genre, Gothic Fiction, TV/Film Review, Uncategorized, Wales

Welsh Gothic in Film: House of the Long Shadows

House of the Long Shadows (1983) starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine, four heavyweights of horror, who apparently didn’t even read the script before they agreed to be in it. It suited them perfectly: a gory, campy romp in a dark mansion full of terrors, a twisted family secret and a series of murders… all unravelling as an American author attempts to churn out a classic novel like Wuthering Heights in 24 hours to win a $20,000 bet with his British publisher.

This is a ‘first contact’ type, where Wales is viewed from the perspective of an outsider unfamiliar with it, its language, its culture or its people. The American author – Kenneth Magee, played by Desi Arnaz – can’t pronounce the name of the place, and neither can his English publicist who suggests it (it is owned by his unnamed friend). It’s written down and looks unlike any actual Welsh name you’ve ever seen: Bllyddpaetwr, which… while Google translates this as ‘blogger’, isn’t… no. It’s a word constructed by someone who knows that Welsh has ‘ll’ and ‘dd’ as letters (they constitute one letter of the alphabet, as the alphabet is phoenetic), and that ‘w’ is a vowel, but haven’t really bothered to look an actual name up.

The English publicist says the nearest he ever got to pronouncing it was ‘Baldpate – Baldpate Manor’. This is fairly sinister while also being fairly silly, and doesn’t correspond in Welsh to whatever mess is on the page. The script itself is based on a 1913 novel, The Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers [free Internet Archive version here and Open Library version here], adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan, which had a number of film and radio adaptations already from 1917-1947 and was set in America. With the insistence on keeping this as the pronunciation, one wonders why they didn’t just keep the damn name.

It’s not as if the family – the Grimstones – are Welsh, and the Anglicisation of the Welsh gentry was historically a sore point that generated tension and caused them to be Gothicised in texts from the nineteenth century on.

The journey to Wales depicts fields and pleasant landscape, until the dramatic thunderstorm and arrival at the railway station in the dark. While this is a Gothic stereotype (cross off ‘It Was A Dark And Stormy Night’ from your Gothic bingo cards, friends) it’s also a common stereotypical joke about Welsh weather.

Here, the Railway Station Scene [embedded below] takes place, which ramps up the negative stereotyping. This has been discussed by the Wales In The Movies wordpress blog, in the post Dark Welsh Houses, where you’ll see how it compares to other representation. (This post says it was the only feature film set in Wales made in the 1980s. There were two other feature-length films set in Wales [rather than just having some scenes filmed in Wales] in the 1980s other than this, and both were made in 1987: On the Black Hill and made-for-TV adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.)

Setting aside the undertones of civility vs barbarity discourse, as casually demonstrated by the line, “I’ve almost forgotten what civilisation’s like”, there’s a lot going on in this scene. It’s all the usual things you’d expect from a [negative] first-contact text.

The obstructive, superstitious station master (check the Superstitious Unhelpful Locals off your bingo card now if you’re playing along at home) is not a Welsh actor, but is played by Norman Rossington, a Liverpudlian, who manages a passable Welsh accent (comparatively, in that you know what it’s supposed to be) but doesn’t pronounce the ‘ll’ when he says BLLYDDPAETWR. Instead, he inserts an ‘a’ in there to make it sound more like ‘barlth’, to support the mispronunciation.

The English couple that Magee meets at the station have already primed us not to expect help from the locals by their offhand generalisations, saying that ‘the Welsh’ in general, ‘especially the older ones’, are all ‘terribly nationalistic’ and ‘hate the English’, to which Magee counters, ‘I’ve never been accused of being English before. I’ll have to wear a leek, show I’m a friend.’

This isn’t exactly a bonding of Outsiders (who outnumber the actual locals in the scene, to wit, the station master, who is absent for most of it), since Magee rejects the ‘English’ label and reinforces his own, unique, American identity. His attempt to remain neutral in what is presented as parochial, xenophobic concerns actually reinforces his isolation (check that off your Gothic bingo cards, folks), but it also patronises the Welsh he’s trying to ‘keep on side’ by appropriating the leek (a national symbol). Not that it’s the appropriation that’s really the problem: more the fact that no one wears leeks except on St David’s Day and at rugby matches, and it was chosen for the purposes of this dialogue instead of ‘a daffodil’ or ‘a dragon pin’ because it sounds funnier and more ridiculous.

The plot-purpose of the scene is to introduce the English couple, who will be back later, and the mysterious woman, who arrives in the storm and immediately rushes to the Ladies’ loos at the mention of ‘Baldpate Manor’. She then apparently escapes by breaking a window and hurling herself back out into the dark and stormy night, for reasons we can only imagine. She, too, becomes more relevant later on, and is revealed to not be a local but another English woman sent to distract and scare Magee so he doesn’t win his bet, so she doesn’t qualify as a Strange Local Madwoman. If you crossed that off your imaginary bingo card, I see you. Too soon.

We are now 15mins into the film, and if you’re holding out hope that there will be some Welsh representation to follow, no, that’s it, it has been and gone. Sit back and enjoy the next hour and a bit, it gets wild. Carradine, Cushing, Lee and Price (when he finally shows up) are perfect. The plot is completely barking and just what you really want in a film like this. There is a killer hunting the stranded guests at the manor, no one is who they say they are, and the effects are pure early-80s gore.

BUT. You do occasionally have to remember, in the midst of this plot-run-amok, that it’s set in Wales and the manor is in Wales and the backstory – the savage murder of a pregnant young teen from the village – is therefore the story of an Anglicised gentry family who have destroyed and terrorised the Welsh in their sphere of power and influence. The Railway Station Scene, by making the Welsh the butt of the Othering jokes and off-hand comments, has already positioned the English as superior, civilised and rational, and the Welsh as inferior, [negatively] nationalistic and superstitious. Therefore, the murder of a young teen girl by one of the Grimstone family many years before plays into this positioning and context whether it was meant to or not.

This ironically fits with the Welsh Gothic themes of the early Welsh Gothic of the eighteenth century, where the English were usually depicted as rapists, seducers and destroyers. It also fits with the later Welsh Gothic themes of indolent Anglicised gentry destroyed and haunted by the past, although here it is a specific family secret around the death of this young girl, not the weight of the medieval heritage and expectations of fallen princes and betrayed leaders.

All in all, House of the Long Shadows is a weird trippy ride as well as being a great Gothic romp, and it’s hard to see what sort of a classic Magee managed to create after that 24 hours, but then again…

It’s a really great showcase for Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine and Vincent Price, in that you can tell how much fun they had together making it, and that kind of joy oozes out as they run around screaming murderous threats at each other and hammering each other with axes. It’s definitely a film I’d watch more than once, Welsh stereotyping notwithstanding, but maybe I’d fast-forward to 15mins in.


Early Gothic texts featuring rapacious upper class Englishmen/colonials:

Anna: or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress: interspersed with anecdotes of a Nabob (1785), Anna Maria Bennett
Cambrian Pictures (1810), Ann of Swansea
The Prediction‘ in Tales of Welsh Society and Scenery (1827), Thomas Richards

(Read the full post – Cambria Gothica I: 1780s-1820s)

Gothic texts featuring Anglicised Gentry doomed and haunted by the past:

The Doom of the Griffiths‘, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1858), Elizabeth Gaskell
The Doom of the Prynnes‘, in Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse pp. 27-52, (1868), Sarah “Sadie” Williams.

(Read the full post – An Underworld of One’s Own: 1830s-1900s)

2 thoughts on “Welsh Gothic in Film: House of the Long Shadows”

  1. I’ll admit we watch this at least once a year along with Horror Express. It’s just a great campy movie where you get to see all four horror giants shine and play off each other. I agree though. Just don’t think too hard about the plot or the supposed setting. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah completely. It’s very much ‘of its time’, but it really plays into the ‘Welsh are inferior’ tropes that we still have to deal with. Other popular racist stereotypes of the Welsh were around ‘mental instability’ and ’emotionalism’ making us unsuitable for certain kinds of jobs (this was so entrenched as a mainstream conception that it even pops up in Agatha Christie books as throwaway lines and observations, but became less prevalent through the mid-late 20thC). The early ’80s were the tail-end of the bomb threats, second-home arson attacks etc in defence of Welsh language and culture, so that’s why it supersedes the other tropes they might have used, I think. Somewhat overshadowed by The Troubles and bombs going off in Birmingham, London and all over the place by various Irish/Northern Irish groups, of course.

      I have a lot of other feelings about Welsh rep in general… I don’t really know how to feel about the 2013 Evil Dead’s use of the Welsh language, for example, which is completely bizarre. This is quite fun: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/film-news/11-random-ways-wales-popped-12634487 – quite liked how everyone in Nantgarw cheered, that’s a fun cinema 😛

      I might do The Apostle on Netflix next because that’s by a Welsh scriptwriter and has Martin Sheen as the cult priest, as a point of comparison. I was really interested in that because although it’s not technically ‘Welsh Gothic’ in that it’s not set in Wales, the ending is so bang-on modern trends in Welsh-written Gothic fiction that I was like OMG PERFECT. But I can’t do that without spoiling it. So….. I’ll do it with spoiler warnings everywhere.

      Like

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