Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Fear walks abroad

While my partner was busy mixing tracks for his next album, I found (at last) a full length Youtube posting of The Ghoul (1975). I had first seen this film in my early twenties - it was one of those late night distractions for insomniacs on a terrestrial television channel - but had been unable to locate a copy in DVD format to add to the ever growing swell of my vintage horror collection. Directed by Freddie Francis and released by Tyburn, The Ghoul is an unsettling slice of English horror that is, in my humble opinion, not as popular as it should be. It has a distinctly Hammer  aesthetic (unsurprisingly, as many Hammer associates were involved in the picture), with its old country house interior and period (1920s) setting, and a plot not overly dissimilar to Hammer classics like The Reptile. The connection between The Ghoul and The Reptile goes somewhat further than these visual and narrative links, and represents an interesting - albeit troubling - trend concerning the portrayal of non-European cultures (in these cases, societies associated with Hinduism) as sources of the macabre. In these examples such cultures bring evil and destruction into the otherwise civilised English landscape of the upper classes (NB - both films revolve around manor houses).

The Ghoul and The Reptile incorporate several interesting dynamics, and reflect themes concerning the loss of children and the infiltration of occult cult affiliation as a source of infection. Both films involve upper class fathers who are doctors, and the ghoul and reptile of the titles refer to the infected states and hideous metamorphosis of their children, who have been lured into cult membership while both families were abroad. Whilst haunted by the loss of their children, neither father can bring himself to be their ultimate destroyer, to sever the physical bond completely, and so remain benign in maintaining the new incarnations of their offspring. The Reptile's Dr Franklyn is contemptuous toward his daughter, who retains her former mortal form for long periods. The Ghoul's Dr Lawrence is more melancholic, clinging to Christian worship in his private chapel while victims are prepared and left for their murder and subsequent consumption by his son. While neither are exactly complicit, they ultimately allow the actions to take place, and for the cover ups concerning the nature of their children's victims' deaths.

Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman)
Dr Lawrence (Peter Cushing)

In the end, both fathers are ultimately destroyed with their children. Dr Franklyn attempts to kill his daughter, now in reptile form, but is bitten and dies shortly before a fire - which has broken out in the cellar where she rests - consumes the house. Dr Lawrence - who had promised his late wife that he would preserve their child - eventually kills his son, and shortly afterward, himself.

But, as both fathers are not active participants in their children's murderous activities, their safeguard and nurture comes from another source: in The Reptile, it is the Malay servant, whilst in The Ghoul it is the Indian former nursemaid referred to as Ayah, who now acts as housekeeper. These individuals are Asian natives devoid of their names in the English home, and both encourage the destructive actions of their white charges. The Reptile's servant is sinisterly dogmatic, and akin to manipulative master rather than second father figure, but The Ghoul's servant seems more readily surrogate mother, who prays for the appearance of the girl who will feed the ghoul, and tends to his every need.Ayah's religious affiliation (with a Shiva based death cult) is the more obvious of the two, and the incorporation of certain aesthetics, like statues, demonstrate the Hindu influence. The presence of non-European artefacts, and the knowledge and experiences cited by the fathers situates them as melancholic post-anthropologists, and these visuals suggest the quite literal presence of the Other entwined in the tapestry of their native home.

The Malay (Marne Maitland)

Ayah (Gwen Watford)

Rachel Fell McDermott's (2003) chapter in her co-edited volume Encountering Kali (with Jeffrey Kripal) has raised the issue of the misappropriation of Hindu beliefs in Western films, which may has sometimes provided a warped view of such god and goddess worship. She aptly demonstrates the problems with the demonic-esque Kali represented in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the barbaric nature of her followers. To rely on these interpretations alone is to subscribe to a Westernised whitewash that dilutes the essence of certain religious beliefs to their sinister undertones. Yes, there are dark tones in the pallet of Kali's divinity, but she is so much more than just a destroyer.

In The Ghoul and The Reptile, we should also be critical of the representation of non-Western based religions. The exoticness of other cultures and religious traditions is obviously a great source of fodder for film, and certainly seems more thought-invested than the contemporary repertoires of torture pornography and serial killer thriller (I have to admit a bias here, as I hate the latter kinds of films, and am prone to wax lyrical about how they have slashed the quality of the horror genre). Also, it is interesting to reflect upon the heights of the Western world's developing exoticised love affair with the 'Far East', who found in its cultural distance an unsanctioned playground for exploring new, lived esotericisms untarnished by post Enlightenment scientific rationalism.


These films are also melancholic psychodramas about the relationship between fathers and their children, children who have been lost to them by choosing to identify with an Otherness that ultimately supercedes their familial ties and Western identities.  Is there perhaps also an air of revenge against the colonial incorporated by these two servant characters (who, ultimately, have replaced the fathers as their children's guardians)? Considering that both servants are Indian natives, I wonder if it is possible to see the angry ghosts of colonial victims here, working their way through the micro-intimate fabric of English society, reducing the offspring of their oppressors to flesh eating ghouls and malicious reptiles. Of the two servants, I would argue that Ayah is the more complex: fierce mother? angry jailer? devoted nurse? Does she love the ghoulish charge she protects and feeds? This adds another layer to the dynamic, particularly pertinent considering that Dr Lawrence's wife had killed herself upon recognising the horrendous nature of the actions she undertook, and was connected to, when she and her son became part of the cult. With his father unable to truely fulfil his paternal role, perhaps Ayah steps out as a new mother, bonded by the son's new cult identity.

The Ghoul - Don Henderson

Anna Franklyn/The Reptile - Jacqueline Pierce

The loss encapsulated in these films is a loss that lingers in a spectral domain, and the characters exist in this world, and yet not entirely. Dr Lawrence is ultimately a recluse, with only Ayah and a cruel, moronic assitant for company. Dr Franklyn is abrupt, brooding and seemingly uninterested in long term social relationships. They are without their wives, who have perished long before the events of the film. Both are haunted by their secrets, which keep them apart from their English kith and kin, and both lament the people their secrets have corroded them into being. Both children are gone, lost to their fathers... but both fathers are unable, until the end, to acknowledge that loss and sever their paternal ties. And so, before these narratives come to an end, they are inbetwixt, tainted by the past that will ultimately deny their future.

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