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A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss - review

A documentary unafraid of enthusiasm.

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss must live quite close to me, because I see him quite often, ambling along distractedly, thinking his (presumably) moderately dark thoughts. What is it like to be him? His head must ache, sometimes, what with being so crammed: new characters to be written and new plots; the lines of whatever play or film he’s starring in. I wonder if he ever longs to lift it off – his head, I mean – and plonk it on the mantlepiece while his shoulders take a breather. When I think about the brain this head contains, as exquisitely capacious as a Louis Vuitton trunk, as ravenous as a long-distance runner, I feel simultaneously chastened and excited. If, like me, you’re a Protestant sort, and spend your days sitting on a metaphorical spike, the better to give your work ethic free reign, the whiskery Gatiss is basically your number one pop-culture idol. When does he eat? When does he sleep? When does he vacuum underneath his bed?

His new 90-minute documentary (30 October, 9pm) – yes, that’ll be 90 uninterrupted minutes of prime BBC4 –was about the history of horror movies in Europe. OK, I thought. I’ll give this a go, and if it’s as film-nerdy as it sounds I can always shave my legs instead (or something). Two minutes in, though, and I was hooked. What deliciousness. Gatiss was in Ostend, interviewing Harry Kümel, the director of Daughters of Darkness, a 1971 film in which two beautiful lesbian vampires go after a pair of newlyweds who are holed up, out of season, in a gloriously grand seafront hotel. First, Gatiss described one of the vampires – a countess, played by Delphine Seyrig – as having “timeless ennui”. Then he explained how she killed her victim: “Death by dish-cover, anyone?” Finally, he and Kümel toasted each other with a couple of blue-green cocktails mocked up to look like those we’d seen in the film. “Don’t drink that!” he said to Kümel. “It’s shampoo!” And then he tittered.

What I’m trying to say is that his film was both learned and delightfully camp. In Gatiss, you have a guide who takes his subject seriously and it’s this that gives him the right occasionally to poke fun at its campness (a less careful guide would focus only on the campness, with the result that the joke would soon wear pretty thin).

The documentary moved effortlessly from 1922 and (the Liz Jones-alike) Nosferatu through to 2006 and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Gatiss is brilliant at putting films in their historical context, detailing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they connect to two world wars and, in the case of those made in Spain, to Franco; and he brings a fresh eye to even the most iconic movies. His quietly impassioned account of the career of the great Conrad Veidt – who played, among other roles, the tragic somnambulist, Cesare, in the 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – was wonderful. As Gatiss had it, Veidt didn’t only act with his face and his hands. It was as if he acted with his veins, too, their every throb another mark of his characters’ torment.

Enthusiasm is depressingly unfashionable these days. But all the snitty-ness in the world can’t kill it when it’s genuine, passion being more contagious than a strep throat. What a lot of movies I need to track down. I’ve seen Clouzot’s chilling Les Diaboliques but I’ve yet to have the pleasure of his compatriot Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage, in which a brilliant surgeon murders young girls in the hope that he’ll be able to graft one of their faces on to that of his horribly disfigured daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob, who plays Christiane, spends the film behind a rigid mask and must act her part only with her eyes).

Thanks to Gatiss, too, I’m dying to see a Spanish film of 1976 called Who Can Kill a Child? “Horror for the package holiday era,” he called it, strolling through whitewashed seaside streets in his electric-blue suit (Gatiss wore this suit in every shot, as if documentary making were just the adult version of interrailing).

Narciso Serrador’s film features murderous children rather than murderous plumbing, or murderous paella; Cliff Michelmore, moreover, is nowhere in sight. But it’s on DVD, and it’s winging its way towards me even as I type.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?