I first got my hands on an Edward Gorey anthology as a little girl, and I devoured it. The black and white imagery of other eras, the humor, and the outrageous outcomes appealed to me. Children like their grim tales, and these were beautifully illustrated. Gorey isn’t just for children. He can be appreciated by adults, too. If you’re unfamiliar with him, but like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Charles Addams, then you’re likely to enjoy Gorey. As you might suspect of someone so visual, Gorey was a film fanatic. For his eighty-eighth birthday, here’s a peek at some of the films that influenced Gorey.
We’ll start off with silent film. Amy Benfer wrote: “Gorey’s work is formatted very much like an incredibly baroque storyboard for a silent film. Each vignette alternates between panels of painstakingly ornate hand-lettered text and black-and-white illustrations. Like silent film, the juxtaposition of image and text allows us time to consider both, as separate but inseparable parts of the same work.” These silent film techniques came from watching silent films at exclusive screenings and archives.
Amongst the films screened were Louis Feuillade‘s. As someone who knew Gorey’s work first and later watched Les Vampires and Judex, I suspected an influence, and his friend Alexander Theroux wrote about it in his book The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. The fashions, the decors, the visual textures, the faces, the black humor, the surrealism, and the not always pleasant outcomes even for the good of those films are all reflected in Gorey’s work. I used to say that Les Vampires was an Edward Gorey story come to life, but it came first. Gorey put on paper the essence of these films with his own twists.
We see grand old houses, detectives, mysterious figures in black, people in peril, ballet dancers, upper crust soirées, bat imagery, secret messages decoded by a mirror, criminals afoot (albeit out of frame), and settings full of visual textures–from how they were drawn to prints and fabric contrasting with other decor.
Many of the above images are found in Les Vampires scenes:
Another Gorey film favorite involves the word vampire, Carl Dreyer‘s Vampyr. Gorey said, “You don’t see a thing and I think it’s the most chilling movie I’ve ever seen. I think your own imagination does a better job.” The film is much less plot driven than Les Vampires. Vampyr is more mood-driven. Instead of criminals inflicting chaos, it is supernatural evil that causes harm. The film was almost a silent, and it has more in common with silent film than sound. Since Dreyer had to reshoot dialogue scenes in different languages for international distribution, the dialogue is minimal. The lack of plot, dialogue, and explanation married with odd imagery and sounds brings unease.
Bringing unease was Gorey’s goal. Gorey’s quoted as saying in Ascending Peculiarity, “My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like.” A film like Vampyr freed dialogue and images from meaning except what the viewer read into them. Gorey took that lesson and pushed it with the non sequitur filled The Object Lesson.
Despite the non sequiturs, our brains want to establish a plot and resolve what seems like a mystery of never ending detail that can only end badly. There is no meaning to the story, but it establishes a mood through images and text, much like movies can.
Gorey’s reputed to have consumed thousands of movies and books, he shows his influences, yet his work isn’t derivative. He uses film and literary techniques to create his own rendering of the world to reflect the realities he perceived. It’s a world we can step into opening the pages of his books, and he entertains us and makes us laugh, often out of discomfort. That might be the greatest compliment we can pay him.