The horror, the horror, the Italian horror
SMALL PRINT:BACK IN late 2010, after the broadcast of his well-received BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss found his Twitter account bombarded by impassioned feedback.
“It would fall into two camps,” he explains. “People would either say, ‘Thank you so much for bringing this film to my attention’ or ‘How could you leave that film out you stupid bastard?’”
Gatiss anticipates further “howls of protest” as he returns to BBC Four tonight with Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss – a 90-minute exploration of European horror cinema. While A History of Horror was, Gatiss says, a personal project “informed by growing up watching Hammer and Universal on the telly”, Horror Europa is a “more tangential thing”: a celebration of films that British and Irish audiences rarely, if ever, got to see on television.
The remoteness of movies such as The Whip and the Body or Daughters of Darkness made them, Gatiss says, “Holy Grail films”. Ones that could only be experienced, in 1970s Britain, through “stills in magazines and books”. The making of Horror Europa gave Gatiss the opportunity to “tear around Europe” in pursuit of these elusive gems, and the stories behind them. As he did so, a thesis developed.
“What’s so fascinating and chilling about the continent’s horror cinema,” Gatiss suggests in the documentary, “is how much it reflects the story of Europe itself.” Horror becomes, in essence, a conduit through which the repressed traumas of Europe’s 20th century articulate themselves.
“There are certain theories about the first World War and its effect on German expressionism that you can’t get away from,” says Gatiss.
“That theme of people being controlled . . . stumbling into this machine age without being in proper control of their faculties”. A theme exemplified by Conrad Veidt (one of German cinema’s biggest early stars), who “seemed to play character after character who’s lost his own will”.
In Italy, Gatiss says, things were rather different. Horror maestros such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento weren’t “exorcising national ghosts” so much as “flaunting their talent”.
What gives Italian horror its distinctive flavour? What makes it so special?
“I think it’s the most beautiful,” Gatiss says. “What’s interesting is how they took Hammer’s Gothic template and ran with it in a very Italian way. The abiding thing with Hammer is that it’s about British repression. Whereas with the Italians, especially Bava, there’s a kind of floridness to it. Like the difference between an austere British funeral and an over-elaborate Italian one.”
So will Horror Europa satisfy the horror hardcore, those who berated him for the contentious omissions in his previous series?
“I could sit in a leather armchair and just read out a list of every film ever made,” he jokes. “But a personal take is much more interesting than an overview, I think. You have to take a point of view.”