Please join me in welcoming my über-educated and thoroughly awesome friend, Professor Jack of The Liar Society, who lends a hand as Shadow Minister of the Tenebrous Empire. As he is a student of decadent literature, I’ll defer to the Professor to introduce you to today’s topic of discussion, that most astounding of Gothic novels, Matthew G. Lewis’ 1796 shockfest, “The Monk.”
“Wonder-working Lewis, Monk or Bard, who fain wouldst make Parnassus a churchyard; Even Satan’s self with thee might dread to dwell, And in thy skull discern a deeper hell.”
– Lord Bryon, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
By the time Matthew Lewis’s The Monk was published in 1796, the aesthetic, thematic, and psychological fictive conventions initiated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, and Sophia Lee’s The Recess had coalesced into a distinct mode of literary production now known as the Gothic novel. Though the use of the word “Gothic” to describe a peculiar subgenre of literature is mostly a twentieth century coinage, the elements that enable the Gothic novel have become ubiquitous; what else would we now expect from the Gothic but the haunted enclosure of the ancestral castle or monastery, rising specters of a long-buried secret from the past, a looming, ominous villain possessing monstrous appetites, and, most especially, morbidity and the uncanny at every veiled turn? As it closely follow s these prescribed, established set of generic conventions, The Monk belongs to what David Punter terms the “classic” period of the Gothic novel. Nevertheless, there are important differences between Lewis’s text and the work of other authors of “classic” Gothic novels, such as Ann Radcliffe’s rationalized Gothic works. When Fred Botting notes that “Gothic writing signifies a writing of excess,” he may well have The Monk in mind. Of all the examples of the early Gothic modality, Lewis’s novel is the most excessive. At its core, The Monk is a novel about obsession and transgression. It is the tale of Ambrosio, the titular monk, and his downward spiral into a corrupting world of temptation, incest, murder, Satanism, sexual obsession, torture, and other lurid follies. The moral compass of Lewis’s text, if there is a moral compass to be had in The Monk, is buried underneath the leering glee and disruptive, ghastly twists of the novel’s plot. Of course, The Monk was decried as an outrage by the literary critics of its time, but then, as now, moral objection was no real obstacle toward the novel becoming one of the most widely-read books of the day. We might consider Lewis ahead of his time; along with the Marquis de Sade and Octave Mirbeau, Lewis was delving the depths of exploitation long before it had arrived as a popular, though often reviled, cinematic phenomenon.
“The Monk” is a deliciously scandalous novel even today—it has a machine-gun pace, cramming cliché upon cliché and breathlessly stitching together converging plotlines into a glorious melodramatic mess. Lewis’ breathlessly purple prose may seem quaint, but it tells an unflinchingly exploitative narrative. There is no doubt even to today’s reader that he is talking about gore and murder and sex and scandal. If the motto of the favored entertainments of the Tenebrous Empire is “More = More Better,” then “The Monk” gets a gold star.
A film version of “The Monk” should be a no-brainer—there’s some brilliant visual stuff in the book, ranging from the gimmes of Catholic costumery, cathedral settings, black magic rituals, violence, and the supernatural. Problematically, the two film versions of the novel that exist fail to deliver on almost every level.
Adonis Kyrou’s 1972 effort has all the potential in the world to be awesome, from a Luis Buñuel script to the casting of Django himself, Franco Nero, in the role of Ambrosio. The film winds up as Epic Cinematic Fail, however, committing that most heinous of genre movie crimes by–*gasp*–being BORING. I shouldn’t wander away from a movie about a homicidal, Satanic monk in order to get more snacks, yet… that’s precisely what I found myself doing about thirty minutes in. The 1990 Paco Lara adaptation fares even less well, playing out like a particularly forgettable “Masterpiece Theatre” entry. Static camerawork, bland musical accompaniment, and forgettable performances in both movies brought out but a single bright point—I was encouraged to re-read the novel.
Hot on the heels of my double-header “Monk”-movie disaster, I solicited the help of Professor Jack in sorting out exactly what makes the book so amazing, why these movies were such duds, and what could be done to rectify this situation and produce the ultimate “Monk” film. For SCIENCE and the betterment of exploitation fans everywhere, here is a peek into our conversation.
TK: It’s as if Lewis set pen to paper with but one question on his mind: “How many Gothic genre tropes can one cram into a single novel?” He just went crazy with this thing!
PJ: The question of how many Gothic tropes can be crammed into one novel is a bit like asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop–the world may never know. That said, M.G. Lewis (who I always call “Mad Dog Lewis” in my head) tried his damnedest to squeeze in as many Gothic conventions as possible into “The Monk.” It’s almost as if Lewis read Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” and thought, “All that space he’s wasting on exposition could be better used to stuff in more bizarre twists and lurid turns. I can fix that!” And then he did. Here’s a handy checklist for anyone playing the home game:
Medieval setting in a Catholic country: CHECK!
Torture and murder: CHECK!
Satanism and witchcraft: CHECK!
Powerful male villain with rapacious desires: CHECK!
Wandering Jew figure: CHECK!
The Inquisition: CHECK!
Corrupt authority figures: CHECK!
Imprisoned heroine: CHECK!
Embedded stories: CHECK!
Twenty plot twists per page: DOUBLE CHECK PLUS!!!
It’s hard to imagine what Lewis left out…
TK: There’s always room for improvement–if he’d been writing in the late half of the 20th Century, he could’ve made use of such Exploitation Movie Excellence as:
-Nazi mad science
But yeah, considering we’re dealing with the late 18th century here, I’m granting a free pass.
PJ: Now that I think about it, all of those elements could be bolted-on to a modern adaptation of the novel. What if Lorenzo’s sister was held captive in a women’s prison by the corrupt nuns…all in the name of Nazi experimentation? What if her attempted escape from said prison was stymied by tunnels inhabited by rapey half-mans-half monkeys? What if Lorenzo led a gang of killer hippies to free Antonia?
I’m now thinking that the lead evil nun should also be a blood-bathing vampiress.
See, it’s really seamless.
This is why YOU are getting a PhD, sir.
Another thing that really bothered me about the movie versions is the fact that Ambrosio was completely oblivious to the fact that Brother John is a totally hott Eurobabe. I mean, in the book, you can suspend disbelief because of the writing and such, but in the movies… Well, I was completely distracted by the sexiness of the Matilda-masquerading-as-John character, anyway.
PJ: can only imagine that there is an analog to the popular idea of gaydar–let’s call it “babedar”–and that Ambrosio’s is broken.
However, it should be noted that once he does acquire a taste for girlflesh, he really, really likes it. With sexy (and murderous) results.
TK: Indeed. At the beginning, there’s some dialogue about him not knowing the difference between a man and a woman. I guess that might be the case, until he got to see the awesomeness that IS nekkid Euroboobs. “I was thinking about praying but OMG I AM DISTRACTED BY YOUR NIPPLEAGE!”
His exposure to girlflesh did unleash a flood of activity (IYKWIM). It also helped that, aside from emissaries of Satan, all women in the novel are fantastically stupid and easily tricked. “My magic myrtle, let me show you it…”
PJ: While it’s true that the women in the tale possess an intense naivety, it’s important to remember that Ambrosio is played like a fiddle by the devil-woman Matilda. The Monk appears to suggest this Natural Hierarchy of Being:
Woman < Man < SATAN!
TK: There are really a lot of lessons to be learned from the book:
-Masquerading as the opposite sex is totally easy
-Catholics are all really bad people
-If you are a virgin, you are made of pure stupidness
-I need a Magic Myrtle.
PJ: “Catholics are all really bad people” is pretty much the premise of 99% of all Gothic fiction, when you get right down to it.
TK: Yes, but they have nuns and therefore the potential for Extreme Sexiness, which is never a bad thing in the Tenebrous Empire. Or, at least in all the movies *I* watch, there’s the potential for Extreme Sexiness. There’s a nun-forced-into-convent plotline in “The Monk” that I don’t think was exploited to NEARLY the degree it could’ve been. I mean, seriously—an Italian production from 1972, and they didn’t GO THERE? I’m upset.
Now, since you’re the professor and all, maybe you can answer a burning question that I’ve got. Why are foolin’-around nuns the MOST fertile women in Gothic novels? Is there something about the wimple that encourages ovulation or what?
PJ: Only the most fecund women are drawn to spiritual marriage with Christ? In other words: lack of action sends them into procreation overdrive.
We might also ask why nuns tend to turn heads and capture male sexual attention in Gothic works. My theory is that the illicit thrill of getting off with someone else’s wife is effectively tripled when you’re poaching from the fields of the J-man.
TK: You know, the more I talk about this, the more vexed I am that these movies were so bloody dull!
PJ: think the reason the cinematic adaptations of The Monk are so boring is that they refuse to go there. The movie plays it safe and seems a trifle squeamish in its handling of the source material: Where was the incest subplot? Where was the Bleeding Nun? In for a penny, in for a pound, I say.
TK: True that! The book is *acres* more exploitationtastic than either of the films. One ends with Ambrosio waltzing out of prison (Black magic totally pays!) and the other ends with him renouncing Satan (Black magic is totally fail!), while the book ends with him being spirited away by a winged demon and crushed to his death on a mountainside. Uhm… Hi–your endings are NOT improvements, film directors. You are banished to a land of not-good things for your cinematic transgressions!
PJ: When I first read the novel, I pictured the ending as a scene out of Ray Harryhausen’s best: a wing’d clay beastie mashing the titular bad-boy monk against the mountains of despair. If any of the movie versions ended that way they would showing that in film school right now. Okay, maybe not, but they’d at least be showing it on cable every Sunday right after Clash of the Titans. And that’s kind of the same thing.
TK: Oh so totally APPROVED! Stop motion FX work is going into the Tenebrous adaptation, count on it. Let’s get into the details of the Tenebrous-Approved version of “The Monk,” shall we? You’re full of good and sound ideas.
PJ: This is going to be an unorthodox suggestion for the creation of an Empire-approved version of The Monk, but I honestly think this is a property that should be placed in the hands of David Lynch. Hear me out on this. As evidenced by Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive, and Lost Highway, Lynch is not afraid to go there. At its heart, The Monk is a lot like Blue Velvet: it suggests that just under the surface of everything nice and pious lurks horrifying impulses and malignant lusts.
Also, The Monk’s plot is, for lack of a better term, convoluted. Lynch is no stranger to convoluted; as a director he doesn’t seem to care at all if his films make a coherent statement. He just wants to show us something really weird. And The Monk has plenty of weird…I want Lynch to show us just how weird the novel could be when translated to the big screen.
Plus, Lynch brings with him his own stable of talented actors. Would Kyle MacLachlan make an awesomely obsessive, neurotic Ambrosio? You bet your flying buttress he would! And you know that Lynch has Isabella Rosselini and Patricia Arquette on autodial for the female leads. I’m kind of hoping that he leaves Laura Dern out of this one, though.Put it this way: The Monk is nearly surreal in its blending of horror, terror, and sheer oddity.
David Lynch made Eraserhead. He’s the man for the job.
TK: We’d need a time machine in order for Isabella or Patricia to play Antonia, but I think I have My People working on that right now for… ahem… Other Purposes. A well-reasoned-if-controversial choice indeed!
While a Hammer production helmed by Jimmy Sangster would be the obvious selection, I think I should employ the time machine elsewhere and give the project to Mario Bava, who out-goithicked all contenders. We could pair Elke Sommer and Barbara Steele as the female leads (I dunno–put Babs in pigtails or something to make her a believable Antonia–roll with me on this). Stephen Forstyth, who has cheekbones to spare and was so awesome in “Hatchet for the Honeymoon,” could play Ambrosio. Throw a whole mess of colored gels over the lights and it’s GO time! Europe has cool-ass abandoned castles just lying around everywhere, so sets would be super-easy to come by. They’re FILTHY with history over there. Also… maybe the crypt could be underwater and we could revisit that great flooded sequence from “Inferno?” More = More Better!
Dear readers, I cannot encourage you more heartily than this to go get your dirty little hands on a copy of this novel posthaste. If you have not read it already, there’s a gaping “Monk”-shaped hole in your horror education and you need to cram it full of Matthew Lewis immediately.
Or… something like that…