A Brief History of British Horror

Looking back from the staid, cynical confines of the 21st century, it seems hard to believe that Britain was once at the rotten heart of the horror movie world.

With our modern industry struggling to find its own identity within the global cinema marketplace, it’s strange, encouraging, and perhaps a little depressing too, to look back over the diverse catalogue of horror films produced by British filmmakers during the previous century.

Our rich horror heritage relates to a period when there was a real, viable domestic industry and a thriving marketplace for British films, both at home and abroad; but more importantly, it speaks from a time when producers, directors and financiers were willing both to rely on generic conventions and sure-fire formulas, and at the same time, take wild chances on unknown and untried projects. The story of British horror cinema is one of risk and invention, of strange dreams and weird tales, of high hopes and failed enterprises – but most of all, of the range, dedication and imagination British filmmakers, given the opportunity, will invariably show.

From the very first days of the cinematograph, right up to the practical meltdown of the domestic film industry in the early eighties, British filmmakers were at the cutting edge of putting fear on film. Early British versions of Faust, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Sweeney Todd enjoyed popular success, but following the explosion of interest in German expressionist cinema – particularly in the wake of influential neo-horrors like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921) and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1919) – horror really began to come into its own.

Perhaps the greatest British director of all was an early convert. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films, particularly The Lodger (1926) and Blackmail (1929), bear the unmistakeable influence of German expressionism, and straddle the boundaries between horror, thriller and even, perhaps, the serial killer movie. The suspense films which Hitchcock directed in Britain during the thirties are shot through with the trappings of early horror filmmaking – the striking use of light and shadow, the intermingling of dream and real worlds, the intrusion of extraordinary happenings into the everyday.

It was only Hitchcock’s dislike of fantasy and his preference for real-world frights which lured him away from full-blown horror – crucially, Hitchcock’s monsters were not creatures of the imagination, but characters who might occupy the next-door seat on the bus, or answer a small ad in the paper, or rent us a backwater motel room. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s status as a thrill merchant lent credence both to other budding British directors, and played a part in developing the strange cross-over between entertainment, humour and fear which would ensure horror’s cinematic future.

It wasn’t until the thirties that Hollywood finally began to assert its dominance over the horror genre. Following the runaway success of Dracula in 1931, the film which launched Bela Lugosi as a modern horror icon, and Frankenstein in 1931, a strikingly filmed and genuinely unnerving version of the classic Mary Shelley tale, made by ex-pat British director James Whale, Universal Studios embarked on a ground-breaking and hugely influential horror cycle which included The Old Dark House (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) – the first and last both directed again by James Whale. Indeed, British directors, writers, technicians and producers had a pivotal role in many of these early films – though they often worked behind the scenes, and rarely received the credit they deserved, their expertise and influence played a key role in shaping the look and feel of the early horrors which would go on to define the genre for future generations. In the latter part of the decade, Universal was eclipsed by the developing horror wing of RKO Pictures, which produced a number of atmospheric chillers under the guidance of Val Lewton in the early forties, including Cat People (1942) and The Body Snatcher (1944).

Following the trials and hardships of the Second World War, horror had lost much of its sting. Light romantic comedies, war films, and spy stories were the order of the day – but it was really the burgeoning interest in science-fiction, following the dawn of the new, terrifying nuclear age, which had killed off the horror movie as a box-office staple. This was the age of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955), and The Blob (1958). Frankenstein and Wolfman stood little chance when the enemy was technological progress. It was only the intervention of a small, independent production house situated on the River Thames that revived interest in horror as a viable genre. Enter Hammer Studios.

Hammer is undoubtedly the most famous success story of British horror. The studio’s peculiar blend of gore, high camp and period horror became symbolic of British scare movies in the post-war period, and continues to inspire fans and filmmakers alike almost half a century later. Their first major success was The Quatermass Experiment in 1955. The studio followed quickly with remakes of the Dracula and Frankenstein stories, both of which were hugely successful, and paved the way for twenty years of spin-offs, reinventions, and bizarre original stories (The Indian Spirit Guide: Journey to the Unknown Part 4 [1968], anyone?) The Hammer films were also responsible for launching a gallery of stars whose faces became inextricably bound up with the lexicon of British film horror – including Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing – together with some of its most prolific directors and writers.

Hammer trailblazed the kind of no-budget, no-backing, no-brainer filmmaking that was mirrored across the Atlantic by maverick American producers like Roger Corman and American International Pictures. Hammer’s philosophy was to make ’em fast, cheap and as sensationally gory as possible. It was to prove a winning formula. Their gleeful plundering of myth, literature, and legend (not to mention the collected contents of the make-up truck) invented a whole new brand of not-so-scary cinema, but there were several smaller houses, notably Amicus Productions and Tigon Studios, who were working in a similar field, and produced many films which helped develop the British horror style, including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Asylum (1972) and From Beyond The Grave (1973). Larger studios like British Lion and Rank also got in on the act, with predictably varied results.

The sheer volume of horror films produced by the combined British studios in their heyday is staggering – well over a hundred films were produced during the golden age of British horror between 1950 and 1980. Though many of the films Hammer and its cohorts produced were bizarre, sometimes laughable, and often just plain bad, they were almost always marked by an individual style and off-kilter imagination. You can always tell a Hammer film – usually by some strange, directorial quirk, or hilarious one-liner, or dreadful special effect, but also by the sudden flashes of cinematic inspiration, the occasional well-crafted camera move, and even the odd moment of genuine, spine-tingling scariness.

It’s this sense of originality and sheer enthusiasm which British horror has, even at its lowest ebb, invariably shown. While US horror of the time may be slicker, showier and more expensive, while German horror may be better made, and while Italian horror may be scarier, Hammer and British horror has endured, quite simply, because they’re much more fun.

The Hammer cult continues to inspire legions of dedicated fan clubs, websites and movie conventions thirty years after the last film was made, and numerous books and articles have exhaustively examined the creative minds, ideas and personnel behind the Hammer story. But perhaps the most interesting examples of British horror were produced outside the Hammer studios in the late sixties and seventies, when Hammer and its companions were already beginning to become straight jacketed by their own styles, and a new generation of British filmmakers was working its way through the ranks.

These films would take classic tropes, themes and stars of horror cinema, and reinvent them in new and surprising ways for a newly cine-literate audience. The defining characteristic of horror is its adaptability – the way in which the old, well-worn stories continually reshape and reinvent themselves to reflect the prevailing concerns of the time in which they were made. Just as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) reinvigorated Hollywood horror, classic British films like Death Line (1972), The Wicker Man (1973) and Don’t Look Now (1973) rewrote the rules for scaring audiences on this side of the Atlantic.