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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?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture