There’s something so distinctly British about the horror films produced in late 60’s and 70’s England. And no, that first sentence wasn’t brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department. What I mean is that the films from this period were moving away from mainstream Gothic (with its castles and horse-drawn carriages) towards the modern Urban (and Rural) Gothic. Even films set in the historical past carried with them either contemporary concerns about British society or new aesthetic visual styles. Horror in this era was more heavily influenced by twentieth century war, the sexual revolution, rising drug abuse, and sociopolitical unrest. Yet a distinctively quirky sense of British humor and irony rose to the forefront, counterposing new levels of graphic violence with stiff-upper-lip sensibilities. Below is a list of the lesser known horror films produced by British studios during a time when horror was shifting gears from Gothic period pieces to the more contemporary grindhouse-style films,ost of the films came from outside the Hammer/Tyburn/Amicus trifecta of British horror studios. This is by no mens a complete list; just some of my favorites. What are yours?
A wonderfully grisly film regarding the last surviving descendent of a group of 19th century miners trapped in the tunnels of the London Underground who has to venture out to find more victims. Cannibalism, gruesome effects, a wonderful musical score with throbbing electro-jazz, and an impeccable performance by the great Donald Pleasance. This film was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and features a scene revealing the cannibal lair that more than equals Chainsaw’s gruesomeness. also known as Death Line. A truly under appreciated gem!
Disturbing and frightening Hammer Films chiller directed by the great Jimmy Sangster. Bette Davis stars as the seemingly-sinister nanny hired by a couple to help with their 10 year-old son, who has just been released from an asylum for disturbed children. Did young Joey really kill his sister? Is the Nanny out to kill Joey and his family? The questions mount as the film ratchets up the suspense as well as a Hitchcock film. One of Bette Davis’ most chilling performances, she infuses every scene with tension and dread. A strong departure from the “Catsup and Cleavage” line of Hammer period horror films, this one still has the power to keep you on the edge of your seat until the conclusion.
THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR
I have to admit, this is a pure nostalgia entry for me. I first saw this film on television as a child, and it gave me nightmares for weeks. Having just seen it again, I was impressed by the themes brought up by the film. A series of savage murders committed against British soldiers in uniform has galvanized the soldiers in a remote English garrison to full alert. Two aging sisters (Flora Robson and Beryl Reed) fear that their brother, kept locked in the basement of their farmhouse for the past 30 years, has escaped and is responsible for the gruesome killings. To say more would ruin your viewing experience, although it must be mentioned that this film uses the Gothic conceit of the madman locked in the basement to explore powerful themes of war and madness, PTSD, and the Freudian return of the repressed.
Probably one of the better-known films on this list, The Conqueror Worm (originally titled Witchfinder General) presents one of Vincent Price’s most menacing performances as Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer dispensed to prosecute witches in England during the English Civil War. Set against the backdrop of Cromwell’s pursuit of loyalist to Charles I, this film is absolutely drenched with 17th century history set against the wonderfully atmospheric backdrop of the English countryside in autumn. Hopkins’ methods of torturing witches into confession are brutally displayed here, as he employs ritual after horrendous ritual with the assistance of his brutal henchman (played by Robert Russell). A fascinating and horrifying depiction of mass-hysteria, the corrupting influence of power, and religious mania, this film still has the power to make you squirm… but is also intelligent enough to make you think.
A strange, but oddly entertaining chiller in which a scientist with a fascination for the paranormal discovers that he can capture a ghostly image on film when photographing those about to die. This image, he later learns, is the Aspynx, a spirit from Greek mythology who appears at the moment of death to capture the dying soul. Fascinated, he begins to conduct a number of experiments… drawing the Asphynx ever closer to him. A wonderfully produced film with glorious elements of Steampunk aesthetics, this is a film very much ahead of its time.
Also known as Cover Up, Frightmare is a cannibal-family film that deserves far more respect and viewing that it’s been given. An aging couple, having recently been released for an asylum where they were sentenced for murder and cannibalism, return to their old habits in a remote home in the Suffolk countryside. But their daughter is coming home with a new man, and she may just not have escaped the odd “tastes” of her family. Grisly gore, biker gangs, and a memorable scene with a power drill make this a seminal film for fans of 80’s horror (which drew heavily from this under appreciated film).
An odd, atmospheric, and eerie adaptation of a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout is a film to be seen by all fans of cinema. A visitor at an insane asylum watches a cricket match between inmates when he is befriended by a rather bored-looking man officiating the match. The man tells the visitor a story of a man named Crossley, a drifter who glides into the life of a musician interested in experimental sound and his wife. The drifter has studied for years to learn aboriginal magic, and has gained the ability to kill merely by emitting a loud shout. After a devastating demonstration of his power at a lonely beach, he insinuates himself into the lives of the terrified couple. Is the tale true? Is the teller of the tale an insane inmate himself? Is he the man in his own story? Watch to find out! And look for an early role by Tim Curry as the visitor.
A strange, absorbing film about a 15 year old boy’s descent into sexual madness. The plot may sound as simple as can be: a teenaged boy working in a London bathhouse becomes obsessed with a co-worker 10 years his senior, and soon turns from a distant adorer to a stalker. But this film is so much more. A strange combination of gritty Marxist realism and surrealism (owing, no doubt, to its being a British/West German co-production), Deep End emerges as a terrifying exploration of sexual awakening in a setting of sexual exploitation. John Moulder Brown brings true pathos as a young man who first learns of sexuality at an exploitative bath house, and his physcosis-induced stalking of Jane Asher is light years ahead of better-known films along this line that would appear a decade later. A perfect combination of the Euro-Art House film and the psycho-stalker film, Deep End will leave you gasping.
NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT
This may be the least known of the many film pairings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Out of print for many years, it is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Members of a British trust are being found dead, either by apparent suicide or accident. When a bus with the final surviving trust members goes off a cliff along with three dozen young orphans, police inspector Lee suspects something more sinister. A film full of red herrings and plot twists, Nothing But the Night begins as a police mystery but veers into the occult towards the end. Worth watching to see Lee and Cushing together again.
Perhaps the strangest film on this list, Prey is a film you’ll never forget. The lowest of low budgets and a 10 day shooting schedule didn’t prevent director Norman J Warren from directing a horror/sci-fi exploitation film that is both disturbing and engrossing. An alien descends to Earth to see if humans will provide an adequate food supply for his alien cohorts. After killing and assuming the appearance of a man making out with his girlfriend, he befriends a lesbian couple and soon becomes a threat to their relationship. Bloody, erotic, intelligent, and deeply troubling, Prey is a sexploitation film that conjures deep questions about the politics of sexuality, the cultural connections between sex and violence, and gives you nightmares in the process!