Great Horror From Great Britain
While not as prolific as Hollywood when it comes to making macabre movies that leave you checking under your bed at night, Britain has nonetheless turned out some superb cinematic terrors over the years. In Martin Scorsese’s top eleven scariest films of all time, three of them are British, a high number given the level of the nation’s output in comparison to it’s American counterpart. But what is it that makes British horror films unique and what are the memorable ones that have perhaps found their way into our nightmares late at night?
With the 2012 release of The Woman In Black, it was refreshing to see a modern made old-fashioned ghost story; a horror film far removed from the likes of the Saw and Hostel franchises. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, who ably proves in this film that he’s more than just a top class Quidditch player, The Woman In Black eschews gore in favour of a chilling atmosphere along with gripping tension. Based on a novel by Susan Hill, The Woman In Black is also a successful stage play; the second longest running, non-musical in the West End, after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
It was produced by the legendary Hammer Films who have been at the helm of countless horrors over the years. They were at their most successful in the mid 50’s to late 60’s but in the last few years they have enjoyed a revival with such films as Let Me In (a remake of Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In) and Wake Wood.
It could be said that British horror films are particularly effective for Irish audiences, the close geographical proximity somewhat eroding that sense of make believe which you would find in a similar American film. For example, it’s a lot more unsettling to view the deserted streets of London, after a zombie apocalypse, in 28 Days Later than it is watching the town of Barrow, Alaska being massacred by vampires in 30 Days Of Night. We’ve arguably become desensitised to seeing the USA being destroyed in a variety of ways so perhaps it doesn’t quite have the same impact on us when Will Smith is wandering through the vacant streets of New York in I Am Legend, which has a similar premise to 28 Days Later. What make 28 Days Later even more frightening is that the zombies can run really fast which hardly seems fair at all.
Another contemporary classic is the 2008 film Eden Lake. A camping trip being ruined by bloodthirsty locals may seem like a tired old concept yet James Watkins’s first feature film is anything but. Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender play a young couple who decide to get away for a romantic camping weekend but things soon go awry when they are terrorised by a group of teenagers. The fact that British and Irish audiences may feel more familiarity with the characters on both sides in this film makes Eden Lake disturbingly horrific yet enthralling to watch. Certainly more terrifying than watching a scantily clad, prom queen wander out of her tent to check if that far away shadow which looks like a maniac wielding an axe really is a maniac wielding an axe.
If we go further back in time, there are plenty of older British horrors that still stand up today. A Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve inspired the BBC to make the annual Ghost Story For Christmas series, first broadcast in 1971. With a more subtle yet nonetheless effective approach to invoking fear, what makes each instalment of this series particularly appealing is the quintessentially British characters.
It’s true to say that people who are not particularly bright are a common feature of horror films. A man will overtly ridicule his wife for trying to convince him that their house is haunted in between ducking out of the way of floating kitchen utensils. However this irritating cliché was lacking from the films of A Ghost Story For Christmas, an annual BBC special which aired between 1971 and 1976. The characters here are rational, sometimes well educated, people and don’t instantly dismiss the abnormal yet glaringly obvious paranormal activities they encounter. The Signalman is a prime example of this. A railway signalman befriends a wandering traveller and subsequently tells him about a strange spectre that always visits him right before an accident on the railway line takes place. Both men talk of being logical human beings and try to rationalise this strange occurrence but nor do they completely disregard what the signalman claims to have witnessed either.
In A Warning To The Curious (1972), an amateur archaeologist digs up the lost crown of Anglia, which according to legend, protects England from invasion as long as it remains buried. Not long after he has unearthed the crown the archaeologist is haunted by a mysterious, black figure. So he does what anyone of us would do in that situation. He puts the crown back where he found it and brings a friend along with him because he’s scared out of his wits. These are truthful and believable actions if such extraordinary events were to occur in real life so by the end you’re not shouting “Well that’s what you get for being so unbelievably stupid!!!” at your TV.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, three of the films that Scorsese placed in his top eleven scariest films of all time are British, all of them old classics. Dead Of Night is a 1944 anthology film with four different directors. A group of strangers are gathered together in a country house and entertain each other with eerie stories that happened to them or that they were told about. Five separate stories then follow, the most famous of which being the Ventriloquist Dummy sequence, doing for puppets what Stephen King's IT did for clowns.
Night Of The Demon (1957) is interesting for several reason. First of all a line in the film is sampled in the Kate Bush song Hounds Of Love. Yes, “it’s in the trees, it’s coming” is directly taken from Night Of The Demon. Secondly while making the film there was a bitter dispute with the director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett in one camp and producer Hal E. Chester in the other. The disagreement arose from Chester adding extra shots, without the director’s consent, at the beginning and end of the film so the audience could clearly see the demon. Tourneur and Bennett wanted to leave sightings of the demon ambiguous. Bennett was so irked that he was quoted as saying that if Chester had walked up his driveway he’d have shot him dead.
The final film out of the three British horrors on Scorsese’s list is the 1961 Jack Clayton masterpiece The Innocents. Based on the Henry James novella The Turn Of The Screw, The Innocents perfectly encapsulates the cinematic strengths of British horror. An impeccable script, a relentlessly unnerving atmosphere and a unforgettable scare at a window, The Innocents builds slowly and carefully to a compelling climax. It tells the story of Miss Giddens played by Deborah Kerr who is hired as a governess to take care of two children, Miles and Flora, by their wealthy uncle who wants no responsibilities weighing him down. As she adjusts to life in her new plush mansion, Miss Giddens begins to realise that there is strange goings on. She sees visions, hears voices and is troubled by the children’s sometimes peculiar behaviour. Often young child actors tarnish an otherwise solid film (see the character of Tim in Jurassic Park) but both performances of the two young children in The Innocents are so unbelievably creepy that’s it’s rather a shame that neither of them are still acting today.
Of course no list of British horror movie would be complete without The Wicker Man (1973). This isn’t a film that makes you jump out of your seat spilling popcorn onto your lap nor does it reduce you to cowering behind a cushion. Instead it seeps into your subconscious, lingering in the depths of your mind for some time to come, so you might be out for a walk one day when all of a sudden The Wicker Man enters your brain and you shudder. Out of the 200 or so films that he’s been in, Christopher Lee ranks The Wicker Man as the best. Edward Woodward also stars and plays a police Sergeant investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a remote, Scottish Island. To his horror, he discovers that the residents of the Island worship pagan Gods and to say anymore about it would ruin it for those who’ve not yet had the pleasure of seeing it. While there are of course plenty of American horror films that are just as strong if not stronger than some of the films in this list, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining etc, there is one area where Britain will always beat America hands down and that is with versions of The Wicker Man. Watch the 2006 American remake starring Nicholas Cage. It will give you nightmares but for very different reasons.