The Borgias – Boris Karloff is Back … and He’s Played by Jeremy Irons!

Okay, now I have to also admit to coming late to The Borgias, which was recommended by a colleague, Peter Kitson. Thanks, Peter.

I managed to consume the entire first season in about two or three nights and, while I won’t claim it was the best thing I have ever seen, it made for a fun-filled couple of nights, with more violence and nastiness than you could shake an incense burner at.

For those of you who don’t know their history, Papa Borgia was a Pope with lots of illegitimate children and mistresses, who played power politics and whose machinations involved also sorts of murderous plots.

Those of you who have heard or read my discussion of Edward G Robinson (a horror star during the 1940s) will already know that Little Caesar was associated with Borgia by critics in the 1930s, and the series clearly sought to cash-in on the success of The Soparnos. If this wasn’t marketed with the tagline, ‘the original crime family’, the world has surely gone mad. My guess would be that the show was specifically designed with that tagline in mind.

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Which is not to say that it is merely a rip-off. It is the creation of Neil Jordan, who knows a thing or two about both horror and Catholicism; and it is a wonderfully crafted tale of bloody intrigue.

But the real treat (and people who know me won’t be expecting this one) is Jeremy Irons. Not because he is Jeremy Irons – yes, its another posh British actor playing a nasty, vicious aristocratic type – but rather because Irons is playing one of the greatest horror actors of all time, Boris Karloff.

Irons’ portrayal of Borgia is, from the very first moment, a magnificent homage or impersonation of a whole slew of Karloff heavies. He has the bushy, hooded eyebrows working overtime and that funny mouth thing going ten to the dozen.

The whole thing feels like a more explicit version (both in terms of violence and nudity) of something like Tower of London, except that Karloff (Irons) has now displaced Basil Rathbone’s King Richard and taken center stage. Actually, to be honest, the performance is less Karloff in Tower of London and more his grim presences in films such as Graft, The Old Dark House, The Walking Dead and particularly British Intelligence (Secret Enemy in the UK).

So, while its not perfect, its worth seeing, if only for the return of the late, great, Boris Karloff. How I have missed him!

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British Actors and Horror

Love this trailer, particularly the bit where Lionel Atwill tells the heroine that he has always found ‘in his experience’ that the female of the species is more responsive to electrical impulses than the male – which of course prompts the question: experience of what?

Anyhow, the relevance of this is that I’m taking a break this week – too many deadlines coming at me all at once. But I thought I should share something, so here is news of a recent article of mine that people might want to check out … or not! Of course, Lionel is only a minor player in this piece, which largely concentrates on Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price.

It’s About Time British Actors Kicked Against these Roles in “Horror” Films’: Horror stars, psychological films and the tyranny of the Old World in classical horror cinema

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

Volume 33, Issue 2, 2013

pages 214-233

This article is an examination of the ways in which Englishness was associated with horror long before the success of Hammer, the British studio that in the late 1950s and 1960s became synonymous with a particularly English version of Gothic cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, many key horror stars were English or signified Englishness; and the article explores the ways in which this was due to a preoccupation with themes of psychological dominance and dependence during the period. In other words, the threat of psychological dominance and dependence that preoccupied horror films meant that the horror villain was often associated with the spectre of old-world despotism in relation to which the United States defined itself as a rejection. Furthermore, these psychological themes also demonstrate that, during this period, the horror film either included, or was intimately related to, the gangster film and spy thriller so that most horror stars played a range of horror villains, gangsters and spies. However, rather than focusing of figures such as Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Lionel Atwill or George Zucco (the British actors most commonly associated with the horror film during this period), the article will concentrate on a series of actors closely associated with horror in the period, but who are not necessarily remembered in this way today—Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price—stars who demonstrate the ways in which psychological themes not only connected the horror villain, gangster and spy but were also related to the spectre of old-world despotism.

Murder, She Wrote (1984) – No Really!

I know that it surprises people, but I have always been a sucker for Murder, She Wrote. There is something that I find compulsively comforting about the show.

Of course, some people will object that it’s not horror and, while I would concede that it’s not exactly fantastic, except in the sense that it is fabulous, the show was closely related to horror from the first, if only through its association with a version of horror that we have tended to forget. In the 1940s, when Angela Lansbury became a star (Angela plays the show’s amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher), the horror genre clearly included murder mysteries so that the Sherlock Holmes series (with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) was understood as a horror series, and even Rene Clair’s film version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was explicitly seen as a horror film: it was even given its New York City premiere on Halloween.

As if to illustrate the point, the first episode of Murder, She Wrote starts with what appears to be a staple of the 1940s horror film, the Gothic (or paranoid) paranoid woman’s film. The episode opens with a young woman in a nightgown who is cautiously climbing the staircase of an old house while carrying a candlestick, a woman who is suddenly surprised by an axe-welding man at the top of the stairs. Of course, it is then revealed that we are actually watching the rehearsal of a play, the mystery of which Jessica has already solved (she is has gained admission to the rehearsal for reasons that now escape me).

Furthermore, in this first episode, Jessica is writing the novel that will make her famous as a mystery writer, a book whose title also emphasizes that the series is making no distinction between the detective story and the horror story. Her novel is called, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, and when she goes to Hollywood later in the season to complain about a film producer’s adaptation of her novel, she does not object that it is being turned into a horror film, but into an ‘low-budget’ horror film that is directed at teenagers.

All of which should be unsurprising, given the casting of Angela Lansbury, a fascinating actress with a long and illustrious association with horror. Her breakthrough was in the now classic 1940s horror film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman is tormented by her completely bonkers husband, Charles Boyer. Although she was only seventeen at the time, and this was her first film role, she was nominated for an Oscar in the role; and was quickly cast in another horror film the following year, MGM’s hugely expensive film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Many of her most famous film roles have similarly played on this association with horror and she was brilliantly cast as the evil mother in The Manchurian Candidate. This is a really chilling portrayal in a film that is as much a horror story as is a political thriller; it was after all made in 1962 only two years after another film about a young man who is psychologically dominated by his mother – Norman Bates in Psycho.

Furthermore, for reasons that I can’t even begin to speculate on, she has repeatedly been associated with horrific materials in child-related films (or films that were not always children’s films but played with the association between horror, children and fairy tales). She played a friendly witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the singing teapot (Mrs. Potts) in Beauty and the Beast, and also appeared in another story of witchery and childcare, Nanny McPhee. In a more adult context, she also played a rather sinister grandmother/storyteller in The Company of Wolves.

Even on the stage, where she became a major icon of the Broadway musical, she gave a celebrated performance as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the recent film version of which had Helena Bonham Carter in Angela Lansbury role.

Of course, I won’t try to persuade you that Murder, She Wrote is awesome – you will have to form your own opinions about that – but I love it. But Angela Lansbury is a different matter. If you haven’t discovered how awesome she is, you really need to do some research!