Cool Gothic & The New Vampire BFI Discussion – In The Flesh, Being Human, Buffy & The Fades

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As part of the BFI‘s current Gothic season, a panel discussion took place on Monday 4th November featuring guests from some of TV’s most exciting and innovative recent supernatural series.

Panelists included writers Toby Whithouse and Dominic Mitchell (Being Human and In The Flesh), director Farren Blackburn (The Fades) and actors Damien Molony, Lily Loveless and Anthony Head (Being Human, The Fades and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Introduced by host of BBC One‘s Film programme, Danny Leigh, this panel sought to “celebrate and scrutinize” the gothic, exploring how and why it has evolved over the years, and particularly over the last couple of decades.

Rather than adopting the tone of traditional gothic horror, recent series have begun to play with conventions and traditions, blending together old and new styles of storytelling in order to take the genre in new directions. A series of short clips from the guest speakers’ work helped to demonstrate this, incorporating vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies and other supernatural beings into modern-day settings.

Beginning at the beginning then, Danny Leigh first asked the panelists about how they had become interested in gothic horror and whether or not they’d been fans before embarking on their own projects. Farren Blackburn and Lily Loveless both described themselves as “fans of the classics” but lacking a wider knowledge of the genre, which working on The Fades helped them to build up. Anthony Head, on the other hand, grew up in the era of Hammer House of Horror, and vividly remembers their heightened movies from his childhood. Toby Whithouse, too, grew up watching horror films, but on old VHS tapes bought for him by his parents to watch at weekends. Throughout his youth, he was a big fan of horror and sci-fi genre films and shows, as well as comics, and it’s clear that these continue to influence his writing today. Meanwhile Damien Molony described a kind of “love/hate” relationship with horror. For him, being a “fan” wasn’t quite the right way to put it: it was more a case of having an addiction in spite of himself.

bfi14Leading on from Molony’s observation of the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that often forms our relationship with horror, Leigh went on to ask why it is that people are so fascinated the macabre. Toby Whithouse saw horror as functioning in a very primal way, allowing us to test ourselves and against perceived danger within a safe environment, preparing our bodies for when we must face real threats. Anthony Head mentioned the embarrassed laugh you often hear from audiences after they’ve caught themselves being shocked by something, indicating a sort of natural endorphin release as we get over our initial fear. Lily Loveless also observed a kind of beauty and elegance to gothic horror and art which tends to attract people in spite of the terror they inspire.

Following this, a series of clips were shown from older, 1960s gothic television series, leading Leigh to comment on the obvious difference in production values between older and more contemporary shows. Nevertheless, he wondered if there might yet be links between the two. There was a general agreement amongst the panelists that many of the techniques and styles from that earlier era are still used today, since although more elaborate special effects are available, the use of these in television is often limited due to budgetary constraints. Lily Loveless and Dominic Mitchell mentioned the use of costume and make up, which is often impressive even in otherwise dated shows, while Damien Molony talked about the clever and creative use of the camera to tell the story, emphasising particular elements such as ominous shadows or facial expressions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Toby Whithouse felt heavily influenced by what he termed a “noble tradition” of suggestion and implication in gothic literature and film. This reliance on implication is partly down to what’s affordable, but it often works to make things more frightening, since whatever we imagine is always more scary than anything that special effects departments can create. Farren Blackburn, however, did feel that a certain reverence for the genre had been lost: often early gothic films seem almost religious in tone, whereas now, horror is much more typical of fast-paced entertainment generally.

Turning to Anthony Head more specifically, Leigh raised a point about how Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been instrumental in this recent shift and the revitalization of the vampire myth. Laughing, Head replied that we’d certainly “learnt something about pace” since then, and mentioned the importance of the comic element introduced by Buffy writer Joss Whedon.

Why is it then, Danny Leigh asked, that the 1990s saw a resurgence in the gothic, and particularly in the vampire myth? Anthony Head’s view was that this was simply part of a cyclical process – ideas inevitably return, and there is nothing completely original any more. On the other hand, Leigh himself suggested that perhaps there was something more specifically potent about vampires and their connection to sex, disease and death for audiences in the 1980s and 1990s as the concept of vampirism developed a symbolic connection to AIDS. Toby Whithouse agreed, noting that blood transfusion, as well as sex, had become a frightening and sensitive topic at that time.

bfi16Bringing the vampire myth more into line with real human experience in this way may have played a part in shaping the new “conscientious” vampire, the subject of Leigh’s next question. Commenting on similar developments in other genres, Toby Whithouse saw this as part of the natural and inevitable “maturing” of the vampire concept: in science-fiction, for example, we have seen aliens go from being brutal, invading monsters to actually becoming the heroes of their stories, as the genre has begun a process of self-examination. Anthony Head also observed that the power of these “tortured” vampire heroes came from their conflicting feelings. The basis of any good drama is, after all, conflict and there are few better ways to explore this than through a “guilty monster” character.

This humanisation of vampires has led to another interesting development: the rise of the male pin-up vampire, as in Being Human or Twilight. Though two interpretations of the myth, epitomized by elegant, seductive Count Dracula on the one hand and the creepy, odd-looking Nosferatu on the other, have actually been in play for decades, it seems that the Dracula version ultimately won out, since “sexy” vampires have become much more the norm today. Unsurprisingly, Leigh turned to Damien Molony for his perspective on this, who responded by talking about the intriguing nature of his character, as much as about physical attraction. Drawing from this, Leigh posited the idea of the vampire as the “ultimate bad boy”, his main appeal perhaps being that he always needs saving. Laughing, Toby Whithouse recalled audience backlash against the character that reported Hal’s (Damien Molony’s) predecessor Mitchell (Aidan Turner) to the police in Being Human: even though Mitchell had just killed a train full of people, it was this woman who threatened him that the viewers really turned on.

With this sex appeal addition, Leigh observed that the new gothic seems to have become a genre particularly associated with younger people, and wondered why this might be. Farren Blackburn mentioned that, as always, horror is in many ways a reflection of our times, and saw modern conceptions of the vampire as tapping into celebrity culture and the perceived need for everyone to be flawlessly beautiful forever. Anthony Head picked up on the high school setting of Buffy as key, explaining that Joss Whedon had had a tough time at school himself, and so decided to choose the least likely hero for his story, while making the supernatural elements and how the characters deal with those a kind of metaphor for growing up and facing all the scary things in the adult world. Both Dominic Mitchell and Damien Molony spoke about how we all feel like misunderstood outsiders as teenagers and spend much of our time trying desperately to fit in, so the idea of monsters trying to be normal and human can speak to us in very profound ways at this age. A little more mundanely, Head also noted that the shift was partly commercial, explaining that young people aged 16-25 tended to be the main buyers of things like DVDs and merchandise.

After a few questions from the audience, the discussion ended with a clip from the upcoming second series of In The Flesh, which saw protagonist Kieren Walker meeting his friend Amy Dyer in a kind of zombie nightclub, where PDS sufferers meet up and get high on sheep’s brains. Based on this, perhaps we can expect the dark, “This Is England”-style 80s feel of series one to develop into something more in line with 90s acid culture.

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Photographs from the Damien Molony Forum.

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