Written by: John White on March 14th, 2006
It’s never usually a good place to start, but if you look at IMDB’s top 50 horror movies you will find a staggering 18 films which could claim to be British. Of the 18 films several were made by Brits abroad such as Psycho or Night of the Hunter, several were made by foreign directors in Britain such as Polanski’s Repulsion or Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and other films are simply not horror movies such as the science fiction of Alien or the comedy of Shaun of the Dead. In fact of those 18 films, only The Innocents, Dead of Night, Peeping Tom, and The Wicker Man could be said to be both properly British and Horror.
The Innocents is a rare hybrid of literary adaptation, costume drama and ghost story. The tale of repression, superstition and sexual hysteria is a worthy film. It boasts great cinematography, superb acting from all the supporting cast and 3 or 4 serious scares. It does though have a 40 year old Deborah Kerr playing a 25 year old governess and the screenplay fails to adequately prepare us for Kerr proclaiming that the children are possessed. Dead of Night is loved for only one of it’s stories, the great tale of the Ventriloquists’ Dummy, which rightly could be claimed to be one of the great short films of horror cinema, however the rest of the film does not reach these heights. Peeping Tom is an important film and is from the greatest of British filmmakers, Michael Powell, but it is a film which has become dated and it is hard to understand the furore which greeted it on release. I will return to the Wicker Man.
That the IMDB list has no films from Hammer, AMICUS or TIGON is rather sad and quite wrong. Hammer made some wonderful films and with Terence Fisher had one of the greats of horror directors. Hammer’s films, when they were best, were brilliant revisions of the Universal monsters and in some cases, like the Devil Rides Out, truly ahead of their time. The greatest of Hammer’s films were directed by Terence Fisher. Fisher took his skills as an editor and a taste for religious metaphor and made the best of the new Eastmancolor process and applied those to Hammer’s monsters. This works best in the original Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf and The Devil Rides Out. In each of these films, a strong religious moral guardian seeks to protect the younger generation from their impulses and the results of their own free will or nature, because of this Fisher is often characterized as conservative. I see these films as typically British, with a fear of sex and experimentation but with an admiration and hypocritical interest in the same. Some make claims for the later Fisher films in the Frankenstein films which became progressively gorier and sexier as Hammer sought out ways to keep a more worldly wise audience interested in their fare.
These later Hammer films did throw up a few gems. A particular favourite of mine is Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde where the original Robert Louis Stevenson story is complicated by being mixed up with Jack the Ripper and given a transsexual slant with Ralph Bates being transformed into gorgeous Martine Beswick. That Bates ends up seducing his male friends and becoming decidedly confused in his own heterosexual romance is hardly surprising! Similarly, Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers takes the much filmed Le Fanu story of Carmilla and sets Ingrid Pitt and Kate O’mara’s cleavages to eleven on the Vampometer. All of these movies were Hammer’s response to a changing world where sex and horror became more overt. In retrospect it was the beginning of the end for the studio.
Hammer were not on their own in the Sixties. Stuart Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky were two American anglophiles who set up AMICUS and filmed a number of horror films almost exclusively using British talent like Ward Baker and Freddie Francis. Their speciality was the portmanteau movie which follow the example of 1946’s Dead of Night and put a number of stories in one film. From the excellent Tales from the Crypt through to 1984’s the Monster Club Amicus’ films were always tremendous fun and delighted in irony. Odd stories from these films reach heights of greatness like in Vault of Horror with Tom Baker’s voodoo painter or Jack Palance’s Poephile in Torture Garden, but the fun nature of the films leads to a throwaway approach to overall quality.
A common feature of British horror films and all modern horror is using irony to apologize for what they are and AMICUS and Hammer took this to extremes which undermined their overall product. AMICUS did make a number of straight single story movies which were very good. Madhouse is a late example of giving greater violence to the audience with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in a self referential plot of fading horror stars. Best of all is I, Monster which is the best version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in cinema with Christopher Lee as good as he ever was as the misadventuring scientist. Price also appeared in 2 other British horror films worthy of note in the seventies – the Abominable Dr Phibes and Theatre of Blood. In these films Price is allowed to camp up witty stories of revenge with a pleasing amount of blood. The Shakespearean killings in Theatre of Blood are particularly memorable.
Willing to go where AMICUS wouldn’t in terms of outright exploitation was Tony Tenser and TIGON films. Backing low budget films which had a dose of sex and gore, TIGON, were involved in a number of gems of British Horror. Three are worthy of discussion here – the Creeping Flesh, Witchfinder General aka the Conqueror Worm, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. The Creeping Flesh was raised from a somewhat silly tale of bones coming back to life with great direction from Freddie Francis and fine work from Cushing and Lee. Flesh was seriously enjoyable but not a classic, but Witchfinder General has claims to being one. Directed by a 24 year old Michael Reeves, set in the midst of the English Civil War and starring a surprisingly subdued Vincent Price, Witchfinder General has many supporters as the Great British Horror film and it is truly an amazing achievement. It is a film that has the cachet of being misunderstood on release and cut by censors, but it just isn’t a horror film. Lawlessness, landscapes, horses and revenge are Witchfinder’s stock in trade and these themes are those of the Western. Also Witchfinder does have some quite wooden acting in it and one of the worst incidental roles for a woman ever written. At one point, Hilary Dwyer is literally twiddling her thumbs on a river bank as the script requires her to be SOMEWHERE ELSE and the script writer could not think of anything else to do other than look pretty.
No, the best film TIGON made was Blood on Satan’s Claw. Taking the theme of possession and taking supernatural evil seriously, Satan’s Claw has a compromised script and an undistinguished cast. Yet it works brilliantly, all the cast are acting in the same film and the style of the film is simultaneously creepy and thoughtful. It doesn’t apologize for itself or compensate for scaring you with cheap gags, irony or physical humour. Satan’s Claw just does it’s job and does it better than most. With more resources and more time to script edit, this would have been a masterpiece.
Later British Horror films have been far from noteworthy, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is probably the best of them. Barker was a Horror novelist who got to make his novella, the Hellbound Heart, into a movie and the results are quite good if not justifying the infliction on the planet of the ensuing crappy sequels. In recent years, Neil Marshall has met success with Dog Soldiers and the Descent – entertaining films but far from memorable.
Which leaves us with the Wicker Man. Great acting, a great script and a terrific production. The Wicker Man is often in the top 10 of British movies when people compile a list. I can see why people like it so much. The cult status of being a lost movie in its long form, the great stars in the film, the magnificent performances of Lee and Woodward, and the clear attempt to design a new aesthetic in horror by making the film so earthbound. It could be churlish to say so but I don’t think it is a great film and this judgement comes not from my head but my heart. I don’t love the Wicker Man, I know it is a better movie than films like Tower of Evil or Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell but I love those films for what they are trying to do even if they don’t achieve it. I think this probably has something to do with the personality of the Wicker Man’s director, Robin Hardy, and how this comes out in the film. I find the film stuffy, overstated and lacking in anything approaching magic. I find the film’s ambition in attempting to be different from other horror films to be motivated by a snobbery which the British bring to horror. It is the same snobbery which apologized for scaring people with misjudged comedy in poorer Hammer films, it is the same attitude which motivates the irony in AMICUS’s stories, and the same as the oft reported reluctance of stars like Lee and Karloff to call what they do Horror. Perhaps this is why I can’t find a great British horror film because the British are so ashamed of what they do.
I don’t think a great film can be ashamed of itself and this is especially so in horror films. The British horror film will not be great until it states its purpose clearly. What the British Horror film needs is a dose of commitment like Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension or Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Somebody out there needs still to provide this, and until they do irony and second best will cancel out scares and terror.
For more information on these films and how to buy them go here.