Celebration of cinematic chillers will be silent but deadly

The setting has been chosen and the credits are ready to roll. Tony Earnshaw reports on Kirkstall Abbey’s first ever Gothic Film Festival.

Neil Brand is praying for rain. In truth he’s praying for thunder and lightning too. So it’s fitting that he’ll give his first Yorkshire performance for two years in the timeworn ruins of Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds on Hallowe’en.

Composer, music historian and, most recently, writer and presenter of BBC4’s documentary series The Sound of Cinema, Brand is the doyen of musicians who specialise in presenting live accompaniment to silent films.

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Over almost 30 years he’s brought his deft touch to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. In Leeds he will be helping to resurrect one of cinema’s oldest vampires in the shape of Graf Orlok, aka Nosferatu, in F. W. Murnau’s still chilling slice of expressionistic gothic from 1922.

Brand, with Tony Jones, organiser of the Gothic Film Festival, which will enshroud the 12th-century Cistercian site from Thursday through Sunday, is on a proselytising mission: to promote silent film. Over four days, the festival will screen eight vintage films spanning the 1920s to the 1960s and including such spine-tinglers as The Innocents, Witchfinder General, Bride of Frankenstein, Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and Night of the Demon, the latter based on a celebrated short story by M. R. James. Two more silents, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Haxan, round out the programme. Top of the heap, claims Brand, is Nosferatu.

Classy black-and-whites cloaked in cinematic evil are one thing. But the devil’s advocate may well ask: what’s so special about silent cinema and the music Brand supplies?

“It is a completely unique event,” argues the 55-year-old. “There was a time when people thought it was a duty to go and see silent film. Hopefully that has all gone away now. We are not saying ‘Come and see this because it was made in 1922’. We’re saying ‘Come and see it because it will blow you away’.

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“There is nothing else like it. It’s not opera, it’s not theatre, it’s not cinema, it’s not a concert but it kind of is all four of those. And if you don’t experience it you’re not allowing yourself to experience an art form that is immersive.”

Kirkstall Abbey has hosted entertainment events before. In 2011 the Kaiser Chiefs played two concerts there. But the Gothic Film Festival is on another level. The setting seems made for it. In his appreciation of the 900-year-old site Brand talks of parachuting the arts into a community and bringing a genuine sense of theatricality to live music and cinema. It is, he asserts, a sacred space in the secular sense and just crying out for a filmic connection to complement its physical history.

“I like doing free film events where you say, ‘Here you go: there’s a movie happening in your park and it’s not going to cost you a bean’.

“In the case of Kirkstall it goes deeper. In this country we have a fantastically strong sense of heritage and of a link back through time. In a place like Kirkstall where stuff has happened for hundreds of years you’re going to conjure up a phenomenally special event even if it turns out we are all performing in Yorkshire rain.

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“That doesn’t matter because the place and the event take on a life of their own. It’s never less than extraordinary. There’s something about playing in the open that I really love. You can’t help but see the sky or hear the sound of birds and bats.

“And we are going to be playing the great gothic silent in a great gothic space with as much of that gothic atmosphere as we can bring to it.”

Aficionados of Nosferatu and its vampire protagonist – a shaved, cadaverous, two-legged rodent with bat ears and ever-growing claw-like nails – recognise that it reflects an ancient pictorial form of storytelling. It’s a fireside tale in the most traditional sense. Man is scared by the dark beyond the light. And Nosferatu is as black as pitch.

“First-timers who come to Nosferatu find it a bit funny to begin with. The acting’s a little bit over the top. Some of it’s got a slightly creaky feel,” admits Brand.“But slowly – and right from the beginning of the film – a chill starts to take over. You hear the giggles disappear.

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“And that’s the beauty of these horrors: they will live on in the imagination. They may not utterly chill, terrify or horrify but people will not be going home feeling particularly secure. They’ll be looking around because there’ll 
be a sense of something out there.”

The Gothic Film Festival, Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds, October 31 to November 3. 0113 224 3801, www.goth-filmfestival.co.uk