Thursday, 25 October 2012

Horror in British animation

David Pirie's book A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972 was published in 1973. This seminal work provided an in-depth analysis of the Gothic horror films made by studios such as Hammer and Amicus, generally overlooked at the time by the critical establishment. Pirie compared the British horror film to the American western, a genre that was receiving far more academic attention, and reached a bold conclusion:
It certainly seems to be arguable on commercial, historical and artistic grounds that the horror genre, as it has been developed by Hammer and its rivals, remains the only staple cinematic myth which Britain can properly claim as its own.
Much of Pirie's argument is now outdated. The original edition of his book - he revised it heavily in 2008 - was clearly written with the assumption that Hammer and Hammer-like horror was there to stay; in Pirie's own words, horror was "the most popular and frequently attempted cinematic form in England". Shortly after A Heritage of Horror was published The Exorcist hit the cinema screens; like Night of the Living Dead from a few years beforehand it carried a sense of nihilism and contemporary grit, and dealt Hammer's stately Gothic stories - or fairy tales, as Pirie astutely noted - a blow from which they never truly recovered.

Be that as it may, Pirie touched upon a concept which has intrigued later film scholars. Even if the horror cycle of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the rest did not last, it left its mark and has been looked back upon by subsequent generations as a respectable slice of the country's film history.

Inspired by Pirie's writing on Gothic horror in the live action films of the United Kingdom, I began to wonder if British animation has any kind of comparable horror tradition. After thinking about it I noticed three distinct threads of horror animation...

The Cult of the Quays

Street of Crocodiles, by the Brothers Quay.

If a book on horror films covers animation at all, a
select group of names are likely to be brought up. There is a good chance that Jan Svankmajer will be discussed, for one; perhaps Satoshi Kon and other anime directors will also be mentioned in more recent volumes. Next to them will almost certainly be two of the most revered animators in the United Kingdom: the Brothers Quay.

I doubt very much that the Quays would describe themselves as horror filmmakers. I remember reading an interview with them in which they expressed bewilderment at seeing how many goths were in the audience to one of their screenings, commenting that they do not see their work as particularly ghoulish. But as with any other genre the boundaries of horror are vague, leaving many grey areas. Indeed, the very idea of "horror" as a genre is surprisingly recent: the term was adopted as a generic classification in the early thirties to describe the cycle of films initiated by Universal with its adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, films that emerged from a melting pot of nineteenth-century Gothic novels, German expressionist cinema, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and any number of other precedents.

With the disorienting nature of their fantasy worlds and their haunting images of battered dolls coming to life like ghosts of a long forgotten childhood, it is not hard to see how the films of the Brothers Quay are relevant to horror cinema.

The Comb, another Quay film.

Of course, the Quays came from America, and many of their main influences are eastern European; it would therefore be misleading to say that they inherited any kind of British tradition. Even so, they may well have started one. I have seen films by numerous animation students around the country that show clear Quay influence; similar echoes can be found in the films of Robert Morgan, the Bolexbrothers' Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, and even in the live action comedy series The Mighty Boosh.

Robert Morgan's Bobby Yeah: dolls and body parts meld together in an unhinged fantasy world.

But is this cult of the Quays - and of Svankmajer, as the influences of the two can be hard to disentangle - really any stronger in Britain than in the rest of the world? I do not know for sure, although obviously both the twins and the alchemist of Prague have many admirers and imitators around the globe: the Japanese animator Naoyuki Tsuji, for example, has cited the Quays as an influence. But I cannot help but wonder if the Quays' animation gave rise to a national institution of sorts.

Brian Pickersgill's Oh Whiskers!

One final note before I leave this subject. A recurring image in the films of the Quays is that of the animated doll. Dead of Night, a pioneering British horror film from 1945, has a central motif of a murderous ventriloquist's dummy; in 1946 the Kentish ghost story writer Algernon Blackwood published The Doll; and in 1939 Brian Pickersgill directed Oh Whiskers!, a harmless educational film which featured an unintentionally disturbing doll character amongst its otherwise cuddly toybox cast. Perhaps the Quays did tap into a local horror motif after all.

Dark fairy tales

One of Arthur Rackham's typically weird illustrations to Grimm's fairy tales.

There is a popular idea that the classic fairy tales such as Snow White and Cinderella, before Walt Disney got his hands on them, were all dark, disturbing stories full of twisted and nightmarish imagery.

This is very much an oversimplification. For one, the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and others come in all shapes and sizes: some could be included in the category of horror stories, but many more are harmless fare that are perfectly suitable as bedtime stories for children. For another, Disney films are hardly devoid of ghoulish imagery: there are scenes in Snow White, such as the witch's transformation, that compare well with the live action horror films of the period.

To me, if Disney has negatively impacted the world's folktales, it is not in sanitising them but in branding them. Most of the fairy tale films in the Disney canon have become established in the public imagination as the definitive versions, and any later tellings will be in their shadow. Even if the storytellers avoid Disney influence this will involve self-consciously creating something non-Disney.
In Hollywood, animated fairy tales made by other studios have generally taken two approaches: they either imitate the Disney approach slavishly, as with Richard Rich's The Swan Princess or Don Bluth's Thumbelina, or they make films which parody fairy tales in general and Disney fairy tales in particular. The latter approach has a strong pedigree - Tex Avery made repeated use of it - but came into its own with the Shrek series and its imitators, at which point it effectively replaced the traditional Disney model.

But while Hollywood has been burlesquing the fairy tale, animators in Britain went down another path by turning to fairy tales for inspiration when telling horror stories.

Run Wrake's film Rabbit weaves a morbid modern fairy tale out of innocuous mid-century children's illustrations.

I certainly do not mean to imply that the genre of the dark fairy tale is the sole domain of the United Kingdom. This country is unusual, however, in that the creepier approach to animated folktale adaptations may well have become dominant. The British animation canon contains relatively few fairy tales told using either the Disney or the Shrek approach, but many which contain overt elements of horror.

Lotte Reiniger's Thumbelina.

We can find many examples of films throughout history that, one way or another, point in this general direction. The fairy tale animations of Lotte Reiniger, while not horrific, are more genuinely otherworldly than those of Disney. Later animators began using the structures and iconography of the fairy tale for more subversive ends, such as Vera Neubauer's 1981 feminist short The Decision; this achieves haunting results by using stream-of-consciousness imagery to deconstruct the idealised romance of fairy tales. There is also an overlap between the field of the dark fairy tale and the work of the Brothers Quay, both building upon the imagery of childhood imagination.

David Anderson's Deadsy.

The cycle of British fairy tale animation that truly embraced the dark, the gloomy and the macabre flourished in the nineties. David Anderson collaborated with American writer Russell Hoban to produce the two Deadtime Stories for Big Folk films, Deadsy and Door, in 1990; presenting the kinds of folktales that may be told in a post-apocalyptic society these stand as two of the most inventive and considered treatments of the subject.

The Sandman by Paul Berry.

Paul Berry's The Sandman, from 1992, uses more conventional imagery but stands as a similarly complex and thoughtful piece, if in a very different way. Derived from part of the story of the same name by E.T.A. Hoffman, the film draws on the traditional image of the bogeyman who punishes misbehaving children. The short's genius is in how it steadily builds its tension to unexpected heights: what begins as a cartoon-grotesque runaround with an over-the-top pantomime villain (similar to Ken Lidster's Balloon, made shortly beforehand) eventually reaches an unforgettably gruesome climax.

Ruth Lingford's Death and the Mother.

Deadtime Stories wove original fairy tales out of modern anxieties, while The Sandman drew on a genre intended solely to scare children. Other pieces of animation, meanwhile, work by drawing out the darker and more nightmarish elements of the classic stories. The Bolexbrothers' Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb is a prime example, taking a story known by many from the cheerful George Pal film and injecting it with weird and unsettling imagery. Ruth Lingford's 1997 film Death and the Mother is another, but is unusual in that the darker emphasis came about due to an organic evolution of sorts. It is a largely faithful adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Story of a Mother, which deals with a woman accepting the death of her child; but while the original tale works on the assumption that the dead child will go to heaven, Lingford's telling removes any hint of an afterlife and so takes on a very different meaning.

Tim Burton and Mike Johnson's Corpse Bride.

Perhaps the biggest name in the genre of the dark fairy tale film is Tim Burton. A resident of California, Burton is something of a transatlantic figure when it comes to animation as his last two stop-motion features, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, were both animated by Three Mills Studios in London.

The films of Tim Burton draw on two main sources for inspiration. One is the field of children's stories and fairy tales: as well as making live action adaptations of Lewis Carrol and Roald Dahl, Burton based Corpse Bride on a Russian folktale. His other love is the canon of classic (and not so classic) horror films, as can be seen in the loving monster movie parody Frankenweenie. But crucially, Burton's films have a playful undercurrent to them; like a child dressing up for Halloween, Burton embraces all manner of macabre and twisted images and tropes but both he and his audience know full well that, at the end of the day, it's all just a bit of fun. This is what separates Burton's often charming works of dark fantasy from films such as the stylistically similar The Sandman, which are willing to take their viewers to some genuinely horrific places.

The Nuclear Threat

A Short Vision.

Joan and Peter Foldes' 1956 film A Short Vision has something of the fairy tale about it: its visual style suggests folk art, its usage of animal figures recalls Aesop, and its narrative follows the "rule of three" in its portrayal of a mountain, a forest and a city and their differing inhabitants. Its climactic depiction of faces melting into skulls, meanwhile, echoes the imagery of fantasy horror. But yet the scenario it presents is anything but fantasy. It is a film about a nuclear attack.

It may seem misleading to include A Short Vision in a discussion of horror films, but this depends on how one approaches the subject. The sheer breadth of what can be termed horror media is perhaps best demonstrated by David J. Skal's book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, which covers not only the obvious examples such as Universal films and Stephen King novels but also many satellites, ranging from the photography of Diane Arbus to the media circus surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The third major strand of horror in British animation is part of a similarly broad spectrum.

The final decade of the Cold War saw a spate of key films on the topic of nuclear cataclysm. In 1983 an American TV film about the aftermath of an atomic conflict, The Day After, was shown in Britain and greeted with controversy, with philosopher Roger Scruton lumping it in with so-called "video nasties" - the unrated VHS horror films that were the subject of a hot debate at the time. Threads, a 1984 drama on the same matter, was generally applauded by viewers but received a few complaints as well; moralist campaigner Mary Whitehouse was amongst those condemning the film. In 1985 The War Game, Peter Watkins' docu-drama on atomic warfare and its effects, was shown on television for the first time - despite having been completed in 1965. Clearly, somebody somewhere was touchy about the subject.

Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows.

The burgeoning field of the graphic novel also tackled the issue. In Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons depicted the childhood fantasy figure of the costumed superhero as powerless in the face of nuclear annihilation, while Raymond Briggs - famed for innocent tales such as The Snowman and Father Christmas - created the harrowing When the Wind Blows. A feature-length animated adaptation of this book was made by TVC in 1986.

The film was directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, an American of Japanese descent who had lost a relative in the bombing of Nagasaki. When the Wind Blows tells the story of an retired couple who faithfully follow government advice in the face of a nuclear attack, advice which ultimately does them no good: the film ends with them dying of radiation sickness. Forgoing A Short Vision's graphic portrayal of a nuclear blast, the film instead relies on anticipation of the final, dreaded moment.

The Protect and Survive opening sequence.

In 1975, between A Short Vision and When the Wind Blows, another animated work depicting nuclear attack was made. But whereas A Short Vision set out to shock and When the Wind Blows conducted itself with quiet, mounting outrage, Protect and Survive took a third approach: it tried to comfort its audience. Crucially, it failed.

The twenty-part series was made by Richard Taylor, a master of the instructional film, at the behest of the Central Office of Information. Taylor did a good job: the diagrammatic animation is simple and clear, while the use of abstract shapes to represent different sounds - such as the all-clear signal and the warning siren - is a good touch. But as Taylor himself knew at the time, the films were fatally unconvincing. "If there is no solid cover, lie flat in a ditch or a hole," said one film, "and cover your head, face and your hands as fast as you can with some of your clothes." Another short explained what to do if a family member died in your fallout shelter, making the slogan "Protect and Survive" ring rather hollow.

Protect and Survive demonstrates one method of surviving a nuclear explosion.

The Protect and Survive films were intended only to be broadcast in case of an imminent nuclear attack. However, footage was leaked out and ended up shown to millions of viewers in a 1980 edition of Panorama entitled If the Bomb Drops, and the series duly became the butt of outraged jokes. Frankie Goes to Hollywood used samples from the films for their song Two Tribes and even hired narrator Patrick Allen to deliver the announcement "mine is the last voice you will ever hear; do not be alarmed", giving rise to an urban legend that this parodic line was used in the actual films. The Leeds Animation Workshop, meanwhile, lampooned the title of the campaign with their film Pretend You'll Survive.

Surprisingly enough it could be argued that the Protect and Survive series, intended to be the least alarming of these three works, is the one which stepped the furthest into the mainstream horror canon. In 2003 Channel 4 ran a jokey two-part Halloween special counting down the one hundred scariest moments in film and television. There, sandwiched between Dracula and The Day of the Triffids, was Protect and Survive.

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