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Studies in Terror

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Jonathan Rigby
Publication Date: 
Signum Books
Bottom Line: 

It begins in Germany – a country that attempts to deal with revolution and the aftermath of war by conjuring from defeat the Weimar Republic and, far more enduringly, a grotesque nightmare cinema of painted zigzag shadows and alienation called Expressionism. The first case study out of the 130 presented during the course of Jonathan Rigby’s latest book – a leisurely and immensely pleasurable jaunt through the entire history of the Horror genre on film, from the silent era to the present day -- introduces us to Conrad Veidt’s stick-like, hollow-eyed somnambulist Cesare, in Robert Wiene’s silent 1919 vision of the world as a madman’s daydream, “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”. Here is a character that seems in many ways to foreshadow some of the most important milestones in Horror before the genre had even fully begun proper: the heavy soulless yearning of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster; the dreadful, cadaverous, instinct-governed  shamblings of Romero’s living dead; and, more recently, the traditional long-haired spectral malevolence emanating from the dark eyes of Sadako Yamamura in Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu”: we can detect portents of them all, seemingly latently bound into the macabre terror-moulding vision created back in post-war Germany by Wiene, Veidt and those other doyens of early German cinema, namely producer Erich Pommer, dramatist Carl Mayer and set designer Hermann Warm, whose work would go on to have an incalculable influence on the shaping of a new-born genre during the first youthful blush of Universal’s monster rally of the 1930s.

The film that most embodies the historical beginnings of Expressionism clearly also seems to constitute the perfect place for Rigby to start out on the task of relating the story of Horror in the movies, for its influence continues to resound, however indirectly, through the genre right up to the present day. There probably won’t be many people reading this that don’t already have copies of Jonathan Rigby’s two previous highly authoritative book-length film-by-film historical studies proudly and prominently adorning their bookshelves: “English Gothic: a century of horror cinema” and “American Gothic: sixty years of horror cinema” between them cover several of the most enticing periods in that rich, blood-speckled story in profound depth and with the characteristically gorgeously descriptive prose style that unerringly piques the curiosity, urging one on to seek out for oneself the treasures lovingly payed tribute to between their covers. Readers of these essential tomes won’t need to be told what a treat they have in store for them when they crack open the author’s latest highly personal selection of beautifully wrought pen portraits -- a companion piece to the preceding volumes -- especially now that “Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema” allows Rigby the freedom to range across the entire spectrum of the genre throughout its entire history, and across all countries and continents in search of his subject. From its earliest beginnings in Weimar Germany to its many current manifestations in Japan, Spain, Sweden or Belgium, this book proves if nothing else that the Horror genre is flourishing, and is indeed healthier than ever.

Nestled among the more obvious entries that make the content of these 320 addictively perusable pages, alongside classic films such as FW Murnau’s “Nosferatu” in the chapter on the 1920s, or Tobe Hopper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in the selection chosen to represent the 1970s, are many more works that might seem rather unusual, often even idiosyncratic choices. Alongside the former film for instance, you will also find Victor Seastrom’s “The Wind” from 1921; and in the latter category, Richard Loncraine’s rarely seen and hard-to-see (aside from a blurry VHS on YouTube) “Full Circle” from 1976. Even little-known-outside-fandom curios such as cult Italian ‘60s Gothics by the likes of Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti here rub shoulders comfortably with the Hammer greats of the same period, such as Terrence Fisher’s “The Brides of Dracula” or Roy Ward Baker’s “Quatermass and the Pit”. In fact, Mario Bava ends up as the clear headline act here in Rigby’s unashamedly personal tour of a century of World Horror, clocking up a most healthy four entries across the ‘60s and ‘70s to Terrence Fisher’s – still very respectable -- three.

The fact that Bava’s “Baron Blood” gets an entry but not his infinitely classier “Lisa and the Devil”, or his even bloodier proto-slasher “Bay of Blood”, brings us to another important point to be made about this book: which is that it isn’t in anyway intended as a comprehensive history or catalogue tour of the generally acknowledged horror ‘greats’ so much as a collection of miniature essays, snapshots which add up to a totality, but dedicated in close up to the films which have supplied the author with his own particular set of spine-tingling moments down the years. Each entry can be seen as an important landmark in its own way, but while the book features many unquestionably indispensable ‘signposts’ which point to the major thoroughfares that dominate the general landscape of Horror, there is just as much room left here for those oddities, curios and z grade tokens which may not normally be considered ‘classic’ in the popular sense of the term, but which nevertheless provide a fully rounded overview, opening up certain rarely traversed areas of the genre that are still important for understanding the terrain as a whole. So yes, “Psycho” is here, as are Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and prestige big studio horrors such as “Rosemary’s Baby” -- just as you’d expect. But by the same token there is no “Evil Dead” and no “The Shinning”!

Rigby signals the highly individualistic criteria he uses for inclusion by his decision to omit “The Exorcist” but include the flawed but intermittently chilling sequel “The Exorcist III”; to forego David Cronenberg’s biggest film, his 1986 remake of “The Fly”, for the director’s ill-spirited vampire sex-rabies shocker “Rabid” and the equally warped but chilling “The Brood”; and to nix the entire all-conquering “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise in favour of offbeat novelty items such as “Motel Hell” and “Frankenhooker”. The 1970s does see the inclusion of the obvious landmark movies of the era -- “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Carrie”, “Suspiria” and “Halloween” -- but equal space is lovingly lent to consideration of languorous low-budget US vampire chiller “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, Amando de Ossorio’s utterly mad “Tombs of the Blind Dead” and even such unheralded euro sleaze items as Jean Brismée’s bonkers Italian-Belgium mishmash “The Devil’s Nightmare”. Each of them contributes something essential to the overall weft & weave of this wildly adaptive and ever-variable genre we all love so much. It’s not even Rigby’s contention that all of the films he has chosen as representatives of their particular decade need necessarily be considered neglected classics due their belated moment of reappraisal or revaluation -- just that they each of them has something unique about them that deserves celebration just as much as the universally acknowledged lynchpins of the genre.

The text follows the expected linear chronology and begins with the aforementioned shadowy birth of celluloid horror in Weimar Germany before it proceeds, decade by decade, devoting each new chapter to the landmark horror movies Rigby has selected as his representatives for each ten year period, and ending with a chapter on the films of the first decade of the current century that starts with a piece on Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” from 2000 and ends in 2009 with Colm McCarthy’s “Outcast” (and then on to a brief  wrap-up postscript that deals in passing with the last two years’ most notable releases). The layout will be quite familiar to readers of Rigby’s other books: each chapter is prefaced with a general overview of the decade under consideration (this is where the major films omitted from the main text get their contextualising mention). Each of the following film entries then gets allotted pretty much the same amount of space: two pages; with the main body of each discussion consisting of a (roughly) 800 word essay analysing the film in question, together with a sidebar in which other films of a similar theme or nature (or else others from the country in question) that have emerged during the same era are listed; while a second panel lists essential credits and a selection of quotes from contemporary reviews (an abiding pattern seems to be that the more revered a film has become in the present day, the poorer its reviews were at the time!) At least one black and white still accompanies each essay and there is a nine page colour section of classic film poster artwork and lobby cards also included.

The thing that always stands out a mile here is the sheer craft in Rigby’s writing. He packs an awful lot into these relatively brief pieces, yet each entry remains a compact tribute to clarity and conciseness. The emphasis is placed on attempting to get to the root of what makes each film submitted to the author’s penetrating gaze work so well at whatever it is it does. Thus, Rigby often spends several paragraphs describing a particularly vivid stand-out moment, in an effort to convey something of the emotion and atmosphere as well as the stylisation of the piece in hand.  Somehow, the actor, critic and film historian has an uncanny knack for rendering evocative word paintings in which description combines with essential background information and often insightful analysis of each film, without the resultant essays ever becoming cluttered, confusing or pretentious. It is a book that is a purely pleasurable read for the horror fan, which, In fact, has the overall effect of making one eager to go scurrying back to one’s DVD collection as soon as possible, with a renewed interest in works one perhaps hasn’t paused to consider for some time. I was certainly prompted to make a mental note to dig out “Mill of the Stone Woman” and “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” once again; and then there are the films that, for whatever reason, one hasn’t quite got around to before, such as  “The Blood Spattered Bride” or “Onibaba” in my case; or perhaps there are a few entries that deal with films you just hadn’t registered or even heard of before (“The Devil’s Hand”, directed by Jacques’ father Maurice Tourneur in 1942, was new to me). Inevitably, in a book with such a subjective remit, about a genre that is so wide-ranging and ever-changing, there are certain decisions, sins both of omission and inclusion, which seem strange or perverse. The fact that Jean Rollin gets no entries at all seems quite hard to abide, but I’m guessing the inclusion of Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness”, “John Hancock’s “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and Vicente Aranda’s “The Blood Spattered Bride” in the chapter on the 1970s, already used up Rigby’s quota of space allowed for poetic, dreamlike vampire films with a lesbian subtext! There is a brief mention of Rollin’s “Shiver of the Vampire” in a side-panel on euro sleaze in the entry for “The Devil’s Nightmare – but surely tragi-poetic gems of the poignant and the absurd such as “Lips of Blood” or “Night of the Hunted” fit right in here, and deserve a place ahead of Brismée rather generic effort?

But such debates are all part and parcel of the comfortable pleasures of browsing this dark compendium of curiosities and hidden treasures. Mark Gatiss steps forward to provide a nostalgic Forward that remembers a shared love of Saturday night BBC Two horror double bills (usually something worthy in Black-and-white from Val Lewton, which one had to sit through in order to get to the joy of, say, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, along with all those avuncular comedy stars one grew up with, suddenly seen being gorily dispatched in “Theatre of Blood”) and Friday night Hammer screenings on regional telly in the seventies. Rigby was the chief researcher for Gatiss’ recent three-part ‘A History of Horror’ for BBC4, and marvellous as it undoubtedly was, that programme could only hint at the rich seam of the bizarre and the uncanny that permeates the history of genre cinema: Lon Chaney amputating his own arms in Todd Browning’s “The Unknown”, Nicolas de Gunzburg observing his own corpse in an out-of-body dream during Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr”, Fay Wray clawing away Lionel Atwill’s wax mask of respectability to reveal the misshapen troll beneath in “Mystery of the Wax Museum”: there are moments like these scattered throughout the course of horror’s century long history which continue to pack a disorientating punch, and many such moments regularly continue to occur, having similar effects in today’s genre  offerings, from “Dark Water” to “The Descent”. Jonathan Rigby’s book is a pure delight and will be lapped up with glee by anyone who has felt the intense thrill of fear and delight in the dark which only the horror film can provide (almost!); it provides enough evocative reminders of what attracts us all to the genre in the first place, mixed with plenty of suggestions for material to be sought out in order to continue with our exploration of its many varied attractions. “Studies in Horror” is a delicious treat and makes buying a Christmas present for your favourite horror fan that much easier this year.


Check out more from Black Gloves at his new blog, Nothing But the Night!!

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