In Haunt

Do you know a Gothic film when you see one? And why does it matter? Arguing that Gothic cinema deserves recognition as its own aesthetic mode is Manchester-based academic Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes (Reader in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a founder member of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies), author of the new ground-breaking book Gothic Cinema – the first chronological, transhistorical and transnational study of its kind. Presented as a Routledge Film Guidebook, it cracks open the dark heart of what has been perhaps an under-addressed area of cinema for many years.

This is a book with bite – not only considering what defines ‘Gothic cinema’ and resisting the usual umbrella definition of ‘horror’, but also exploring the literary origins, history and ongoing relevance of the mode, on an international scale. Academics as well as those with a wider interest in the Gothic are sure to enjoy the book’s ambitious scope and attention to detail. Gothic Cinema is a landmark achievement, taking the reader on a journey of discovery throughout the decades – from its transitional origins all the way to Hammer’s colour Gothics and the final fitting chapter, ‘Late Dispersions’, which covers the shape of Gothic cinema today.

Gothic Cinema

Celebrating the Gothic on screen matters, and this is a point not only upheld by Xavier throughout the book, but also in the form of an eight-week course in Gothic Cinema he is leading at Manchester’s HOME in early 2020 (he told Haunt more about the course here). This relationship with HOME and celebrating the Gothic has been cemented by Xavier during his time at Manchester Metropolitan University and The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies (read more about it in a previous Haunt article by Xavier). We spoke to him to find out more about the new book…

Hello Xavier.  Huge congratulations on the book. Can you tell us, what exactly is ‘Gothic Cinema’ – are there particular features you look for that you think define it?

"One of my aims with this the book was to lay down a more intuitive distinction between the Gothic and horror film. I know from my teaching that there is a tendency to separate a subtle form of horror (one which hints at threat and privileges suggestion) from a more confrontational one (one that foregrounds bloody spectacle and/or disgust). The former will normally be understood as the purview of the Gothic, while the latter will be solidly categorised as horror. Although I understand where this distinction comes from – and as I show in the book, it does have important critical predecessors – I’ve always been a little underwhelmed by it. The example I offer in the book is Crimson Peak (2015), which contains all the aesthetic trappings of the Gothic yet doesn’t shy away from blood and disgust, and as I already suggested in Body Gothic a few years back, even the canonical Gothic texts normally taken as the forefathers of the text are more complex in their effects than this dyad implies. Part of what I do is distinguish between horror, which I see as a genre premised on the negative fearful emotions it attempts to generate in viewers but is not constrained by time periods or characters, and the Gothic, which I see as a mode much more strongly marked by aesthetics, time and space. I believe part of the contemporary collapse of Gothic into horror (or vice versa) is that many of the classic films that shaped the history of the horror genre have relied on Gothic trappings and even characters developed from the Gothic literary tradition. I obviously wouldn’t suggest that the two are completely distinct, but I do make the point that not all Gothic films are horror films – rather, there have been many key Gothic horror films. If nothing else, I hope to have told a medium-specific story, a story about what the Gothic has meant for and in cinema."

Do you think the mode of Gothic Cinema has perhaps been neglected in the past – or under-addressed due to the broader categorisation of ‘Horror’? Was this a key prompt behind your decision to write the book?

"Funnily enough, I have often been more concerned with the fact that horror seems to have become Gothic’s ‘nasty’ cousin and that the moment a horror film gains critical traction, it gets considered a Gothic text. This is perhaps due to the happy circumstance that the Gothic is now a lot more institutionalised and has been able to establish its value to literary studies. As theoretical and conceptual tools like the uncanny or hauntology get applied to texts, our own readings become Gothicising agents, effectively bringing out the Gothic elements in a text. I do think that ‘Gothic’, as a term applied to cinema, has been somewhat undertheorised. In fact, as late as 2002, its applicability to film was being queried by at least one critic. We’ve gone some way since then, and the question of what the Gothic might mean in a cinematic context is one that has come up time again for me while teaching and presenting research. I felt this was the right time to address this and come up with a potential solution."

The book spans multiple decades and countries, with historic depth. Can you tell us more about your approach?

"My main motivator was the fact that I hadn’t been able to find a wide-ranging study of Gothic cinema that laid down its main concerns and premises and did so across time and national cinemas. I hope to have gone some way towards achieving this with Gothic Cinema, though naturally, the filmic pool is enormous. Even my broader approach can only hope to be partial and has to leave out certain national outputs that either don’t fit the general parameters of evolution of the Gothic on screen as I see it or feel like they belong in horror traditions that have not been directly influenced by Western Gothic cinema. In some of those cases, say for example the case of Japanese horror pre-Hammer, I wonder if the term ‘Gothic’ (itself a Western construction) is even an appropriate one. I can only hope my work will inspire other academics to develop their in-depth studies of the Gothic cinemas of countries that I have only been able to touch upon. For example, the various cycles of Gothic cinema in Mexico are due at least one big study."

How long were you working on the book for and do you feel that your own relationship with Gothic Cinema has changed over the course of writing it?

"The seed for what would eventually become this book was planted in 2013, when I was invited to speak at the BFI’s Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season. The wonderful team there asked me if I had a book on the subject they could promote. I didn’t, but this of course got me thinking about the potential value of such a volume, especially given that the other books I could find on the topic were quite specific: they either focused on specific time periods or nationalities. I was then involved, with my colleague, horror expert Linnie Blake, on the ‘Introduction to Gothic Cinema’ course delivered in the autumn of 2014. The questions asked there sparked even more ideas. It took me quite a long time to write the actual book – I’d say, all in all, maybe four years – because of the sheer amount of films I had to reacquaint myself with (and, in some cases, discover) and because I had other projects to finish off. I wouldn’t say my relationship with the films has changed as a result, but rather that I have a newfound appreciation for them. I have always been interested in how industry and technological developments have affected the shape and value of cinema. I’d have to say, then, that what has changed for me is that I now have a much better perspective on what makes certain films stand out as distinct historical pieces. I also have a much better sense of how the mode evolved and travelled between countries. As someone born in Spain but whose sensibility was primarily shaped by British and American texts, I’m fascinated by transnational collaborations and synergies."

You are also leading a Gothic Cinema course in 2020 at Manchester’s HOME – meaning that members of the public can sign up and learn about this fascinating mode. So why is Gothic Cinema (and learning about it) still so relevant today? 

"The Gothic aesthetic is not one we have left behind completely, and it’s steeped in notions of national identity and moral/social codes. This is why I think it’s important to both contextualise the Gothic and accept that it has become a more elastic category. Think, for example, of the latest BBC Dracula adaptation, whose first episode is a deliberate return to classical Gothic. Much like the series itself (spoilers ahead!), the elements of the Gothic don’t remain stuck in the past, but travel, either holistically or fragmented, into contemporary times. This is one of my arguments in the last chapter of the book. Aspects that are of interest to the Gothic – barbaric codes of conduct, the tug-of-war between ossified and modern notions of gender, science and religion (among others), the social construction of monstrosity, the nature of evil – are still relevant to us today. Naturally, an aesthetic doesn’t operate in a vacuum: it mobilises a number of motifs, archetypes and associations. I am interested in what the constants have been in the history of Gothic cinema and in the work that the aesthetic of decay and times gone it has defined still carries out for us. Those attending the course I’m preparing with HOME can therefore expect to learn about film history, but also about why, to quote critic Steven Bruhm, we still ‘need’ the Gothic."

Gothic Cinema is available now. The eight-week course on ‘Gothic Cinema’ Xavier is leading at HOME begins on 14 January 2020 and runs until the 3 March, featuring six sessions and two course screenings. More information is available here.

By Emily Oldfield 




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