Gothic Cinema: Darkness and Desire

by David Robson

For nearly 20 years, film-and-video curator Joel Shepard has programmed one of the country’s best film programs at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Shepard’s new series is Gothic Cinema: Darkness and Desire, which spotlights the moody shadows, doomed love and nightmarish atmospheres of Gothic films from more than several decades. This weekend sees a marvelous Valentine’s Day pairing of the series’ first two films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, with 11 more features to come before the series wraps in April.

I’m grateful that Shepard took a few minutes to answer some questions about his relationship with all manner of cinematic horror, and to open the door on his own curatorial process. The full schedule of Gothic Cinema: Darkness and Desire includes many films not discussed in this interview.

David Robson for EatDrinkFilms: Darkness and Desire isn’t exclusively a horror series, though, as one might expect, many of the films within it are of that genre. Given the prevalence of horror films across your programming at YBCA, can one assume you’re a fan of the genre?

Joel Shepard: Yes, I am. I think this comes from my father, who was a big horror movie buff. Two of the most important films of my childhood were Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist (neither of which are very appropriate for a 9-year-old!). I was obsessed with The Exorcist and Linda Blair long before I was allowed to see the movie; all the scary hype about audience members fainting, etc. My dad didn’t really want me to see the film, but I begged and begged, and he finally took me about a year after its release date (it was still playing in theaters after a year).

EDF: It’s interesting that Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist were your formative horror experiences, since both movies are keenly interested in themes and ideas not at that time often directly addressed by horror. (William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, is even on record saying that he doesn’t consider it to be a horror film at all.) As visceral as these two movies are, did the 9-year-old Joel Shepard sense that there was more going on within them, or did that kind of perspective come later?

JS: I think what interested me about these two films is that they transgressed the boundaries of the time; they went too far. And I could sense this, even as a child. Both films seemed to have profound social impact, going beyond entertainment. If you read Roger Ebert’s review of Night of the Living Dead from Reader’s Digest (which I did, at my grandma’s house), it’s like he’s describing a snuff film or a murder scene – he’s outraged. It fascinated me that a movie could have this kind of effect on a viewer.

EDF: Why program a series focused on Gothic cinema in 2016?

JA: I think it’s amazing that Gothic art and Gothic themes in general continue to endure. And I like how malleable the concept is. It’s a bit like film noir. There is a very strict definition and canon of film noir movies … but then there’s an endless stream of cinema influenced by noir ideas (“noir-ish”). This is part of the reason I decided to do this series. As much as I love noir, it’s a bit over programmed in San Francisco. It seemed to me that the Gothic had the complexity and depth to explore in a similar way to noir.

Bride of Frankenstein (1941) by James Whale.

Bride of Frankenstein (1941) by James Whale.

EDF: There are 13 movies in this series, including a few that haven’t been seen on local screens for decades. How long did it take to put this thing together, once you decided to do so?

JS: Once I had decided on the idea, it took three to four months to put together … maybe a little more. I read several books on the history of Gothic art. It’s an extremely complicated history. And, really, I’m a newbie in this area. I needed to have a grasp of the general timeline and core ideas before I could even start.

EDF: Did anything in particular surprise you during your pre-programming research period?

JS: What was surprising was how far the idea of the Gothic could be stretched. This series could have been much larger; actually, it could be endless. You could do this for years and years. The hard thing for me was to rein it in to a manageable size, and still represent the important subgenres – Southern Gothic, neo-Gothic, Italian Gothic, etc.

EDF: Every movie in the series is being screened on 35mm film. Did the content of the series make the format necessary?

JS: Definitely. One of the many things that 35mm film does much better than digital is capture the richness of blacks and shadows. Black never looks good on digital, it’s like this weird electric black – black with the lights turned on. Since this series is all about darkness and shadows, 35mm was essential.

EDF: There’s been a feminist movement within genre cinema in recent years, with many notable independent horror films being made by women, and more male genre filmmakers are exploring feminist themes within their work, as well. Do you feel that this ongoing, deepening connection between feminism and genre cinema is leading to a resurgence in Gothic cinema?

JS: Interesting idea. I’m honestly not sure. It does seem like the Gothic speaks particularly deeply to women. When I’ve mentioned this series in social situations, it’s always been women who seem to get the most excited about it.

Rebecca (1940) by Alfred Hitchcock.

Rebecca (1940) by Alfred Hitchcock.

EDF: At a glance the movies that bookend the series – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark – could not be more different, with Hitchcock, working from a Daphne du Maurier novel, crafting a textbook example of what one might expect from a Gothic film, and Bigelow delivering what YBCA’s site describes as “a totally kick-ass hillbilly vampire movie”.

JS: It’s true; Near Dark is not the most obvious choice for a Gothic film series. What makes it Gothic is how it layers supernatural and uncanny themes onto the Western genre via the vampires (an iconic Gothic concept). It’s also deeply Gothic in how it combines romance and death.

The Elephant Man by David Lynch.

The Elephant Man (1980) by David Lynch.

EDF: Is there one movie in the series you are most excited to share with the audience?

JS: The thing about this series is that all the films are really high quality; there’re no duds, all killer, no filler. If I had to choose one film it might David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. It’s not an entirely successful film; Lynch is clearly still finding his way as an artist and isn’t entirely comfortable yet working within the studio system – he went from Eraserhead to The Elephant Man, a big leap. But it’s deeply Gothic in terms of atmosphere and setting in Victorian London. It’s also really hard to see on 35mm. There are no prints in distribution; we were able to get permission to show an excellent print courtesy of the cinematographer Lowell Peterson, who owns a print which is housed at the UCLA archive.

DavidRobsonCinephile-at-large David Robson documents his offline movie viewing at a number of online film sites, including his own blog the House of Sparrows. His film programming includes CLEAT (Cinematic Lo-Fi Experiments in Art and Technology), a three-film series that screened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum last year.


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