“With” Mark Gatiss is a bit of an understatement, as this member of the League of Gentlemen, screenwriter, novelist and actor wrote this 90-minute documentary as well as presenting it. An hour and a half is an odd length for a piece like this, and as I watched it in bits on BBC iPlayer on my phone while commuting, it is hard for me to judge whether or not it was too long.
What I can say is I enjoyed it immensely. A tottering meander through 90-odd years of European horror cinema, the journey takes in the silent masterpieces of German Expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and others), the Giallo slashers of Italy and the dreamlike horror-fantasy of contemporary Spain, as well as fascinating examples from Belgium and France.
Gatiss makes a debonair and engaging presenter. His voice, RP diction bearing the softened traces of the North of England, is soft and ever-so-slightly sinister. He strikes the perfect balance between reverence for his subject and joyful appreciation of its frequent trashiness. The fundamentally popular, commercial bent of the horror genre is embraced without embarrassment, but the discussion of it is lent just enough academic respectability by the careful use of socio-historical context. Gatiss is clearly a proponent of the school of thought that says Horror reflects, transfigured, the fears and preoccupations of the culture from which it springs. In that vein he discusses Germany’s search for confidence following the Great War, Spain’s self-doubt after the death of Franco and Italy’s elevation of style and aesthetics to national obsession.
Gatiss’ monologue is elegant and stately in pace, set against some interviews with leading directors and actors where he displays what must be a charming mode of interrogation in person. In some respects this pacing, and the unusual length of the film, lead to an imbalance – the modern era is whizzed through in a few minutes at the film’s end, but there is nothing in the subject that convinces me that, with some adjustments, contemporary examples of the genre couldn’t have been given as much attention as their predecessors (the exception is the work of Guillermo del Toro, whose sublime films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are dwelt on in some depth).
But this is obviously a deeply personal film for Gatiss, his focus on the films of the 60’s and 70’s in particular reflecting memories of his childhood and adolescence. As this fact goes on to fuel the profound and visible affection for the material which suffuses this documentary, it seems churlish to criticise his choices.