Gothic Feminism 2019 Call For Papers

Exciting gothic news! Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald have released the Call For Papers for the University of Kent’s third Gothic Feminism conference. ‘Technology, Women and Gothic-Horror On-Screen’ will take place from the 2nd to the 3rd of May.

The call for papers:

Technology, Women, and Gothic-Horror On-Screen 

2 – 3 May 2019

University of Kent

 

Keynote speaker: Dr Lisa Purse (University of Reading)

 

CALL FOR PAPERS

 

Gothic and technology appear, on the surface, to evoke contradictory connotations. As David Punter and Glennis Byron highlight, the Gothic came to be a term associated with the “ornate and convoluted”, “excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and the uncivilized, a world that constantly tended to overflow cultural boundaries” (Punter and Byron, 2004, 7). Technology, on the other hand, is a term often linked to science, innovation and progressive invention. If the Industrial Revolution is emblematic of what one imagines a technological revolution to be, then technology becomes synonymous with the associations defining 18th Century culture, described by Terry Castle as “the period as an age of reason and enlightenment – the aggressively rationalist imperatives of the epoch” (Castle, 1995, 8).

Yet technology and the Gothic have been linked and have interacted since the latter’s beginnings in fiction. From the earliest reception of the original novels that give our Gothic films their name, fans and critics alike referred to the “machinery” of the narratives, implying that that the mechanisms that made them go were audible. Clara Reeve, who wrote The Old English Baron – itself is a tad creaky – commented on The Castle of Otranto that “the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite” (Reeve, 2008, 3). And Horace Walpole, himself, made reference to the story’s “engine” (Walpole, 2014, 6).  The Gothic can thus be conceptualised as metaphorically mechanical, a link explored within a different context by Jack Halberstam who writes that “Gothic fiction is a technology of subjectivity … designed to produce fear and desire within the reader” (Halberstam, 1995, 2).

Technology and the Gothic have also intersected in more literal terms, as with the horror created by the intersection of the two in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the one hand, the novel stands as a canonical Gothic text, and Ellen Moers argues that the story can be defined as the Female Gothic, a term commonly associated with the women-in-peril narratives which later saw the influence of Gothic literature translated onto the cinema screen in Hollywood during the 1940s. On the other hand, the tale of an unnatural and scientific birth is credited with establishing the generic tropes of science fiction, a mode of storytelling which is indebted to technology and acknowledges “contemporary scientific knowledge and the scientific method”, as Barry Keith Grant suggests. He also continues: “Science fiction, quite unlike fantasy and horror, works to entertain alternative possibilities” (Grant, 2004, 17). However, Fred Botting notes that the combining of science fiction and Gothic – two “generic monsters” – reveals a “a long and interwoven association” whereby both genres “give form to a sense of otherness, a strangeness that is difficult to locate” (Botting, 2008, 131).

 Our conference aims to explore this relationship between technology and the Gothic by focussing upon its intersection as depicted on screen within visual media, with a specific focus on how such concerns impact on gender representations and, in particular, women. This connection may be explored figuratively: the “machinery” identified in Gothic fiction can also be extended to the filmic Gothics which centre upon the Gothic heroine. The Hollywood 1940s Gothics possess noticeably excessive convolutions of plot, as with Sleep, My Love (1948), and one could argue this trend has continued in contemporary returns to the Old Dark House and horror with films like Crimson Peak (2015). Technology may also be physically present within these Gothic-horror films. If the “machinery is so violent” in Crimson Peak’s narrative, then this is additionally foregrounded within the diegesis: Thomas Sharpe’s engine for extracting the red clay from the ground stands as both a metaphor for the genre’s mechanical plot – drawing on familiar tropes which unearth deadly secrets – as well as functioning as a visual spectacle around which the climax of the film shall take place.

Actual mechanical or technological inventions which impact upon the story may be wide-ranging: the railway, cars, telephones, recording devices, electric light and gaslight are just some examples of technologies integrated into the narratives of Gothic films, often with the intention of contributing to the imperilment and oppression of the central heroine. Technology can also do this by evoking the uncanny, itself a phenomenon which forms “the background and indeed the modus operandi of much Gothic fiction” (Punter and Byron, 2004, 286). Tom Gunning demonstrates this when he recounts several versions in early cinema of a woman-in-jeopardy story, Heard Over the Phone, which could almost be Gothic in that the woman is in her own home and menaced there by a male assailant. Drawing on Freud’s musings upon the ambivalent nature of technology, Gunning highlights the ambiguous – and uncanny – position of the telephone: it is a device which brings the absent near through sound, but actually this serves only to underline the actual distances involved. Gothic-type narratives, gender, and technology merge in these early films to reveal “the darker aspects of the dream world of instant communication and the annihilation of space and time” (Gunning, 1991, 188).   

More recent Gothic and Gothic-horror films may update these technologies to include computers, the Internet and mobile phones. Technology also includes film and the moving image itself: this conference will explore how filmic technologies mediate and emphasise the connection between technology, the Gothic, and gender, including through the use of visual effects. Film is a particularly apt medium through which to contemplate these ideas as cinema’s ontology embodies both technology’s scientific roots and the Gothic’s appeal to excess and the supernatural. As Murray Leeder notes: “With its ability to record and replay reality and its presentation of images that resemble the world but as intangible half-presences, cinema has been described as a haunted or ghostly medium from early on” (Leeder, 2015, 3).

These ideas may also be explored by expanding upon the original notion of Moer’s Female Gothic: if the literary Female Gothic is defined by female writers working in this mode, then this conference would also like to explore how female filmmakers have made use of Gothic-horror conventions. It is significant to note that the most iconic examples of Gothic films focusing on stories about the victimisation of women, particularly in the 1940s, were directed by men. By thinking about the technology behind the screen, this event will also consider what influence women filmmakers have had upon this tradition, including within present day, and what further reflections may be offered between this relationship of the Gothic to gender and technology.

With this third annual Gothic Feminism conference, we invite scholars to respond to the theme of technology in the woman-in-jeopardy strand of the Gothic and Gothic-horror film or television.

 

Topics can include but are not limited to:

– the tension between Gothic and technology as the supernatural, fantastic and paranoia versus the rational, reason and logic. How do these elements intersect with the representation of gender in film and television?

– the traditions of the Gothic heroine on-screen and her interaction with technology. Does technology help the female character or is it another agent of terror used against her?

– the technology behind the screen. How have female filmmakers used the genres of Gothic-horror to express themselves?

– the technology of the screen. How has the technology of cinema, including visual effects, been used, and how do these aspects interact with the representation of the central female protagonist/s?

 

Please submit proposals of 500 words, along with a short biographical note (250 words) to gothicfeminism2016@gmail.com by Friday 15th February 2019.

 

We welcome 20-minute conference papers as well as submissions for creative work or practice-as-research including, but not limited to, short films and video essays.  

 

Conference organisers: Frances A. Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald 

https://gothicfeminism.com/

https://twitter.com/GothicFeminism

 

This conference is the third annual event from the Gothic Feminism project, working with the Melodrama Research Group in the Centre of Film and Media Research at the University of Kent. Gothic Feminism explores the representation of the Gothic heroine on-screen in her various incarnations. 

          

References

Botting, Fred. (2008). Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. London and New York: Routledge.

Castle, Terry. (1995). The Female Thermometer: 18th Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gunning, Tom. (1991). “Heard Over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology.” In: Screen. 32:2. 184-196. 

Grant, Barry Keith. (2004). “‘Sensuous Elaboration’: Reason and the Visible in the Science Fiction Film.” In: Redmond, Sean. (ed). Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader. New York, Chichester: Wallflower Press.

Halberstam, Jack. (1995). Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Leeder, Murray. (ed). (2015). Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality From Silent Cinema to the Digital Era. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Punter, David and Glennis Byron. (2004). The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Reeve, Clara. (2008). The Old English Baron. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walpole, Horace. (2014). The Castle of Otranto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

Summary of Discussion on Cast a Dark Shadow

Our discussion on the film covered: its melodramatic aspects and the horror genre; related matters of the gothic: the house and the film’s women in peril; Margaret Lockwood’s screen image; Dirk Bogarde’s screen image; Bogarde’s wider role in the film’s production.

We began by considering Cast a Dark Shadow’s relationship to melodrama, a label it was assigned in some contemporary reviews. It is the only genre mentioned in British fan magazine Picture Show’s brief review (8th October 1955, p. 10). Picturegoer magazine provided more detail, assessing that the film had ‘little mystery, some suspense, but plenty of spirited melodrama’ (17th September 1955, p. 21). We agreed that the fact that Teddy Bare’s (Dirk Bogarde’s) villainy was evident from almost the outset meant that mystery and suspense were subjugated to melodrama. This melodrama mostly takes the form of changing rhythm: less exciting scenes are punctuated by moments of action. Confounding expectations of horror also occurs.  The film opens with a piercing scream from, and a look of terror on the face of, Molly Bare (Mona Washbourne). This is soon revealed to be in response to a ghost train ride, rather than a real terror threat, and is followed by Molly and Teddy’s quiet discussion in a quaint seaside tea room.

We noticed that the film did not rely on coincidence to the same extent as many melodramas we’ve screened. In fact, melodrama was supplied in the realistic and psychologically well-motivated relationships between the characters. Our consideration of characters led us to contrast Teddy (the irredeemable villain) to his wives, and other women, in the film (his potential victims).  Viewing these women as women in peril connects it to the Gothic – a matter the melodrama research group has an interest in (see the blog’s gothic tag: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/tag/gothic/ ).

This was supported by another key theme of the Gothic – the old dark house – being present. Much of the action takes place in the Bares’ large isolated house. This is perhaps unsurprising as the film is Janet Green’s adaptation her own stage play which ran in London from 1952-1953. The filming adds other important details. The house’s location is visually connected to peril by a sign noting the ‘dangerous’ hill which foreshadows the film’s later action. Furthermore, Bare’s first wife, Molly, is killed by her husband in this house, and he makes use of a domestic appliance (a gas fire) to this end. The cinematography of this scene is particularly atmospheric.  Molly is pictured drunkenly dozing in a chair in the foreground of the shot while Teddy enters through the patio doors in the shadowy background.

It is also revealed that the house was the reason Molly and Teddy first met. He worked for the estate agent who came to value the house, and indeed the house the only item Molly left him in her first will. Teddy also acts as his own letting agent. He uses the house as a reason for the woman he has lined up to be the next Mrs Bare, Freda (Margaret Lockwood), to visit. When Molly’s sister Dora arrives, incognito as Charlotte Young (Kay Walsh), Teddy takes it upon himself to show her local houses she may be interested in buying.  The extended scene of Teddy being confronted by ‘Charlotte’ also occurs in the house. ‘Charlotte’ realises that counter-intuitively she is safer in the house: because of what happened to her sister, Teddy would find it very difficult to explain away another dead woman in his house.

A direct reference to Bluebeard’s chamber reinforces the film’s gothic connections. Freda (Margaret Lockwood) persuades the housemaid Emmie (Kathleen Harrison) to give her access to Molly’s bedroom which has been kept locked since her death. As she enters the room, Freda says it’s a ‘regular Bluebeard’s chamber’, and quips that if Teddy had ‘any more wives I’d have had to sleep in the bathroom’. This points to Freda as surprisingly well-informed about the gothic for a gothic heroine. We also noted that there was no real reason for Teddy to keep Molly’s bedroom locked; unlike the original Bluebeard he was not hiding his late wife’s body there. This led us to ponder whether it was through guilt or regret. Teddy seemed fond of Molly, but the fact that he still blamed her for misleading him about her will – for thinking the change would benefit Dora and not him – suggests that the room is perhaps sealed precisely so that connection to the gothic Bluebeard tale can be remarked upon.

It is significant, however, that Freda does not suspect her husband of killing his first wife or of plotting to kill her. This is unusual when compared to most gothic film narratives. For example, in both versions of Gaslight (1940, UK, Thorold Dickinson and 1944, US, George Cukor) as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) the heroine increasingly comes to suspect her husband. Cast a Dark Shadow diverges from Rebecca and Suspicion since Teddy’s murderous intentions are clear to the audience from nearly the beginning.

It is also worth considering the age-gap couples of the older Maxim and the young second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Teddy and Molly in Cast a Dark Shadow. Teddy is by many years Molly’s junior, and at first we thought that perhaps he was her doting son or nephew. As often happens with older husbands in gothic films, Molly takes on a teaching role in regard to the younger Teddy.  Teddy’s speech and lack of social graces are corrected by his wife. ‘‘Ome’ should be ‘home’, Teddy should not speak with his mouth full or lounge on the sofa with his feet up, and he ought to get up when a visitor departs. Furthermore, in contrast to other gothic narratives, it is Molly’s resistance rather than her acquiescence that causes her to be killed. Teddy is unaware that Molly made a will after their marriage. He therefore mistakenly believes that the new will she insists on drawing up cuts him out in favour of her sister, Dora.

Teddy’s second wife, Freda, even more so than Molly, is not the unsuspecting innocent heroine of most gothic narratives. Not only has she worked (as a barmaid) but she has sexual experience: she has been married and widowed. Freda’s prompt quashing of Teddy’s suggestion of separate bedrooms (‘I didn’t marry you for companionship’) reinforces this. Teddy himself describes her as ‘vulgar’ in one of the several conversations he holds with his late wife. (His speaking to Molly’s empty chair, and her role as teacher/mother to Teddy reminded us of Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) – both Teddy and Norman Bates are unhinged killers.)

Freda has a firm grip on the reason for men’s interest in her: in the past they have cared more about her ‘moneybags’ than the ‘old bag’. She also wishes to keep a firm grip on her finances as she insists that she and Teddy are equal in terms of partnership – they must match each other ‘pound for pound’. Freda fails to check Molly’s will deposited at Somerset House, however, and is subsequently pestered by Teddy to invest in a business deal. This scene takes place next to a quarry with a prominent ‘danger’ sign. Teddy has ostensibly encouraged Freda to climb over the safety fence in order to pick flowers. In addition to the location, Freda seems further to be in peril as he raises his hand to her when she refuses to go along with his plan. She threatens that ‘I’ll hit you back’, and the authority with which Lockwood invests the line makes Teddy, and the audience, believe her.

Freda is therefore aware of Teddy’s faults. As well as witnessing his threatening behaviour, she was unsurprised much earlier on when she learned that he had tricked Emmie working for him for free by ‘paying’ her with the £200 legacy Molly left her. Later, when complaining about ‘Charlotte’ and Teddy’s closeness, Freda says she would support Teddy in fleecing her. In some ways they are kindred spirits: she also married above her class, to a publican, and gives the impression of having cared little for her husband. (While Teddy does profess to have cared for Molly, he still killed her.) Nonetheless, Freda disbelieves ‘Charlotte’s’ accusation against Teddy, insisting that: ‘he’s a bad boy but he’s not that bad’. Freda’s blinkered attitude is perhaps explained by her earlier response to Teddy’s admission that he has no money: rather than railing against him she tells him ‘So help me I love you’.  This is reinforced by Freda’s acknowledgment at the film’s close that this was ‘the one time I let my heart rule my head’.

Emmie and ‘Charlotte’ are also women in peril. Of all the women in the film, Emmie is the most vulnerable to Teddy’s manipulation. Teddy is well aware of the type of woman he can target. When Teddy tells ‘Charlotte’ that he knew she was not keen on him, he explains that ‘I know who I appeal to and who I don’t’. He says that Freda was susceptible as they belong to the same class, and Molly because of her advanced age. Emmie qualifies on both counts. She is shown to occupy a lower class than even the ‘vulgar’ Freda. When they are introduced, Emmie seems unsure of how to address Freda, advising her to ‘come this way, lady’. Furthermore, as an employee, she is dependent on the Bares for the roof over her head. When Teddy learns he has not been left money in Molly’s will he tells Emmie she will have to find another home. Her reply ‘but this is my home’ touchingly underlines her helpless situation.

Teddy proceeds to further outline Emmie’s difficulties: she is too old to find another job. Despite her advanced age, Emmie has a childlike innocence.  Both Molly and Teddy when asking her to leave the room, or to get on with a job she has been given, tell her to ‘toddle’.  She is not only easily manipulated by Teddy in terms of her legacy, but is persuaded by him to tell Freda of his and Molly’s previous happiness – to give the recent widow hope.  Both Freda and Molly’s lawyer Phillip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng) comment on the fact that Emmie seems ‘simple’. Emmie’s trusting nature means that she is a risk to Teddy since while she is loyal to him, she may give away information without realising it. She has already guilelessly praised Teddy in Phillip’s presence for helping her to practice the evidence she later gave at Molly’s inquest.  Indeed, Phillip says that he hopes he will get the truth about Teddy’s guilt through Emmie since she has lived in the Bares’ house throughout. In turn this places Emmie at risk from Teddy.

In fact, it is another woman who causes for the truth to be revealed. Towards the end of the film ‘Charlotte’ unwittingly places herself in danger when she visits what she thinks is the Bares’ empty house in her quest for evidence. She enters the shadowy hall as the clock strikes. This invokes a sense that ‘Charlotte’ has come to mete out justice and it is a time of reckoning for Teddy. She is certainly a determined woman. When Teddy reveals that he knows ‘Charlotte’s’ true identity (partly because she was familiar with the house’s layout and idiosyncrasies), and admits to murdering her sister, her concern is for Freda. She stands up to Teddy, refusing to leave, and only departing when Freda returns and asks her to go.  ‘Charlotte’ even risks her life again, coming back to the house to make sure others know of his guilt. From here, ‘Charlotte’ witnesses Teddy’s escape and hears him crash her car: his tampering with her brakes has backfired.

We also briefly considered the film in relation to Margaret Lockwood’s screen image. Her appearances in Gainsborough melodramas in the 1940s (such as the aristocratic and adventurous Barbara in Leslie Arliss’ 1945 film The Wicked Lady) helped to ensure her status as a top box office draw during the decade. (You can see a summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/02/03/summary-of-discussion-on-the-wicked-lady/) Lockwood’s 1950s films were less successful, as Cast a Dark Shadow director Lewis Gilbert commented in later years (Brian McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 221). Lockwood is still afforded a star entrance in Cast a Dark Shadow, however. She enters the film about a third of the way in, sweeping down the stairs at the tearoom in which Teddy is lying in wait. Post-production publicity downplayed Lockwood’s involvement though.  Bogarde later noted that he was initially placed under Lockwood in the film’s billing, until it was realised that ‘her name had killed it’ (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70). Gilbert echoes these sentiments, noting that the attachment of Lockwood’s name was ‘counter-productive’ (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Both Bogarde and Gilbert opined it a shame that Lockwood’s ‘great’ performance was not appreciated by audiences (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Lockwood did not appear in another feature film for over twenty years, though she stated in a 1973 interview that she was ‘glad’ to have played the role. (McFarlane, p. 374, quoting from Eric Braun ‘The Indestructibles’, Films and Filming, September 1973, p. 38.) This is supported by the fact that the next year Lockwood repeated her role in a now-believed lost TV version, co-starring Derek Farr the originator of the role of Teddy on stage.

Due to our Bogarde-focus we also discussed Bogarde’s role in the film – both on and off.  As noted in previous blog posts on the films we have screened, Bogarde’s character in Cast a Dark Shadow is repulsive and also coded as of the working classes (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/_) Chronologically the film can be placed between previously screened films Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton) and Libel (1959, Anthony Asquith). Both of these films afforded Bogarde the opportunity to be simultaneously villainous and vulnerable. Cast a Dark Shadow in fact returns him to his smaller earlier role as a low-class criminal who kills George Dixon (of Dock Green fame) in The Blue Lamp (1950, Basil Dearden).

The film should also be placed in the context of Bogarde’s other films released in 1955. Simba (Brian Desmond Hurst) was an adventure story, and Doctor at Sea (Ralph Thomas) the second in a comedy series. The latter is an especially important part of Bogarde’s screen image which the melodrama research group has had little chance to explore. The significance of the series to Bogarde’s screen image at the time is implied by a letter from a member of the public published in the 24th September 1955 issue of UK fan magazine Picturegoer. Miss E Smyth asked ‘Can’t Dirk Bogarde have a really dramatic role to prove himself an actor as well as a much-admired star?’ (p. 30). While we cannot be sure this was from a real person, it comments on an awareness of Bogarde’s increasingly frequent appearances in comedies and ties kudos for acting to dramatic performances. Picturegoer’s response is also instructive: ‘But picturegoers used to complain that Bogarde had too many dramatic, hunted-by-police roles…’  Cast a Dark Shadow therefore supplies a useful contrast to both comedies (the Doctor series) and man-on-the run films like Hunted.

We also noted that Bogarde’s later screen image (his role in Basil Dearden’s Victim, 1961), as well as his star image (knowledge of his personal life) influenced a specific aspect our reading of his character in Cast a Dark Shadow. When Teddy is waiting for Freda at the seaside tearoom he is reading a men’s health magazine which has a semi-naked man on its cover. Perusing such a publication might be thought to indicate a preference for men. Given Teddy’s first marriage to a woman much older than himself, his somewhat camp eyebrow-raising, and revelations later in the film about some of his earlier behaviour, we contemplated his sexuality. This is not clear-cut. Teddy’s pursuit of Freda is for business rather than pleasure, though he seems gratified when she refuses separate bedrooms and points out that she has not married him for companionship. His narcissism leaves little room for anyone other than himself.

As well as considering where Cast a Dark Shadow fits with Bogarde’s screen and star images we pondered how much he contributed to the role.  Bogarde was apparently approached by Janet Green to appear in her original play (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). This suggests that the character was written with Bogarde in mind for both stage and screen. He has stated that the ‘unwholesomeness’ of the character was appealed to him and made it fun (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70) even though we might think it allowed for less nuance. Lockwood was persuaded to undertake her role by Bogarde (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70; McFarlane, p. 374, quoting Lockwood in Braun, ‘The Indestructibles’, p. 38). This therefore reveals Bogarde’s wider influence in the production of the film, cautioning us not to assume passivity on the part of a star and to acknowledge the many people are involved in realising a director’s vision.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 21st January, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s screening and discussion sessions. We’ll be showing Cast a Dark Shadow (1955, Lewis Gilbert, 82 mins) on Monday the 21st of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

The film continues our focus on Dirk Bogarde. In Cast a Dark Shadow he stars as Teddy, a man who having disposed of one wealthy wife (Mona Washbourne) is lining up Margaret Lockwood as the next Mrs Bare… Consideration of these as women in peril allows us to examine another facet of melodrama, since it returns the group to the subject of the Gothic.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on The Bat Whispers

Our discussion of The Bat Whispers covered: its melodramatic elements, which included the Mystery, Violence, Chase of male melodrama; the film’s origins in literature, stage and cinema; consideration of the narrative’s use of stereotypes and connections to the gothic; the relationship between Cornelia Van Gorder and Lizzie Allen; the film’s style, especially its camerawork, in terms of influence; the film’s epilogue.

We began with discussion of elements relating to the ‘male’ melodrama: Mystery, Violence and Chase. These, especially the latter, were very much to the fore in our previous screening – Hunted (1952) starring Dirk Bogarde as a man on the run. This time, the criminal was the mysterious ‘Bat’, an inventive thief intent on terrorising the country. His unknown identity forms the film’s central mystery and means that we do not have access to his motives. The matter of disguise was also raised by another character. We noted how one of the film’s lesser character’s appearance, and poor attempt at passing for someone else, reminded us of a trope of the Superhero film. Dale Van Gorder (Una Merkel), niece of the elderly and indomitable Cornelia (Grayce Hampton) who is renting a country house for the summer, is anxious to hide her fiancé Brook (William Bakewell) in plain view as a gardener. In order to make sure he goes unrecognised (he is the missing clerk from a bank which has recently been robbed) Dale slightly ruffles Brook’s hair and gives him some spectacles. This made us think of the later depictions of Superman when he is passing for reporter Clark Kent. Other mystery elements arose as the film unfolded: who is responsible for the attacks on the characters?, who stole the money from the bank?, is the missing money in the house’s ‘hidden’ room?

The film contains several instances of violence. The Bat is reported by the newspapers to be a dangerous criminal, and we see him committing some violent acts. He murders a man he is robbing near the beginning of the film’s narrative, and we presume that he is also responsible for the onscreen shooting of Dick Fleming (Hugh Huntley) as well as other incidents. He is not the only violent character though. Fleming was threatening Dale with a gun at the time he was shot; Dr Venrees (Gustav von Seyffertitz) hits Detective Anderson (Chester Morris) over the head with a telephone; the caretaker (Spencer Charters) drops an urn from a height on a visitor when he appears on the doorstep. Some of this violence is, however, undercut by the film’s often comic tone. This mostly exists in the characters, especially those coded as of the lower classes. Specifically, these are Cornelia’s maid Lizzie (Maude Eburne) and the caretaker. The former’s responses to the violence, and indeed any mild instances of terror, are always exaggerated while the latter is demonstrably fearful of all strangers.

The film’s central narrative line is the search for the Bat. But the dynamic and suspenseful chase sequences which open the film – police cars race down city streets – are replaced by comic ones in the house. The most extended of these involves the caretaker being pursued though the house by the police. As well as involving one of the film’s demonstrably ‘comic’ characters, the footage also appears to be sped up. There are also scenes during which the Bat dashes through the house, making an exit through centrally placed chute. This has a comic effect, but this is increased when it the action is repeated, with comical noises and gestures, by Lizzie. The chase sequences also effectively establish the onscreen space, giving us insight into the house’s architecture. (We noted, for example, the connecting doors between Cornelia and Lizzie’s rooms.) The house’s construction becomes especially important as the location of a ‘hidden’ room, potentially the place where the missing money is being stashed, is sought. This therefore links both the mystery and chase elements present in the film.

While these specific melodramatic elements are more connected to the ‘male’ melodrama, we also commented on the film’s use of more ‘traditional’ melodrama stereotypes. These are worth considering in relation to the film’s stage origins, and its early sound cinema production context. The film is based on the play, The Bat, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood in 1920. It enjoyed popularity, closing after over 800 performances in New York, and more than 300 in London. The play was also praised by leading American theatre critic Alexander Wollcott in the New York Times. It had previously been filmed, by The Bat Whispers director Roland West, as a silent in 1926. That version starred Emily Fitzroy as Cornelia, Louise Fazenda as Lizzie and Eddie Gribbon as Detective Anderson.

It is notable that both the 1926 and 1930 films draw on the play, rather than Roberts Rinehart’s original 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. This had been directed by Edward le Saint as a feature-length silent in 1915. The novel and the 1915 film notably differ to the 1920 play and subsequent film adaptations. Many of the characters’ names are altered, but more significant changes are the exclusion of Cornelia’s nephew, and the addition of the titular criminal. The latter complicates the still-present bank robbery narrative. Although these divergences are important, it is perhaps because of the earlier film, and the question of rights, that the relationship between The Circular Staircase and The Bat was denied by Roberts Rinehart. It was also able to draw more directly on the play’s commercial success.

Furthermore, we can relate some changes to the difference in media. While the novel is told from Cornelia’s point of view, and in retrospect, the play and the 1926 and 1930 films are more action-based. This helps to explain the fact that the characters are not psychologically rounded, but mostly stock types. These generally either propel the plot (commit a crime, investigate it) or provide comic relief – especially the servants. We partly related the exaggerated style of some of the acting to the genre (comic mystery melodrama) especially with the comic characters. The timing of the film, and the long history of the story are also important. The Bat Whispers appeared at the start of the sound era. Its very title announces this fact, and the Bat does indeed whisper his threats to those he wishes to intimidate. While not all previous silent film acting is of the exaggerated type, theatrical gestures and overstatement were used in earlier film. Such a claim is reinforced when we also consider the long history of the narrative (the novel was published in 1908) – even in 1930 it may well have seemed dated to audiences.

There is some nuance however. This is mostly due to the fact that the Bat’s real identity, he is posing as Detective Anderson, is unknown for most of the film and only revealed in the last few minutes. It is important that the character we might think of as the hero – top billed Chester Morris (arguably the only real ‘star’) – turns out to be the villain. This is encouraged by some of the extratextual materials, in particular a lobby card which privileges Morris and Merkel, even suggesting a romance which does not materialise. The supporting cast is present, but with smaller pictures of the elderly retainers such as Lizzie. This prompted some reflection on the relationship between stars and ageing. The conflation of the hero and villain was accompanied by a blurring as to the identity of the victim. Perhaps a legacy of its stage origin and, as outlined above, the addition of the Bat character, the film’s focus is somewhat diffuse. Those characters who are subjected to deadly violence are exclusively men, although those behaving like victims (portraying fear etc) do not necessarily split along gender lines. Instead, the division between the brave and the cowardly is along class lines since the servants Lizzie and the caretaker are the most scared. These are also elderly, though its is certainly the case that the aged Cornelia is dignified and unflappable throughout.

Despite our consideration of the mystery, violence and chase of male melodrama, we discussed the female characters, and their relationship to the gothic, at length. The old dark house in which the action takes place encourages a consideration of the film as gothic. However, the film’s diffuse focus affected the male persecutor/female persecuted dynamic of its women in peril. Significantly, all three women fulfilled the role of active investigator. Cornelia calls in a professional investigator, and Dale is anxious to prove her fiancé’s innocence, searching the house with a lit candle. Lizzie does so to a lesser extent but sets a ‘bear trap’ attached to her bed which means she will be alerted if the trap is engaged. This provides one of the film’s best comic moments as Lizzie is indeed later propelled through her bedroom window in her onesie as the Bat is caught in her trap and drags her bed towards the window. Cornelia is certainly not a suffering heroine, but Lizzie is constantly scared, and Dale is distressed when she is trapped in the hidden room.

Unlike the usual gothic heroine, these women are not menaced by a husband. Cornelia and Lizzie are unmarried and even Dale’s fiancé only plays a small role. We were especially intrigued by the relationship between Cornelia and Lizzie. While the latter dresses as a maid and is treated in some ways like a servant by Cornelia, who gives her orders, there are mentions that the servants have fled. Perhaps Lizzie is excepted from consideration as staff since she is such an old retainer. More telling however, is the way Lizzie responses to Cornelia addressing her like an idiot child. Being told by Cornelia that she doesn’t have a mind, Lizzie sharply retorts that if she had one her employer would not let her use it. She also lists some of the ‘fads’ she has remained loyal to Cornelia through: theosophy, suffragism, and, as implied by Lizzie’s tone, most appallingly of all, socialism. They bicker like a couple.

The film certainly has its stagey moments, and there are some dialogue-heavy scenes. We were, however, impressed with some of the camerawork which was possible during scenes which were less dependent on bulky sound equipment for synchronous sound recording. The opening scenes are action-filled and employ miniature vehicles convincingly. We also noted some of the swooping, bat-like, movements of the camera in relation to the miniature used to represent the house. The film’s lighting and shadow-work were praised. The revelation that ‘Detective Anderson’ is the Bat is prefigured by a change in the way his face is lit. While earlier his exaggerated and somewhat comical facial gestures are lit in a straightforward manner, after his return from his altercation with the telephone, he appears to be far more menacing. Many of the images of the Bat in silhouette reminded us of German film director’s Lotte Reiniger’s work. The uncanny turning of bat from shadows into a moving figure was also deemed effective.

We also noticed the generic nature of the buildings portrayed. Some of these especially emphasised its function – e.g. a BANK. This brought to mind comic books. Such a connection is furthered by Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) who mentioned in his autobiography the influence The Bat Whispers had on his creation of the superhero. The film’s sets and style were also compared to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). More straightforwardly, the film was remade in 1959 (by Crane Wilbur) and for television in various countries.

Appropriately we closed our discussion by commenting on the film’s epilogue. This has Chester Morris, in evening dress, in front of a curtain which mimics that of a theatre stage of film theatre He speaks on behalf of his ‘friend’ the Bat and asking that his identity is not divulged by members of the audience. This seems especially appropriate for a sound film, and the keeping of the secret was also referenced in advertising for the 1959 film version. Significantly in The Bat Whispers this is done through the person of the star, and the one who plays the Bat, reminding us that the Bat indeed just a role Morris has played. This doubles the melodramatic element of disguise, pointing us once more to the conventions of the genre and its suitability for the medium of film.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like to add your thoughts to the blog.

Summary of Discussion on Number 13

Our discussion of Number 13 ranged from the character of the protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), his standing in society and how the episode tackled the issue of class, the MR James original short story, both texts’ effectiveness as examples of the ghost story, the male and female gothic, and related texts.

Some of our first comments concerned the initial pomposity of Professor Anderson (Greg Wise). We noted his insistence that his proper title be used, especially when introducing himself at the city hotel in which he stays while researching some old manuscripts. Anderson would have been privileged compared to many in society, most likely attending public school if he later went to an Oxbridge college. It is significant that the only title he has is an academic – and indeed professional – one. He has earned this, rather than inherited it from previous generations.

The fact that when strange occurrences start to happen to him Anderson accuses others of playing tricks also raises the matter of class. He is sure of himself and, rather than doubting his sanity, assumes that others are persecuting him. We thought this spoke to class anxiety – the worry that those of the new middle classes did not know their place. The theorists Anthony Vidler and Terry Castle’s ideas on the uncanniness of the middle classes were discussed by the group.

Indeed, class played a large part in the adaptation, with Anderson compared to some of the other characters. Anderson is clearly higher status than the hotel landlord, Gunton (David Burke), since he is a customer. He is also distrustful of the silent porter, Thomas (Anton Saunders), appearing rude to him on occasion. The character of Jenkins (Tom Burke), a lawyer, was especially drawn in class terms. We hear and then see him slurping his soup and his easy manner with one of the female guests, Alice (Charlotte Comer) causes Anderson jealousy – especially when we have the impression that Anderson is unhappy that such an inferior male has proved popular with a woman he seems to have romantic interest in.

Anderson’s desire is further expressed through a brief dream sequence. Alice is seen lingering near Anderson’s bed chamber, intercut shots of the bed hangings and paintings depicting naked men and women and various flora and fauna. We thought this conveyed Anderson’s repression well. The very brief appearance of Alice in his dream is probably the most interaction he has with her during the episode. In addition, he lacks the imagination to picture her in a nightgown – she wears the dress and earrings she appeared in earlier in the night when her flirting between with Jenkins seemed so distasteful to Anderson.  But there is another possible reading. The two men wake up together in a double bed, apparently for safety’s sake, after they and the landlord experience terrifying happenings. We wondered if this was a queering of the text, since Anderson has gained not just homosocial knowledge (the next morning he seems more human, his pomposity punctured he is able to joke with Jenkins), but also perhaps experienced and been the object of homosexual desire. Perhaps Anderson’s earlier jealousy was directed towards Jenkins and not Alice. Both Anderson and Jenkins were inordinately interested in what they thought was going on in the other’s room.

The presence of female characters in the TV version (though it removed mention of Jenkins’ wife and family) was a departure from MR James’ original short story. In addition to this expansion, moving the setting of the story from Denmark to a class-conscious English city seems to draw out this issue far more. The character in the episode seems far more pompous than in MR James’ short story, and has indeed been gifted the title of Professor, so that he can insist on others using it. There were also some particularly visual elements which conveyed Anderson’s class which were less obvious on the page. Anderson was often seen in his professorial pince nez, and we especially noted his impeccable dinner suit.

There was much discussion about the character of the cathedral archivist, Mr Harrington (Paul Freeman). While he is a minor character in the short story, his role is expanded in the TV version. In this, Anderson researches the ‘Bishop’s House’ at which witchcraft was said to have been committed by a man called Nicolas Francken, and which is revealed to be the hotel in which Anderson is staying. We thought that Harrington had far more knowledge of the Bishop’s House and Francken than he revealed to Anderson. We remembered that Anderson had told Harrington that he was staying in a hotel which was so superstitious it did not include a room 13. However, when Anderson met Harrington in town and discovered from Harrington that the Bishop’s House was still standing, Harrington did not tell him that it was the hotel in which Anderson was staying. It is suspicious that Anderson finds a sealed letter in the archive which he steals, but later replaces, only to not find it again. We also thought there was possibly a portal between the hotel and the library. Furthermore, we saw a resemblance between Harrington, the shadowy figure who appears on the wall of Anderson’s room, and the ghostly figure of room 13. The latter was especially effectively conveyed, with flickering of the sound and the image recalling older technology (the pre-digital ‘snowy’ reception of some televisions). This poor signal transmission also prompted us to think of spiritualist séances.

We commented on the effectiveness of the TV episode. We thought it (and especially the shadowy figure and the flickering ghost in room 13) was good and scary. We were especially impressed by David Burke’s moving performance when he learned of the horrible fate suffered by an earlier ‘Cambridge man’ he believed had skipped out on his bill. However, the foreshadowing of this ‘revelation’ and the over-explanation on finding the man’s belongings seemed a little heavy-handed. This is far less the case in the short story. Conversely, we found that the changing of room 13’s physical dimensions was, surprisingly, subtler in the TV version, with the explanation for Anderson’s disappearing case (it had been subsumed into the newly appearing room 13) not obvious.

We pondered more the fact that Anderson never questions his own sanity in the face of such happenings, and especially contrasted this to the ‘usual’ doubting gothic heroines. Number 13 is comparable in some ways to Miss Christina (2013, Alexandru Mafeti). In our discussion of this film (which you can find here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/10/04/summary-of-discussion-on-miss-christina/) we noted that film’s couple, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor) and Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), both occupied the position of heroine at various points in the narrative. Despite Number 13’s introduction of a female character, she remains minor, and the focus is on one character, Anderson. Anderson is very different to Egor in Miss Christina. While the former is a prissy and inexperienced scholar, the latter is a passionate, engaged painter. However, similarities to Miss Christina also occur. Anderson’s experiencing of the supernatural is shared by two other men – the landlord Gunton and the lawyer Jenkins. In Miss Christina, the painter Egor is also validated by two men, in his case a medical doctor and a professor of archaeology.

We commented that the equivalent of such fraternal confirmation is usually unavailable to a gothic heroine, since there are often fewer other women in gothic narratives.  Furthermore, women in gothic-set narratives (often taking place in the past) rarely have professions. The exceptions are the domestic roles of governess (The Innocents, 1961, Jack Clayton), housekeeper or companion (The Spiral Staircase, 1946, Robert Siodmak). Instead, heroines often enter the space of the gothic house through marriage, as new brides – in Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock), Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson, 1944 George Cukor) etc.  Anderson, however, enters the gothic space of the hotel temporarily, as a man on academic business, which is less likely to be open to a woman travelling alone. Such a situation also occurs in The Woman in Black (2012, James Watkins), in which a lawyer (male, obviously, but also like Professor Anderson, middle-class), gains access to the gothic house for a short period because he is working on legal issues.

This clearly shows the separation existing between the male and female gothics. While the former centres on a man and uses horror and explanations for what occurs, the latter focuses on a woman and employs terror to invoke and convey a supposedly hysterical response to a woman’s situation.   Both Miss Christina and Number 13, focusing more on men, over-explain the cause of the supernatural. We weren’t sure if we approved of a man being the centre of a gothic story, as it is one of the few areas women occupy. While some may view them as passive heroines, it is significant that in our discussion of various films we have focused on the ways in which they take action.

Other texts we mentioned in relation to Number 13 were Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland) (where the man is also the heroine). Aspects of film style were also referenced as we noted the whispering behind the walls reminded us of The Innocents, and the shadow on the wall of Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer).  Although we discussed class at length, we also picked up on the opposition between city and rural evinced in Number 13. Anderson is not only dismissive of the local superstition against the number 13, but seems to feel at risk when walking in the country, seeing local people gathered around burning bins. This particularly reminded us of  the sacrifice of the virgin outsider in The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy),  and of Shirley Jackson’s unsettling 1948 short story The Lottery.

If you would like to see some more MR James adaptations, and learn more about the man himself, BBC 4 is devoting Christmas Eve night to the author and his works. You can (re)view Number 13 at 10.40pm.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion session on Monday 30th of October CANCELLED

Many apologies for the late notice, but we’ve decided to cancel the planned melodrama meeting on the 30th of October. We’ve been immersed in Kat and Ann-Marie’s wonderful ‘At Home with Horror?’ conference (https://tvhomeofhorror.wordpress.com/) and are sure we will find the intense Friday- Sunday experience a difficult one to follow!

While there have been many interesting papers and discussions, it was especially great to hear two excellent ones from melodrama research group members on TV programmes we’ve previously screened. Katerina Flint-Nicol’s presentation ‘Home and Hearth? Science, the Gothic and the Female Narrative in Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back” (see introduction to the episode in the post below) effectively argued for the importance of temporality.

In ‘”You know ma’am, you just imagine things”. Terror, Technology and the Female Gothic in The Devil’s Vice’, Frances Kamm commented on the thoughts of writer/director/producer Peter Watkins-Hughes, as revealed to her in an interview. Frances convincingly spoke of the domestic setting Watkins-Hughes hoped his work, conceived with the premise of raising awareness of domestic violence, would reach. (A summary of our previous group discussion on this intriguing work can be found here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/02/22/summary-of-discussion-on-the-devils-vice/)

The next melodrama screening and discussion session will therefore take place on Monday the 13th of November, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.  Information on the film to be screened will be posted once known.

Summary of Discussion on Miss Christina

Our discussion of Alexandru Maftei’s Miss Christina (2013) ranged across various matters such as how the film related to both the gothic and horror genres. This included our recognition of some staples of the gothic (the old dark house, a portrait, keys and locks) but also interesting innovations in terms of the gothic heroine. We commented on the fact these genres sat uneasily with one another and ways in which the film was marketed. Other areas of interest were the adaptability of the author whose novella the film was based on, and gothic films certain aspects reminded us of.

The opening of the film establishes the large, deserted, gothic house, in the depth of a harsh winter and creates mystery around the dishevelled man looking at and chalking portraits of a faceless woman. Portraits become more important to the film later, as we see this man when he first becomes enraptured by the beautiful woman (the eponymous Miss Christina) he is attempting to capture in her original portrait. Indeed, she seems to step forward from this as she enters the man’s dreams. We particularly noted the significance of the portrait, and the haunting presence of a woman, to Rebecca (1940).

After the long opening scene, the action shifts to a young couple, sat next to one another, as they journey on a train. Despite the very different colour schemes of these scenes (from bright whites to red and yellow tones) it soon becomes clear that the well-dressed and happy young man, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor), is a slightly younger version of the man in the dilapidated house. It is mentioned that Egor is a painter. More significantly, further elements of the gothic are introduced, as the young woman, Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), tells Egor that in her family home ‘guests can lose their way’.

Soon after their arrival at the isolated house, with its few inhabitants, odd happenings occur at dinner. Sanda’s mother, Mrs Moscu (Maia Morgenstern), and Sanda’s young precocious and sinister sister Simina (Ioana Sandu) look at a figure unseen to some of the other characters and to the audience. Furthermore, Sanda’s mother eats bloody meat with an undisguised appetite. Mention is made of a relative, Miss Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu), who is Sanda and Simina’s aunt – their mother’s sister. Other characters provide information on the fact Christina is long dead and comment on her unsavoury character. The presence of a professor of archaeology (Nazarie, played by Ovidiu Ghinita), coincidentally excavating a nearby necropolis, further adds to the sense of the macabre.

We discussed Sanda’s character, and her problematic gothic heroine status. Sanda is seen weakened by anaemia, unable to get out of bed, while her mother seemingly summons mosquitoes. She might therefore be identified as a gothic woman in peril, at the mercy of blood-sucking insects. Egor manfully undertakes to protect her, asking for her hand in marriage so that he has justification in separating her from her family. The fact he then locks himself and Sanda in her bedroom, still causes eyebrows to be raised. While Sanda is in some ways a victim, her seeming willingness to collude with what we presume to be Christina’s vampiric tendencies, complicates the matter. Worried that Sanda is losing her fight for life, Egor briefly leaves his post and, on his return, sees that Sanda’s family has gathered around to ‘help’ her. The family portrait of the three women suggests Sanda’s complicity in whatever process has revived her.

We thought it was especially interesting that the film inverts some gender expectations as in addition to playing the male defender, Egor takes on the active investigator role of a gothic heroine. He prowls around the house at night, lantern in hand, trying to find the answer to the odd goings on. Like Sanda, Egor is also threatened by, and compelled towards, Christina. We realise in retrospect that Egor has in fact been broken by her as she foretold

A significant departure from the gothic narrative is that it is not just one character, and the woman, who feels something is wrong. The archaeology professor, who is already resident when Sanda and Egor arrive, wants reassurance from Egor that he too can hear the light footsteps which pass by their bedrooms. They are later joined by another man – a medical doctor with a penchant for hunting – who also needs to be ensured the other men are experiencing these strange occurrences. It is important to note that we are therefore offered three men’s points of view, two of whom are scientists, rather than the more usual potentially hysterical female protagonist.

The four women share an interesting connection beyond their shared genes and gender. When Egor finally realises that Christina is a vampire and attempts to drive a stake through her grave and into her heart, Sanda and Simina also die. While their mother does not suffer the same fate, she chooses to run into the now-blazing house, ensuring her own death

We found the blazing house itself recalled earlier gothic films. In Rebecca the fire is set by a vengeful Mrs Danvers who hates the current Mrs deWinter (Joan Fontaine). Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1943) burns to the ground due to the lack of care of the nurse responsible for Jane’s (again played by Fontaine) fiancé’s mad first wife. The fire in Miss Christina is notably different. It is started deliberately by Egor (either as, or in protection of, the film’s gothic heroine) as he first attempts to rid himself of Christina.

Despite the film’s many gothic elements (the house, the portrait, keys and locks, the innovative gothic hero/heroine) it unconvincingly lurches towards horror in its final half hour. What was previously heavily implied – Miss Christina’s vampire status – is confirmed as Egor goes on a melodramatic rampage. The pacing of the film seems odd. From a slow build up in the more gothic two thirds of the film, the ‘revelation’ of Christina’s vampirism is rapid. In addition, it is not really a revelation at all for an audience immersed in film and folk lore. The rather heavy hints of bloody meat and anaemia, are joined by embodied items which suggest Egor is not dreaming when he sees Christina – she leaves behind one of her pink gloves as well as her scent of violets.

Maria gave us information about the film’s production, marketing and exhibition (see also the previous post) which shed light on the way it drew on the gothic and horror genres. Despite the film’s high production values (seen in the lavish costumes, settings, and CGI) and its obvious nod to the Hollywood blockbuster in its turn to horror towards the end, the film was released on the festival circuit. This satisfied neither the horror junkie, since the film has no jump cuts or gore, nor those, perhaps more discerning smaller audiences, hoping for a more psychological film with developed characters where we are unsure as to what is real and what is not. Maria also mentioned that Mircea Eliade’s novella apparently gave Christina a more nuanced character, acknowledging that many of the tales of her promiscuity and insistence on having peasants whipped were not true. The film represents these more straightforwardly, with Eliade’s social commentary on the crumbling of the Romanian nobility also missing. It was noted that another adaptation of the author’s work – Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007) – was similarly problematic.

In addition to Rebecca and Jane Eyre, we also commented on other films we were reminded of. The scene in which Sanda is at her window waiting for Christina brought Nosferatu (1922) to mind. The claustrophobic and enclosing atmosphere of the film (we are mostly confined to the house and its grounds) caused us to discuss The Others (2001) since its characters are also bound to the main house and its environs. Crimson Peak (2015) was also compared to Miss Christina. Both films mixed gothic and horror elements with varying degrees of success, with the later film more strongly appealing to horror.

Many thanks to Maria for introducing us to such an interesting film which allowed for useful examination of both the gothic and horror genres, and the background information on  the film’s production, marketing and exhibition.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 2nd October, 5-7pm, Jarman 6

All are very welcome to join us for the first of this term’s melodrama screening and discussion sessions, taking place on Monday the 2nd of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 6.

By screening Miss Christina (2013, Alexandru Maftei, 101 minutes) we are referring back to the wonderful Gothic Feminism conference held at Kent in May 2017. (See the Gothic Feminism blog here: https://gothicfeminism.com) Maria (who presented an excellent paper on Miss Christina at the conference) is very kindly giving us the opportunity to see this film, and has provided the great summary below. Thanks Maria!

Alexandru Maftei’s 2013 film Miss Christina represents the second adaptation of Mircea Eliade’s novella with the same title. The film largely follows the same narrative line as the novella. The young painter Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor) and his love interest Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton) travel to her family’s countryside estate to get away from Bucharest’s busy city life. Upon reaching the Moscu family mansion, Egor observes the strange interactions between members of the household. The mother, Mrs. Moscu (Maia Morgenstern) seems weakened, drained and ill. Professor Nazarie, a guest in the mansion, is polite and pleasant by day but weary at night. Sanda’s younger sister, Simina (Ioana Sandu) appears as a happy but creepy child, who always talks about her mysterious aunt, Christina (Anastasia Dumitrescu). Egor is led to Christina’s portrait and becomes increasingly obsessed with it and falls further and further under her spell.

Miss Christina created quite a hype among movie-goers at the time of its release, largely because it was marketed as the first Romanian horror film. However, it received mixed reviews. Some critics noted that there was nothing scary about the film and that attempts at jump scares fell short and even became embarrassing. Other critics focused on the Gothic elements of the film, praising it for the setting and costumes. Given these reactions, Miss Christina generates an interesting discussion in terms of marketing, genre and audience expectations. As a DVD copy has not been released for purchase, this screening is a unique opportunity to see the film (with English subtitles!).

Do join us, if you can, for an interesting discussion on the intersection of the gothic and horror in film.

 

Summary of Discussion on The Others

Our thoughts about the film ranged over several topics: the film’s setting, including time, space and place; the gothic heroine; her husband; their children; the plot twist(s); other gothic films.

We began with discussion of the film’s setting. A title identifies the action as occurring in Jersey in 1945. The Channel Island location mostly seems significant in terms of its isolation and the unusual liminal position it held during World War II: it was British territory, but occupied by the Germans. This allows the film a connection to gothic of Britain past. The link to past gothic films is heightened by the 1945 date – a time at which many gothic films were popular in Britain and the US.

Discussion also centred on just what aspect of the film the 1945 date setting referred to. While there are no flashbacks, the film’s structuring of time is complex as it is revealed that most of the characters are no longer living, with their deaths having taken place at various points in the past. The main family appears to have died some time between the beginning and the end of World War II, with the heroine Grace (Nicole Kidman) mentioning that the staff has left in the last week. In retrospect, we can see this as relating to the time of her and the children’s (Ann and Nicholas’) deaths. The ghostly staff replacements’ date of death is more concretely asserted – Grace finds a photograph dated 1891 of housekeeper Bertha Mills, gardener Mr Tuttle, and housemaid Lydia posed after death from tuberculosis.

 

The gulf in time between these sets of characters was especially interesting. We noticed that the film gave good reason for the lack of technology, the presence of which might have confused the older staff. Grace says that they have got used to not having electricity since the occupation, while the children’s supposed photosensitivity means they cannot be subjected to more than dull candlelight. The lack of a telephone and automobile also makes the fact that nobody calls more understandable – it both makes smoothes over the fact that the main family is only recognised by the three older ghostly staff and increases the whole household’s isolation.

 Space is especially important to the film, not just in terms of its isolated Jersey manor house setting, but the specific way in which Grace, Ann and Nicholas, as well as Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia are all bound to the area of the house. The suitably gothic fog is complicit in this. While the ghostly staff is tied to the house by their duties, the children by their photosensitivity and Grace to a large extent by her status as mother, on the one occasion she leaves the house she is hemmed in by oppressive fog. Mrs Mills is signals that this is a deliberate instrument to prevent Grace from reaching the outside world. This is unsettling, as it causes us to question what is going on, and this is reinforced by the film’s camerawork on the two occasions characters attempt to leave. When Grace sets out in the fog she appears to both leave the house and happen upon it without changing direction- almost making it seem that the building on screen is a neighbouring manor house. The children leave in the dark and they too end up looping around the house. The camerawork suggests they are getting away from the house, but they return to it, and the gravestones revealing the deaths of Mrs Mills, Mr Tuttle, and Lydia.

This lack of mobility, or the sense of characters trapped in space, led us to discuss this matter more. We thought it was especially significant that while the ghostly staff, Grace and the children are limited to their place of death – the house and its environs – Grace’s husband Charles (Christopher Ecclestone) manages to escape the front where he has been killed to meet Grace in the fog on his return home. He states that this is what he has been looking for. While the gardener Mr Tuttle also has more mobility than his female counterparts Mrs Mills and Lydia, like them he is afforded no class mobility. All three are not only confined to the area of the manor house they previously worked, but to working for the new lady of the house– they do not get to rise above their class situation.

We especially focused on Grace’s status as gothic heroine. While the mother is fairly unusual in terms of gothic film (it does not occur in Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940 and 1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), or Secret Beyond the Door (1947)) other aspects connect Grace to the genre. She is a woman in peril, seemingly beset by ghostly intruders (actually the new owners of the house) against whom she actively takes up arms – a shotgun. It is also feared, by her, and us, that she is going mad. It later turns out this had indeed previously happened as the children died after she smothered them with pillows and she consequently committed suicide with a shotgun. There also seem to be specific nods to the gothic film of the 1940s with an especially striking scene in which Grace in dressed in a white nightgown, lamp in hand, as she investigates the goings on. (See previous posts on gothic films we’ve watched for discussion of similar scenes, as well as the 20 minute video essay Passages of Gothic which you can view here https://vimeo.com/170080190)

Grace’s relationship with her husband is also unusual in comparison to the 1940s gothic film. While in Rebecca, Secret Beyond the Door, and others, the heroine is in danger from her husband, in The Others he is absent for a large part of the narrative. When he returns this appears, as indeed it is, unlikely, seemingly summoned by Grace’s desire. We wondered what the point of Charles’ return was. While he does reunite with his family and they are overjoyed to see him, he is distressed, spending much time unable to get out of bed. We were unsure whether this related to post traumatic stress due to the war or if he had an inkling as to his own death, and perhaps those of his family members. It was noted that he confronts Grace about her slapping the children in the past, after Ann relates this to him, and it was raised that perhaps this signalled his knowledge of Grace’s killing of the children. We also discussed Charles’ swift departure. Perhaps this signalled some kind of resolution for him, or Grace, though it seemed a little hurried.

 

The children were another interesting departure from gothic films. While they seemed grounded and modern in some ways (we especially appreciated Ann’s logic in arguing for her interpretation of the bible) there were moments they appeared more like the creepy of films such as The Innocents (1961). There are times it seems that Ann might be ‘gaslighting’ her mother since she tells her of the intruders only visible to her – and not the audience. An especially disturbing scene occurs when Ann, dressed in her first holy communion dress, is possessed by the medium attempting to make contact with the family. The time Ann is supposedly possessed  by new resident Victor is more complex. In retrospect it seems unlikely that the young boy would have the same skillset as the medium – and since we only hear Ann with Victor’s voice while she faces away from her brother Nicholas we can suppose that, as in other parts of the film, she is tricking Nicholas in order to scare him. While not a very sisterly action, this has the feel of a childish prank rather than a truly creepy occurrence.

 We also debated the children’s alleged photosensitivity. In addition to the fact any previous exposure does not appear to have affected them (there are no sores on either child’s skin) we wondered just how aware people would have been of the condition in the 1940s. It serves the narrative, however, to keep the children in the house without having to explain why they cannot leave the grounds. It also keeps them close to Grace. We instead considered the light Grace wanted to keep herself and her children from was metaphorical – the awful truth of their non-living status and Grace’s responsibility for this.

It is especially interesting that the truth should be revealed when the curtains supposedly protecting the children from the sunlight disappear. This is a moment of horror for Grace, and this is indeed played with panic by Kidman. The connection of the curtains to the matter of domestic setting, and arguably female furnishings, is significant. Taking the line ‘Where are the curtains?’ out of its context strips it of its intensity, reducing it to a possibly trivial household inquiry. Spoken with urgency, but without knowledge of Grace’s fears, we thought it would well suit a parodic melodrama.

 While this whole summary has included spoilers (sorry!) some of us who had not already seen the film were aware of the twist that the family and the servants were ghosts; furthermore we suspected that they were the intruders with the supposed intruders actually the new living owners. The manner of the Grace and the children’s deaths was a surprise though. They clearly all perished at the same time, but the fact that Grace killed her children and then herself was shocking. An attack by the Nazis seemed more likely. This revelation turns Grace’s whole gothic woman-in-peril status on its head. While we might feel sympathy for her, presumably she was unbalanced and distraught at her husband not returning from the war, it is she and not her husband, the intruders or the medium, who is the danger.

 While we noted some differences from the 1940s gothic – the presence of the mother, the mostly absent husband, the fact Grace is not a woman in peril in the end, there are clearly aspects of the gothic the film knowingly draws on. In addition to the isolated manor house, Grace’s possible gaslighting, there is an emphasis on containment. Grace is obsessed with locked rooms, and keys, which speak to the fact she is keeping herself and the children from the ultimate secret – her actions. There is also the unusual fact that the supposedly ghostly goings on are indeed ghostly goings on –though the ghosts are not necessarily the people we suspect.  They are not the result of Grace’s imagination or her persecution by her husband. We also thought the scene in which Grace is dressed in a white nightgown, lighting her way with a lamp during her active investigation, was a nod to the 1940s films and The Innocents. We contemplated that the mute Lydia was perhaps a reference to the heroine in The Spiral Staircase.

We were also reminded of more recent gothic films. Grace’s response to a suggestion that she has left a door unlocked, leading to the possible exposure of her children to damaging sunlight, ‘Do you think I’d do such a thing?’ is an important turning point. When we learn of just what Grace has done, it seems less like gaslighting and more that she is beginning to realise what she has done. Our knowledge then reframes the early scene of Grace waking up screaming and her response to the panicked breathing of her children. Grace’s screaming is especially intense, but she does not reflect on this. Other aspects appear to seep through, however. Grace admonishes Ann for her quick shallow breathing at the dinner table, and later Ann similarly tells off Nicholas for comparable behaviour. It is possible this is linked to how Grace killed them – their hastened breathing in response to her smothering of them with pillows. We connected this return of the repressed to the film The Awakening (2011) in which the heroine is walked through her childhood home, and the passages of her mind, in order to remember her past and move on. In fact, perhaps all of this is occurring in Grace’s mind. Such a view is supported by the fact Grace finds so many veiled items in the junk room of the mansion a surprise. While she has presumably lived there for a while, she has only just stumbled across the books of the dead- photographs of posed dead people. She is understandably shocked by these macabre pictures, and later finally recognises the truth of the ghostly servants when she discovers their photograph hidden under Mrs Mills’ mattress. The notion that this is taking place in Grace’s mind may seem to undermine the earlier assertion that Grace is not imagining the goings on. But it simply points to the complexity of the film, its relation to the gothic and its conscious referencing of earlier gothic films.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Crimson Field

Our discussion on The Crimson Field encompassed several areas: its three (or four) female heroines and some similarities to the heroines of melodrama and the gothic; other female characters; relationships between the other characters, including between the genders and within hierarchical structures; the suffering crying soldier and his connection to music; other films and TV series about women during war and pondering why the series was not recommissioned.

We began by noting that the hour was very action and character packed – despite the fact it all took place during the one day. This set up many interesting plot points and character relationships for upcoming episodes.

We thought that the first episode’s focus on three women’s journeys to, and first experience of, the field hospital echoed a similar Hollywood trope. In Hollywood films there are sometimes three main female characters with these separated from one another on the grounds of morality: one is a ‘good’ girl, one a ‘bad’ girl and the other sits somewhere in between. Each of these faces a different fate: one is usually punished (often by death), another triumphs and the third suffers but manages to go on. We commented that this links to US, and especially Hollywood films’, focus on melodrama.

In The Crimson Field, there are the posh clueless Flora (Alice St. Clair), the left on the shelf do-gooder spinster Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) and the spirited Kitty (Oona Chaplin) who is signalled as ‘bad’ through her modern habits of smoking and expressing forthright opinions. Kitty seems to be our main heroine as we are afforded some insight into her past as she throws away a ring on her boat journey. While Flora has to suffer the grim reality of bloody bandages and Rosalie is mocked for her spinster status, we are more invested in Kitty. She stands up to matron on behalf of the other women, and is later in danger as she is attacked by a patient. Her response to this is calm, forgiving, and her challenge to man to just kill her gives us some further awareness of her troubled past.

The three heroine focus is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a fourth. Joan (Suranne Jones), a self-sufficient qualified nurse, arrives late, dressed in a leather coat, sporting a short hairdo, and riding a motorcycle. We thought that the fact she is unmarried (such an option was not open to nurses at the time), her appearance and manner possible coded her as a lesbian. We were especially intrigued regarding the ring she wears around her neck, hidden by her clothes.

While the emphasis on suffering – of both genders – points to melodrama, we also saw a correlation with some of our recent work on the gothic. The three main female characters headed outside at night, dressed in white gowns and carrying lamps, to wish the troops luck as they left for the front.

Our attention was also drawn to the two other main female characters – Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox) and the recently promoted Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris). Their relationship was complex. Outwardly good colleagues, there appeared to be tensions under the surface since Grace became matron despite Margaret having more experience. We also found the difference in their approaches to the new volunteers telling. While Grace was tough on them, Margaret appeared more friendly. Margaret was revealed to be hypocritical and cruel however as she commandeers Flora’s cake and despite telling her she has shared it among the men, is seen eating it secretly. More disturbingly she deliberately withholds a medical exemption from a suffering soldier meaning that he is sent back to the front. Meanwhile Grace is revealed to be caring towards Kitty after her attack, despite Kitty’s earlier disobedience.

Despite the dramatic war backdrop, much of the episode is about such complex characters, their power plays ,and their battling relationships. We also commented on the kindness of Kevin Doyle’s captain Lt Colonel Roland Brett,  in contrast to Colonel Charles Purbright (Adam James) forcing an emotionally damaged soldier to return to the front. Even the admirable Brett warns Matron Carter to make sure she controls the potentially ‘silly’ new female volunteers, though. This attitude fits in with the misogynistic narrative the melodrama research group has recently uncovered while researching the World War I magazine The War Illustrated. In these issues girls can be plucky and brave, but they are still kept contained. The depiction of the main heroines and other women in The Crimson Field challenges this view. (See the NoRMMA website for more on the project: http://www.normmanetwork.com/?p=604.)

We were especially struck by the depiction of Corporal Lawrence Prentiss (Karl Davies) – particularly in contrast to the women. Prentiss appears to have PTSD, and is seen to be physically suffering from his war experiences. He is offered sanctuary by the colonel (who also explicitly defies an order from his superior not to reissue an exemption pass on health grounds) and is seen crying profusely as he listens to a gramophone record of Madame Butterfly. Such a depiction of the suffering male is unusual, and the understanding shown to Prentiss perhaps progressive for the time. It is possibly significant that the music has a restorative or recuperative effect because Prentiss’ emotions are displaced onto those of a woman – the suffering opera heroine.

Watching the episode also prompted some discussion of other films and TV series which covered a similar topic. We mentioned the British films The Gentle Sex (1943) and Millions Like Us (1943) whose points of view were affected by their time of production. The TV series Tenko (1981-1984) about female prisoners of war was also referenced for its unusual focus on women during wartime.

We ended by pondering why the series was not recommissioned. It would have been especially apt to have it run through the 100 year commemoration of World War I. Its complex characters, and its positive view of women, provide a different view of war to the one we are usually afforded. We connected this to the BBC now moving money into such massive budget programmes as The Night Manager as it competes with Netflix and other platforms. If you’d like to see the rest of the series, most episodes are available to University of Kent staff and students via Box Of Broadcasts: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.