Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 28, 2012
I keep on my desk a small phial (yes, a phial!) of cemetery earth. I do this for two reasons: 1) it reminds me of my roots as a New England swamp Yankee and the happy times I spent kicking around the region’s many graveyards, burial grounds, and bone orchards and 2.) I’m not right. I mention it today, however for entirely different reasons. This is the last time we will speak, you and I, before October starts on Monday. October 1st is, as any major dude with half a heart will surely tell you my friend, the official start of the Halloween season. Some of us ghouls have started decorating already — hell, for most of us freaks, it’s never not Halloween — but Monday marks the start of that period of grace in which lovers of All Hallow’s Eve no longer have to brook the condescension of the normals and their infernal “Little early for Halloween, isn’t it?” Starting Monday, the answer to that nettlesome question is a resounding “No, jackass… it is not.” And in preparation for that clock stroke, I have my mind firmly planted in God’s acre.
The other day, Morlock Greg wrote about the delicious atmosphere of good horror movies. He was speaking generally, of course, of a sustained mood and feeling but I’d like to narrow the focus of that thought today to graveyards, exclusively. Talk about atmosphere! I’m a little morbid, I guess, but I’ve always been drawn to rolling country cemeteries and mossy kirkyards, to that shuddery juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made, to the setting of cold slabs of limestone, sandstone, granite, and marble against a backdrop of green grass, old growth trees, and big sky. These are, by and large, thoughtful, quiet places. Some might say lonely, and I guess I’m okay with that. I was a lonely kid, an imaginative kid, a morbid kid, and whenever a graveyard popped up in a horror movie I felt at home. In my happy place. My safe place. The graveyard is a key component of the horror genre and of the horror film. When horror movies were being born in Hollywood in 1931 with the two-shot of Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, the boneyard got prominent placement.
The more messed up the graveyard, the better I like it. I don’t mean vandalized, I just mean to say that cemeteries are at their best when time and the elements have had their way with them and threaten to snatch the real estate away from modernity and rationality and order. And, really, look how simple it is, as demonstrated in this set-up from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). All you need is some ground fog, a few Celtic crosses and headstones jutting up out of the peat like snaggleteeth, add a couple of gnarly trees and it’s better than Disneyland. Seriously, if there were a theme park called Cemeteryland, I would go there. I would take my wife and kids. We would stay and eat lunch. We would all hit the gift shop.
I realize that I run the risk of seeming disrespectful. I don’t mean to be, but I certainly do understand that there are people who look at a burial ground and not see the Gothic possibilities and who might take exception to my fetishistic ravings. I don’t take death lightly. I have lost people close to me, old and young, from natural causes, sickness, accidents, murder, and even international terrorism. And yet… and yet… I forget all that when I go to the graveyard, in real life or in the movies. I put the horrific, or at least terribly sad, realities of life to one side and I find peace in the tranquility and queer symmetry. When a horror film sets a quiet scene in a graveyard, as in the grave rubbing business at the top of John D. Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) or a bit of after school bike riding in Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s AFTER.LIFE (2009), I can appreciate, vicariously, the solitude… but when things get freaky, when vampires burst from their coffins and zombies tear their way up from their not-so-final resting places, well, I go for that, too. There are so many brilliant cemetery scenes in fright flicks: Ernest Thesiger’s lunch spot in James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), the terror of a young woman locked inside a cemetery after dark in Val Lewton’s THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), the fiery comeuppance of the witches in the Whitewood Cemetery in John Llewellyn Moxey’s CITY OF THE DEAD (US: HORROR HOTEL, 1960), Clifford Evans’ odd yet oddly touching tribute to his dead daughter in Don Sharp’s KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), the nightmarish rise of the undead in John Gilling’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1965), the eruption through the snow of the aristocratic revenants in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), and the beginning of the end at the beginning of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). For the horror hound, these are primal scenes.
In Jorge Grau’s Spanish (and entirely unauthorized) remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, titled NO PROFANAR EL SUENO DE LOS MUERTOS (aka THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, aka LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, aka DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, 1974), there is an extended horror setpiece set in and around a beautiful and historic churchyard in Derbyshire, England. In many horror movies, the story progresses in and out of the cemetery far too quickly, mostly because cemetery sets are more decorous than practical. Working with the real thing, Grau lingers at the location for at least a full reel, as the hero and heroine try to track down the source of a string of strange attacks by whey-faced individuals and are repaid by their curiosity by a full-scale zombie revival. It gets graphic but before it does Grau allows his audience to indulge in a sense of wonder, to savor the lush and (at least to modern eyes) ancient surroundings, to feel the full complement of emotions, from awe and fascination to full-on terror and a gnawing (yeah, I went there) sense of futility. It’s pretty powerhouse. It doesn’t take much to lug camera equipment and actors to a cemetery but a real artist can create whole worlds within their wrought iron gates.
I don’t think any horror film director, worldwide, loved cemeteries more than Jean Rollin (who went to one of the best — Le Pere Lachaise in Paris — following his death in December 2010). From his first film, LE VIOL DU VAMPIRE (aka THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE, 1968) through his dozen or so personal projects (okay, he did a lot of porn on the side when the horror market bottomed out), Rollin took regular breaks from his trippy, dreamlike narratives to get in a little graveyard time. In fact, he set the whole of one of his films, LA ROSE DE FER (aka THE IRON ROSE, 1973) inside a cemetery in Amiens, France, where he was allowed to shoot from dusk until sunup. Never one to clutter his films with labyrinthine plotting, Rollin instead constructs via LA ROSE DE FER a meditation on that component of romantic love that can imagine no life beyond the plummy parameters of courtship and coitus and so courts death as (to borrow a phrase from William Shakespeare) a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. Not for nothing did the French nickname the orgasm le petit mort… the little death.
However I dread the thought of any harm befalling my loved ones, I have for myself no fear of death. I’ll side with Julius Caesar on this one: “It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.” Being an atheist, I have no concerns about the afterlife, about judgment, about meeting the requirements for getting into Heaven. I don’t care where I go when I die and a pine box in a country graveyard seems to me a most excellent reward for a life well-lived. With that inevitability looming in the distance, I’ve got a relaxed attitude about my own mortality. As I inch closer to la grande mort, I will continue to enjoy graveyards in their actuality (time and weather permitting) and in their fictive uses, as ground zero for the realization of our worst nightmares. And when I’m dead and buried, I hope you will come and visit me. I won’t bite, promise. Light candles, bring bread and cheese, play some good music. I’ll be grateful for the company. Hell, I’ll even provide the bier.
Special thanks: Jonathan Rigby.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies mystery Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns