Ashley Thorpe will take us by the hand and lead us through his top five horror films over the next five days. He will go through each movie and explain why they keep him – and us – shivering on the edge of the seat. But first, here’s the low-down on the filmmaker who puts horror into animation.
Ashley Thorpe’s horror is more scalpel than sledgehammer. His animations have a refreshingly classic feel, not least through the meticulously researched material and his unabiding love of horror in all its purest, and least pure, forms.
To make a ham-fisted attempt to continue the scalpel metaphor, his films and the surgical implement both make you think of similar wounds. Maybe it’s because you have the feeling that Jack the Ripper is hacking away in the background of the Penny Dreadfuls (or Penny Bloods) that are one of the inspirations of Ashley’s work.
As he says: “The Penny Dreadful, or the Penny bloods, were sensational stories published in weekly parts. Usually with an emphasis on the terrible and the fantastic and often inspired by gothic melodramas of the time, the bloods were an important feature of Victorian sub-culture.”
“The thing that attracted me were the characters,” said Ashley. “I have an interest in comics and an interest in horror, and that leads me back to the Penny Dreadfuls. There isn’t that much out there like them.”
And the next film, Springhill Jack, is a reincarnation of one of the stars of the Penny Deadful.
“The thing that got me excited about ‘SHJ’ is that the character represents for me a shadowy blend of the Jack the Ripper myths, Mr Hyde and everything good and gothic about Batman,” said Ashley, not giving a hoot about stamping all over DC Comics’ Dark Knight (heck, Spring Hill Jack even had a bat-like cape).
“He’s a character that started off as a Victorian boogeyman and then ironically ended up being transformed by the Penny Dreadfuls into a embryonic superhero. It’s at once a classic piece of English gothicism and a template for pretty much every comicbook character that followed. What I’m attempting to do with this telling is to take aspects of SHJ as boogeyman and hero and present a kind of complex ‘super anti-hero’; a man at the mercies of his darker self.
‘SHJ also gives me the chance to create a set-piece on the rooftops of a city, something I’ve been looking for an excuse to do since discovering ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ as a teenager,” said Ashley. And would you believe, the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is one of Ashley’s top horror flicks that we will feature on D+CFilm.
Two other films in Ashley’s Carrion stable have benefited from this Penny approach: Scayrecrow (The Highwayman) and The Screaming Skull.
The Screaming Skull builds on a Victorian theme and toys with the notion of your legacy, or heritage, being something that you don’t actually want.
Scayrecrow is a more immediately romantic tale of a highwayman.
“I’ve always been completely fascinated by highwaymen,” says Ashley, and he recalls ’70s ads for historic sites, which would have the highwayman rushing past in all his regalia.
But the spectacle has largely been overlooked, Adam Ant aside. “In theory they are the closest thing to a British Western,” says Ashley. “So when I had the chance to make something that nobody else was doing, I thought, I’ll go straight for the highwayman. And it seems to have worked.”
In terms of style, Ashley’s work has evolved, and keeps on evolving, combining traditional techniques and more modern developments.
“In some ways it is traditional animation, in others it owes a lot more to a storybook effect,” he says. “In Scayrecrow, you can see a process of learning. It starts off looking like things I’d made in previous years. And by the end it’s almost developed a different style.
“A lot of the backgrounds in Scayrecrow were hand-painted so it’s traditional cell painting in that respect. But the actual actors were photographed and then I rota-scoped them – I drew or painted over their images. So it’s a combination of live action and traditional animation.”
Ashley’s visual sense is accompanied by the soundscapes of Mike Grierson. “He has such an understanding of how the audio visuals bounce off each other. He’s a phenomenal guy, and his soundtrack work gets stronger and stronger. He’s getting more and more excited about what we’re doing. My new films are more traditional, and he’s adapted that, and you have these very lush, traditional, almost Hammer soundtracks.” So much so that latest film, the Screaming Skull has an “orchestral, slightly pompous, score to it”.
The traditional element of horror is more about fear than gore.
“The Penny Dreadfuls were lurid but they weren’t really gory. It was all about suggestion. And I want to stay away from the modern element – like Hostel – where it’s more a violent pornography. I’m more interested in the supernatural element of it.
“You can imply violence a lot more powerfully than actually showing it. The Shower scene in psycho is proof of that. It’s horrible and it always will be but that’s because of the visuals and music in harmony. You don’t need to show great slabs of flesh falling at her feet,” says Ashley.
“The problem is if you push special effects in people’s face, they are looking for the join. You’re looking for the zip up the back of the monster suit. If you don’t do that, if you let their mind paint every single picture, that’s when they really start watching the thing through their fingers. The horror is actually going on between their ears as opposed to directly on the surface in front of them.”
â€¢ Forthcoming films include the tales of the Lambton Worm; Demon Huntsman of Hameldown Tor; The Hairy Hands; and the Pendle Witches
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TOMORROW: Ashely Thorpe on ALIEN
Listen to Lee Morgan talking to Ashley Thorpe
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