I used to think that my taste for Gothic horror was just a taste–something weird and idiosyncratic, a low inclination not unlike, say, an adult’s interest in “graphic novels,” real enough in its way but not the kind of thing one parades, or even finds existentially important except in an accidental sort of way.
And to me, at least, it has been remarkably important. It would, for instance, be hard to overstate the role that “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” played in my childhood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_tCg3-VuKg&t=382s I think I first saw it some afternoon on WBFF 45 when I was either sick or pretending to be sick. But I knew instantly that I was fascinated–and for a variety of reasons.
Horror, as every aficionado knows, comes in flavors. Zombies bore me and always have. So do slasher films. For me, appealing horror–or the literature of the fantastique, as its cultured devotees prefer to call it, has always needed three things.
First, was an aristocrat, isolated and alienated in an anti-aristocratic and bourgeois world. A horror movie without an aristocrat was (and is) to me, beside the point. Why bother? When movies understand this they can play with it in ways both lovely and trivial. The generally mediocre 1978 Dracula, e.g., (aside from the electrically magnetic Frank Langella) has Dracula use wind and horse; his hunters, cars, trains, and steam. His is a feudal and romantic past locked in war with a stalwart middle class future.
Similarly, the best horror heroes have refined and recondite tastes–in music, food, decor, victims, you name it–and esoteric knowledge of a vanished reality which haunts the world. It is, e.g., surprising how largely Egypt figures in horror, and not just the Mummy. (Even in furniture, Art Nouveau, the most corrupt and decadent of tastes, weds beautifully with Egyptian revival.)
But Dracula is appealing for another reason: he is the ultimate Byronic hero, proud, cruel, suffering, but asserting himself in the face of an abyss that he alone senses and defies. For no doubt similar reasons, my favorite Greek tragedy has always been the Philoctetes: I seem to love isolated, marginalized and slighted figures of secret and astonishing power. One would be tempted to ascribe this to my biography–except I’ve always loved them, long before I achieved my current level of marginality (or secret power, thank you very much).
Melancholy and sadness help. Boris Karloff’s mummy is one of the most astonishing performances ever captured on film–a beautiful and electric sadness, the image of utter nobility in the face of limitless injustice. Lon Chaney’s Phantom, perhaps the greatest piece of physical acting ever, similarly remains hauntingly beautiful.
But Phibes was a special case. Its writer, William Golding (still alive and writing new Phibes stories), is an erudite man (some fake Greek aside), who knows more about Ataturk, bottle green vests, or how to properly polish a Rolls Royce (pure Beeswax please) than most. Its director too, Robert Fuest, had a marvelous aesthetic–campy, gay, musical (Mendelsohn’s War March of the Priests (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QfsQB_He0g&t=4997s) is an inspired choice of openings), impatient–his camera angles alone in the first film deserve more attention than they’ve gotten. I have wondered whether it is imitation of Orson Welles. The choice of Joseph Cotten for antagonist could not have been incidental.
But it is Price’s masterwork. Price oozed the macabre. Gifted with a peculiarly and inimitably sepulchral voice, he could suggest torment, suffering, and humanity over the rainbow.
Still, the best horror needs something more–the weird, in Lovecraft’s sense:
“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
More to come….