Saturday, 3 December 2016

EURO GOTHIC: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema - by Jonathan Rigby

Jonathan Rigby has previously published two of the most comprehensive and therefore essential guides to the history of horror cinema yet to be made available in the English language. With the exemplary English Gothic, first published in 2000, and its ‘prequel’ American Gothic which followed it in 2007, he gave us two detailed and immensely readable tomes both of which, between them, explored horror movie production in Britain and across the Pond in Hollywood from the dawn of picture-making to the present day (American Gothic terminated in 1956 when, thanks to Hammer, Britain for a time largely took over as horror movie capital. The recently expanded update of English Gothic follows the story right up to recent times, with its inclusion of UK films that entered production in 2015, although all of those mentioned were illustrative of the slew of the forgettable micro-budget digital horrors that these days come and go like clouds in the virtual ether of a subscription to Amazon Video). This being so, news that Rigby was planning a third volume in the series, that would set out this time to tackle the monumental subject of European horror, was understandably greeted by all true genre fans with a sense of expectation that can only be described as gleeful. The wait since that initial announcement has seemed like a long one, but the magisterial Euro Gothic is now finally upon us, and the results are every bit as ‘up to snuff’ as readers of the previous two volumes will have surely anticipated they would be. 

Rigby’s most recent publication before this, Studies in Terror, which came out in 2011, was a wide-ranging overview of the genre, selecting what the author considers to be horror cinema’s greatest ‘landmarks’. It traversed the entire world for horror favorites, to take in everything from 1920s German Expressionism to contemporary Japanese ghost pictures while incidentally offering us a first glimpse at Rigby’s appreciation of some of the classics of French, Italian and Spanish horror cinema. This was to be a mere taster, though, for a commentary on the subject that now reaches the zenith of its full expression in this handsomely produced volume, lovingly chronicling and critiquing scores of European horror and fantasy pictures, most of them dating from the late 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. The author's detailed tour of the genre is book-ended by what can in retrospect be cited as the point of emergence for Europe’s tradition of cine Fantastique, when the first magic effects films of Georges Méliès were produced in 1896 and, a little later, those of Paris-based Spaniard Segundo de Chomón; the end comes, for Rigby, with  the death of much of Europe's genre movie production in the wake of the 1980s VHS home video boom, which itself was petering out somewhat in the years succeeding 1983, after indirectly having forced various changes in the funding structure of the film industries on the continent, which brought about catastrophically deleterious effects in the profitability of genre film-making in countries such as Spain and Italy, whose industries had for decades previously thrived upon it.

In his introduction to Studies in Terror, Rigby reflected on how the success of individual horror movies is often dependent on their ability to generate a series of ‘moments’ that make a particularly strong impression on the viewer: ‘get enough of these moments together in one picture and the filmmakers might have a genuine classic on their hands.’ Arguably, more so than is the case with the horror and fantasy output of any other region of the world, the horror cinema produced in Europe during the bulk of the period covered in this book has predicated itself on just such a philosophy -- often sacrificing narrative coherence on the altar of the striking set-piece. This idea goes back to the genre’s earliest beginnings in Germany, when expressionism gave birth to a new form of cinematic terror that, while based on the motifs of Gothic literature, was also rooted in the psychological upheavals of the Great War. As this volume illustrates profusely, the supremacy of the image and of the horror ‘moment’ in general, was a concept that has continued to play a hugely important role in perceptions of the horror cinema that has been created in many European countries since then: from the poetic surrealism of Jean Rollin’s vampire fables of the late-sixties and seventies, to the outrageous, flamboyantly gore-splattered illogicality displayed by Lucio Fulci’s 'metaphysical' zombie movies, produced and released in the early-eighties.    

This volume, although for obvious reasons the heftiest yet published by Rigby, since it deals with all kinds of films made right the way across the best part of an entire continent rather than merely with the horror movie production of just one country, as did the other two books, offers a not quite so up-to-the-minute picture of the continental horror scene as that which was recently provided for Britain in his newly updated edition of English Gothic: the sheer quantity of movies made in Europe during the genre’s heyday in the sixties and seventies means that, just as, say, every single giallo picture ever made cannot feasibly be referenced here (that in itself would require a book of equal length to this one!) so there has to be a cut-off point to act as an appropriate moment at which to bring the curtain down on this examination of the genre in general. The year this book selects to be that moment is 1983: chosen by Rigby as his end-point apparently because this was also the year in which the European genre suffered its most cataclysmic downturn in production.

This means that there can be room only for the most cursory of mentions for a great many films that come after that date but which are still considered by a sizable group of fans to be genre classics, and therefore no less worthy of detailed comment than some of the avalanche of cheap euro slasher/gore efforts that were tossed out in the early 1980s, but which still get covered here because they come before the self-imposed ’83 curfew. The most striking omissions are Michele Soavi’s extraordinary quartet of films (only mentioned in brief summery on the last page of the book) and Dario Argento’s cinema post 1982’s modern giallo favorite Tenebrea. Though in the latter's case all but the most die-hard fans of the maestro would dare to quibble with the assertion that the quality of Argento’s output has been in marked decline for many years now, Phenomena and Opera are surely still prime period works and would normally deserve more than just a casual mention; while to say that everything that came after them is not even worth that is to considerably short-change such daring expansions of the giallo template as The Stendhal Syndrome – dismissed by many puzzled fans at the time of its initial release, but since re-evaluated as one of Argento’s very best – or even his version of The Phantom of the Opera, which, whatever else may have been said about it, was certainly the last Argento picture to look like it had been even half-decently funded.

This quibble is not intended in any way to downplay, though, the enjoyment that is to be had between the covers of this characteristically superbly written work, the pleasures of which are manifold. It is still easily destined to become the go-to account for anyone seeking instruction in the history of the European horror movie and/or wishes to understand the context of its emergence during the key period covered. The continent produced many unique styles and distinctive flavours as the horror genre slowly took root in many corners at various different points in time, particularly influencing the cinematic output of Germany, France, Italy and Spain during the golden period of horror production from the late ‘50s to the late 1970s. Just about every worthwhile horror picture made in those countries during that time gets covered here to a greater or lesser degree with the book always a compelling read, juggling Rigby's ability to generate real insights and display a deep knowledge of many very different cinematic styles, which he lays out for the reader with his customary knack for descriptive eloquence. As a by-product the book also exposes his evident enthusiasm for the many forms that the European horror film has assumed during its long ascendancy: from the jagged modernist abstractions of the aforementioned silent era German expressionists, to the poeticism at the core of the medicalised body horror which emerged from the French fantastique in reaction to the atrocities of war; from crepuscular 1960s black-and-white and colour Italian Gothics inspired by the success of Britain’s Hammer Productions and Roger Corman’s colour Poe series, to the innumerable numbers of West German Krimi thrillers and their equally fecund offshoot the Italian giallo - both updating the lurid crime literature imported from Britain and America, and popular on the continent after the Second World War. 

Rigby skilfully conjures in writing the texture and sensibility of many of the most well-regarded euro-horror movies of the classic era, such as the subtle Ostend arthouse atmospherics showcased in Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness, or the imaginative, heat-drenched Iberian surrealism which informs the aesthetic delights of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. All the big hitters are here, obviously: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Jean Rollin produced enough timeless classics in their heydays to ensure they each get their due; while the likes of Jess Franco and Paul Naschy were prolific enough also to guarantee themselves a large chunk of coverage herein, most of it favorable. Even if you do not agree with each and every summery and analysis of the 113 individual films written about in-depth here (very many more than that are also given a respectable amount of space), you will be hard pressed to fault the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone in to the research that lies behind Rigby’s assessment of these films and the filmmakers responsible for them, many of whom also have their careers discussed at length during the course of the book.

The book, amply illustrated with production snaps and including two colour sections, is of course impeccably researched, and also highly readable, even quotable (the author pithily sums up the appeal of Jess Franco’s cinema during his latter career as being the product of ‘a filmmaker who needs to film like a shark needs to swim.’) and the layout – which replicates that of Rigby’s other books -- includes cast lists for each major film covered, a quote from a contemporary review (where possible), and a relevant comment from a participant. Throughout its pages, Rigby’s writing always indicates an honest attempt to engage sympathetically with a multitude of idiosyncratic film-making styles and it becomes a sheer pleasure to immerse one-self in this treasure-trove of writing on Europe’s finest horror productions; the book will also become an invaluable reference source, and an educational fount of new viewing ideas for anyone approaching the genre afresh. 
Very highly recommended. 


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