Tuesday, 22 January 2008
A New Heritage of Horror
As the title indicates, this is the new version of A Heritage of Horror, the seminal book on the British Gothic horror cinema by David Pirie first published in 1973. More than double the length of the previous edition, which has been long out-of-print and continues to command a price second hand, it both updates the previous material and introduces new discussions, particularly of the long demise of Hammer in the later 1970s and the history of British horror, such as it was / is, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
The only negative as far as I was concerned are some typographical and factual errors that should have been trapped, like referring to the Austrian Michael Haneke, director of Hidden, as the German Peter Haneke.
The main change to the previous material, focusing on Hammer and Terence Fisher in particular, is the incorporation of more material on some of the director’s earlier and more obscure films and on the often difficulty relationship between the studio and the BBFC, both of which were unavailable to Pirie in the early 1970s.
Elsewhere, one is gratified to see a pioneering analysis of the films of Vernon Sewell, which demonstrates that the hitherto maligned Curse of the Crimson Altar is of a piece with the rest of the director’s work, while the connections Pirie draws between The Wicker Man and the TV production Robin Redbreast and the real-life occult murder in Lower Quinton demonstrate his intimate knowledge of the subject.
Pirie’s post-first edition career as a screenwriter also pays dividends by giving him an insider’s understanding of the ins and outs of film production during the dark days of the 80s and 90s and the unfortunate realities of the marketplace.
In the end, the thing that most impresses is the basic soundness of Pirie’s judgements, with those presented in the first edition – the English Gothic as the central anti-realist tradition in British cinema and the status of Fisher as an auteur whose work deserved to be taken seriously – having so clearly stood the test of time.
While time will tell as far as his reading of the contemporary situation goes, there seems no reason not to assume that his judgements will again prevail, even if those who finance films and decide cultural policy continue to neglect this by now half a century old filmic tradition.