(c) British Lion
Establishment film critics and film historians in this country may find it an uncomfortable truth – a source of embarrassment and dismay, even – but for long periods a sizeable section of the British film industry has been dedicated to cranking out horror movies.
Specifically, there are two periods when British horror filmmakers have been prolific. The first was from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, This was when studios like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the British wing of American International Pictures (AIP) knocked out macabre products, some of them full-blooded gothic fantasies, others more downbeat, psychological and set in the urban present. The directors who made such fare ranged from the critically acclaimed (Michael Powell, Jack Clayton and Roman Polanski) to the – at the time, at least – critically derided (Pete Walker, Michael Armstrong and Norman J. Warren).
The second period has run from the late-1990s until today and again the directors involved have ranged from the critically applauded (Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Gareth Edwards) to the critically frowned-upon (Alex Chandon and Jake West, whom I’m sure are bothered not one jot that most critics don’t like their films). This time, though, the emphasis has definitely been on the downbeat, modern and urban – and indeed, grungy, nasty and nihilistic. Even at the moment, while reports appear in the media about the British film industry being, yet again, in deep shit, these usually-unheralded and beneath-the-radar British horror movies just keep on coming. In the past two years, off the top of my head, I can think of Before Dawn, Byzantium, Cockneys vs Zombies, Berberian Sound Studio, Sightseers, A Field in England, The World’s End, The Seasoning House, In Fear, Borderlands, The Quiet Ones, Stalled, Scar Tissue, Soulmate, Blackwood, The Last Showing, Following the Wicca Man, White Settlers and Monsters: Dark Continent. (Okay, I haven’t mentioned Strippers vs Werewolves, but who’d want to?)
Curiously, what British horror films in the past and nowadays have seemed reluctant to do is to embrace the macabre folklore, traditions and history of the British Isles themselves. When they haven’t been dealing with deranged killers in contemporary settings – Carl Boehm as the crazy photographer stalking models and dancers in Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 movie Peeping Tom, Sheila Keith as a cannibalistic granny drilling people’s heads open in Peter Walker’s grim 1972 epic Frightmare, feral kids and / or psychotic hoodies running amok in James Watkins’ 2007 movie Eden Lake and in a dozen other modern British horrors – they’ve dealt with tropes that’ve been borrowed en masse from Hollywood and from continental Europe: vampires, werewolves, zombies (a lot of zombies recently).
To be fair, even before the cinematic era when Britain – and Ireland – had a burgeoning gothic literary tradition, writers like Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker often used the European mainland for both the settings and the inspiration of their most famous stories.
And when the first wave of British horror-filmmakers did mine Britain’s past for ideas, they often didn’t look beyond the days of the British Empire (which admittedly loomed large in recent British history at the time). Hence, you get a strain of ‘colonial horror’ films like The Reptile (1966), The Oblong Box (1969) and The Ghoul (1974), in which upper-class Brits went abroad, behaved badly, got cursed by the natives and then returned home with guilty, horrible secrets as their punishments.
Nonetheless, over the years, critics and cultural commentators have come to identify a British-horror-movie sub-genre known as ‘folk-horror’, wherein the horror springs from sinister things that, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, bustle in the hedgerows of eerie, mysterious and rural old Britain. In August 2010 even the ultra-prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound saw fit to devote an issue to ‘the films of old, weird Britain’. So in this post, and in a later one, I’d like to write about what I consider to be the best ten (or so) British folk-horror movies of all time.
Night of the Demon (1957)
“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” Fans of Kate Bush will recognise this line from the opening of her 1985 song Hounds of Love. It’s sampled from Night of the Demon, an appropriate choice with which to start this list because it appeared just as the first British horror-movie boom was kicking off in the late 1950s. Furthermore, it’s based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, one British writer who wasn’t reluctant to dig into homespun folklore and legends for scary ideas.
The druidic runes in question are those inscribed on some parchment given to investigator Dana Andrews by black-magic cult leader Niall McGinnis, after Andrews has antagonised him with his scepticism. Not only does the parchment foretell Andrews’ death at a particular point in the near-future, but it also seems to be bait for something big and diabolical, presumably pagan in origin, which has begun to stalk him – and it’s going to catch up with him, fatally, at the time predicted. If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Sam Raimi quietly borrowed it for his 2008 horror opus Drag Me to Hell.
With filming locations that include Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, the British Museum and – where better? – Stonehenge, Night of the Demon is an atmospheric and intelligent movie. It has a wealth of lovely little details. Reference is made to the celebrated lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one that on a lonesome road / doth walk in fear and dread / and having once turn’d round, walks on / and turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend / doth close behind him tread.” Disconcertingly, McGinnis makes his first appearance performing magic tricks at a children’s party. And it’s creepy – up to a point. The sequences where Andrews notices something trailing after him, getting ever closer, signified by a weird rattling sound and an odd-looking ball of smoke floating in the distance behind him, are wonderfully unsettling.
Alas, producer Hal E. Chester didn’t believe that the scariest things are those left to the imagination. Overruling the wishes of Andrews, director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, he insisted on inserting, into the movie’s climax, footage of a big, scaly, warty monster. (The bloody thing has always reminded me of the clay-motion creature featured in 1970s TV advertisements for the British sweets, Chewits – “Chewits! Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”) Needless to say, this wrecks the suspense that Tourneur has built up during the preceding movie. Bennett was particularly incensed and once claimed that if Chester “walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”
Witchfinder General (1968)
East Anglia is one of my favourite parts of England and 1968’s Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price and was directed by Michael Reeves (who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25), is possibly the most East Anglian movie ever. It deals with a figure from local history, the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins, and it turns the County Suffolk countryside into an unsettlingly pretty backdrop for Hopkins’ brutal activities. Among the movie’s locations were Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford, and Dunwich and Orford on the Suffolk coast. Also used in the area were two aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, which were converted into studios for filming the interior scenes.
Witchfinder General’s climax was shot inside the castle at Orford and locals old enough to remember it recall how screams emanated from the castle dungeon for three days solid. Orford Castle belongs to English Heritage and I’ve heard that originally the film was supposed to finish with a deadly conflagration. However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he toned things down slightly in his script – instead, he had hero Ian Ogilvy hack Price bloodily to death with an axe and gouge out another villain’s eyeball with the spur on his boot. As you do.
(c) Tigon Films
Price and Reeves didn’t get on at all during Witchfinder General’s production. Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers. Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of villainy, which is now considered as one of his best performances.
Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)
Tigon Films, the studio responsible for Witchfinder General, made this movie two years later. It’s also set in rural England in the 17th century and comes across at times like a particularly phlegmy BBC costume drama, one where actors and actresses clad in wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes tramp through the mud between thatched cottages and address one another in heavy accents as ‘Master Gower’, ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’. However, it’s suffused with far more blood, nudity and paganism than you’ll ever get in a BBC costume drama.
The film begins with a farmhand accidentally turning up a hideous something from the soil whilst ploughing. Before long, there’s an outbreak of devil-worship, human sacrifice and general debauchery among the local youngsters as they come under the spell of a supernatural entity – presumably the thing unearthed in the field. Blood on Satan’s Claw seemed particularly freaky to me as a kid because it contained a number of young actors and actresses whom I knew from watching various innocuous comedy and drama shows on 1970s TV: Simon Williams (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Michele Dotrice (from Some Mothers do ’ave ’em) and, playing the spectacularly ill-fated Cathy Vespers, Wendy Padbury, who’d just finished a stint as Patrick Troughton’s companion in Doctor Who.
(c) Tigon Films
The best performance, though, is given by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, the local minx who becomes the entity’s voluptuous high priestess and worships it in a ruined and deconsecrated church. In real life, the church is to be found at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire.
Directed by Piers Haggard, who filmed many of the outdoor scenes at low angles to give the impression of something looking up at the human world, out of the soil, Blood on Satan’s Claw is distinguished too by a lovely, folky but sinister score by the Australian composer Marc Wilkinson. Wilkinson uses a cimbalom (an East European hammered dulcimer, once popular with gypsy musicians) to great effect and I’ve heard that he later gave advice to composer, singer and musician Paul Giovanni – who’d be responsible for the equally beguiling folk music featured in the next film on my list. Which of course is…
The Wicker Man (1973)
However, I’ve written enough posts about this film in the past, so I won’t go on about it here. Except to mention the locations it was filmed at in Scotland: Anwoth, Burrow Head, Castle Kennedy, Creetown, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Port Logan and St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway region; Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; Plockton on the Highland coast; and the Isle of Skye, which provides the view of the Old Man of Storr rock formations in the movie’s credits sequence, seen while the doomed Edward Woodward flies his seaplane to the island of Summerisle.
(c) British Lion
And that was really it as far as folk-horror was concerned in the UK’s first horror-movie boom. A few other films used the idea that witchcraft was being practised behind the curtains of rural Britain’s cottages and farmhouses – for example, the 1964 black-and-white movie Witchcraft, directed by Don Sharp and starring an ailing (at times visibly drunk) Lon Chaney Jnr; the 1966 Hammer movie The Witches, with a script by Nigel Kneale based on Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own; and 1976’s Satan’s Slave, directed by Norman J. Warren, scripted by film critic David McGillivray and starring Michael Gough with an unfeasibly bushy moustache. However, I don’t consider any of them to be much good.
In 1970, after Witchfinder General, director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriters Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking mounted an Elizabethan-set horror movie called Cry of the Banshee, wherein a witch-hunter, again played by Vincent Price, is punished by a witches’ coven who summon up a Celtic faerie demon called an aos sis – not the banshee of the title – and send it after him and his family. However, the film was low-budgeted and interfered with by its producers and the result was disappointing. Still, the credits sequence, animated by a very young Terry Gilliam, is worth seeing. Some movie fans, meanwhile, have expressed love for another Don Sharp movie, 1973’s Psychomania, which incorporates witchcraft and a pagan stone circle into a plot about English Hell’s Angels becoming indestructible zombies. I like Psychomania, though it falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category rather than into the ‘actually good’ category.
‘So bad it’s good’ is the only way to describe 1988’s Lair of the White Worm, directed by the once-great Ken Russell, and of which the Guardian once said: “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed the buttons one by one…” It stars Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton, a languid aristocrat living in the remote English countryside who finds himself having to do battle with a monstrous worm-snake-dragon creature that’s inhabited a local cave since prehistory – the film’s cave scenes were shot in Thor’s Cavern in the Derbyshire Peak District. Grant also comes up against one of his neighbours, played by the sultry Amanda Donohoe, who’s actually a snake-vampire creature in human form and who acts as the beast’s high priestess. Yes, I bet these days Hugh Grant doesn’t advertise the fact that he has this movie on his CV.
Helping Grant out is Peter Capaldi, playing a resourceful but very stereotypical Scottish archaeologist who discovers that the snake-vampires can be hypnotised by the sound of the bagpipes, just as real snakes are by snake-charmers. Meanwhile, the scene where the fanged Donohoe bites Capaldi under his kilt makes Lair of the White Worm worth its DVD rental price alone.
(c) Vestron Pictures
The film has a chaotic script. When Ken Russell isn’t loading on the psychedelic flashback scenes that see early-Christian nuns being raped by Roman legionaries and crucified Christ-figures being crushed by giant snakes, he goes to town on worm / snake / phallus imagery – the shot where a vacuum-cleaner tube entwines itself around Catherine Oxenberg’s ankle is just one of many. Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some interesting references to British legends about monstrous ‘worms’ – eel-like dragons – terrorising the countryside, such as the one about the Lambton Worm that supposedly took place by the River Wear in north-east England at the time of the Crusades.
The legend of the Lambton Worm was commemorated in a lusty folk ballad written by Clarence M. Leumane in 1867 and the song gets an airing here – with its title changed to The D’Ampton Worm, in acknowledgement of the name of Grant’s character. Unfortunately, its performance by Emilio Perez Machado and Stephen Powys, who show more enthusiasm than subtlety, makes it the most clodhopping folk song ever to grace a British folk-horror movie: “John D’Ampton went a-fishing once, a-fishing in the Wear / He caught a fish upon his hook he thought looked mighty queer…” Paul Giovanni it is not. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJEq6_foO-o.)
There were, thankfully, better things to come… (To be continued.)