Criminally horrible by Barbara Nadel

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I watched a fascinating documentary last night about the history of European horror films in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Hosted by the excellent Mark Gatiss (a horror fan extraordinaire) it told the story of modern Euro horror from the early German expressionist visions of Robert Wiene (‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ 1922) through F W Murnau’s chilling Nostferatu (1922) right up to the brilliant Spanish production of Guillerno del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006).

Those of you who know me well, will know that although crime fiction is my first love, I have always said that it is very closely followed by horror. I read ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ before I was sixteen and, very soon afterwards developed a passion for the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. Growing up in the 1970s as I did, my nascent interest in Poe and all things ghastly soon became even more fevered as it fed on the vampire films which came out of the Hammer studio here in the UK as well as Roger Corman’s lurid interpretations of the works of Poe.

The first film that really frightened the life out of me however was a Euro horror. ‘Suspiria’, which centres around a witch infested German ballet school, was made by the Italian film director Dario Argento in 1977. With it’s amazing technicolour images of girls hurling themselves through plate glass windows and its driving, maniacal soundtrack (by ‘The Goblins’) Suspiria is the anecdotal ‘worst acid trip of my life, man’ made flesh. And I love it. If I ever make a film, I want it to be like that – crazy, lurid, bonkers – clearly the work of an outsider, a B movie to its core.

What I didn’t know, until Mark Gatiss told me, was that Argento was actually, when he made ‘Suspiria’, standing on the shoulders of giants. Before Argento there was another amazing Italian director called Mario Bava (1914 – 1980) and it is here that my interest in horror digresses just a little. Or not.

Bava, although interested in horror – he produced many horror films including those featuring vampires – was also devoted to shlocky pulp fiction crime novels (known as giallo books in Italy). During the course of his directorial career he adapted many of these novels for the screen, giving himself full permission to give in to every blood soaked device and whim that the author did (or did not) dictate. Films like ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964) which is the story of a group of young women being murdered by a masked and black leather gloved assassin. Gory, loud and menacing it wasn’t as sexually exploitative as the sub-dom fantasy ‘The Whip and the Body’ which had preceded it, but it was about crimes against people which did not have any sort of supernatural protagonist or explanation.

For me then the question arose as to what constitutes ‘crime’ and also, what constitutes ‘horror’. Crimes are committed in both genres but does a specifically supernatural explanation mean that, by definition, that book has to be horror? And what of tales like Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ (1987) where no supernatural element is involved. Is ‘Misery’, looked at like this, a crime as opposed to a horror novel?

Personally I am of the opinion that horror can and does exist outside of the supernatural realm. It can and does exist in the minds of very ordinary people and it does give them grief, make them do irrational things and sometimes, it causes them to break the law in cruel and violent ways. A crime that involves the death of even one person, is a horror even when vampires and monsters are nowhere on the scene. Any untimely death, whether enacted violently or not, is surely THE ultimate horror.

And this is, of course, where the concept of ‘genre’ breaks down. Crime and horror walk hand in hand a lot of the time, just like romance and comedy – of course they do! My first love is crime AND horror, as I’m sure you now know. And that’s just fine for most people, most of the time, with the exception of the odd purist. Respect to you out there, wherever you are, but I have to disagree with you. Genres, like Transylvanian virgins bleed, sometimes heavily as Mario Bava knew only too well. Look upon his works, dear readers, when you can. And marvel.

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Barbara Nadel
One comment on “Criminally horrible by Barbara Nadel
  1. You’ve triggered a good memory, Barbara. I once took History of the Horror Film at University and marveled that credits could be earned doing do. I learned such things as original prints of the 1931 Frankenstein were shot on green tint film, this being before the days of color. The 1931 version of Frankenstein is a great movie. For me society was the horror in the film, not the monster. But of course society and horror walk hand in hand a lot of the time too.

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(since July 15th, 2009)