Sunday, March 05, 2017

Rigby's EURO GOTHIC Reviewed

I have long harbored a secret concern that those of us who are particularly drawn to the European strain of horror cinema probably have a screw loose somewhere. These are the sorts of movies, after all, in which narrative is secondary to atmosphere and logic is sometimes utterly disposable;  where characters can be found wearing 19th century clothing in 20th century storylines or driving cars in 18th century Bavaria; where heroes are often villains; where beauty is in abundance yet so often desecrated; and they maraud under titles like SPASMO, METEMPSYCO and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY. How do any of these traits speak to a balanced mind?

For this reason, I was excited to hear that Jonathan Rigby - the author of the admirably insightful and well-balanced ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, among other fine books - was working on a new series addition to be called EURO GOTHIC, a selective overview of horror in European cinema. So much that has been written about European horror films has come from writers that, like myself, are a little crazy about it all - hopelessly obsessive, impossibly completist and/or elitist, sometimes willfully provocative. As I saw it, the strong card of Rigby's eventual take on this uneven landscape of macabre twins, bland masks, robust werewolves, crumbling villas, webby catafalques, lesbian vampires, bouncing balls and affable mental cases was bound to be his remarkable even-handedness, his balance and perspective. In short, the sheer sanity he would likely bring to bear on such an hallucinatory task.

And indeed, EURO GOTHIC: CLASSICS OF CONTINENTAL HORROR CINEMA (Signum Books, 416 pages, $34.95) is very likely the most balanced piece of writing such films have ever received. At the outset, Rigby explains the basic impossibility of fully addressing the scope of his title, which he has made manageable by focusing on "113 representative titles" which receive the fullest attention, each of which radiate out into micro-managed discussions of other, more minor works which relate to that title through theme or shared participants, all the while observing a chronology that feels remarkably consistent considering the sheer chaos under the microscope. He also wisely, I think, concludes his history in 1983, with Pupi Avati's alphabetically appropriate ZEDER (aka REVENGE OF THE DEAD), at the time when so much of the respective cult cinemas of Italy, Spain, France and Germany began to suffer financial crises and became geared, whenever films overcame the odds to get made, toward direct-to-video release.

Just as, for many viewers, "Euro Gothic" may signal one specific thing rather than the hopping mad variety of its reality, it is rare to find Eurocult cinema discussed in the same breath with its actual antecedents in the silent era, where in fact we find these often rebellious, revolutionary, outlaw films related to a large number of the great classics of world cinema - films like THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, NOSFERATU and DR MABUSE - THE GAMBLER, but this book rightly encompasses those titles and many others and establishes firm connections between their experimentalism, Expressionism, and use of natural (often war-torn) scenery and all that came later.

Conrad Veidt in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE (1926).
The opening chapter, "Warning Shadows 1896-1954", covers a remarkable chunk of history and encompasses some of its most exemplary research. I wish I had known, while preparing my audio commentary for Kino Lorber's DESTINY (1920), that its trilogy of stories about death traversing three different epochs had been anticipated by UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTE (a 1919 horror anthology) and SATANAS (1920, which cast Conrad Veidt as the Devil, wearily traversing three different historical epochs). Rigby also comes up with a NOSFERATU variant heretofore unknown to me: DIE SWOFFTE STUNDE EINE NACHT DESGRAUENS, a sound-era redressing which added dialogue and sound effects, new footage including outtakes directed by F.W. Murnau himself, and reidentified Max Shreck's Graf Orlok as Furst Wolkoff. While this lengthy chapter covers such highlights as THE HANDS OF ORLAC, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, FAHRMANN MARIA, ORPHEUS and different versions of ALRAUNE and THE GOLEM, it is most memorable in its discussions of a few uncommon titles: Maurice Tourneur's delightfully impish LE MAIN DU DIABLE ("The Devil's Hand," 1942), Edgar Neville's Spanish thriller LA TORRE DE LOS SIETE JOROBADOS ("Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks," 1944) and Guillaume Radot's torrid sorcery fantasia LA DESTINE EXECRABLE DE GUILLEMETTE BABIN ("The Filthy Destiny of Guillemette Babin," 1947).

Simone Signoret in LES DIABOLIQUES.
The second part, "Experiments in Evil, 1954-1963", makes a speedy impression with its detailed examination of Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES (1954), one of the book's absolute highlights. Rigby goes on to detail how dark suspense vehicles such as this led to more aggressive horror material, in symbiotic response to a return to horror that was world-wide now that a decade had passed since the end of the war. Throughout the book, Rigby maintains a through-line showing how gothic cinema was becoming popular and developing in England and America, helping the general and more advanced readers to remember where in time we are. He is attentive to when and how Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I VAMPIRI (1957) happened in relation to Terence Fisher's ground-breaking THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (also 1957), which was shot - Rigby shows - at approximately the same time as the Italian film, though it beat the English one into theaters by four months. However, his attention to the Hammer film causes him to overlook the real inspiration behind the former, which was Andre de Toth's colossal hit HOUSE OF WAX (1953). Mad scientists are the thrust of this period, whether it's Baron Frankenstein, THE HEAD'S Dr Ood (it's good to see this film properly appreciated, with art director Hermann Warm's roots going back to NOSFERATU and DESTINY),  EYES WITHOUT A FACE's Dr Genessier, or the title characters of THE TESTAMENT OF DR CORDELIER and THE AWFUL DR ORLOFF. It is in this chapter that Rigby initiates his commendable habit of naming the locations where many of these films were shot, which is especially helpful in terms of identifying the various villas and castelli where the first generation Italian horrors were made. (It must be noted, however, that such information has its limits as many of these locations have been renamed over time - the Villa Parisi, where Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! was shot in 1966, is now known as the Villa Grazioli and is not to be confused with another Villa Parisi where other horror films, like 1980's BURIAL GROUND, were shot.) The chapter rightly culminates with Bava's masterpiece BLACK SABBATH.

Daliah Lavi in IL DEMONIO (1963).
"Angels for Satan, 1963-1966" addresses the remarkable consistency of a trend in European horror across the board during this period of demonizing women, frequently in the person of Barbara Steele but also extending to BLOOD AND ROSES' Annette Vadim, Daliah Lavi in IL DEMONIO and LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO (THE WHIP AND THE BODY, 1963), and Estella Blain in Jess Franco's MISS MUERTE (THE DIABOLICAL DR Z, 1965), and reaching its fever pitch in the female killing spree of Bava's SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, 1964). "Nights of the Devil, 1967-1971" encompasses the psychedelicizing and sexualizing of European horror as well as the rise of the giallo and personalities like Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, and Paul Naschy. In this chapter, Rigby's appreciative eye notes that the same picturesque German snowfall nestles the images of THE HORRIBLE SEXY VAMPIRE, BITE ME DARLING and EUGENIE DE SADE, while his ear catches some reprised music cues from THE WHIP AND THE BODY in LA VENGANZA DE LA MOMIA (THE MUMMY'S REVENGE, 1973), but he also begins here to draw certain lines. We can begin to feel his patience sorely tested by some of the genre's mounting excess, but most of all by the technical sloppiness found most particularly in the French and Spanish product. We can sense his relief when something genuinely and completely laudable like DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971) comes along, and may feel relief of our own when he has the largess to showcase a neglected title like Jose Luis Merino's BLOOD CASTLE (aka SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER, 1970).

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in HORROR EXPRESS.
At the end of this chapter, when Rigby gets his opportunity to address Eugenio Martin's HORROR EXPRESS (1972), the book's appreciation warms up considerably as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing enter the history as a duo for the only time, reminding us where the author feels most at home. As a reader who naturally favors European horror, I find his assessment of this title ("a bona-fide classic of the form") a bit overdone, and it serves in context as a harbinger of disagreements that seem to intensify as we draw closer to the 1980s - notably his dislike of Paul Morrissey's FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (which nevertheless is one of the highlighted 113) Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION and Walerian Borowczyk's DR JEKYLL AND MISS OSBORNE, not to mention the bulk of Paul Naschy and Jess Franco's work, which many fans naturally gravitating to this book would consider major treats. The disconnection would seem to be a lack of humor in the face of outrage, but this is not a charge one can easily address to the author of the best book about Roxy Music. On the other hand, Rigby is not above expressing warm regard for some actors who frequently labor in such films, including Helga Line, Julia Saly and particularly Narciso Ibanez Menta, whose Count Dracula in Leon Klimovsky's "entirely lacking in suspense or even rhythm" LA SAGA DE LOS DRACULA (1973) "ranks not far behind Christopher Lee as the best on film."

Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA.
By the time we get to "Rites of Blood, 1973-1975" and "New Worlds of Fear, 1975-1983," the reader feels the book's energy beginning to flag as the story begins to wildly diversify into international co-productions and endless retreads and attempts to recapture a glory that was never much more than a subgenre sideshow. In other words, here Rigby very capably illustrates the death throes of a genre that had by now done and shown about all that one could do and show to shock. In this context, the appearance of something like Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) towers above everything else exactly as it ought, and few writers have dealt with its uncanny magnificence as excitingly or capably. When I read these pages, I had to revisit the film at once.

Are there faults? Of course there are. At the outset, Rigby apologizes for the need to be selective in his coverage, to the detriment of films made in, say, the Scandinavian countries or Eastern Europe. (1953's DRAKULA ISTANBUL'DA from Turkey is a serious omission in this respect, as it contains scenes that appear to have influenced, say, I VAMPIRI while also anticipating both HORROR OF DRACULA and Franco's supposedly unprecedentedly literal COUNT DRACULA of 1970.) Also, while music has long been central to the character of European horror films, the scores of the films under discussion generally receives short shrift, with "funky" being the most commonly deployed adjective when it's mentioned at all. Likewise, whenever Rigby attends to uses of color, he almost always defaults to blue, very nearly the only color he mentions with specificity. There is also a tendency to take films at face value as the director's own work in cases where post-production tampering was done - Franco's SUCCUBUS (1967) and VENUS IN FURS (1969) being good cases in point. This book marks probably the only occasion when FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1971) has been discussed without invoking the name of cast member "Boris Lugosi," and it also mistakenly identifies director Robert H. Oliver as a pseudonym for its producer Dick Randall. But this book didn't require a fan's hornet-like attention to detail as much as it needed responsible distance, and this is what we get: a sober yet loving history of the subject at hand, respectful and affectionate yet soundly critical, in which the writing boasts literacy, geniality, and careful attention not only to matters of chronology and geography, but to the furtive ways in which films sometimes speak to one another (as when Rigby notes that Julien Duvivier's LA CHAMBRE ARDENTE [THE BURNING COURT, 1961] misses an opportunity to invert BLACK SUNDAY with a witch's curse uttered by the blonde and luminous Edith Scob).

As with ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC before it, Jonathan Rigby's EURO GOTHIC represents a major addition to the literature of fantastic cinema, a valuable addition to any collection so devoted. The layout follows the same template as those earlier releases, and the plentiful photos are attractive and reflect both care and cleverness in their choosing. Taken as a set, these books amount to the finest history of the horror and fantasy cinema genre presently available.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.