Bright Lights Film Journal

The Gorey Factor

Some still dispute whether Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was fundamentally an artist who wrote, or a writer who drew. Gorey was, in fact, both an accomplished writer and an accomplished artist who – like many of the greatest filmmakers – combined word and image to create a recognizable world of his own.

Gorey’s influence on the movies began at least as early as 1966 when he was hired to illustrate publicity materials for Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box, a film which, like many of Gorey’s own works, was a dark comedy set in a repressed Victorian England. The filmmaker most obviously influenced by Gorey – in terms of both narrative and design – is Tim Burton. Not only Tim Burton’s animated films (Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride), but many of his live-action features (Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow) are unmistakably Gorey-esque.

Less noted was the influence of Gorey on Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds. The design of Spielberg’s alien war machines or “tripods” was plainly inspired by Gorey’s illustrations for a 1960 edition of the H.G. Wells classic.

I thought of Edward Gorey while watching the thrilling live performance version of Brand Upon the Brain! (below), Guy Maddin’s neo-silent feature that – when I saw it – was accompanied by a live 11-piece orchestra, three lab-coated sound effects (Foley) artists, a live narrator, and a singing “castrato.” Maddin is among the most eclectic of filmmakers, his influences ranging from the silent melodramas of Griffith, Seastrom, Von Stroheim, and Tod Browning to the surrealist film shorts of Luis Buñuel, and the “underground” movies of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage (the latter influence particularly noticeable with respect to Maddin’s frequent use of rapid “single-frame” editing).

I hadn’t connected Maddin with Gorey before, even though both have done versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Maddin’s was called Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary), and the majority of both men’s work is in black and white. While Brand Upon the Brain!‘s visual style is not indebted in any obvious way to Gorey, it is, narratively speaking, very much like a Gorey story, an antiquarian melodrama told in a deadpan comic style featuring children in peril. Gorey could have easily fashioned a tale of his own out of Brand‘s story elements which include: a lighthouse, an orphanage, a teenage girl detective who cross-dresses as her own twin brother (lusted after simultaneously by little “Guy” and his sister), an obsessive father/scientist working on something-or-other in the basement, and a puritanical tyrant of a mother who keeps herself young with injections of “orphan nectar.”

It didn’t hurt that when I saw Brand Upon the Brain!, the live narrator was the incomparable Barbara Steele (pictured in Corman’s 1961 The Pit and the Pendulum, below). What can I say about Barbara Steele’s live narration of Brand? She found the perfect tone for this Gorey-like melodrama (a remarkable work of independent filmmaking in its own right). She knocked it out of the park. A lot of great people – Isabella Rossellini, et al. – have narrated this film in various cities, but I can’t imagine anyone doing it more effectively than Barbara did. (You can see more of Barbara here.)

According to Wikipedia, Gorey wrote an unproduced screenplay for a silent film, The Black Doll, in the early 1970s. Assuming The Black Doll is ever produced, Maddin would be the ideal director for it.