Countdown to Halloween: Dominique Lamssies "Two Shades of Gothic"
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Of my guests this month, I feel like I know Dominique Lamssies the least. I've heard her when she's been a guest on Monster Kid Radio and enjoy her voice... not just vocally, but also what she actually has to say. She shares a unique perspective on the aspects of horror about which she cares, and it's a perspective I don't hear anywhere else.
Dominique is a creator in several areas. She's a blogger at The University of the Bizarre, a crafter at her etsy shop, House of Silent Graves, and a writer with a short story coming later this month in Test Patterns: Creature Features from Planet X Publications. Please welcome Dominique Lamssies to the Countdown...
Gothic is a concept that can be hard to nail down but you always know it when you see it. In strict terms, it’s old dark houses full of secrets, creepy people and fainting heroines and sometimes one or two forms of dead people. In movies, the dead people came to be a strong association, which I’m all for. I mean, yeah, Jane Eyre is Gothic. It’s also boring as all get out. I Walked With A Zombie? Now we’re talking...
Gothic has gone off in its own directions in American, most notably Southern Gothic. But true Gothic requires generations upon generations of secrets and fell deeds. That age is something America doesn’t have so it’s no surprise that America shook off the Gothic pretty quickly. There are examples, but America went mad scientist the first chance it got.
Gothic movie fans in America end up going the European route. British movies are always a safe bet when you want solid Gothic (Hammer, anyone?), but it’s when we partake of the Gothic of the Continent that things get really interesting.
I had no idea how adept the Italians were at Gothic until I discovered my beloved Maestro Mario Bava. Since then I’ve made an effort to watch whatever I can get my hands on and have yet to be disappointed. Especially because the Italians added some new touches to Gothic that I think benefited the genre as a whole.
When I sat down to watch a double feature of Castle of Blood and Terror-Creatures From the Grave, it really brought into focus what was added to the Gothic that not only made it contemporary, but richer.
First, I watched Castle of Blood, directed (basically) by the famous Antonio Margheriti in 1964.
The movie starts with a man entering a bar and managing to look impossibly shady the whole time. I mean, he’s just walking and he looks like he's up to something. It’s Gothic already!
Well, the man is Alan Foster, a writer stalking Edgar Allan Poe, who is on a visit to London, for an interview. Poe, who claims, for some reason, that all his stories are true and actually happened (which basically makes him an early paranormal investigator and that gave me the unfortunate image of Poe in an empty house with an EVP recorder asking if anyone knows where Lenore is).
Poe was the guest of Lord Thomas Blackwood (Blackwood, get it? See what they did there?), who has a country estate that is haunted and everyone (because every year on Halloween he bets someone to stay in the house and no one questions why he’s trying to get people to stay in a murder house) who stays there overnight dies. Foster agrees to stay in the house because he’s poor and needs the money. Poe agrees to grant the interview during the carriage ride to the castle.
Once at the castle, Foster meets Elisabeth, Blackwood’s sister, and they quickly and dutifully fall in love (of course they do), but all is not as it seems and Foster has to navigate the twisted halls full of secrets, survive the night and save the woman he loves.
Then I watched Terror-Creatures From the Grave, directed by Massimo Pupillo in 1965.
In this film, Albert Kovac, a lawyer, arrives at a country estate because Dr. Hauff, the owner, has sent a letter wanting to fix his will. The problem is, when he arrives, he finds the man's wife and daughter, Cleo and Corinne, at the estate, but not Dr. Hauff. He died a year ago. However, both women swear the handwriting of the letter belongs to the dead man.
They mystery thickens when we learn that it’s almost the anniversary of Dr. Hauff’s death. Cleo and Corinne have returned to move the doctor's body from burial in the ground to the family tomb. Kovac sticks around to figure things out and falls in love with Corinne (again, of course he does). Kovac discovers that there was something strange about Hauff’s death and the doctor had sworn revenge on the people he considered to be involved. We learn that Hauff was a scholar who had found a way to summon the dead spirits of plague spreaders, people accused of giving others the Black Death and buried in unhallowed ground because of it (anyone familiar with the old school British concept of a revenant will understand what they're getting at). Kovac then has to race to save the doctor’s intended targets and anyone else who might get in the dead man’s way.
Both movies are Gothic without question. They feature decaying old houses, family secrets, mysteries to be solved and, happily, dead people.
Also, in both movies I saw the very clear influence of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, especially the way the castles look and the way the camera lingers on the decay. Castle of Blood's tease of the couple dancing in the music room that we only glimpse is a nice nod as well.
Both movies feature Barbara Steele being awesome, along with solid performances all around from other cast members that I’m sure Italian film aficionados know all about but I don’t have much experience with. Some of them may have just shown up for a paycheck, but it didn’t show in any of their performances. Everyone brought their A-game.
And I have to comment on it because I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t: The costumes in both are terrible. The gowns in Castle were so badly made and ill fitting I’m pretty sure I caught the actresses holding them up in some scenes. In Terror-Creatures, the costumes were cheap and most of them were not period appropriate.
But the similarities end there, as the films take two different paths to get to their Gothic.
Castle of Blood is classical Gothic. The entire movie feels leaden. The plot is ponderous. Very little actually happens. Adding to this is that the castle it takes place in is architecturally heavy, almost Romanesque, and the lighting keeps the place dark and oppressive. This serves two purposes within the story: 1.) We’re allowed to savor what we see, the faded elegance and the decay, and can understand how far the family has fallen. 2.) Castle of Blood is essentially a movie about memory and emotional scars. This makes the castle a manifestation of the human subconscious. It’s dark and dirty and plagued with unresolved issues that play themselves out like a scratched record left to skip over and over for the rest of our lives. Despite a person’s best intentions (represented by Elisabeth and Alan falling in love and trying to save each other), the issues and scars will always rear their ugly heads and attempt to destroy the beauty we try to create in our lives. The movie may drag but that’s because it thrusts us into the morass of the human heart where nothing is easy.
The first thing I noticed when Terror-Creatures From the Grave started was that everything was much lighter. There was considerably more white and gray, the house was bigger and more airy, there were even a few scenes outside during the daylight.
That is because this movie is much, much simpler. It’s a revenge story that is basically a cautionary tale about cutting off a researcher’s funding. Terror-Creatures has no real pretensions about exploring the human condition. This movie is about putting butts in seats and making a buck.
Castle may drag, Terror-Creatures does not. This movie has a much more amusement park ride vibe to it. We have skin during a love scene (like, a lot of skin, but surprisingly no boobs) and guts. I caught myself wondering just what they were going to do next because it seemed like they would do anything in order to shock the audience. I mean, I'm fairly certain there was a point where the director actually said some variation of “wiggle those guts around a little more so we can see them better.” (If you see the movie, you’ll know what scene I’m referring to).
This has its own benefits. The pacing and structure lends itself much better to a mystery that needs to be solved and puts the pressure on time wise. This makes the movie consistently more engaging as you try to figure out the mystery and you wonder what craziness they’re going to pull next.
So, while Terror-Creatures is most definitely Gothic, it’s a more contemporary type of Gothic with overt sex and violence to draw in more jaded modern audiences. These are concepts that Hammer used as well, but in this film there’s that wonderful GO BIG OR GO HOME! Italian-ness about it. This is the attitude that would come to glorious fruition in Spain in the next decade, giving us movies like The Blind Deadand most of the films by my other great love, Paul Naschy.
The movies have their problems. Again, Castle is pretty slow and could use more tightening up of the plot. Terror-Creatures is sloppy, didn’t obey its own rules and needed a skosh more plot to justify the blood. I couldn't help but think that Castle should have been a Hammer film and Terror-Creatures should have been a Bava film (of course, you’d be hard pressed to find a movie that I’m going to say shouldn't be either Hammer or Bava).
But they are both Gothic and do a good job of representing the type of Gothic they are: Castle the traditional, Terror-Creatures the more colorful, contemporary.
I like to think of it this way:
Castle of Blood is a fine chocolate mousse you’d get for desert in a fancy French restaurant. It's made using time-tested methods and recipes dictated by tradition. You savor it spoonful by spoonful as it dissolves in your mouth into the insubstantial ghost of a taste that lingers on your tongue and you remember eating it because it was something special and rare.
Terror-Creatures From the Grave is a Halloween cupcake covered in black frosting and candy and full of raspberry jam that you shove in your face and scoff it down and your tongue and lips are black and your fingers are red and sticky and you feel a little sick but it was still totally worth it and you’d do it again in a heartbeat.
They’re both fine desserts, depending on the mood you’re in.
ABOUT THE COUNTDOWN
We all have them... stacks of movies we've purchased, but never watched; or, movies on the DVR, filling them to capacity. This year for the annual Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to make a dent in my "stack," watching one movie a day for the month of October that I've never seen, then writing about it.
Well, I'm going to cheat a little. Assisting me this year are a number of "guest bloggers" that I've invited to participate by commandeering classichorrors.club for a day. These are all people whose blogs I read, whose podcasts I enjoy, and/or whose existence I simply appreciate. It's an experiment, but I hope you'll enjoy reading some new perspectives.