (eds.), Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945 (London: Wallflower Press, 2004)

Olney, Ian, Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013)

Schneider, Steven Jay, and Tony Williams (eds.), Horror International (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005).

[1] My thanks go to Kathleen Menzies, for being so enthusiastic about the whole project (and coming up with a great poster!), and to the TRAUMA attendees, who showed such interest and whose discussions convinced me that this was a good topic for a series of blogs.

[2] I am using this date as a benchmark due to the publication of David Punter’s seminal The Literature of Terror, but the International Gothic Association was only founded in the early 1990s and the first issue of its affiliated journal Gothic Studies would have to wait until 1999.

[3] For the purposes of this article, I am separating England from continental Europe. I am aware that this has its own methodological shortcomings, but English Gothic horror cinema (Hammer, Amicus, Tigon) has been traditionally studied under a national rubric of its own and not under the ‘European Gothic Horror’ label.

[4] The reverse is not always true: few Spanish Gothic novels recur to fantasies of Britain to explore their subject matters, and often prefer to explore local legends (the anonymous Las Calaveras, 1832) or Spain’s own geography (Joseph Blanco White’s Vargas, 1822)

[5] This choice is based, as I have explained, on the fact that these are the three countries more readily associated with European horror. The wealth of materials in enormous.

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