With the emergence of the Graveyard Poets in 1714 and the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, about 50 years later in 1765, the Western horror genre first began to crawl out of the sea up onto British shores. The Gothic novel gave way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Dr. Polidori’s story “The Vampyre” (1819), and a wave of theatrical horrors that flooded British stages through the 1820s. The Industrial Revolution brought increased literacy and with it cheap horror periodicals — known as Penny Bloods — in the 1840s. By the fin de siecle, the Continent was awash with tales of British (and Irish) terror thanks to writers like Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sheridan Le Fanu — culminating in the real-life horrors of the world’s first famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper.
As a genre film fan, it’s easy to associate much of classic horror cinema with American ingenuity and Universal Studios, but so many of these foundational stories have their roots in British folk tales and literature. In memory of Sir Christopher Lee’s recent passing, I’m going to do an in depth exploration of British horror cinema — more than 200 films — which will result in the most extensive series I’ve done so far for this blog. If, like so many horror fans I’ve encountered, you think British genre films are stodgy, dated period pieces more concerned with overflowing cleavage than true terror, I challenge you to watch along with me.
Generally known as Britain’s greatest filmmaking decade, war and poverty seem to have brought out the best in the country’s national cinema. The BFI states, “Not only was this the heyday of David Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Ealing comedy and Gainsborough melodrama, over a billion tickets were sold each year.” Horror films, on the other hand, were essentially banned during the war years, so this short list reflects what kind of genre cinema was available to British audiences in the ‘40s.
Some of the greatest British horror films stem from the country’s strong literary tradition. An early example is Crimes At The Dark House (George King, 1940), based on Wilkie Collins’ mystery masterpiece The Woman in White (1859). This is one of eight collaborations between director George King and star Tod Slaughter and follows an asylum escapee who kills the heir of an aristocratic family and impersonates him. More typical genre films of the time include a mashup of horror elements with comedy and spy thrillers, such as The Ghost of St. Michael’s (Marcel Varnel, 1941), where a luckless teacher is sent to an isolated school in Scotland that appears to be haunted. Dark psychological melodrama, such as The Night Has Eyes (Leslie Arliss, 1942), was another popular strain and was oft frequented by the young James Mason as a Heathcliffe-like romantic but psychologically tormented protagonist. Here he stars as a shellshocked man who might be a murderous psychopath.
Dead Of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945) was the first horror film since the war’s end and is also the first British horror anthology film. Guests gathered at a country house tell each other spooky tales, one of which features the first use of the evil ventriloquist’s dummy trope. Based on the work of seminal Irish horror author Sheridan le Fanu, Uncle Silas (Charles Frank, 1947) is a Gothic thriller that follows an innocent young woman whose twisted uncle becomes her guardian and will go to any means necessary to receive her inheritance. The handsome if slightly sinister Anton Walbrook stars as a sociopathic, gambling-addicted army officer in The Queen Of Spades (Thorold Dickinson, 1948), based on Pushkin’s story of the same name. The soldier murders an old countess when he learns that she made a pact with the devil to always win at cards.
More cinematically maligned than the previous decade, the ‘50s were underwhelming as a whole and the box office was flooded with literary adaptations and films about the war. It was also a time when the horror genre began to find its voice with what the BFI described as “bringing eroticism and excess to a cinema more often associated with repression and restraint.” British genre cinema of this time reimagined American horrors with Hammer’s lush, erotic adaptations of Universal’s black and white monster films: everything changed with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). Other examples include a series of increasingly wild science fiction terrors, the fruitful beginnings of occult horror, and the emergence of unrestrained sadism and icy psychopaths as protagonists.
Science fiction horror was one of the decade’s most popular subgenres. A black leather-clad Martian woman comes to Earth with her robot sidekick to force human men to participate in a breeding program in Devil Girl From Mars (David MacDonald, 1954). In The Gamma People (John Gilling, 1956) two reporters accidentally find themselves behind the Iron Curtain, where they discover that a communist dictator is using a “gamma ray” to turn his countrymen into mindless zombies. The low budget Womaneater (Charles Saunders, 1957) follows a scientist who feeds women to a flesh-eating tree in order to produce a serum that reverses death. And the inhabitants of a Swiss mountain resort must contend with a radioactive cloud full of telepathic alien beings with a penchant for decapitation in The Trollenberg Terror (Quentin Lawrence, 1958).
Director Robert Day created three of the best later in the decade, beginning with The Haunted Strangler aka Grip of the Strangler (Robert Day, 1958). Boris Karloff stars as a researcher who becomes possessed while investigating a legendary killer. The follow up, Corridors of Blood (Robert Day, 1958), follows Karloff as a doctor trying to make a breakthrough in anesthesia research. He experiments on himself with unpredictable, tragic results. Day’s third effort, First Man into Space (Robert Day, 1959), concerns a pilot who is the first man to fly into space, but he goes missing and his plane becomes the harbinger of an evil, bloodthirsty entity.
Director Arthur Crabtree followed suit with Fiend Without a Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958), a fantastic sci-fi horror romp that concerns invisible, brain-shaped monsters that attack any army base, the result of a scientist’s experiments in telekinesis. Crabtree also helmed the first film in studio Anglo-Amalgamated's so-called “Sadeian trilogy,” Horrors of the Black Museum (Arthur Crabtree, 1959), about a twisted writer with homicidal intentions who runs a museum dedicated to torture.
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957), the decade’s finest occult horror film, follows a skeptical doctor (American film noir regular Dana Andrews) who plans to expose the leader of a satanic cult… until strange accidents and events occur. No time was lost ripping off Hammer with Blood of the Vampire (Henry Cass, 1958), a gleeful imitation of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, which was penned by the screenwriter of both those films, Jimmy Sangster, and stars upcoming Hammer regular Barbara Shelley as the victim of an undead mad scientist with a thirst for blood. Finally, Jack the Ripper (Monty Berman, Robert S. Baker, 1959), a low budget riff on the story of Saucy Jack, was a precursor to the sex and violence of British cinema in the decades to follow.
Britain’s greatest horror studio changed the face of genre cinema with an enormous number of films rivaled only by Universal Studios’ horror output in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Hammer is best known for extensive Dracula and Frankenstein series featuring opulent sets and costumes, buxom women, and a core cast and crew that included actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and directors such as Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, and Roy Ward Baker. While they started out producing mysteries and thrillers, the studio later delved into many horror subgenres.
The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) changed everything for the studio and marked their transition from suspense films to outright horror. They kept this series going for nearly two decades with star Peter Cushing in a coldly rational, sociopathic interpretation of Mary Shelley’s fatally curious doctor. It's impossible to watch mad science films of the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s without recalling his debonair turn as Baron Frankenstein (in all but one of the films). This first film brought together people who would become central to British horror, such as Cushing, Christopher Lee, and actress Hazel Court, director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and many more. In its follow up, The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958), the Baron escapes the guillotine and continues his experiments under an assumed name. In The Evil of Frankenstein (Freddie Francis, 1964), he is on the run yet again and finds his original creation preserved in a glacier, but a greedy hypnotist uses the monster for his own ends.
In my favorite of the Frankenstein sequels, Frankenstein Created Woman (Terence Fisher, 1967), the Baron unites two doomed lovers in the body of a once deformed girl with violent results. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969) introduces a more sadistic, aging Baron, who blackmails a young doctor and his fiancée into helping him transport the brain of an unstable colleague into a new body. The bizarre sixth entry, The Horror of Frankenstein (Jimmy Sangster, 1970), is Hammer’s own reimagining of The Curse of Frankenstein with the young Baron as a manipulative womanizer; it is also the only film in the series not to feature Cushing, to its detriment. The final outing, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974), marks Cushing's return as an aged, injured Baron hiding out as the physician of an insane asylum, where he continues his experiments with the assistance of a young surgeon.
I could be wrong about this, but with 16 films produced in 16 years, Hammer might be the world’s most prolific horror film studio when it comes to vampire cinema. Their nine film Dracula series began with Dracula aka Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). This iconic take on the blood thirsty count pits Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing against Christopher Lee’s Dracula for a not entirely faithful but wholly entertaining look at Bram Stoker’s novel. The follow up, The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960), was more of a spin off than a direct sequel and follows Cushing’s Van Helsing as he takes on a perverse vampiric baron preying on a school for ladies. Lee returned for Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1966), where two couples stumble across Dracula’s castle, unaware of the danger within. In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968), a priest attempts to exorcise Dracula’s castle but accidentally revives the Count (Lee again), who hunts down the exorcist, his buxom niece, and her atheist boyfriend.
In the fifth film, Taste the Blood of Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1970), Lee returns for this tale of three brothel-obsessed gentlemen looking for the next big thrill who find themselves involved in a black mass that revives Dracula. Lee is at it again as a particularly charming, talkative Dracula in Scars of Dracula (Roy Ward Baker, 1970). He invites a young libertine into the castle, but drains his blood and the man’s brother comes looking for him. Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972) is my favorite of the Hammer Dracula sequels and reunites Lee and Cushing in this modern day update about a groovy group of friends who are talked into participating in a black mass by Dracula’s ambitious young disciple. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973), Lee’s Dracula is a Bond villain-like mastermind who coerces politicians and businessmen to join his satanic cult. Loosing deadly viruses upon the world is the first step in his plan for global domination and only Cushing’s Van Helsing can stop him. Lee was absent for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Roy Ward Baker, Chang Cheh, 1974), a coproduction with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio primarily known for kung fu films. Cushing’s Van Helsing is in China lecturing on folklore when Dracula revives the legendary seven golden vampires.
Hammer also made a number of excellent, underrated vampire films. One of my favorites, The Kiss of the Vampire (Don Sharp, 1963), is an excellent follow up to Brides of Dracula. A honeymooning couple falls prey to a vampiric satanic cult headed by an aristocratic family. The most famous of these are the three films in the Karnstein Trilogy, beginning with The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic Gothic story “Carmilla.” This is one of the earliest examples of a lesbian vampire film and has been much imitated. It also serves as the introduction to Polish actress Ingrid Pitt in her first major role for Hammer. In its sequel, Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971), Carmilla Karnstein is resurrected by her family but blends in at a local girls’ school until an occult author falls in love with her and stirs up trouble. Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1971), the final film in the Karnstein trilogy, follows buxom twins sent to live with their maniacal witch-hunting uncle, played by Peter Cushing, who has to figure out which of the two has been seduced by a debauched vampire.
Ingrid Pitt stars in Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971), not connected to the Dracula series, but about the aged Countess Bathory who figures out that she can restore her legendary beauty by bathing in the blood of virgins. In Vampire Circus (Robert Young, 1972), a vampiric nobleman is defeated by the citizens of a small village, but his kin — in the form of a traveling circus — return for revenge. In Hammer’s final vampire film, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (Brian Clemens, 1974), a vampire hunter and his hunchbacked sidekick discover vampires that drain youth rather than blood infesting a village.
I’ve always enjoyed mummy films thanks to my love for anything to do with Ancient Egypt, but this dusty, bandaged creature is definitely more neglected than Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Even Hammer struggled with this series, only producing four colorful if somewhat uneven films. The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959) reunited Fisher, Cushing, and Lee for this reimagining of Universal’s The Mummy, where archaeologists raid the tomb of Princess Ananka with fatal consequences. Ignoring the events of the previous film, in The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (Michael Carreras, 1964), three British Egyptologists bring the contents of an ancient tomb back to London, where I’m sure you can guess what happens. In The Mummy's Shroud (John Gilling, 1967), Hammer seems to have followed the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, come up with another completely unrelated plot.” This also involves British archaeologists violating a tomb they should have left well enough alone. My favorite of the series is Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971), based on Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars. It follows a diabolical Egyptian Princess whose spirit is reincarnated in the daughter of an archaeologist.
Thanks to the success of their Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations, Hammer also explored a wide variety of classic and unique horror themes. The earliest, The Abominable Snowman (Val Guest, 1957), stars Peter Cushing as a scientist who joins an expedition in the Himalayas to find the legendary yeti. In The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Terence Fisher, 1959), a scientist maintains his youth by killing women to steal their parathyroid glands. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (Terence Fisher, 1960) is an interesting riff on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story where an emotionally distant, work-obsessed Jekyll is only interested in his adulterous wife when he turns into the young, charming, and thoroughly sadistic Mr. Hyde. In The Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher, 1961), a young Oliver Reed appears in his first major film role as a good-hearted youth who transforms into a werewolf.
Also in this mold of newly imagined horror classics is The Phantom of the Opera (Terence Fisher, 1962), where Hammer put an enjoyable new spin on an old story. They also added a new spin to the werewolf myth with The Gorgon (Terence Fisher, 1964), with Cushing and Lee on hand for a series of gruesome murders where a mythic monster turns men to stone by the light of the full moon. This was followed by the similarly themed The Reptile (John Gilling, 1966), in which a were-snake terrorizes a small village on the moors. While that film relied on Malaysian magic believed to be a plague by the locals, Hammer’s follow up and only zombie film, The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966), echoed that formula with the use of voodoo to turn people into undead slaves. Finally, Hammer returned to Stevenson’s tale with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Roy Ward Baker, 1971), where the obsessed Henry Jekyll’s experiments turn him into a beautiful woman with terrifying appetites.
While folk horror was explored more aggressively by other studios, Hammer dipped briefly into this well with three films. The first, The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966), follows a schoolteacher who believes someone may be practicing witchcraft at her new post, while the best of these, The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968), is based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley and involves a satanic cult in the countryside. Based on another Wheatley novel, To the Devil a Daughter (Peter Sykes, 1976) concerns an occult author’s attempts to save a beautiful young nun from a cult.
And though sci-fi horror was a popular staple of British genre filmmaking, Hammer only experimented with it a few times over the years. In Four Sided Triangle (Terence Fisher, 1953), a scientist competing with his friend for the affection of one woman decides to clone her with disastrous results. The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955) is the start of one of the best series in all of cinematic sci-fi. An astronaut is the only one to return from a mission in space, but he becomes infected by an alien organism that could destroy humanity. Professor Quatermass teams up with Scotland Yard to contain the threat in time. Loosely connected is X the Unknown (Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey, 1956), where an unexplained source of radiation in Scotland foreshadows the arrival of a horrible, prehistoric creature. In Quatermass 2 (Val Guest, 1957), a strange meteor shower leads the professor to discover an alien conspiracy within the government. In the final, terrifying film, Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967), the professor is on hand to excavate a mysterious vessel buried in the London Underground, which he realizes is an alien ship. Unrelated is The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963), where a woman attempting to escape her abusive brother joins a tourist on a day trip to a nearby island, where they find strange, cold children living in a cave.
Hammer also produced a wide range of compelling mysteries, thrillers, and psychological horror films. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Terence Fisher, 1959) is an excellent Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation with Cushing as Holmes and Lee as the persecuted Sir Henry Baskerville. In Shadow of the Cat (John Gilling, 1961), a cat is the only witness to its owner’s murder. Taste of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961) follows a young paralyzed woman who returns to her father’s home after the death of her mother, but nothing is as it seems. In Captain Clegg (Peter Graham Scott, 1962), British naval forces investigate a coastal town that is allegedly haunted by “Marsh Phantoms.” In Paranoiac (Freddie Francis, 1963), two wealthy orphans have grown into disturbed adults and the household is put in further disarray when a man claiming to be their older brother — believed dead — reappears.
Maniac (Michael Carreras, 1963) follows an artist who gets involved with an older French woman and learns her husband is in jail for blowtorching another man to death. In Nightmare (Freddie Francis, 1964), a young woman is tormented by nightmares of her mother killing her father. When she goes to live with her guardian, her mental health takes a turn for the worse. Hysteria (Freddie Francis 1965) follows an amnesiac who attempts to solve a murder he may have been involved in. In Fanatic aka Die! Die! My Darling! (Silvio Narizzano, 1965), a young woman about to be married visits her deceased, former boyfriend’s mother for the last time, but the woman is a religious fanatic and kidnaps her to cleanse her soul. Bette Davis stars as the title character in The Nanny (Seth Holt, 1965), where a young boy claims his caregiver is homicidal. Christopher Lee stars in Rasputin, the Mad Monk (Don Sharp, 1966), inspired by of the life of Russia’s most notorious mystic.
Bette Davis returned for The Anniversary (Roy Ward Baker, 1968), where a domineering, one-eyed matriarch gathers her family together for a celebration. Crescendo (Alan Gibson, 1970) follows a music student to the south of France, where she is researching a composer and becomes mixed up with his strange family. In the wonderful Hands of the Ripper (Peter Sasdy, 1971), a psychiatrist’s young patient may have ties with Jack the Ripper. A man locks up his two children in Demons of the Mind (Peter Sykes, 1972), afraid they will follow his wife’s footsteps into madness. In Fear in the Night (Jimmy Sangster, 1972), a newlywed follows her husband to a post at a boarding school, but she is repeatedly attacked by a killer with a prosthetic hand. Finally, in Straight on Till Morning (Peter Collinson, 1972) a plain young woman unwittingly attracts a handsome psychopath.
New Yorkers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg teamed up to form this studio that became known as Hammer’s lesser sibling. Primarily known for popularizing the horror anthology film, Amicus had a slightly less opulent visual style than Hammer, generally set their films in present day, and used surprisingly big name actors (including some of Hammer’s own talent). Their often darker, scarier plots were frequently penned by Psycho author and all-around horror giant Robert Bloch.
The City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960) is Subotsky’s effective pre-Amicus tale about a young student researching witchcraft in New England who stumbles across a town of Satanists at the direction of her professor, played by Christopher Lee. Inspired by Dead of Night, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1964) was the first major horror anthology film from the period and concerns a Tarot-wielding doctor who tells the grisly fortunes of several men on a train car. Based on a Robert Bloch story, The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965) concerns an occult collector who comes into possession of the skull of the Marquis de Sade, unaware of its malevolent powers. The first true clunker from Amicus was The Deadly Bees (Freddie Francis, 1966), where a vacationing pop star realizes that a farmer is harvesting lethal insects.
The Psychopath (Freddie Francis, 1966) is another Robert Bloch collaboration and follows a series of murders where the killer leaves dolls at the scene of the crime. Director Francis and Bloch reunited for Torture Garden (Freddie Francis, 1967), an anthology film set at a circus sideshow where five patrons pay extra to learn of their own doomed futures. It was followed by The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1970), a Bloch-penned anthology about mysterious crimes in an abandoned house. Christopher Lee stars in I, Monster (Stephen Weeks, 1971), an adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
A young man terrorizes his grandmother for her inheritance money in What Became of Jack and Jill (Bill Bain, 1972). Undoubtedly one of the best horror anthologies ever made, Tales from the Crypt (Freddie Francis, 1972) relates the deaths of five strangers touring ancient catacombs. One of these tales scared the absolute bejeezus out of me as a kid. Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972) continued the trend with several tales set in an asylum, while five men locked in a vault trade nightmares in Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973). One of Amicus’s few full length films, And Now the Screaming Starts! (Roy Ward Baker, 1973) follows a bride who discovers that her new husband’s family is cursed.
In Tales That Witness Madness (Freddie Francis, 1973), a psychiatrist played by Donald Pleasance discusses how four patients went mad. Madhouse (Jim Clark, 1974) stars Vincent Price as an aging horror actor accused of killing his young girlfriend, which drives him mad. Amicus’s final anthology film, From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974), follows the stories of four customers who purchase items from a curious antique shop. In The Beast Must Die (Paul Annett, 1974), visitors to a rural estate are informed that one of their number is a werewolf and their host intends to find and kill the lycanthrope.
Tigon British Film Productions:
Tony Tenser’s smaller and more unusual Tigon studio became known for a handful of folk horror films that focused on pagan rituals, satanic cults, and the supernatural qualities of the British landscape. While Tenser also distributed erotica and exploitation cinema, this group of around a dozen low budget in-house films effectively changed the face of horror cinema.
In The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves, 1967), an older couple uses hypnosis to experiences the lives of others, but one of their surrogates becomes increasingly violent. Curse of the Crimson Altar (Vernon Sewell, 1968) follows an antiques seller whose brother has gone missing in the countryside. The owner of the estate where he was last seen claims to know nothing, but turns out to be the ancestor of a malevolent witch. In The Blood Beast Terror (Vernon Sewell, 1968), a riff on Hammer’s The Gorgon and The Reptile, a mysterious winged creature is connected to the grisly murders of young men in the countryside.
Generally remembered as Tigon’s greatest film, Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) follows the violent exploits of medieval witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, played by Vincent Price at his most fearsome. In The Haunted House of Horror (Michael Armstrong, 1969), a group of teens including Frankie Avalon decide to get their kicks at a haunted mansion with fatal results. George Sanders stars in The Body Stealers (Gerry Levy, 1969), a sci-fi horror tale about British paratroopers who go missing in mid air. When soldiers at a military base turn up dead, two sisters suspect their brother in The Beast in the Cellar (James Kelley, 1970). In Scream and Scream Again (Gordon Hessler, 1970), Price, Lee, and Cushing unite for this tale of strange events in London that include murder and limb transplantation.
Blood on Satan's Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971) is one of Tigon’s finest and concerns a strange skull unearthed in a field, which coincides with the emergence of a local cult. The loosely similar Virgin Witch (Ray Austin, 1972) follows two models who travel to the woods for a photo shoot, but one of them is intended to be a sacrifice. Based on the series of the same name, Doomwatch (Peter Sasdy, 1972) concerns a toxic waste dump near a village, which turns the citizens violent. A very unusual romance, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (Fred Burnley, 1972) transitions into a melancholic zombie film. In The Creeping Flesh (Freddie Francis, 1973), a scientist discovers a skeleton that disturbingly grows flesh when doused with water.
In addition to Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon, the decade saw a wealth of excellent, underrated horror films, along with plenty of enjoyable trash. These provide an interesting contrast with the working class, angry young man films of the period, while the swinging ‘60s — for which London was a major center — didn’t really appear in horror until the ‘70s. Cultural icons like the Beatles, James Bond, and the Carry On comedy series were countered with a wealth of folk horror films, atomic age sci-fi, and that most British of villains, the polite psychopath.
The most important genre film of the decade is undoubtedly Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), about a serial killer targeting models and dancers who pose for his camera. It effectively ruined the career of auteur Powell, who had been one of Britain’s most vibrant cinematic voices in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This was followed by a number of films about psychopaths: in The Hand (Henry Cass, 1960), victims are found with their hands cut off and clues lead back to WWII atrocities. In Night Must Fall (Karel Reisz, 1964), written by and starring Albert Finney, a young murderer ingratiates himself in the household of a wealthy widow. The Collector (William Wyler, 1965) follows a disturbed young man who “collects” a beautiful art student and attempts to make her love him.
Joan Crawford improbably stars in Berserk (Jim O’Connolly, 1967) as the owner of a traveling circus that becomes deadly for its employees. In the tasteless Twisted Nerve (Roy Boulting, 1968), a young man pretends to be mentally challenged to get near a girl he’s obsessed with. Peter Cushing is at his most terrifying in Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davies, 1968), as a doctor who slaughters beautiful women in an effort to repair his fiancée’s scarred face. A young girl has a crush on her older stepbrother in I Start Counting (David Greene, 1969), even though she believes him to be a serial killer. The sleazy and disturbing Night After Night After Night (Lindsay Shonteff, 1969) follows the crimes of a Jack the Ripper-like slasher.
Speaking of Jack the Ripper, he’s pitted against Britain’s most famous consulting detective for the first time on screen in A Study In Terror (James Hill, 1965), one of a handful of compelling mystery-thrillers from the decade. Another is Ten Little Indians (George Pollock, 1965), the second filmic adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed novel, where strangers are gathered together by an unseen host who accuses them all of murder, a plot that I never tire of. Finally Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965) concerns an American mother recently arrived in England whose daughter goes missing, but no one claims to have seen the child and a police inspector (played by Laurence Olivier) is put on the case.
Sci-fi horror continued to be a popular theme throughout the ‘60s, starting with atomic-anxiety classics like Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) and Children of the Damned (Anton Leader, 1963), about strange children with disturbing powers. Mad doctors inspired by Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein could be found in The Flesh and the Fiends (John Gilling, 1960), based on the real life story of grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare, and Circus of Horrors (Sidney Hayers, 1960), with Anton Diffring as a demented surgeon who takes over a traveling circus to hone his craft. And in Doctor Blood’s Coffin (Sidney J. Furie, 1961), an ambitious scientist works to bring the dead back to life.
For more sci-fi madness, check out the British version of Godzilla, Gorgo (Eugène Lourié, 1961), or The Day of the Triffids (Steve Sekely, Freddie Francis, 1963), about alien, carnivorous plants that land on the Earth’s surface during a meteor shower. In The Mind Benders (Basil Dearden, 1963), a young Dirk Bogarde stars as a scientist trying to figure out why his colleague committed suicide after experimenting with an isolation chamber. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” Die, Monster, Die (Daniel Haller, 1965) follows a scientist who discovers a strange crater near his fiancée’s home.
When aliens invade the planet in The Earth Dies Screaming (Terence Fisher, 1965), a small group of survivors band together at an inn. In The Night Caller (John Gilling, 1965), aliens infiltrate the planet in order to take teenage girls for a breeding program. A Nazi scientist plots to awaken frozen German commanders in The Frozen Dead (Herbert J. Leder, 1966). When a dead farmer is found with his bones missing, local scientists band together in Island of Terror (Terence Fisher, 1966). In the loose follow up, Night of the Big Heat (Terence Fisher, 1967), a small British island experiences an alarming heat wave and a scientist suspects alien activity.
The decade was also host to a number of supernatural-themed films, particularly ghost stories and folk horror. The best of all these, in my opinion, is The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961), an especially eerie adaptation of Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw, about a governess hired to care for two unruly children in the countryside. Another classic is The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963), a UK-US coproduction adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel about a scientist’s attempts to document ghostly activity in an old house. Lastly, The Black Torment (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1964) follows newly weds arrived at the husband’s ancestral home, which seems to be haunted by a malevolent specter.
Based on the historical organization of the same name, The Hellfire Club (Monty Berman, Robert S. Baker, 1961) concerns the exploits of a secret aristocratic group who may be a satanic cult. A satanic, vampiric cult targets a small town in Brittany on All Souls Night in Devils of Darkness (Lance Comfort, 1965). An estate owner returns home to his ancestral vineyard in Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1966), but his wife is convinced that a pair of menacing siblings (David Hemmings and Sharon Tate) have satanic designs on her family. Richard Burton stars as the titular scholar who makes a deal with the Devil in Doctor Faustus (Richard Burton, Nevill Coghill, 1967). Newly weds travel to recently inherited property on the island of Dunwich in The Shuttered Room (David Greene, 1967), but the locals believe them to be cursed.
Based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn (Sidney Hayers, 1962) follows a psychology professor who believes his wife is practicing witchcraft. In Witchcraft (Don Sharp, 1964), two rival families find themselves the target of a resurrected witch. It! (Herbert J. Leder, 1967) follows a disturbed museum assistant who accidentally uncovers and awakens the mythic Golem of Prague. One night a traveler in Morocco meets a mysterious woman whose castle seems to disappear the next day in The Hand of Night aka Beast of Morocco (Frederic Goode, 1968). A cursed man is looked after by his brother in The Oblong Box (Gordon Hessler, 1969), a tale of colonialism and voodoo gone wrong.
In a decade marked by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and staunch conservatism, film audiences were on the decline, as were all three of England’s major horror studios — for example Hammer went out on a not particularly strong note in 1976 with To the Devil a Daughter. At the same time, the ‘70s marked the emergence of controversial, experimental filmmakers like Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway, Nicholas Roeg, Derek Jarman, and Mike Leigh, and was also fundamentally changed by the popularity of television and home video.
Hammer and Amicus director and cinematographer Freddie Francis made a number of films outside either of these studios, including the black comedy/horror film Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (Freddie Frances, 1970) about a demented family who kidnap travelers to be part of their twisted games, and Trog (Freddie Francis, 1970), Joan Crawford’s last film, where she stars as a doctor who discovers a prehistoric humanoid. His horror-themed musical, Son of Dracula (Freddie Francis, 1974), starring musicians Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson, follows the titular vampire’s attempts to become King of the Netherworld. In Craze (Freddie Francis, 1974), Jack Palance plays an antique dealer who sacrifices women to a pagan god. Francis’ last two films of the decade both star Peter Cushing: Legend of the Werewolf (Freddie Francis, 1975), a riff on Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, and The Ghoul (Freddie Francis, 1975), where a priest keeps his cannibalistic son locked in the attic.
Another director of note is Spaniard Jose Larraz, who made a handful of films in England at this time, including the gorgeous Vampyres (Jose Larraz, 1974), about a lesbian vampire couple hiding out in the countryside. In Symptoms (Jose Larraz, 1974), a young woman goes to visit her friend at a rural estate, but something might be lurking in the attic, and in Scream… and Die! (Jose Larraz, 1974), a young couple stumble across a murder in the countryside.
The decade in general was largely divided between supernatural horror and films about psychopathic killers. Witchcraft and folk horror themes continued on with films like Tam-Lin (Roddy McDowall, 1970), based on a traditional Scottish poem about a beautiful older woman (Ava Gardner) who uses witchcraft to befriend a younger crowd. In Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler, 1970), Vincent Price plays an aristocratic witch hunter who persecutes real witches with negative consequences for his own family. The documentary Legend of the Witches (Malcolm Leigh, 1970) examines the history of witchcraft, while The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971), one of the greatest films of the decade, looks at the real-life case of Father Grandier, a French priest accused of possessing a convent.
Another of the decade’s classic films and arguably the greatest folk horror work in general is The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), where a policeman travels to a strange island to investigate reports that a local girl has gone missing and finds unexpected pagan activity. Oliver Reed plays a young butler in Blue Blood (Andrew Sinclair, 1973) who uses magic to gain power over the aristocrat who employs him. An unruly biker gang discovers unimagined powers with Satan worship in Psychomania aka The Death Wheelers (Don Sharp, 1973). And in Satan’s Slave (Norman J. Warren, 1976), a young orphan goes to live with her uncle, unaware of his satanic plans for her.
There were also a number of ghost stories like The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1971), a prequel to The Innocents and Turn of the Screw with Marlon Brando, and the sadly overlooked The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook, 1972), where scientists photograph people at the moment of death. Two of the decade’s bests films include Legend of Hell House (John Hough, 1973), where researchers spend time in a violently haunted house, and Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), where parents who recently lose their child experience strange events in Venice. In Dark Places (Don Sharp, 1973), Christopher Lee stars as a doctor who attempts to steal a former patient's inheritance.
Voices (Kevin Billington, 1973), another horror film about parents dealing with the death of a child, stars David Hemmings as a man who takes his wife to a country house to recover from grief, but things are not as relaxing as he hoped. In Ghost Story (Stephen Weeks, 1974), a group of friends (including Marianne Faithful and the inspiration for Withnail & I, Vivian MacKerrell) gather in an old country house, which turns out to be haunted. The Devil Within Her aka I Don’t Want to be Born (Peter Sasdy, 1975) is one of those films that must be seen to be believed. When a stripper won’t have sex with a dwarf, he curses her first born (for real). In Richard Burton-vehicle The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978), a detective investigates the attempted murder of a mysterious author.
One of the most unique films on this list is The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978), about a composer and his girlfriend who meet a mysterious, dangerous stranger. And while there were few non-Hammer vampire films made in the ‘70s, The Body Beneath (Andy Milligan, 1970) follows a family of vampires looking for some new blood to add to their brood. In Incense for the Damned (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1970), a professor falls under the spell of a Greek vampire with a love for blood and S&M.
The decade’s numerous thrillers kicked off with And Soon the Darkness (Robert Fuest, 1970), where two women on a bicycling trip encounter a killer. In Fragment of Fear (Richard C. Sarafian, 1970), a recovered drug addict’s philanthropist aunt is murdered and he is determined to find out why. Goodbye Gemini (Alan Gibson, 1970) follows a pair of twins on the London party scene whose lives are changed by an act of violence. Mia Farrow stars as a blind woman terrorized by a killer in See No Evil (Richard Fleischer, 1971), while in Fright (Peter Collinson, 1971) a babysitter is tormented by an escapee from an insane asylum.
In Crucible of Terror (Ted Hooker, 1971), a homicidal artist kills women to use as the basis for his sculptures, while in The Night Digger (Alastair Reid, 1971), written by Roald Dahl, a lonely middle-aged woman fatefully meets a young handyman who is not what he seems. Assault (Sidney Hayers, 1971) follows a police investigation of a killer targeting local schoolgirls, while 10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971) is a look at the life of British serial killer John Christie. One of the best films of the decade is Raw Meat aka Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972), where cannibalistic dwellers in the London Underground begin kidnapping victims to the dismay of a local detective.
Tower of Evil (Jim O’Connolly, 1972) is focused on a small island where archaeologists hunting for ancient artifacts find a murderer instead. While The Fiend (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972) concerns a religious zealot turned murderer, Nothing But the Night (Peter Sasdy, 1973) follows Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as they investigate a series of unusual murders related to local trustees. And Then There Were None (Peter Collinson, 1974) is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel starring Gert Fröbe, Oliver Reed, Richard Attenborough, and more cult favorites. In Exposé aka Trauma (James Kenelm Clark, 1976), Udo Kier stars as a troubled novelist whose new secretary brings him nothing but trouble.
There were also a handful of mad science/science fiction efforts, including Burke and Hare (Vernon Sewell, 1972), another film about the infamous grave robbers, and Frankenstein: The True Story (Jack Smight, 1973), with a script from one of my favorite British writers, Christopher Isherwood. In The Mutations (Jack Cardiff, 1974), a scientist begins crossbreeding plants and college students, while in Prey (Norman J. Warren, 1977), an alien assumes human form and gets close to a lesbian couple.
The decade also boasted a few worthwhile horror comedies, including one in the Carry On series, Carry On Screaming! (Gerald Thomas, 1969), a spoof on Hammer’s films, where The House in Nightmare Park (Peter Sykes, 1973) is a spoof on “old dark house” films that have been popular since basically the dawn of cinematic horror. In Horror Hospital (Antony Balch, 1973), a struggling musician goes on a vacation, unaware that the health resort is being used by a doctor who is turning hippies into slaves.
You may have noticed the absence of any films from one of England’s best horror and exploitation directors, and it wouldn’t really be a complete British genre series without discussing Pete Walker. Gory, mischievous, and anti-authoritarian, his work is a fitting response to the emerging conservatism in British life and politics and tends to focus on sadistic authority figures punishing — and brutally killing — sexually active teens and twenty-somethings.
In Die Screaming Marianne (Pete Walker, 1971), the young heroine (played by Susan George) is on the run from her wealthy, controlling family, but decides to confront them when she accidentally falls in love. The Flesh and Blood Show (Pete Walker, 1972) follows young actors rehearsing in an abandoned theater by the sea who find themselves the target of a mysterious killer. In House of Whipcord (Pete Walker, 1974), a girl meets a handsome stranger — named Mark E. Desade — who invites her to his country home for the weekend, which turns out to be a prison for girls deemed immoral. In Frightmare (Pete Walker, 1974), a woman convicted of cannibalism is released from prison but picks up her old behaviors.
One of my personal favorites is House of Mortal Sin aka The Confessional (Pete Walker, 1976), where a demented priest fixated on a young woman begins murdering those around her with the tools of his trade. A recently married woman is stalked by someone from her past in Schizo (Pete Walker, 1976). In The Comeback (Pete Walker, 1978), a singer attempts to revive his career, but experiences a series of disturbing events. The wonderful House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983) united Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine for the last time in this tale of an author dared to write a mystery novel in one just night at a Welsh mansion that might be haunted.
Finally, it really wouldn’t be a complete British horror series without looking at some of the absolutely fantastic made-for-TV horror programming released over the years. For whatever reason, American programming just doesn’t hold a candle to the TV series and movies released in the UK, primarily throughout the ‘70s.
Though it’s not actually a TV movie, I’m going to start with a forerunner: Orson Welles’ Return to Glennascaul (Hilton Edwards, 1953), a creepy look at the legend of the vanishing hitchhiker, apparently shot while Welles was working on Othello. Another early contender is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968), a story about an academic who finds a sinister whistle, taken from M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. In The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, 1972), an electronics research company encounters a ghost. A number of other movies and short films were collected in the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas set: The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974), The Ash Tree (1975), The Signalman (1976), Stigma (1977), and The Ice House (1978).
And a final, somewhat late addition: Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), as a tribute to the late, great David Bowie.
And a final, somewhat late addition: Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), as a tribute to the late, great David Bowie.
There were also a number of one-off made-for-TV films shown during series like Play for Today and TV Playhouse. In Robin Redbreast (James MacTaggart, 1970), from Play for Today, a woman flees to the country after a breakup but gets more than she bargained for. In the Thriller episode, A Place to Die (Peter Jefferies, 1973), a doctor and his wife move to a small town, where they learn young girls have recently gone missing. In another Play for Today episode, Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke, 1974), a pastor’s son is visited by supernatural beings. In Against the Crowd’s Murrain (John Cooper, 1975), a veterinarian believes the area to be under a witch’s spell. Casting the Runes (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1979), from ITV Playhouse, is an adaptation of one of M.R. James’ most popular stories.
I’m also going to look at a few complete TV series, such as The Owl Service (1969), a reimagining of a Welsh myth, and Children of the Stones (1976), where a physicist and his son have a number of spooky adventures near a megalithic stone circle. The Changes (1975) follows a suddenly anti-technology society that reverts to pre-Industrial life. In Shadows (1975-1978), different children have strange supernatural adventures. Beasts (1976), written by the great Nigel Kneale, concerns six tales of beastly horror. Not to be left out, Hammer jumped on board as sort of a last gasp, with the thirteen-episode series, Hammer House of Horror (1980).
Throughout the course of this ridiculous long series, I’m also planning to take a look at some peripheral subject matter, such as the influential tradition of literary horror and the Gothic, folk horror and Pagan mythology, and psychogeograpy as seen in the fiction and non-fiction writing of authors like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, and Alan Moore.
Happy Mabon and enjoy the most wonderful time of the year!