By Barry Forshaw
Initially, several Gothic novels were infused with a certain Anglican perspective that (among other things) aligned the sinister influence of the Church of Rome with the locations where Catholicism reigned (notably France, Spain and Italy), concomitantly identified as fertile breeding ground for eldritch evil. A corollary of this was a certain fascination with the French Revolution (among such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft who was to give birth to the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley) also provided much of the gruesome imagery (including copious bloodshed and severed heads).
The ‘threat from abroad’ scenario was an infinitely serviceable plot engine, using strategies similar to those that the golden age of crime fiction was later to do in England, a settled status quo is presented in order to be disrupted by a malign presence before order is wrested from chaos (the locus classicus here is Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Italy was often located as a source of potential corruption and decay; the notion of Il Bel Paese as a place in which the destruction of hapless Englishmen was wrought was still finding expression in the writings of Daphne du Maurier a century and a half later in such books as My Cousin Rachel (1951), with its dark, corrupting Italian influences. The latter even sports the metaphor of a ‘vampiric’ woman whose sexual involvement with an Englishman in Florence brings about his weakening and subsequent death.
Sexuality as a harbinger of destruction is very much the central notion of British vampire films, where the undead monster is often presented as a charismatic, sexually attractive figure) is also to be found in Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, notably in the beautiful and seductive figure of Geraldine — who also, of course, embodies the lesbian sexuality to be found in Sheridan le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1872). The latter has proved to be an almost boundless source of inspiration for many lesbian-themed horror films both foreign (Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, 1971) and British – the Carmilla cycle that begins with The Vampire Lovers (1970).
But as well as producing the negative, destructive aspects that would be so serviceable and re-usable) for Gothic cinema, the age of romanticism (concurrent with the Gothic impulse), as well as drawing on the eldritch, might be said to also reflect the rational figure to be set against unspeakable evil – the avatar here would be Stoker’s Van Helsing, who would appear in a variety of guises and names throughout (for instance) the Hammer horror cycle.
Coleridge’s moody ‘Christabel’, however, with its encounter between the virginal innocent maiden of the title and the dark destructive succubus Geraldine, is actually something of a cornucopia of Gothic themes (not least the reference to ‘heaving breasts’). We are given the classic Gothic setting (in which darkness cloaks the evil impulses of the nonhuman characters, with an obbligato of animal noises, similar to those which will accompany Dracula and his ilk); there is also the channelling of unconscious impulses which was to prove so suggestive particularly in the 1950s innovations of the Hammer company, which allowed the studio’s writers and directors to deal with themes that would otherwise have been verboten, but which slipped by the censor as the settings and locales drew attention away from the often barely disguised libidinous impulses that powered the characters.
Geraldine in Coleridge’s poem is initially presented as a figure of light and contrasted with the dark woods in which she is discovered, apparently in distress after a brutal kidnapping. And as in so many subsequent British Gothic films, a naive protagonist is drawn into a monstrous web against which their lack of worldliness is no protection – a parallel here might be with Henry James’s innocent Americans abroad, unable to cope with the machinations of older — and possibly malign — Europeans (one might think here of the figure of Dracula, against whom his English victims are quite unable to cope — without the aid of another older, sager European figure).
However the vampirism of the poem remains nebulous, particularly when compared with Bram Stoker’s influential Dracula, in which the dead Prince of Darkness becomes a far more interesting figure than his historical antecedent Vlad the Impaler; the latter’s sadistic pleasures (notably dining surrounded by the tortured, stake-impaled bodies of his victims) is less interesting than Stoker’s character’s immortality and ability to transmogrify into a variety of animal forms. The sexual impulse of the novel is incarnated in the Count’s diaphanously-clad, ravenous brides who are denied their blood feast, and this can truly be seen as a sexual consummation. Such themes were later to be confronted head-on, notably in the films starring Christopher Lee. Whether or not Stoker was working out feelings about his browbeating employer, the celebrated actor Henry Irving (who is now seen as vampirising his much-abused employee, and who was cruelly dismissive of the latter’s attempts at writing) is beside the point – the impulses that gave birth to Dracula are perhaps less interesting than the myriad possibilities the character opened up for Gothic cinema, both in the United States and Great Britain. And Dracula’s progeny flourish to this day although the first cinematic incarnations of the vampire count did not involve British talent – it was to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature which would be brought to murderous life by some eccentric and unorthodox British talents working in a foreign country.
From British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw (Palgrave Macmillan)
Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film. His other books include Sex and Film, Nordic Noir, British Crime Film and Death in a Cold Climate. Other work: Euro Noir, the HRF Keating Award-winning British Crime Writing, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and Italian Cinema. He writes for various newspapers and edits Crime Time.