Friday, 24 October 2008

Book Review: A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema by David Pirie

I've always been attracted (and as a child terrified of) vampires, werewolves and things that go bump in the night. Back in the mid 70's when I was a mere nipper I had in my possession a book on horror films; a large hardback, full of black and white and a few colour stills, some of a gory nature. I don't know how I came to own such an adult book but I assume I had persuaded my parents to buy it for me, although they were slightly disapproving. It was the chapter on B-movie space aliens and Japanese monsters I was drawn to but the Gothic horror stuff scared and fascinated me. I think the title was something like 'The Pictorial History of Horror Cinema.' My friend stayed up to watch a horror film on TV and gave me an excited blow by blow account. The description stuck in my mind and later I came to realise it was Hammer's, Dracula, Prince of Darkness. I felt jealous but I also knew, even if my parents had allowed me, I would be too frightened to watch.

As my childhood self gazed with fear and enthralment at my book on horror cinema, David Pirie was writing or had published the first edition of The Heritage of Horror. His remit was to give critical respectability to what was then the disreputable world of British Gothic horror, specifically the product of Hammer Films. He viewed the horror film as quintessential British, drawing from myths buried deep in the English Romantic tradition. As the Western genre at its core is American, Gothic Horror was likewise our cinematic (and literary) legacy.

The new edition is the original but updated. The book covers all the different sub-genres and aspects of British horror, not only the Gothic mode as represented by Dracula and Frankenstein. Hammer is at the centre: Terence Fisher, the director most identified with the studio, has a whole chapter dedicated to him and his particular style of film making. David Pirie goes on to analysis Hammer's approach to the Dracula and Frankenstein mythos where the actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing loom large. The origins and history of Hammer are not ignored and of particular interest are the battles with the British censors. It is hard to believe but if the Board of British Film Censors had persevered there would have been no British horror films at all. Audrey Field one of the BBFC examiners describes The Curse of Frankenstein in 1956:

'This is infinitely more disgusting than the first script ...In fact really evil. A lip-smacking relish for mutilated corpses, repulsive dismembered hands and eyeballs removed from the head, alternates with gratuitous examples of sadism and lust...

The rivals to Hammer are looked at; Amicus of course but also Michael Reeves and his classic film Witchfinder General. But Michael Powell's original and disturbing Peeping Tom only gets a page and a half, while the atmospheric The Innocents is ignored entirely (the reason could be that the film was praised by the critics and was within the respectable confines of the ghost story, rather then the more lurid world of horror) He is also dismissive of Quatermass and the Pit (one of my favourite films) preferring Quatermass II. It is all down to individual taste but the unique brilliance of Nigel Kneale's concept for QATP transcends any slight limitations it may have. And I completely disagree the stage sets look plastic or the film lacks bite.

Another weakness of the book lies in David Pirie's dismissal of the camp in his attempt to give critical status to the genre. The films of the 70's are appealing for the very reason of their period trappings, erotic lesbian vampires and groovy music. But it's understandably I suppose. At the time these were symptoms of the decline of Hammer and all British horror. Unfortunately in the last chapter he is unable to make a very strong case for a revival of horror in this country as a serious genre. Personally I can think of only two recent films, distinctly British, that make the grade-28 Days Later and The Others.

There is something I love about the Hammer films; fairy tales existing in a studio enclosed, darkly Victorian universe of bawdy taverns and the richly decadent interiors of castles and manors, surrounded by gloomy woods and populated by exaggerated archetypes of sex and death. David Pirie's A New Heritage of Horror celebrates Hammer and its offshots and claims it's an art form with a particularly English resonance. He succeeds admirably, giving us history, anecdotes and theory in equal measure along the way.

1 comment:

The Igloo Keeper... said...

Thanks for the review, might have to add this to my Christmas List!