Friday, October 30, 2015

Before Crimson Peak: candles, dresses and haunted mansions in gothic horror
A print of my painting "The Ghost of Skull Manor"

The gothic horror genre has had few new entries in recent years, so I felt very encouraged when images from Guillermo del Toro's new film "Crimson Peak" began to circulate earlier this year.  The era of gothic romance in the 1960s and early 1970s was a short one, as the well-established clichés began to wear out their welcome, and people started to demand gore, shocks and real-world horrors, instead of the subtle, atmospheric shudders produced by these earlier films. Films like "Crimson Peak," or "The Woman in Black" (2012) revisit and celebrate this style, staying pretty faithful to the traditions of the genre while infusing it with new energy and opening it up to a new audience.

I would love to compile a list of all of the best films from the 60s and 70s which feature gothic horror themes, particularly the great nightgown & candelabra scenes, but there are so many, and they are all so excellent, I think the task is meant for a greater mind than mine. So instead, I present five films that contain interesting variations upon the Gothic theme – not all are ghost stories, not all are very good, but each presents a distinct facet of the gothic genre. 

For some, this means exquisite scenes of wandering around at night with a candle, possibly in a crypt, a mansion or a castle. There are ghosts in some, vampires in others; family intrigue and secrets; poisoning, illness and revenge. There are FABULOUS DRESSES, dramatic lighting, dark and sinister sets. To be sure, there are dozens or even hundreds of films that can be considered for a list like this, so I'm not trying to choose the most successful or the most representative – just a couple that come to mind, or which I have watched recently, that fall within this very specialized category.

The Ghost

"Lo Spettro" (1963) by Riccardo Freda, while not the most well-known or lauded of the genre, is a great showcase of some of the classic elements in a 1960s Italian gothic film. A séance, poison, and a mad, wheelchair-bound Dr. Hichcock immediately set the mood for the film in a suitably dark mysterious and candle-filled mansion. Barbara Steele's dark beauty is an inevitable focal point of any film she is in, and she walks through the wainscoted sets and down the skull-lined crypt passages as a living special effect. Wearing black veils of mourning and drifting through autumn leaves in a cemetery, Steele's presence is hypnotizing in the film – as are her glorious, ornate black Victorian gowns.

The film is mostly housebound, and aside from the scenes in the cemetery it mainly takes place within the walls of a particularly dark and oppressive mansion. The plot revolves around Steele's love affair with a young doctor, whom she urges to poison her hateful husband with the experimental substance they have been using to try to cure the latter's paralysis. She is then seemingly haunted by the late Dr. Hichcock, who speaks through the housekeeper – the medium at the séance – and who appears in various ghastly forms to haunt her guilty conscience. A "sort of" sequel to The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, it stands on its own and should satisfy anyone's appetite for decadent Victorian décor and evil deeds.

The Innocents


While it has been a few months since I last watched this film, I don't think I could make even an off-the-top-of-my-head list of gothic or ghostly films without including it. "The Haunting" (1963) would also be a good entry in this list, as that is probably my favorite ghost movie of all, but "The Innocents" (1961) is a little less widely known and shown. Based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw, it is a perfect imagining of that tale, with a gothic mansion, exquisite photography, and unusual, electronic music creating a sustained atmosphere of gloom, suspense and mystery. If you are not familiar with the plot of The Turn of the Screw, the short version is that a governess is caring for two children in a remote country mansion, and is menaced by the ghosts of a former governess and caretaker. The traditional and straightforward premise, however, is steeped in a mood of menace, foreboding and encroaching madness. Its beauty transcends the notion of a "horror" film and places it squarely with the realm of art cinema, in the tradition of Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast."


Lemora (A Child's Tale of the Supernatural)


Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) is the only film directed by Richard Blackburn, who also acts in the film as a country preacher, but it stands as a unique example of an independent horror movie. There is an eerie surreality to this film, as young Lila Lee– the debut role for exploitation starlet Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith – is drawn through a series of sinister events which seem designed to corrupt her Alice in Wonderland-like innocence. The "singin' angel" of the local church choir, Lila is the daughter of a gangster who, at the opening of the film, is on his death bed and calls for her to come to him. She obliges, dodging lascivious males at every turn, in a Southern landscape in the 1920s or 30s. Even worse than sleazy guys, though, she is soon pursued by slobbering zombie-like vampires, until the striking vampire matron Lemora comes to her "rescue."

Lemora's cadaverous presence – with skull-like features and tightly laced Victorian gown – is rendered even more surreal by the riotous gang of madly laughing children which surrounds her in several scenes. The progression of the plot is less important to relate than the somber, elegant mood that the film creates with very simple tools. The predominantly dark, blue lighting; effective, evocative costumes, carefully constructed gothic settings and subtle surreal touches all serve to make this a unique and atmospheric vampire film.



While not a horror film, this Czech gothic fantasy ("Morgiana", 1972) is a crucial bit of viewing for anyone who wants to luxuriate in the most amazing costuming I think I've ever seen in a film from the era. The plot is very gothic, but not supernatural. It deals with jealousy, love, inheritance, and poison. The two main characters are played by the same actress – one dark (Viktoria), one light (Klara). It is a dark psychedelic fairytale with the kind of beautiful surrealism you see in other Czech films like "Valerie andher Week of Wonders." Morgiana is the name of a Siamese cat in the film, and – don't worry, the cat is fine -- some of the film seems to have been shot from cats'-eye view, which adds to its surreality. Although it appears to be set in Victorian times, the costumes are far more over the top than they would be in reality, and the overall tone reminds me of the Russian fantasy-fairytale films from around the same time period, like "The Snow Queen" (1967), while the subject matter and setting are very different from those films.


The most perplexing thing about Andy Milligan films, to me, has always been why he has decided to film so many period pieces. In "Blood" (1973) actually have all of the pieces of a good, old-fashioned gothic horror film here. We have a young doctor recently returned to America from Europe, planning to conduct his experiments in private in a rented house while he awaits the settling of his father's estates. To make things even more gothic, his wife has a horrible malady which causes her to become hideous and deformed if she is not regularly supplied with blood – which in turn is supplied by ghastly carnivorous plants. Add in a couple of assistants who are gradually losing their limbs to the experiments, and a female Igor limping along with a hideous grimace, and you have everything you could wish for in a horror film. He turns up the volume even further when he reveals that the doctor is a werewolf and his wife's malady is actually vampirism!

The complicating factor, as in all Milligan films, is an extremely limited budget. One of the highlights of his films is watching the creative ways in which he stretches that budget. He makes all of the costumes himself ("costumes by Raffiné"), which in some films means yards and yards of tulle and fake flowers. In this film, he does a tolerably decent job of making Victorian-era clothing, although some of the dresses are clearly created by someone with a vague idea of what a Victorian-era dress might look like. Heavy on the ruffles, and roses, roses, roses, everywhere. The fact that the Victorian house they are in,  clearly is a mid-twentieth century home, complete with light switches, further mystifies the viewer. 

Was it really necessary to put the story in a 19th-century setting? No matter – I'm delighted that he does. I love his ingenuity and desire to get a story onto film, even when most of the movie is bickering dialogue that sounds half-improvised. Watch an Andy Milligan movie and then ask yourself – could you do any better with the same resources? I think we should all bow to his resourcefulness. I want to make a gothic horror film at least as badly as he did, and I'm nowhere near getting one done.

 Thus concludes my strange selection. The world of the gothic horror film is almost bottomless, though I like to think I've managed to uncover most of the ones currently available on DVD, over the past few years, and will continue to draw from this wonderful well for future posts as well, since I never (ever) get sick of this stuff (ever)!

Happy Halloween!

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