Buddy, you can keep your Christmases and your Easters, your Hanukkahs and your Eids. For someone like me, the annual celebration that really matters is the one that falls on 31 October — Halloween. This isn’t because I’m an inveterate trick-or-treater, out for candy and larks. It isn’t because I own shares in a pumpkin patch. It’s because I am a film fan, grateful for any excuse to indulge in horror movies as night’s dark curtains draw closer. No other time of the year offers such a perfect alignment of occasion and genre. ’Tis, after all, the season to be scared.
And this season is shaping up better than most. The British Film Institute has, since August, been presiding over a grand feast of horror cinema called Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (it runs until January of next year). Screenings have already been held in atmospheric locations such as the British Museum. Hundreds more will take place, starting now, in the BFI’s cinema complex in London, and across the rest of the country. And a fine accompanying book has been published, containing essays by folk as diverse as that cultural mahatma Sir Christopher Frayling and the film director Guillermo del Toro. Horror is being taken seriously this Halloween.
And very rightly so. From the early years of cinema, serious directors have made serious films for the fright market: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), or — my favourite silent horror — Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Back then, even certain camera angles could be hair-raising, such was the novelty of the medium. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), a western, famously closes with a bandit shooting into the camera and, by extension, into the audience. Cinema had arrived to let people experience death without actually dying. Now get up off the floor, you wimps.
These early film-makers were satisfying a human fascination for the fantastic and macabre that stretches back centuries, but they were also doing something new. Cinema could depict the unreal with more immediacy than literature and music, and with greater trickery than theatre and the other visual arts — and few things are more unreal than horror. If most films show what is, and science fiction deals with what could be, then horror, generally speaking, is about what couldn’t be …could it?
That wonderful, terrible question certainly hovers above one of the finest films in the BFI’s Gothic project, a new restoration of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957). Its main character, Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), is a psychologist by trade and a sceptic by persuasion. He’s pulled into a story of cults and devils and deaths, all the while not believing, not believing, not believing, until …he has to believe. The demon of the title, as we spectators have known all along, actually exists. It’s a huge, fiery, fanged monster, and it wants to have a good munch on your soul.
Tourneur deserves praise for more than his horror films — with Canyon Passage (1946) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), he made one of the great, underappreciated westerns and one of the great, underappreciated adventure movies — but his horror films sure are brilliant. Before Night of the Demon, he worked with the American producer Val Lewton on a series of scare-flicks that were so much more than their low budgets and schlocky titles: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and, best of all, The Leopard Man (1943). These, too, focus on the divide between the scientific and the supernatural. Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna doesn’t fear that she is a cat person because of childhood trauma, as a psychiatrist tries to persuade her. She really is a cat person.
And while science can’t explain everything, in horror films, at least, it can also go too far. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which introduced Boris Karloff as the monster, could be the most eminent cinematic tale of mad professorship, but it is beaten for extremeness by Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932). As the creations of that film’s Dr Moreau shamble across the screen — ‘Are we not men?’— we know that science can take us down dark alleyways. Perhaps part of horror’s horror is that it denies us the light of rationalism, worldliness and all that modern stuff.
Well, just look at that! We’ve come this far without straying beyond the 1950s and not much further than America! But that is the thing about horror cinema: it is too broad to be easily summarised. Even the Gothic programme, which includes movies such as Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), does not encompass the lot. It doesn’t mean to and it cannot. A complete journey through the history of horror would take travellers from Japanese mega-monster flicks to today’s slashers; from the cut-glass charm of an Ealing film such as The Halfway House (1944) to the video nastiness of Cannibal Ferox (1981).
Part of the problem is that horror’s chthonic influence has spread so far that it’s difficult to say where it ends. Any Batman nerd could tell you, for instance, that one of the original inspirations for the Joker was Conrad Veidt’s leering performance in The Man Who Laughs (1928). It’s something that you can see clearly in Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight (2008). So, does that film count as horror? Does The Silence of the Lambs (1991)? Does Scooby-Doo? I suppose the only definitive answers are personal. It’s up to you to pick your scares this evening.
But before night descends, a word about one of my favourite horror films that isn’t part of the BFI’s Gothic season: The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). It features the same Myrna Loy who is remembered for her lightly coquettish turn as Nora Charles in the Thin Man films, except here she’s different. Here, she plays Fu Manchu’s daughter, in dodgy make-up to look Chinese, with wickedness in her eyes. There’s one scene where the hero has his shirt torn off, and Loy cries out for him to be whipped. ‘Faster! Faster!’ she screams as the slaves beat him. A thin smile crawls across her face.
This is as far removed from Nora as it’s possible to be. It’s 50 shades of wrong, and then some — but that, in horror terms, makes it all so right. Happy Halloween.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.