Wednesday 3 June 2015

Critiquing the Critic: 'English Gothic' and the British Horror Revival

  • “For anyone interested in British horror movies, it’s a rather startling fact that more horror films have been produced in the UK in the first 15 years of the 21st century than in the entirety of the 20th century.” – MJ Simpson, Scream magazine, May 2015
  • “It really is a renaissance because there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. Far more in fact – I think, probably, I’ve never done the sums – but probably far more than were produced in the entire 20th century put together.” – Jonathan Rigby, YouTube, May 2015

I’ve gotta admit, it feels good to be vindicated like that.

So I just got hold of a copy of Jonathan Rigby’s new book, English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015, an updating of his definitive and justifiably lauded 2000 book English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema. Although I probably will (re-)read the whole thing at some point – I understand there are plenty of updates and additions to the main text – what especially interested me was, of course, the new final chapter about the British Horror Revival.

It goes without saying that the book overall is another magnificent work, in both its research and its writing. Rigby is an astute and knowledgeable critic, and if I don’t always agree with his assessment, well that’s the nature of criticism. You may find this hard to believe, but there are some people who even disagree with some of my own reviews.

But my interest, as the author of the first book ever to document the revival of 21st century British horror, is in how my assessment of the BHR compares with that of the second book to come along. (Frustratingly, given that Signum Books clearly have their publicity machine worked out better than Hemlock, I suspect most people who read Rigby’s final chapter will think it’s the first ever work about the films therein. My best hope is that, intrigued by some of the titles, people google them and find my site and hence discover Urban Terrors.) My point is that, if the following seems like nitpicking, that’s because it is precisely that: pointing out small omissions, errors and contentions that do not in any way detract from the book’s overall quality, which leaves me, as both horror movie fan and fellow author, in awe.

‘Part Seven: Risen from the Grave 2000-2015’ runs for 56 pages (about a sixth of the book) and does indeed cover “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of titles. But it also omits a great deal as well. Which is not too surprising as (a) keeping track of this stuff is nigh on impossible, and (b) Rigby and I have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a ‘British horror film’. He includes a lot of movies which have some UK financial interest but are otherwise basically foreign (he’s fond of the phrase ‘euro-pudding’). Personally I’ve got no interest in the likes of Resident Evil or Doom, just because one of the cheques was signed by a Briton, and I don’t think they’re germane to discussion or analysis of British horror films. In a similar vein, Rigby includes some films that seem very borderline in their ‘horror’-ness. But neither of us is right or wrong. As I made clear in the Author’s Note in my book, everyone has their own definition. (Also, he dates films by ‘year of production’ so some films released in the early 2000s – like Blood, The 13th Sign, The Big Finish and The Asylum – are covered in 'Part Six, 1976-1999'.)

Where we do differ significantly is in our approach to distribution. Rigby clings dogmatically to the idea that a film isn’t really a film unless it has a theatrical release. Although he eventually acknowledges that DVD and VOD are common ways of distributing films, he still seems to find some sort of distinction between those movies which play cinemas and those which don’t. This is an anachronistic and unhelpful approach, based as it is on the presumption that every film aims for theatrical and those which don’t play the big screen have failed in some way; that they haven’t managed to ‘achieve’ that all-important cinema distribution (or at least, a showing at Frightfest, which seems to be an alternative touchstone here).

“In 2001,” writes Rigby, “a couple of titles actually made it into West End cinemas: The Hole in April and Urban Ghost Story (albeit only for a moment and three years late).” This displays not only his prejudice against non-theatrical distribution but also his Londoncentric view, as if a West End cinema was somehow better than any other. The reason why Urban Ghost Story only played the West End for a moment was because the film-makers were roadshowing two prints of the film around the entire country, an innovative and influential distribution model to be applauded, not apologised for. (Film writers based in the South East often fail to realise that for the vast majority of the UK, a ‘release’ in London is no release at all. Until the advent of digital projection, it was a given to most British cinema fans that magazines and newspapers would be full of frustrating reviews of interesting-sounding films which had been theoretically ‘released’ but could never be seen because they were never going to play anywhere outside the capital.)

Which is not to say that Rigby ignores DTV films. Just a couple of pages later he is writing about The Devil’s Tattoo (which never saw any big screen action, not even festivals) and The Gathering, which he calls ‘straight to DVD’ but which did in fact play theatrically around much of Europe (and I’m not sure whether a ten-year delay counts as straight to anything!).

But elsewhere we find “2005 was to offer a healthier ration of theatrical releases”, “earlier that year, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them theatrical outings had gone to”, “made their fleeting visits to UK cinemas” etc. To judge a film’s success by how long it spends in a cinema was a valid metric last century, but in today’s world it’s like calculating the record charts based on vinyl sales. “It would be wrong, however,” writes Mr R of the ‘70%’ of UK horror films that he estimates don’t play theatrically, “to assume that all these films bear the excruciating hallmarks of home videos; many do, of course, but occasionally something extraordinary emerges from these uncharted seas.” I’m sorry but that comes across as incredibly patronising, even if it does lead into several paragraphs about The Invisible Atomic Monsters from Mars and Kuru/Claire, two superb films which have never been seen anywhere except YouTube and which have to date received almost no coverage outside of my own personal support for them.

My point is that it seems curiously perverse to keep holding up cinema distribution as some sort of kitemark when Rigby not only cites excellent films like these which have bypassed cinema altogether (and indeed DVD and even VOD) but also gives lots of examples of truly awful films (Spirit Trap, Octane and Messages to name but three) which did play cinemas. The truth is that many modern films simply don’t consider, or even want, a cumbersome, expensive theatrical release which by definition can only ever reach a tiny fraction of the potential audience. And many films which do ‘play theatrically’ are in fact just having a couple of showings so they can justify a West End press screening and thereby get some publicity in the dailies to promote the DVD. What then the value of the cinema release as any sort of indicator?

Enough of my distribution arguments; what about Rigby’s selection? Having read the chapter, I did a slightly anal thing and compared my post-2000 master list (562 films and counting) with the English Gothic index and identified about 200 commercially released British horror films not mentioned in the book. Countering this, in fairness, there are many, many titles in the text that I don’t recognise and I have a long task ahead of me cross-checking all of those and seeing if they match my criteria as well as Rigby’s. [But see below - MJS]

You can’t fault the man on topicality and he’s bang up to date, listing several films released in 2015, including Dark Vision, A Date with Ghosts, Judas Ghost, Blood and Carpet, Let Us Prey and Wandering Rose. On the other hand, it’s clear that to some extent he’s having to take a gamble here as he also lists a whole bunch of films that have not yet had any sort of release or screening, because they’re either in post or in limbo. These include Cute Little Buggers, Convention of the Dead, Gozo, A Reckoning, Forest of the Damned 2, Not Alone/Ellie Rose, Jack the Last Victim, Rock Band vs Vampires and Tag. Some of those, I’m fairly sure haven’t even been finished. Certainly The Haven, Nine Tenths and Zombies of the Night, all listed herein, were never completed, are never going to be completed and are never, ever going to be seen.

It would be wrong to expect English Gothic to mention everything, although Rigby includes several lists of titles which suggests he’s trying to at least name-check as many films as possible (and also gives a clear indication of what he has and hasn’t seen). Nevertheless, there are curious omissions. No mention of Sacred Flesh for example – that played the West End – or The Disappearance of Alice Creed (very much marketed as horror). Nor It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (surely significant as a rare crossover between British horror cinema and British Asian cinema), Jonathan Glendening’s debut SNUB, Darren Ward’s gory A Day of Violence, Simon Rumley’s Red, White and Blue (maybe too American), Simon Pegg misfire A Fantastic Fear of Everything, or Monsters and its sequel (maybe too sci-fi). No room at the inn for Patrol Men, Piggy, Outpost 11, Dementamania, Treehouse or The House of Him, all of them better publicised and better distributed than some of the titles that did make it into the book. It’s a truly eclectic selection. The Knackery is listed but none of George Clarke’s other films; only two of Philip Gardiner’s many pictures; a name-check of Sick Bastard is the only allusion to Jason Impey, the most prolific British film-maker of this century.

Some very important films are mentioned but given short shrift. To be fair, I only recognised the historical significance of Demonsoul a couple of weeks ago, but to dismiss it as a “bargain-basement soft-porn epic” does Rigby no favours, indicating that he has not only not seen it, he’s not even bothered finding out if it’s worth seeing. Nature Morte, a rare example of a British giallo, is merely a “fetishistic sex-and-death contemporary” (of, somewhat bizarrely, the utterly dissimilar Venus Drowning). The Devil’s Music and Resurrecting ‘The Street Walker’, two of the very best BHR titles which somebody really should have recommended Rigby take the time to see, are in a short list of BHR mock-docs. And Richard Driscoll’s four horror features are covered in a single paragraph – which is a shame as they are always fun to both read about and indeed write about (if not to actually, you know, watch).

Because some films get only a name-check, curious anomalies arise. Why, for example, is formulaic crap like Spirit Trap worthy of detailed description when Hacked Off – significant as the first ever British teen slasher – is just a title on a list? (One of the very, very few comments that I genuinely disagreed with was: “The obvious reference point for Jonathan Glendening’s 13Hrs was the dreadful Spirit Trap.” Eh? Two more dissimilar films it’s hard to imagine.) Possibly Rigby had a word limit from Signum (though his is a much weightier tome than mine) but was there really no room to mention even parenthetically such fascinating facts as Decay being filmed around the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and South of Sanity in Antarctica? I’m also disappointed that, though he cites directors and mentions actors by name, he almost entirely ignores writers and producers, sidelining people like James Moran and Jonathan Sothcott who have clearly made significant contributions to British horror.

This is, as I say, nitpicking. Let me balance it by saying it was a delight to find Rigby writing about films that I have personally championed like Red Kingdom Rising and The Fallow Field. While he perforce deals with NuHammer at length, it’s gratifying to see that he is not in thrall to the company and doesn’t hold up The Woman in Black as the sine qua non of 21st century horror. Nor does he particularly worship at the feet of the seriously over-rated Ben Wheatley. Without adding another 200 pages to the book, he has no choice but to scamper through the 21st century, covering the obvious biggies (Shaun, 28DL, Descent) and then plucking examples of good and bad here and there. If this makes people realise how much is out there, and acknowledge that there is indeed a British Horror Revival, then that’s great, even if most people will buy this book because it has Christopher Lee on the front and lots of stuff inside about Hammer and its contemporaries.

And there really is much to enjoy in this last chapter (as in the rest of the book): astute and witty criticism that is as pleasurable as it is incisive. Rigby calls Anazapta, for example: "a charmingly absurd mediaeval mystery which brought Jon Finch back to bloodspurting chainmail battles in a Welsh setting three decades after Polanski's Macbeth." He observes that the 'fallen angels' in Forest of the Damned, "give us a good idea of what would have happened had Jonathan Harker gone skinny-dipping with the brides of Dracula." Wilderness, he cannily points out, "has the great good fortune of having real teenagers in it, unlike the 20-somethings normally seen in such circumstances," I'm not entirely convinced by his suggestion that the plot of Anglo-Romanian europudding Incubus "was loosely modelled on that of LD50" but it's an intriguing idea...

Three points to finish on. Returning to the theme of distribution, Rigby laments on more than one occasion that it’s a shame people aren’t getting to see some of these films. Well, I’ve got to just challenge this head on. Decay has been watched on YouTube a staggering 4,450,000 times, and that’s not including those who have watched it on Vimeo or in hi-def on the film’s own website. Now, the average cinema ticket price in the UK is £6.54. (I know that sounds low, but it’s box office divided by bums on seats so includes people who see things for free on Orange Wednesdays etc.) That’s equivalent to a box office gross for this zero-budget zombie feature of more than £29 million. Deadville, a film unmentioned in English Gothic, has had just short of a million YouTube views. Zombie Women of Satan has had more than a million, on top of its DVD sales. So don’t tell me no-one’s getting to see these films.

Penultimate point, Rigby seems sadly unclear about the mechanics of the contemporary cinema industry. To cite just one case (though there are numerous others) he writes of James ShanksThe Devil’s Harvest: “Seven years after originally being copyrighted, this was still being hawked around at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, finally crawling out on DVD the following year.” Well, first there’s a massive difference between the Cannes Film Festival and the Cannes Film Market, which I would have expected a writer of Rigby’s standing to be aware of. More to the point, this sounds like nobody wanted Shanks’ film because it was so bad, when in fact the problem – as so often – was that a sales agent acquired the rights and then did damn all to sell the thing. Once Jim got his own film back, he had people fighting each other to release it. Whether Rigby likes the film or not, he does it a disservice by implying that it sat on the shelf for so long because no-one wanted it.

Where could Jonathan Rigby have found the above information? In Urban Terrors of course. Now I don’t know Rigby personally (though we probably have mutual friends) and I don’t know whether he has read Urban Terrors. I suspect so because (a) he’s a man who does his homework and (b) it’s difficult to see where else he would have found any information about super-obscurities like High Stakes, Antisocial-Behaviour or Witchhouse: The Legend of Petronel Haxley. Most of the films in my book are also in Rigby’s, at least as a namecheck, except for The Innocent, Mutant Chronicles (possibly too sci-fi), Experiment, Footsteps, Dominator (possibly too animated), Home Made, Alien Rising (possibly both too cheap) and, as noted, Sacred Flesh. Also no mention of 1990s titles The Eliminator (whose theatrical release is well documented) or Project: Assassin. So maybe he hasn’t read my book. But he’s written at length about Claire, a film that has had less than 300 YouTube views and only two reviews: mine and a short one on a zombie site. So surely he’s familiar with my website. And there's a whole bunch of other films here where googling the title brings up my review.

My point here, and it’s going to seem big-headed and arrogant but it’s my blog so I really don’t care, is that I’ve spent the past 15 years championing 21st century British horror. In my book and on my site and in my annual Devil’s Porridge round-ups and in various magazine articles, I’m pretty much the only writer who has done anything to document, analyse and contextualise these films.  I’m genuinely delighted that Jonathan Rigby has written such a fantastic chapter, giving this body of work its due. If anything I’m a little sad that no-one else has written about this stuff yet (though Johnny Walker’s book is on the way). So I was kind of hoping for some sort of acknowledgement, some name-check, just a mention of the diligent work of MJ Simpson who has spent 15 years collecting this information, watching and reviewing and promoting these films, documenting how and why they were made and released, and ensuring that this exciting and important part of the story of British horror doesn’t disappear before people have a chance to notice it.

If Rigby had contacted me while he was writing the book (I’m not hard to track down) I would have been delighted to provide him with whatever information or contacts he asked for. There are a lot of people who helped with the book (mostly, of course, the pre-2000 content) but it seems curious to write at length on a subject on which there is only one previously published work and neither contact nor acknowledge that author. I did, I must admit, single out Rigby in the Introduction to Urban Terrors for having failed to recognise, in his first edition, the burgeoning renaissance in British horror in the late 1990s. But I was courteous and careful not to criticise him personally, only to point out that his prediction of the death of British horror was wrong, something which he himself now readily admits, as evidenced by this video. I would be very unhappy if the man’s holding a grudge against me.

So, all the above notwithstanding, English Gothic version 2.0 has a place on your shelf and you are a fool if you don’t buy a copy. The book's coverage of the previous hundred years of British horror films is without precedent or peer. Buy it now. (And if you could see your way to buying Urban Terrors while you’re at it, I think you’ll find it’s a fine companion piece. Thank you.)

[Post script: Having checked Rigby's text, in fact the one and only film I wasn't previously aware of was the 2010 release Jelly Dolly.All other titles were already either on, or rejected from, my master list. - MJS]

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