The following articles were authored by David L Rattigan

The Craft of Don Sharp: Witchcraft (1964)

witchcraft_1964_posterShot in less than two weeks, Witchcraft stands as testament to the skill of its director, Don Sharp, who died in 2011.

With the American Lon Chaney, Jr, as star, and a tight shoot of only 13 days, the results were hardly guaranteed. After a fairly good 1940s as the successor to Karloff and Lugosi at Universal, Chaney’s career had plummeted. By 1964, he was a notorious alcoholic, known for telling directors to get what they could out of him before noon. Sharp remembered a very friendly but lonely man on set, a gentle soul who would be “almost grateful when someone would spend ten minutes talking to him.” He also remembered the difficulty working with him as the day went on and the drink gradually took its toll. “But by the next morning, he would be so eager, so keen to do right. He was a very sad man, indeed,” Sharp recalled. Continue reading The Craft of Don Sharp: Witchcraft (1964)

Dickensian Gothic: A Christmas Carol

David L Rattigan opens a creaking door on Charles Dickens’s Gothic tale

Charles DickensThe year was 1843, and English literature had witnessed the zenith of early Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allen Poe was reimagining the genre in such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). And in Britain, Charles Dickens was appropriating the Gothic tradition for his own stories; the conventions of the Gothic were to loom particularly large in late works such as Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860), but it was in a series of Christmas stories that he first explored the genre fully. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) are now forgotten by popular culture, but the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), continues to be read by millions and has been the subject of dozens of film adaptations.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol primarily to expose the horrors of real-world injustice, but he chose to hang his social commentary on a literary framework owing much to Gothic horror. It is easy to forget that in genre terms, the tale of Scrooge is primarily a ghost story; it was originally subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas. Its role in enshrining the traditional Victorian Christmas – trees, holly, candles and carols – has meant many who know the story only through other media forget that it is, at least partly, horror.

Certainly Dickens narrates A Christmas Carol with tongue firmly in cheek at times. He prefaced the 1843 edition of the book quite whimsically:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it [from the saying “to lay the ghost to rest”].

The story itself begins with death, but the author treats it with a large dose of gallows humour. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” he writes, before a humorous diversion as he muses on why the simile is “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin-nail.” But after this almost-silly – if macabre – opening, Dickens sets the scene outside Scrooge’s London offices some seven years after Marley’s death. Far from being a picture of cheery, greetings-card festivity, the scene is gloomy and haunting. No snow, no children playing, no Christmas carols. It is dark, and the fog – in fact a mostly industrial London smog – is so thick, the houses across the narrow street have become “mere phantoms.”

Arthur Rackham illustration of Scrooge & MarleyEbenezer Scrooge is described in almost non-human terms: He exists in his own atmosphere, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him”; blind men’s dogs recognize him and try to warn their masters; Scrooge has the “evil eye” of ancient folklore. Nature itself is described in decidedly preternatural terms: “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down … one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

Dickens’s prose is littered with Gothic elements. There are shadows, flickering candles and dingy streets; there are Scrooge’s gloomy chambers, echoey and empty of humanity. One particularly curious Gothic reference is when the miser declares that everyone who wishes another a merry Christmas should be “boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” a curse that evokes both cannibalism and vampirism. Dracula was not yet written, but vampires were already firmly in the public imagination through works such as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. The imagery is certainly intended to be dryly humorous, but the modern reader easily overlooks how grisly it was. (Much too close-to-the-bone for Dickens’s audience at some points. For example, when Scrooge tells his nephew words to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell first,” Dickens can’t even bring himself to mention hell, referring to it euphemistically as “that other extremity.”)

With his dark, shadowy images of a fogbound London, Dickens has established a Gothic atmosphere long before we arrive on the doorstep of his house, where he first sees the image of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in place of his doorknocker. The author describes the vision in terms that are as bizarre as they are wonderfully ethereal. Marley had a “dismal light” around him, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” It was a face of “horror” and “livid colour,” and the wide-eyed ghost’s “hair was curiously stirred as if by breath or hot air.”

Once inside, Scrooge speaks face-to-face with the ghost, who has come to warn him of an impending visitation by three spirits. The narrative of this encounter is terrifying indeed:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley in Scrooge (1951)Film adaptations have not always succeeded in translating these details to the screen. In 1938, a Hollywood version that suffers from far too much whimsy and a disappointingly cartoonish portrayal of Scrooge (Reginald Owen), the chance for something genuinely frightening or haunting is squandered by uninspired direction and a banal performance by Leo G Carroll, an otherwise-fine character actor whose skeletal features might have seemed ideal for the role of a ghost. Even the 1935 version managed a more effective atmosphere in these scenes, despite not showing Jacob Marley at all. Three portrayals that really work, however, are those of Michael Hordern (1951), delightfully camp but accompanied by truly chilling shrieks; Frank Finlay (1984), who manages a literal jaw-dropping in comic but macabre fashion, and without the help of special effects; and Gary Oldman (voice only) in 2009. In this decidedly scary latter version, CGI-animated and produced by Disney, Marley’s jaw literally hangs from its hinges as if on a decaying corpse.

Horrors of Injustice

Dickens masterfully blends the twin horrors of the story’s Gothic, ghost-story elements and the injustices of Victorian society. As Marley’s visit comes to an end, for example, the sky is filled with moaning phantoms in chains, but an equal horror is one spectre’s piteous wailing at “being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.” The phantoms’ misery, writes Dickens, was in wanting to help others, which they had never done in life, but realizing they had forfeited such power forever.

One particularly effective moment of Victorian social horror will come later, when the Spirit of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two children, Ignorance and Want. In their “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” state, they have become so animal-like, Scrooge mistakes their hands for claws. Dickens describes it vividly thus:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Disney’s 2009 version of the story stands out for making much of this scene. In a nightmarish sequence that takes place in the shadow of a chiming clock, Ignorance is transformed into a knife-wielding, caged lunatic – Dickens’s book referred earlier to Bedlam, London’s infamous insane asylum – while Want becomes a prostitute who is strait-jacketed and dragged away by invisible hands.

Scrooge and the Numinous

Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly encounters exhibit another common element of Gothic fiction, namely an experience of what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) later called “the numinous.” In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (1917), he described the numinous as an experience of fear and fascination, dread and awe, such as that of encountering a deity. The effects of this mysterium tremendum include trembling, or shuddering (“grauens” in the original German). In discussing the manifestation of the numinous in culture, Otto linked it explicitly to ghost stories:

But even when [the numinous emotion] has reached its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part of it to break out in the soul in all their original naïveté and so to be experienced afresh. That this is so shown by the potent attraction exercised again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even in persons of high all-round education. It is a remarkable fact that the physical reaction to which this unique ‘dread’ of the uncanny gives rise is also unique, and is not found in the case of any ‘natural’ fear or terror.

Scrooge’s three visitations increasingly display aspects of the numinous. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge finds its light so overwhelming, he eventually causes its departure by seizing on its extinguisher-cone (a feature not often seen in film versions) and literally snuffing out its flame-like existence. Dickens’s description of this spirit feels almost Lovecraftian:

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. … [The] figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Scrooge’s response to meeting the Spirit of Christmas Present is to hang his head and look upon him “reverently.” But it is the third encounter, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, that is accompanied by a classic experience of the numinous. By its mere presence, the ghost seems to “scatter gloom and mystery” in the air around it, causing Scrooge to bend down on his knee. He cannot see the spirit more than vaguely in the darkness, but he senses it is “tall and stately” beside him:

Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved. … Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

A Christmas Carol: The Films 

Has any film come close to recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Dickens’s novella? The first sound version of the film, in 1935 (starring Seymour Hicks, who had already played the role in a 1913 silent, Old Scrooge), boasts perhaps the most effective opening, with an atmosphere perfectly capturing the dingy, almost-depressing air imagined by the author. The street outside Scrooge’s office, with snow on the ground, and fog, but no cheery, pretty snowflakes to create a picture-postcard scene, is bleak and claustrophobic. A small band of musicians plays the The First Nowell – badly. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Christmas carol, but the groaning notes perfectly suit the sombre setting.

Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951)

The 1951 film – by far the most popular version, due mainly to a very memorable starring turn by Alastair Sim – achieves a sublime Gothic feel, thanks largely to the black-and-white cinematography of C Pennington-Richards. Never is this better-seen than in the image of Scrooge kneeling before the “spectral hand” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come; the many layers of light, creating stark shadows and contrasts, give the image an astonishing depth. . (A hideously colourized version from 1989 robs the film of virtually all its visual power.) The film’s grimness may well explain why it flopped on its original American release, but it is testament to its faithfulness to the Gothic tradition.

The 1984 TV version, directed by Clive Donner, is also of note for an earnest attempt to accentuate darker elements of the tale. It’s also one of the few versions to be shot largely on location. The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury stands in for Victorian London, lending the film a pleasing authenticity; visitors can still see Scrooge’s gravestone, specially created for the film, in the churchyard of St Chad’s today.

Disney's A Christmas Carol Jacob MarleyFinally, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves a mention for being one of the few versions to go for actual scares – including decidedly modern “jump scares” – rather than purely atmosphere. The early scenes, such as that of Marley’s visitation, are executed fairly effectively, but they’re surely too scary for the film’s juvenile target audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers later try to accommodate all ages by adding some very out-of-place slapstick action, including an arbitrary extended chase sequence featuring a shrunken Scrooge. By the time the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come arrives, the film is a bit of a mess.

Perhaps no cinematic version has truly matched Dickens’s original, but that’s unsurprising, for the author’s prose has a chilling and equally wry way of articulating the Gothic. How can an any celluloid image hope to rival such literary descriptions as “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” and a spirit that is “now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”? A Christmas Carol is a work of singular humour and atmosphere, and, as Dickens himself wished, may no one wish to lay its ghost to rest.

Call for Submissions: Horror (Fiction/Nonfiction)

Call for Submissions: Horror (Fiction/Nonfiction)

Bedlam – a Journal of Horror and the Macabre is looking for essays and articles that explore horror in fresh, intelligent, critical and entertaining ways.

As well as general horror articles, in 2013 Bedlam plans to publish volumes dedicated to the following themes:

  • LGBT and queer sexuality in horror
  • Childhood horror
  • 3D horror
  • Lovecraft and Lovecraftian horror

Bedlam welcomes both ideas and completed submissions, chiefly nonfiction but fiction also.

Bedlam also welcomes submissions that go beyond the written word, including video, photography and original artwork.

Submissions are primarily considered for the print publication, but may also be considered for the accompanying website at www.bedlamjournal.com.

Words: 500-5,000
Payment: Royalties

Email submissions and queries to Editor-in-Chief Robert J.E. Simpson robert@bedlamjournal.com and/or Editor David L Rattigan david@bedlamjournal.com

________

Call for Short Horror Stories

In conjunction with Bedlam Journal, Avalard Publishing is now accepting submissions for the Bedlam Book of Horror, a short story anthology due to be published in 2013.

Avalard seeks original fiction to enthral, stimulate and entertain lovers of horror and the macabre. Stories should be between 1,000 and 5,000 words.

Payment: Royalties

Email your submissions to: Robert J.E. Simpson (Editor-in-Chief) robert@bedlamjournal.com and/or David L Rattigan (Editor) david@bedlamjournal.com

Room for One More? Boarding the British Ghost Train

David L Rattigan celebrates the ultimate dark ride of his English childhood

Ghost TrainSod the Walt Disney Company and its Haunted Mansion, with its big budget and shiny new CGI technology. Give me the old-fashioned British ghost train experience, where not knowing whether the rattling, rusty screws will hold your carriage together till the end of the ride is just as frightening as the badly painted ghouls and goblins leaping out at you.

As a child who never passed up the opportunity for a cheap scare, I always made my way directly to the ghost train on entering the fair, whether it was the theme park or the travelling fairground. Roller coasters were not enough. This eighties Liverpool lad preferred the musty smells, dark turns and gaudy thrills of a ride through hell in a carriage for two.

You stepped on board and braced yourself for the jolt as the car, after a bit of a push from the ride-owner, set off along the track and bumped its way through the double doors and into the darkness. The crescendo and decrescendo of a siren gave you your first clue as to what was ahead. The cramped vehicle bucked and banged its way around the first corner, and the five-minute journey had begun.

Ghost Train, PickmereAlong the way were phantoms painted on plywood walls in tacky fluorescent colours. Jets of air and splashes of water surprised you. Skeletons dangled, mechanical hands jerked into view, and bits of fluff and string and rubber strips hung down to brush over your face as you went through. Was that part of the ride, or did someone just touch you? Or was it just imagination? You never quite knew.

The ghost train of bog-standard travelling fair had only the basics – mostly painted images, cheaply produced and easy to assemble and reassemble in each town. Often the pictures were based on well-known images from horror films, or at least those daubed on the frontage to advertise the attraction would lean heavily towards Karloffs, Chaneys and Lugosis. No big set pieces inside – except for the assistant, dressed in a sheet or skeleton costume, jumping out with a scream towards the end of the ride. In my day, he would literally manhandle the punters, but I suspect our more cautious times have put paid to the practice.

The ghost train at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, on the other hand, boasted lots of mechanical models and gimmicky thrills that required more than a bucket of neon paint. A carousel of skeletons riding bicycles was one macabre delight I’d heard of in advance of my visit. Skulls raced towards your face, rock pillars threatened to topple on you, and corpses thrust without warning out of coffins as you ride past. You were turned upside down as you passed through a tunnel and into a vortex, and there was even a roller-coaster-style dip, where you briefly sped downhill, and the momentum pushed you up the next. Every now and then, you emerged from the darkness and into the daylight to turn round before the next level or chamber – your screams and chortles became part of the publicity campaign directed at passers-by.

Fairgoers had been already been enjoying ghost trains for five decades when I was first bewitched by its creaky thrills. A British innovation, it followed the success of the stage play The Ghost Train. The writer was one Arnold Ridley, a Somerset-born character actor best-known nowadays as the elderly Private Godfrey in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Its plot concerned passengers stranded in the waiting room of a rural railway station haunted by local legends of the deathly locomotive of the title. It ran for two years in the West End of London and was adapted at least half a dozen times, most famously in 1941, as a vehicle for cheekyLiverpool comic Arthur Askey.

Its popularity inspired fairground attraction company Orton and Spooner to create the ride of the same name, which historian David Braithwaite described thus:

At discreet intervals, dummy trains running on an energised rail, carrying no more than two passengers, penetrate the darkened booth. A labyrinth of hair-raising spectacles, optical tricks and sudden cloying tactility awaits them.

Early ghost trains were built on one level, with carriages moving from room to room. Like car parks and apartment buildings, they evolved to become multi-level, with ramps and chain-lifts taking passengers to the next floor for more scares.

In the 2000s, the ride gained a new artistic respectability with the arrival of Carnesky’s Ghost Train. To the traditional ghost train experience, theatre producer Marisa Carnesky added a narrative with a cast of eight ghosts, played by live actors. The Guardian newspaper hailed it a “marvellous mix of technical wizardry and sheer heart and soul”:

On one hand, it is merely a thoroughly enjoyable and superior fairground ride -quite the spookiest and most magical ghost train you’ll ever experience, and one that the kids will find a real thrill. On the other, it is an artful theatrical installation that combines all the fun of the fair with a serious and very adult meditation on eastern European heritage. Even in its brevity it manages to touch on the haunting pain of real experiences in which grotesque fairytale meets 19th- and 20th-century history head on.

With special effects that combined modern technology with the creaky mechanics of Victorian horror spectacle, the show-cum-ride was successful with London audiences and made its permanent home in Blackpool, where it remains eight years after its creation.

Fairgrounds by night are in themselves potent with fright. The hypnotic music, the whirring and clanking of machinery, and the flashing lights of many colours make entering the amusement park a disorienting experience for a child. The young and small can get lost among the crowds, swallowed up by heaving, bustling bodies moving in every direction, as familiar faces blur into those of strangers. Dark rides have always exploited the naturally exhilarating atmosphere of the carnival, ramping up its sensory wonders to the maximum; but no dark ride has done this for me as thrillingly as the ghost trains of my childhood.

Images: Ghost train at Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London (Oxyman)
Ghost train, Pickmere, 1970s (Steven Williamson)
Ghost train “Phantom Chaser,” Somerset, 2006 (Phil Williams)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braithwaite, David, Fairground Architecture, Hugh Evelyn, 1968
Gardner, Lynn, “Carnesky’s Ghost Train,” The Guardian, August 4 2004
National Fairground Archive, “The Ghost on the Fairground,” http://www.nfa.dept.shef.ac.uk/history/miscellaneous_articles/article15.html (accessed 30/06/12)
Ride Guide, “The History of Ghost Trains” (video), 2009, http://ride-guide.co.uk/wp/the-history-of-ghost-trains (accessed 30/06/12)

Razor-Sharp Suburbia: Excision

Excision (2012)Michele Galgana interviews Richard Bates, Jr, & AnnaLynne McCord

Excision (USA, 81 min.)
Director: Richard Bates, Jr.
Cast: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Ariel Winter

Mix part black comedy, part teen angst drama, and part shocking art house cinema, throw them in a blender with assorted viscera, and you have Excision, the first feature directed by NYU Tisch School alum Richard Bates, Jr. His hopeful yet hapless protagonist, Pauline, is played by a most-undecidedly 90210 AnnaLynne McCord in full, serious actress mode: awkward gait, no makeup but for fake zits, and what looks to be unwashed hair. Her daytime character contrasts starkly with her blood-soaked dreams and fantasies, in which she envisions herself as a dominatrix of the crimson kind, nearly to a Bathorian extreme. These fetishistic scenes feature McCord writhing around in elaborate hair, makeup and costumes, and are highly reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle series.

MG: I used to assist with programming at the Boston Underground Film Festival. In 2009, we showed your award-winning short Excision, and the film’s dark nature resonated with us. Your new feature of the same name won the Director’s Choice Award at the festival this year. So now that you’ve made the feature version, can you tell us how you fleshed out the story from short to feature?I recently caught up with the up-and-coming director of Excision and auteur of the strange, Richard Bates, Jr. and the star of his film, the talented AnnaLynne McCord, at Fantasia inMontreal, where the Canadian premiere of the film was held, to discuss evil, social taboos, and teenage hormones.

Richard Bateman, Jr, and AnnaLynne McCord

RB: There’s a lot more room for developing. With the basics of the short, I had to hit my marks, develop my characters, and it’s an eighteen-minute short, which is sort of a long short. I’m proud of it, but if I had to do it again, I’d make it ten minutes. The wonderful thing about a feature is you can actually develop your characters and develop a style. I was slowly developing my filmmaking style with that short; it walked a fine line between a dark, dark comedy and a horror film. My favorite review said that this film is what would happen if John Waters and David Cronenberg fucked.

MG: Indeed. I imagine that making the short helped you get funding for the feature. How easy or difficult was it to get your film green lit?

RB: It was not easy at all! You don’t know my misery. I was quite confident at a certain point because of the success of the short; we won a bunch of awards and played a lot of festivals in 2008 – 2009. I moved out toL.A. and I thought, ‘Goodness, someone thinks I’m good at something! I’m gonna to get to do this, I’m gonna get to make a feature version!’ I got a bunch of meetings, and everyone said, ‘This is crazy. There’s no way we’ll make this, it’s terrible.’ Whatever. I stuck by it for four or five years, and that’s how long it took to get this movie made. Any financing, any interest, it was all funded by my friends. Thirty of my friends from growing up inVirginia and a friend of mine from college inNew York. No one else would touch it.

MG: Those are some great friends!

RB: I was the movie geek in high school. I went to movie camp every summer, since middle school, and I would walk around high school with a video camera. So everyone knew where I grew up in my hometown, that this was my dream forever.

ALM: At the premiere at Sundance, Ricky’s mother actually told me a story that is so amazing and it kinda sums it up. She and Ricky were flying and he was about five, and the plane was going through serious turbulence. She was like, ‘It’s okay, it’s going to be fine.’ And he said, ‘I’m just really scared that I’m not going to be able to make my movie!’ He didn’t want to die because he wanted to make his movie!

MG: And that’s at five years old?

ALM: He knew for a long time.

RB: I think that I was ten. She might have said five.

MG: How in the hell did you come up with a story like this, and is there any basis in truth behind it? Did it come from nightmares or was it inspired by a particularly gruesome headline? What’s the genesis of it?

RB: It’s funny, because I keep saying that it’s autobiographical, and everyone’s like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ The movie is about growing up in a conservative family and environment, and wanting to do something odd with your life — for me, filmmaking — and wanting the love and acceptance of your parents. That’s what the hug is about at the end. That’s what all of that is. And I remember feeling this way growing up — it’s also an indictment on entitlement. You know, everyone thinks they can do anything without taking the time to learn how to be good at it. That was something that always frustrated me. Even at 27, I just want to make movies, I love ‘em.

ALM: To add on to that and answer your question from a different standpoint, the film in itself — in its literal form — is a film. In its metaphoric state, I would say that it represents the mind of the repressed. What is that cliché? The more you tighten your grip, the more it slips through your fingers. I grew up in a similar childhood to Ricky, where the tighter my parents held onto me, the more I wanted to escape. My dream of going toHollywood was as evil to them as this movie might be to most people. My dream in my mind was accepted inNew York andL.A., but it wasn’t accepted where I grew up. So for Pauline, this is the same exact situation, but it’s a film. It’s art. It’s expanded upon. I feel like if you reflect it in that regard, it’s the perspective of what in fact IS evil and who the beholder is, because it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. The reason I connect with Pauline is — and I got in trouble so often — my mother told me that I could not go toHollywood because it was evil. And my response was, ’But aren’t we supposed to be the light to a dark world?’ I got in more trouble for that back-talking, but the truth is, I was representing logic. Pauline in her mind, is representing logic too, and it was completely allowed and intolerable by her parents. So I think there’s not so much to be taken literally, but taken metaphorically.

MG: There are some particularly strong performances here — by Traci Lords, especially in the finale — and by you, AnnaLynne. Your character Pauline is a pretty dark individual and perpetual outsider. How did you prepare for a role like this?

ALM: Well, I had a couple of days of ‘Oh my God, I can’t act! Why did I ever think I could do this?!’ Which preceded me finding exactly what Pauline needed to be. But a lot of it came from just choosing as a human being — I’m a very private person — and it was in making the choice to open myself up to be honest. Really, really honest. In my career, I’ve played a lot of characters who are completely opposite to who I am, and they reflect the sexual and the confident, on-top-of-the-world fantasy roles. To play Pauline was to play a little girl close to who I felt I was growing up, this little odd man out, who had a sense of confidence that wasn’t really justifiable. I was a total math nerd, and I will go to town on you with any kind of math equation if you wanna talk math with me, I love that stuff. But I did not fit in. I had two sisters who were all about dresses and that girly girl stuff. I was just weird and in my own world. I knew that my world would expand, and anyone who doubted me, I thought was a very odd individual. It was an interesting world to grow up in, inside my head, and Pauline with her belief that she can be a doctor without studying is kind of reflective of this trailer park girl who I was, dreaming of being an actress. That was never gonna happen! There’s something to the attraction of the ALM:ost naïve narcissism of believing you can. But I think that really, the toughest challenge was just choosing to be open and raw all day, every day. The idiosyncrasies that I enjoy as an actress to indulge myself that Ricky allowed for — obviously, the way Pauline speaks, her mannerisms, her way of walking — those are all things I had with fun as an actress, adding to the element of who Pauline is.

MG: Tell me how you got involved with the film, and what were your thoughts when you first read the script.

ALM: I didn’t get all the way through the script before I decided that I needed to do the movie. I was halfway through it, and my agent had send me the short film you and Ricky were speaking of, and I was like, ‘I have to do this movie! I have to do this film!’ My initial reason was very shallow. I just wanted an opportunity to prove myself. So many people, Ricky included, weren’t so certain that I could pull this off. And I was really, really looking — most of my career on 90210 definitely — for a role like this where I could have a chance to really challenge myself and prove myself. That was initially it. But once I fell in love with Pauline, it was over. I didn’t want anyone else to play her and possibly screw her up. I knew her, I knew how she had to be played, I knew the kind of humanity you have to bring to a character like this, where she’s written on paper like a raving bitch. And I really wanted to make her three dimensional, and I hope I’ve accomplished this. That’s what my hope was for her.

MG: How many people advised you not to take this role?

ALM: I definitely had some negativity initially. My agent, who is also my best friend, she said, ‘Hey, you gotta do this, you gotta make this happen—‘

RB: She also dated Marilyn Manson, so this lady is absolutely crazy.

ALM: She’s badass. Ricky loves that part of me. But there were agents in the office who said, ‘This is going to be very controversial.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, when has controversial ever been an issue for me?’ I got my opening kind of break on Nip/Tuck where I was an eighteen-year-old being controversial in a different way. So controversy excited me, and ultimately, my passion for the project won out with a bit of negativity towards it.

MG: One of the themes that sets this film apart is its risky and bizarre take on a teenage girl’s sexuality, combining fetishistic costumes and sets mixed with an amazing amount of blood. Were those scenes that Pauline imagines as her hormones race wildly out of control filmed on a closed set?

RB: No. In fact, I invited the public to witness all of this. AnnaLynne was furious — I actually shipped in a middle school to watch it, and it qualified as their sexual education — no, I’m lying — but I wish. A lot of kids inLos Angeles would be up to some crazy shit right now.

ALM: It should have been a more closed set than it was. Fortunately for Ricky, and his how do I say this — maybe slightly amateurish crew, I’m not that inhibited, so it was all right.

RB: We couldn’t really pay for anyone, so I had freshmen as crew, showing them how to set up C-stands. But the sexuality stuff, yeah that’s taboo, but a girl on her period, that’s natural. It’s strange that a period is still a social taboo, that’s very bizarre to me.

MG: And as a male filmmaker, you’re in the minority. It’s refreshing to have that attitude come from a male filmmaker.

RB: Well, I didn’t even think this movie was that weird until people started telling me it was. The period thing — when I was a freshman in high school, I was going out with this girl and I ended up going down on her… I had the exact same scene when Jeremy is in the mirror. I looked in the mirror and I had this fuckin’ blood all over my face — I was shocked and I wanted to cry. I was like, ‘I’m gonna die tomorrow, what the fuck!’ So, I mean, literally all my shit’s in there. So I use this for therapy. You have to.

MG: How did you get such high profile actors like Malcom McDowell, Traci Lords, Marlee Matlin, and Ray Wise?

RB: Lord knows. I begged them all, really. It ended up being so hard to get this movie made, I thought, ‘If this is all I ever make, my entire life, I want my childhood heroes in it. I want to look back on it when I’m fifty, and know I gave it my all. I got John Waters, one of my favorite directors, Malcom McDowell from Clockwork Orange, Ray Wise from my favorite tv show ever, Twin Peaks. It was important to me that if I was going down, I was going down swinging.

MG: Were there any alternate endings or scenes you had to cut out that you can speak about?

RB: It’s funny you say that, because everyone who saw the short says that they can’t wait to see the feature to see what happens. Well, you are gonna be sorely fucking disappointed, because the entire film is about that hug, that’s all there is to it. The film is about getting that acceptance, and in the most obscure moment, she gets it.

MG: What’s next for both of you? Is there any chance of an Excision prequel or sequel?

RB: Oh yeah, she’s pregnant, actually! Let’s bang out six of seven Excisions. No, there won’t be a second Excision. If it makes a shitload of money, maybe Anchor Bay will ask me to do it. I’m making a movie called The South Will Rise Again and I’ll be asking AnnaLynne to do something in it, but yeah, I’m making another movie, hopefully in January. It’s a hipster Ghostbusters kind of thing.

ALM: I just wrapped filming on a project called Scorned, which is —

RB: The director directed Leprechaun, I’m so fuckin’ psyched! Can you get me an autograph?

ALM: He wants to give you a poster.

RB: Dude, this movie’s going to be fucking sweet, you need to see this movie.

MG: Any chance that either of these films will play the festival circuit?

ALM: Scorned is actually Anchor Bay, which is really cool, and I feel like Excision laid the ground for me to play this role. It’s a modern take on Misery. The Kathy Bates role is the role that I play, very sadistic, the anti-heroine, yet ‘Do I love her, do I hate her?’ I play with Billy Zane and Viva Bianca, an actress from Spartacus, my new best friend. Billy plays my boyfriend, Viva plays my best friend, and they cheat on me. I find out and torture them to death. So, it might go along with Fantasia’s ideal film and I might be back to the festival in the coming years.

RB: I would be psyched to be back at fests.

Photo:  AnnaLynn McCord  & Richard Bateman, Jr
(by  Isabelle Stephen)

Excision was released Anchor Bay on Blu-Ray and DVD earlier this month, just in time for Halloween. For more information, visit www.excisionmovie.com.

 

Vincent Price & Theatre of Blood

Let’s be quite candid about Vincent Price’s acting style (and I say style, not ability) – he was an out-and-out ham. Under a particularly gifted director, he could produce a more serious, subdued performance, of course. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) is the most notable example. For the most part, however, Price was a larger-than-life presence on the screen, fond of exaggerated gesticulation and over-the-top delivery of lines. In his most celebrated films, the overacting served him well.

Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood

In the seventies, Price began to parody this camp tendency, and never more than in the trio of films he made in Britain between 1971 and 1973: The Abominable Dr Phibes, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Theatre of Blood. In the first Phibes film, he played a disfigured organist who takes revenge on the surgeons who failed to save his wife by subjecting them to his ingenious recreations of the biblical plagues on Egypt. (The deliberately absurd tone seemed lost on Time Out critic David Pirie, who rather humourlessly denounced it at the time as “perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945.”) In the sequel, Phibes picked off his enemies one by one with a similarly dramatic series of tortures. Then, in Theatre of Blood, he was Edward Lionheart, a stage actor, presumed dead, who borrows death scenes from Shakespeare to exact his revenge on the critics he blames for killing his career. It’s a Grand Guignol-style variation on the Phibes idea, but it stands out for its unique intertwining of Price’s persona with that of the central character.

Lionheart is a relic, an old-fashioned thespian once popular for a highly theatrical style of acting by now outmoded and damned by critics. Film and literary scholar Peter Hutchings describes Theatre of Blood as

an elegy for a lost style of Shakespearean drama, a style that involves approaching the films as barnstorming melodramas and one which is characterized by a reliance on non-naturalistic forms of acting within extreme situations, on scenes that emphasize pathos, cruelty and suffering, and on the presentation of wrongs done and of wrongs righted.

Lionheart’s own murderous actions are ironically self-reflexive, turning his theatrical craft to malevolent purposes to butcher his enemies. But there’s a self-reflexive element to the film itself, too, for Price represents an old style of horror movie that, by 1973, was well on its way out. It was the year of The Exorcist, a serious and scary drama that treated the supernatural like the stuff of documentary, not melodrama. The old school Gothic horror film had been declining for years, and traditional horror producers like Britain’s Hammer Films were fighting against the trends, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the new universe brought to birth, arguably, in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Hutchings notes that even director Douglas Hickox’s approach is decidedly old-fashioned, “eschewing the subjective camerawork and fragmented narrative structures” common in genre films of the time. Nor is there evidence of “youth in revolt,” a popular horror theme of the time, with Lionheart’s daughter (Diana Rigg) presented as a “model of filial devotion” likened to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

So the movie is effectively a double joke – Lionheart defiantly turns his beloved but waning style of theatre into a weapon with which to destroy his critics, while Price gives a tongue-in-cheek FU to a genre that is quickly making his own style obsolete. It might very well be seen as his swansong, for after Theatre of Blood, the actor’s horror features consisted mostly of far inferior attempts at this kind of self-parody, such as Madhouse (1974), The Monster Club (1980) and House of the Long Shadows (1983).

In 2005, London theatre company Improbable recognized the genius of Theatre of Blood and co-produced a stage adaptation with the National Theatre. Jim Broadbent was cast as Lionheart – one need only watch him as the showman Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! (2001) to see how adept he is at the kind of the overblown theatricality needed for the part – and, in yet another self-reflexive twist, Rachael Stirling was Lionheart’s daughter, a role played in the original film by her mother, Diana Rigg.

Improbable and the National Theatre retained the seventies setting, for this was the decade in which the concrete National Theatre complex itself was erected on the South Bank of the Thames. The oft-criticized building and its context in the history of British theatre were the butt of jokes throughout the play, which is set as the NT is preparing to open. The critics in the supporting cast represented real British rags of the period, such as The Times, The Guardian and The Evening Standard. Ironically, however, the production itself received a mixed response, with some reviewers complaining that the play was apparently so self-reflexive, the industry in-jokes went over the heads of audience members unfamiliar with the context.

Undoubtedly, Price knew he symbolized a generation in horror that was becoming a quaint relic. But let’s not assume there was any bitterness behind Theatre of Blood’s tongue-in-cheek lament for the passing of an era. Price was not afraid to laugh at himself; his unique status as a pop culture icon in commercials, music videos and kids’ cartoons is testament to that. “The last thing my father was was a snob,” Price’s daughter Victoria told the Riverfront Times in 2011. “He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun.”

And fun was certainly what he had treading the boards as Edward Lionheart in the film that, arguably, contained more of the real Vincent Price than any other in the inimitable ham’s screen career.

________________

Sources Cited

Hutchings, Peter “Theatres of blood: Shakespeare and the horror film” in Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Dale Townshend, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)
Levitt, Aimee, “Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price” in Riverfront Times, May 19 2011
Pirie, David A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1945-1972, (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)

The Charm of Evil

“And it was at that age that poetry arrived in search of me”
—Pablo Neruda

I was seven when horror came in search of me. I’d seen it from afar: garish comic-strip representations of Dracula on Valentine picture postcards, glimpses of men standing around in misty graveyards in late-night films I wasn’t allowed to watch. But when I was seven, my father gave me a book, the Ladybird Horror Classic abridgment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I devoured its words and handsome illustrations eagerly, and from that moment forward, horror had me firmly in its clutch. Those pocket-sized hardbacks of FrankensteinDracula and The Mummy were my initiation into the realms of the genre.

Not long afterwards, I spotted a film of the same name while scouring the TV Times. I’d read a horror book and now had one foot in a dimension hitherto open only to older children and grown-ups, but would my dad let me watch a horror movie? To my astonishment and delight, he did. That the film was over 40 years old, in black and white, and mild by eighties’ standards did not bother this horror-hungry young mind: The characters I had seen only in ink on a page were alive on the screen in my own living room.

It might sound impressive if I said it were Stevenson’s exposé of the duality in man and the darkness in all of us that resonated with me, but in truth the film’s allure was as plain as this: images of horror. It was Spencer Tracy’s eyes darting left and right as he rose from a park bench bent on a spree of terror; it was the chilling nonchalance of Tracy’s Hyde as he played the piano and spat grape seeds on the floor while Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy cowered behind him; it was the uncontrolled glee on Hyde’s face as he battered his victim to death with his cane; it was his shadowy figure disappearing into the London fog, his cloak flapping behind him.

This introduction to horror was the beginning of an obsession. I scoured the TV guides weekly to discover what new horror films awaited me, and I made a ritual of waking in the early hours, before school, to watch a video recording of the previous night’s ghoulish offering. My dedication soon paid off in the most sacred experience of them all: my first Hammer film.

It was roughly 1986, and the film was Dracula, back in the day when the title card actually read “Dracula,” in that beautifully ornate typeface, instead of the US title “Horror of Dracula.” I can visualize how its listing appeared in the pages of the Radio Times – I even remember there was a science documentary on the same night, and a photograph of outer space dominated the page. Seemingly minor details linger in the mind after such hallowed occasions as a Hammer devotee’s first Hammer horror. But the major details linger even stronger: Seeing for the first time Dracula’s disintegration as Van Helsing forces him into the sunlight; I experienced it several times over, thanks to the wonders of rewind.

The following year was the 30th anniversary of Hammer’s first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the BBC commemorated it with a documentary, Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood, and a season of Hammer weekend double-bills. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was paired with The Evil of FrankensteinThe Nanny with Rasputin, the Mad Monk. If Dracula was my conversion to Hammer, by this time I was a committed disciple. As I grew older, I would familiarize myself with the entire canon of Hammer horror films, acquainting myself intimately with Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, werewolves, mummies and all manner of reptilian monster. Later, I read David Pirie’s seminal A Heritage of Horror and approached the films on another, more adult, level.

That’s not to say I wasn’t for turning. There was a period in my late teens when, as an evangelical in the religious sense, I became convinced I could not reconcile my love of Hammer films with my Christian faith. Full of zeal for Christ, I scrubbed my Hammer titles and vowed not to return to them – but I did. The lure of Hammer was too strong. When I had eventually left behind my naïve fundamentalist enthusiasm, Hammer was there waiting for me. Horror found me again

An obsession with horror, like any obsession, especially those that seized us while we were young, takes on evangelical overtones for those it holds. It becomes the source of visions, by day and by night (I have visited Bray Studios, the home of Hammer Films from 1951 to 1966, at least a dozen times in my dreams). It becomes the chief element of rituals, like my dawn ritual of watching Hammer, wearing the ceremonial robe of my bed sheet or duvet. Other followers become brothers and sisters, fellow devotees who understand the magic lost on outsiders.

As I think about my devotion, I realize it brings a kind of comfort to me. My preferred manner of settling down to a Hammer horror is still laying down, shrouded in blankets. To revisit a cherished Hammer movie is to cosy up with something familiar, something safe that belongs to a tradition I have valued since childhood.

 

The director Terence Fisher, the Hammer pioneer who made DraculaThe Curse of Frankenstein and well over a dozen other films for the company, envisaged evil not as ugly and repulsive, but as attractive. Biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon termed this theme “the charm of evil.” It was this charm, working its powers through Dracula’s hypnotic glare and Baron Frankenstein’s cold and reckless pursuit of power over life and death, that seduced me almost three decades ago – and of which I remain its willing captive.

Dark Chocolate: Wonka at 40

In David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en, an obese man pays for the sin of gluttony by being force-fed to death. The results are shown in gruesome detail. But the concept isn’t totally original. We already saw a slew of young gluttons being punished in ironic ways particularly befitting their vices in 1971.

The film was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which, over the course of an hour and a half, an overweight Bavarian is washed away down a chocolate river, an obnoxious gum-chewer is inflated to four or five times her normal size, a vicious young madam is sent to her fate down a garbage chute, and a wannabe cowboy gets shrunk down to the size of his TV-saturated brain. Unlike in Se7en, we never see the decaying corpses – we’re assured they’ll be de-juiced or, with any luck, rescued before they reach the incineration stage – but we take the same crude pleasure in watching sinners get their comeuppance.

Every good fairy tale, on analysis, boils down to horror. Creepy old wolves pretend to be grandmas to prey on little girls, witches plot to cook and cannibalize young children, and evil queens hire hitmen to assassinate beautiful princesses. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is full of equally and delightfully vile details.

The decidedly sadistic nature of Gene Wilder’s candy-maker has not been lost on observers over the forty years since the film was released. He’s mesmerized by the sight of greedy Augustus Gloop caught in the pipe as he muses, with a glint in his eye: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”

But his delirious pleasure in seeing people suffer is only just beginning. With Augustus on his way to be turned into marshmallows, Wonka takes his remaining guests on the boat ride from hell. In a nightmarish scene that could only be inspired by a heady concoction of hard drugs, the factory tourists are whizzed through a tunnel of psychedelic colours and past a montage of lizards, worms, fanged insects and decapitated farmyard animals. Meanwhile, Wonka appears to zone out as he groans in increasingly loud and frenzied tones: “Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?”

Critics have occasionally noted these dark and, admittedly, bizarre aspects of the film and speculated that children are bewildered by it. But no. Children love it. Adults who didn’t grow up with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may well find it bewildering, but just as kids get the often-sinister, eccentric world of the entire Roald Dahl canon, they get this film. I was hooked as a youngster, and I am still attached today.

Part of the attraction, perhaps, is the satisfaction of seeing the obnoxious, the selfish, the bullies brought to justice. But a large part of it – as Dahl knew very well – is the charm of evil.

Dracula’s Daughter: A Queer Classic Turns 75

The clunky execution of Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula is the elephant in the room as far as classic horror is concerned. Bela Lugosi impresses in the title role, certainly, and the movie has a handful of truly memorable moments, but most of it falls very flat. Viewed 80 years later, it is not so much a great film as a curiosity, notable for its seminal place in cinema history.

Dracula’s Daughter, on the other hand, the direct sequel that celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, boasts a superior pace and a central performance at least equal to that of Lugosi in the first film. It achieves this despite being directed by Lambert Hillyer, a little-known studio hack whose main fare was B-grade westerns. Universal chief Carl Laemmle hired him after plans to use James Whale then Edward Sutherland fell through. (It was to be the Laemmle family’s last film at Universal. Having run the studio into debt with increasingly lavish productions, the Laemmles lost the studio to their creditors as Dracula’s Daughter wrapped.)

The 1936 film carries on exactly from where the 1931 original left off. Van Helsing, played by the only returning cast member, Edward Van Sloan, has staked Count Dracula, and two policemen escort him to the station on suspicion of murder. Lugosi received a handsome fee for participating in publicity, incidentally, although he doesn’t appear in the film itself, even in this opening sequence – an obvious dummy stands in for his corpse.

Van Helsing tries to convince the police he had good reason for the staking, but without success, until Dracula’s body mysteriously disappears from a locked prison cell. The thief is Countess Marya Zaleska (Holden), who, in one of the film’s most mesmerizing scenes, performs a ritual over the body in order to end the “curse of the Draculas.”

Zaleska is a reluctant vampire, trapped by her plight. From her first words, when she begins to pray for release from the spirit of her father, she is a tortured, pitiable and sympathetic creature. Holden portrays this forlornness exquisitely; hers is a beautiful, perfectly formed face, but her eyes betray emptiness and longing for freedom.

“You think this night will be like all the others, don’t you?” she asks her servant, Sandor (the actor and director Irving Pichel, pictured), as she struggles to resist the urge to claim another victim. “Well, you’re wrong. Dracula’s destroyed, his body’s in ashes. The spell is broken. I can live a normal life, think normal things, even play normal music again.” (This last phrase evokes the memory of the perverse music of Lugosi’s “children of the night.”)

Sandor, apparently one of her kind – “You think this night will be like all the others, don’t you?” she asks her servant, Sandor (the actor and director Irving Pichel), as she struggles to resist the urge to claim another victim. “Well, you’re wrong. Dracula’s destroyed, his body’s in ashes. The spell is broken. I can live a normearlier, he recoils from the sight of a cross – won’t let her contemplate freedom and insists she remain what she always has been. He tears ruthlessly through his mistress’s hopefulness and breaks her down.

It later becomes clear their kind is more than vampire. They are gay. In a scene of such startling candour one wonders how its lesbian implications were lost on the Hayes-era censors, Sandor commandeers a pretty young girl on the streets of Chelsea and takes her to an apartment, where Zaleska orders her to strip, ostensibly to pose for a portrait.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Won’t I do?” asks the girl.

Gazing intensely at the girl’s face and bare shoulders, the smitten countess replies, “Yes, you’ll do very well indeed.”

A smile of enchantment, not of malevolence, breaks across Zaleska’s face as she walks towards her screaming prey.

Sandor, too, appears to be homosexual. He’s an ageing, androgynous bachelor, living in a queer relationship with his mistress, over whom he exerts an unhealthy control as he determines to keep her unhappy and locked in her fate. Sandor is, frankly, a bitter and bitchy old queen.

Her ritual clearly having failed to rid her of her inclination to evil, Zaleska attempts to find help through a psychiatrist, Dr Garth (Otto Kruger). She relates to him the “overpowering command … I had to obey” and asks him to go away with her in the hope that she can escape her situation and he can cure her. When he refuses, she succumbs to her overwhelming desire for evil. In a remarkable transformation, she resigns herself to her own nature, abducts Garth’s secretary, whom he loves, and schemes to force him into joining her in eternal vampirism.

This change is testament to the power of Holden’s performance in the title role. She hated the film, yet her move from pitiable to brazenly manipulative is so convincingly executed; even when she finally gives in to her vampirism, she never stops being sympathetic. Holden gives the part more depth than Lugosi gave the role of Dracula, and her performance may well be one of the finest pieces of horror acting in film. (Mark Clark devotes five pages to the performance in his 2004 book Smirk, Sneer and Scream: Great Acting in Horror Cinema).

Dracula’s Daughter failed to repeat the box office success of the inferior Dracula and has never enjoyed the same popularity fans and critics over the years. Nor has it received the same attention as another queer horror classic, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), or even Whale’s equally gay The Old Dark House (1932). Its 75th birthday seems the right time for horror aficionados to revisit the film, but beware: Countess Zaleska’s dangerous predilection runs in the family, and sometimes she just can’t help herself. Heed the warning – especially if you’re young, beautiful and female – that came with Dracula’s Daughter’s arrival in 1936: “Look out! She’ll get you!”

Gothic Horror Theatre: It’s Alive! (Or Is It?)

When I hear of a stage play adapted from a Gothic horror story, like London’s National Theatre sell-out production of Frankenstein, there’s a vein of jealousy running through my excitement. For I began my writing career as a playwright, and I worked hard on several scripts of famous horror tales that never made it to the theatres. Yes, for reasons unfathomable to me, my Phantom of the Opera, written when I was nine, was eclipsed by some inferior version produced around the same time by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I hear it’s still doing quite well in the West End, but what do punters know?

My version was inspired not by Gaston Leroux’s novel, which I hadn’t yet read, but chiefly by the Universal film starring Claude Rains. Despite some beautifully expressionistic art direction and a tightly crafted chandelier sequence, this 1943 version smothers most of the terror with whimsical vignettes and protracted musical sequences. The few horror moments, such as the final unmasking – to reveal a relatively unimpressive Jack Pierce makeup – inspired me to pen a 10-minute adaptation, which my peers and I performed before a packed assembly hall. The other pupils loved it so much, I wrote a more action-packed sequel with gunfights, tied-up heroines and dramatic poisonings.

I later tried my hand at other horror classics, including Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeDracula and Frankenstein. I was particularly proud of Frankenstein because, like the mad scientist himself, I worked on it day and night in the confines of my writing laboratory. It was the only full-length play I ever finished, although I’m sure it was awful – I was still a mere 10 or 11 – and sadly, the manuscript has disappeared. I still have a box containing other plays, and even a few crumpled pages of Phantom still exist. (eBay?)

So the idea of horror theatre has a special resonance with me. Danny Boyle, best known for films such asTrainspottingShallow Grave28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, directs the new Frankenstein, which opened in February to almost unanimous acclaim. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. (The only other instance I recall of the dualism being quite so vividly portrayed is in the 1968 TV play for the ITV series Mystery and Imagination, in which Ian Holm played both parts.

The BBC followed with a contemporary, semi-comical adaptation of its own, Frankenstein’s Wedding, a multimedia staging before an audience of thousands in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, in Leeds, and broadcast live on BBC3. As the title suggests, the action centred around the night of Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth. There were pre-filmed flashbacks on large screens, musical numbers by live bands and even flash-mob style dance routines that involved the entire crowd. The reviewers’ consensus, however, seemed to be that the much-hyped event was a flop, albeit a fascinating experiment that deserved praise for its daring.

Over in America, the new off-Broadway production of Dracula has received a critical bashing. The show is a revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L Balderston play that enjoyed huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s. In 1931, it was filmed by Universal with the star of the Broadway production, Bela Lugosi (Raymond Huntley had played him in the earlier London version), and then in 1979 with Frank Langella, also reprising a role he had played on Broadway. This new version stars Italian model Michel Altieri in the title role, with support from George Hearn – musical theatre’s definitive Sweeney Todd – as Van Helsing, and Emily Bridges, daughter of actor Beau, who took over from Thora Birch after her much-publicized firing a few days before the previews.

It turns out Birch may have had a lucky escape from a doomed production. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times doesn’t hold back in his assessment:

Sadly, this comically creaky production … makes the material feel about as immortal as a fruit fly. The creature this lumbering staging most resembles is not one of those comely young vampires with six-pack abs zigzagging at warp speed across screens today, but a lumbering, dead-eyed zombie fresh from the crypt. … [The] play comes across as a hopelessly hoary Victorian melodrama long on talky scenes rehearsing the by-now-familiar lore … and scarcely enlivened by cheesy would-be thrills that are not likely to raise a single goose pimple[.]

Who needs Van Helsing when you have critics like Isherwood?

Two misses out of three so far when it comes to this mini-revival in horror theatre. While the National Theatre’s Frankenstein may be an exception, the greatest stage adaptations of the classic Gothic tales probably have yet to be written. Balderston and Deane don’t hold up in this more sophisticated age. I’ve never read the play The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, made famous on the Victorian stage by Jack-the-Ripper suspect Richard Mansfield, but I suspect the same could be said of it.

I’d write the definitive Dracula myself, but Andrew Lloyd Webber would only steal the limelight again by writing his own musical version. I suppose with me it’s just a case of “Once bitten, twice shy.”