Gothic Cinema
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Gothic Cinema

Xavier Aldana Reyes

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eBook - ePub

Gothic Cinema

Xavier Aldana Reyes

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About This Book

Arguing for the need to understand Gothic cinema as an aesthetic mode, this book explores its long history, from its transitional origins in phantasmagoria shows and the first 'trick' films to its postmodern fragmentation in the Gothic pastiches of Tim Burton.

But what is Gothic cinema? Is the iconography of the Gothic film equivalent to that of the horror genre? Are the literary origins of the Gothic what solidified its aesthetics? And exactly what cultural roles does the Gothic continue to perform for us today? Gothic Cinema covers topics such as the chiaroscuro experiments of early German cinema, the monster cinema of the 1930s, theexplained supernaturalof the old dark house mystery films of the 1920s and the Female Gothics of the 1940s, theuse of vibrant colours in the period Gothics of the late 1950s, the European exploitation booms of the 1960s and 1970s, and the animated films and Gothic superheroes that dominate present times. Throughout, Aldana Reyes makes a strong case for amedium-specific and more intuitive approach to the Gothic on screen that acknowledges its position within wider film industries with their own sets of financial pressures and priorities.

This groundbreaking book is the first thorough chronological, transhistorical and transnational study of Gothic cinema, ideal for both new and seasoned scholars, as well as those with a wider interest in the Gothic.

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It is tempting to suggest that Gothic cinema begins with Georges Méliès’s Le Manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle, 1896), a very early three-minute film that boasts various transformations (from a bat to a demon and vice versa) and the appearance of a skeleton and a group of spectres, all set against a painted backdrop that reproduces the entrance to an ancient castle.1 In it, at least two of the three traditional meanings of the term ‘Gothic’, namely ‘medieval’ and ‘supernatural’ (Longueil 1923: 454), are in interplay, explored inventively through cinema’s unique visual language. Stop-motion photography and substitution splices are used to create the illusion that figures become something other than they initially were, that they disappear or that they are fantastically summoned. Appropriately, the setting is archaic and intended to evoke ideas of alchemical magic: there is a cauldron from which a fully formed woman springs forth, and the evil character is Mephistopheles, a supernatural being of German folklore associated with the Faust legend and its source, the German astrologer Johann Georg Faust. Although the film is not, strictly speaking, narrative, driven as it is by the visual spectacle that derives from incantations rather than by plot, it stages one of the first battles between good and evil. The ending sees Mephistopheles vanished by a cavalier brandishing a crucifix, a scene that would recur time and again throughout the history of vampire cinema. Le Manoir du diable certainly displays, aesthetically and cinematically, what could, in hindsight, be called a Gothic aesthetic.
If we take the Gothic’s third meaning, ‘barbarous’ (Longueil 1923: 454), as a significant one for the manifestation of the mode, Alfred Clark’s film Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) becomes another potential contender for earliest Gothic cinematic example of the mode. Running to a mere fifteen seconds, it simulates the beheading of Mary Stuart (Mrs Robert L. Thomas), shown kneeling down and placing her neck on a chopping block. After the executioner brings down his axe, her head rolls away, an effect achieved via dummy substitution. The edit is so subtle that the film accomplishes its verisimilitudinous intention, to simulate spatiotemporal unity between the two frames. Importantly, the film retrojects this moment of savagery. No date is offered to the viewer, but we know from history that Mary’s execution took place on 8 February 1587 and the actress is surrounded by onlookers dressed as knights. The film is not at all supernatural and hinges entirely on the optical illusions made possible by cinema as a photographic medium that incorporates movement and is susceptible to manipulation in postproduction. For some, Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots can even be considered an early example of horror exploitation that gruesomely transforms a serious historical event into pure decontextualised thrill.2 There is, after all, no build-up and no morale to the story.
And yet, to identify Le Manoir du diable or Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots as distinct points of origin for Gothic cinema would be somewhat disingenuous if what is meant by this is not first thoroughly qualified. These films were not created in isolation and neither do they betray a specific desire to fashion a unique Gothic product in the 1890s. Instead, they must be understood as part of a wider contemporary engagement with discoveries in cinematic technology and as the culmination of much older developments in photographic optical illusions and theatrical magic shows. The latter had, in the nineteenth century, already employed the machinery typical of theatre (which would be taken to scary extremes in the theatre of the Grand Guignol), as well as lighting effects and mirrors.3 In short, these efforts were much more dependent on the birth of cinema and its strong ties to various configurations of the magic lantern, to stagecraft (pantomimes, ballet and music hall shows) and to early forms of motion picture exhibition, such as the kinetoscope and the kinetograph, than on a particular contemporary preoccupation with the Gothic.4
Gothic cinema, like all cinema shot before the establishment of story-led films, was very varied, encompassing scenarios of different narrative complexities and lengths.5 Films made during this period, sometimes called the ‘cinema of attractions’ (Gunning 1986), do not align well with our current fascination with genre.6 Even within the oeuvre of one director, Méliès, sketches depicting current and historic events, such as Visite sous-marine du ‘Maine’ (Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine, 1898) and Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc, 1900), happily co-existed with fictional comedic ones, such as Le Savant et le Chimpanzé (The Doctor and the Monkey, 1900), and even erotica, in Après le bal (After the Ball, 1897).7 The vast majority of films that were not documentary utilised special effects to surprise audiences. These have been called ‘trick films’ (‘films à trucs’), as they showcased at least one trick each, often more, and they typically included magicians. Their debt to stage magic is evident in the direct address to the camera, the final bow and the general reliance on techniques of prestidigitation and circus performances (acrobats, dancers, pyrotechnics).8 Trick films revolved around a number of optical effects that could be achieved through use of matte shots and negative masking, dioramas, superimpositions, reverse motion, silhouette animation, multiple exposures and lap dissolves, as well as the aforementioned substitution splices and stop-motion photography, to accomplish illusions like transformations, objects moving of their own accord, portraits coming to life and ghostly visitations. For this reason, characters popularly associated with magic, such as wizards, sorcerers, alchemists, witches and devils (mostly Satan and Mephistopheles), and hellish scenarios and oneiric visions (in the form of dreams and nightmares) were likely to feature in them. Some of these nightmare films, such as Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare, 1896) or the later Superstition andalouse (Andalusian Superstition, 1912), show how difficult it is to separate trick films from narrative films which made heavy use of special effects.9 Because optical illusions were such an important part of early cinema, their subjects, especially for the longer ones, would often draw on the fantastic traditions of fairy tales, as in Cendrillon (Cinderella, 1899) and Le Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb, 1909), and folk tales, as in La Damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust, 1903) and Le Palais des mille et une nuits (The Palace of the Arabian Nights, 1905).10 Alternatively, they would explore the creative possibilities offered by science fiction, especially in the ambitious Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1903) and À la conquête du pôle (The Conquest of the Pole, 1912). Genre and subject matter were inextricable from visual spectacle and surprise, but trick films were not beholden to a specific time and setting. Instead, they were largely coloured by a focus on the visual appeal of supernatural happenings.
It is therefore necessary to understand early Gothic cinema as an accidental affair. The work of early filmmakers does not reveal a predilection for the medieval past, rather Gothic iconography was built into trick films because of its connection to illusionism. Contemporary times were as likely to be haunted as the Middles Ages, and thematic trends were usually the result of previous successes with particular tricks, such as the many ‘haunted hotel’ scenarios that followed Méliès’s L’Auberge ensorcelée (The Bewitched Inn, 1897). The medieval settings in films such as The Magic Sword (1901), Les Sept Châteaux du diable (The Devil’s Seven Castles, 1904), La Légende du fantôme (The Black Pearl, 1908), Le Château hanté (Haunted Castle, 1908), Il fantasma del castello (The Castle Ghosts, 1908), Des Sängers Fluch (The Curse of the Wandering Minstrel, 1910), La Mariée du château maudit (The Bride of the Haunted Castle, 1910) and Beneath the Tower Ruins (1911) offered more barbaric and exotic locales idiosyncratically linked to manifestations of superstition (ghosts and hauntings) and magic, especially witchcraft, alchemical sorcery and Faustian pacts.11 The actual effects on display, and even the roster of fantastic characters (imps and demons, apparitions, witches, magical objects), were not exclusive to these archaic times. Their iconography was already familiar and thus easy to interpret and digest. It is possible, in this light, to think of early Gothic cinema as involving several media, as originating at a juncture in the history of optical technology for ludic purposes when various traditions, theatrical and photographic, were meaningfully interconnected.12
Gothic cinema is not just indebted to the Gothic tradition in prose, even if it cannot be extricated from it. The coterie of monsters in early trick films did not evolve from Gothic novels but rather from common superstition, folklore, fairy tales and legends as they had manifested in other visual forms.13 In particular, the many demons, apparitions and witches of early Gothic cinema derive from the early eighteenth-century phantasmagoria show.14 Although initially presented as real witchcraft and pretend séances (Heard 2006: 41–55), ghost raising for didactic and ludic purposes became a popular form of horror theatre during the nineteenth century. In phantasmagoria shows, images of skeletons, ghosts and demons would be projected onto walls, and sometimes smoke, with the aid of moving magic lanterns to create spooky effects.15 They would be made to appear to lunge towards audiences and then to recede, and even to feign transformations, effects all achieved through the manipulation of slides and camera lenses. These shows were not exclusively macabre in their themes, ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Gothic Cinema
APA 6 Citation
Reyes, X. A. (2019). Gothic Cinema (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. (2019) 2019. Gothic Cinema. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Reyes, X. A. (2019) Gothic Cinema. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Gothic Cinema. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.