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“I See Monsters in the World” – John Rhys-Davies talks his new Victorian Horror ‘The Gates’

6 min read

‘Living legend' is a term tossed around all-too-freely these days, but for the likes of it really is the only one that does justice. Given his love of literature and the heightened nature of the worlds he has spent his life inhabiting (who could forget his turns as in , or the iconic in ?) you'd be forgiven for thinking his heart lies more in fiction than fact, but John is deeply fascinated by the workings of the world around him.

Fifteen minutes is altogether too short a time to spend in the company of a man as learned and insightful as John. Moments after making an apology for my kitten who is charging about in the throes of zoomies, he is catching me up on the latest news on animal welfare. Our conversation ranges from the discovery of ultraviolet light rays, to the rise of artificial intelligence. But primarily, we're here to chat about his new Victorian horror film,

101 Films

So, The Gates! What a film!

Did you like it?

I did, I enjoyed it a lot! I'm actually not great with horror, so I was scared pretty witless. I had to watch it with my mum, which is a little bit embarrassing. But I was wondering, what was it that initially drew you to get involved with The Gates?

That's wonderful! I liked the story, I could see the potential of it. I like period pieces, and I like science. I wanted to explore that area where science and the paranormal and superstition can still overlap. 

I mean, if you think of the great William Herschel going over Newton's experiment with the prism trying to measure the heat output of varying wavelengths, and after pushing his equipment above the violet to makes his notes, he notices that he's getting a temperature reading beyond the violet which he calls the ‘ultra-violet'. So the point is, in the invisible world there is always something happening. And the 1900s were that great period where people really believed that. [Sherlock Holmes author] Conan-Doyle, for instance, was taken in completely by the fairies in the garden, when two little girls actually faked a fairy sighting. You look it up! Just search ‘the little girl and the fairies fake photograph'. 

But this whole question which is part of the Victorian theme of Darwinism destroying God, but yet wondering if there is still a soul and an afterlife. Wondering ‘is this the end of it all?' – it's part of that quasi-scientific fight back against the certainty that we are insignificant. And the more we sense our insignificance, the more we're determined to demonstrate that there is significance.

 

On a similar note, your character, Frederick Ladbroke, is a scientist at heart despite his day job as a photographer. At one point he says he's made the ‘greatest discovery in modern science' and that there's a science to the paranormal. 

Now obviously, Victorian England was absolutely obsessed with ghosts. If you look at the literature of the time it only serves as proof. So what are your thoughts on the relationship between science and the paranormal? Is it something you've researched during the course of this role? Have you come to a conclusive decision on it?

Well, I have taken the New Scientist magazine if not from its first edition, I think from the second or third. A science master at my school introduced us to it. I can't say that I have read every edition over the years, but I have probably read seventy percent of them over my lifetime. I count myself a rationalist and a sceptic, and I have never seen anything that suggested that the paranormal really exists.

But there is that question of spirituality, isn't there? There are some people you meet, very rarely, but I have met them, and you think ‘there is something greater than a human here. There is a power here that is richer than just being a mortal man or woman'. Now, there is no science behind that. It is part of the primitive, superstitious mind of man.

I mean, if there's no science behind it at the moment, that could just mean it's yet to be proven, right?

Absence of proof is no proof of absence, is what you're saying. Yes. I would hope that we could keep an open mind to everything. 

Unfortunately though, we're entering a new dark age where we cannot afford to have open minds any more, because the information we're going to get is likely to be bogus, false, and unverifiable. And I do not know how we will find that talisman, that touchstone, that enables us to say: ‘I am talking to you as a person now, in human-to-human engagement'.

101 Films

I get what you're saying. Even with what we're seeing now with the rise of AI, I find some of it terrifying. You already really have to go and make the effort to fact check whether what you're seeing is real, or if it's AI art or manipulated photos that people are taking to be real news. I find it scary when I think too much about where this could go.

Well, when you cannot trust any information, you cannot have democracy. I am very worried for your generation. I have a 16-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old granddaughter. I am terrified for them, because I think AI and robotics are going to replace twenty to fifty percent of jobs, I'd say within the next ten or twelve years. 

We have social problems beyond our imagination at the moment, and we have no long-term vision of how to deal with them. Partly the fault is ours because we cannot get enough really top-quality people making decisions. So I really fear for your generation. What are you now, 21, 22?

I'm 25.

But a baby, see. I do fear for you. I see nationalism where we need internationalism. I see monsters in the world. I don't see how your generation will get out of it.

 

Well hopefully a way out of it will come if everyone just continues to learn, which I know is something that you've pretty much dedicated your whole life to.

I heard you mention in an interview once that you like to find new focuses or hobbies every year or so to make sure that you always continue learning. I think in the context of that conversation you said you were learning to play bridge because you were playing a character who did, and you'd never done it before. Were there any new skills or hobbies that you picked up in the course of The Gates, or anything you spent time learning during that period?

Now I did look a little bit more into Herschel, who I mentioned earlier, and Herschel's music. When we made The Gates, it really was towards the beginning of the end of Covid. And my Covid experience wasn't terrible, I'm partly ashamed to say because so many people had such a bad time. I did get Covid, but I didn't realise that I had it until a friend of mine called up and told me to test. Everyone that was in the restaurant with us that day had caught Covid. But the actual lockdown time, God, I had six blissful weeks solidly of being in my own house in the Isle of Man, nobody to tell me what to do. Six acres, views to the sea, views to Scotland, England, and on a very clear day, Ireland. And 20,000 books!

So during that time, I followed all those strange little backwaters of classical music that I'd never heard of. I'd never heard of [Alessandro] Marcello, or some of the other Venetians. We know Vivaldi, and we know Albinoni. But I'd never encountered Marcello, I'd never encountered an earlier Italian musician called Antonio Lotti who has a mass that is glorious. So I then chased the mass. I'm in love with the classical canon of music, so I guess when I went to Dublin to film I bought a very nice, expensive music player. And I took with me, and then brought probably another hundred classical CDs, and in between filming I was feeding the mind with music. 

And what could be more enriching?

Oh, exactly! A day spent without hearing great classical music is a day, really, a little bit wasted.

The Gates releases on Digital on July 3rd from 101 Films.