Top 20 British Horror Films

Welcome to Britflicks.com’s Top 20 British Horror Films. They’re not ranked 1-20, just 20 films we think you should check out or re-assess. It goes as far back as 1945 (Dead Of Night) and picks out films released as recently as 2011 (Kill List & Devil’s Business). Like all lists there will be obvious omissions for some, hidden gems for others and general agreement from one or two of you. Such is the nature of the beast. Enjoy.

Stuart Wright

Death Line (1973) dr. Gary Sherman 

Released in the UK as Death Line (aka Raw Meat in USA) this seventies horror takes place in the matrix of forgotten tunnels where a cannibalistic sub-human survives on unsuspecting commuters and one high profile death brings the police snooping around. Enter Donald Pleasance as the hackneyed Inspector Calhoun. He attacks this role with the same borderline craziness he did in Waking In Fright (1971). Whether it’s his ignominy at tea bags being standard issue at the police or pithy one-liners like: “You gone drag Rogers” to his sub-ordinate who enters carrying a handbag – evidence for the case. Oh and it’s no doubt a huge influence on Chris Smith‘s gory debut feature Creep (2004).

And Soon The Darkness (1970) dr. Robert Fuest

This chilling, stylish rural thriller owes a great deal to the TV producing and writing duoBrian Clemens/Terry Nation choosing their The Avengers buddy, Robert Fuest, to direct their debut movie. English roses, Jane & Cathy (Pamela Franklin & Michele Dolce) are on a cycling holiday around rural France. Like Hostel (2005) their youthful arrogance combined with complacency means they fall foul to the not so friendly foreigners when Cathy goes missing. Jane’s search for her missing friend uncovers dark secrets the locals wish would go away, but do nothing to stop it. Hungarian hunk Sandor Elès plays a mysterious (read dishy to our protagonists), but mistrusted ally. His unwillingness to explain himself is almost his undoing. There’s a proto slasher film in here as well as nods to the giallo films of Italy.

Mum & Dad (2008) dr. Steven Sheil

A wonderfully vicious, contained horror film with torture porn motifs on the surface – but there’s so much more going on. This film is the inverse of the usual stranger in a strange land victim tale. We’re used to seeing city folk (meaning us) leave their urban lives behind to return to the countryside. We’re not used to being implicated in the exploitation of immigrant labour working zero hours service jobs for a contractor who does not care, let alone notice, when one their employees disappears. Enter Perry Benson as Dad and Dido Miles as Mum. Living close to Heathrow they know they’ve got an endless supply of torture toys. They use their daughter; know it all gobshite, Birdie (Ainsley Howard) to lure innocent victims back to the house. Only their latest plaything, Lena (Olga Fedori) proves to be more than a match for this burgeoning Fred and Rose West aspirations.

Tony: London Serial Killer (2009) dr. Gerard Johnson

This is a smart take on the serial killer movie. Set around the run down back streets of Dalston, East London, it focuses on Tony (Peter Ferdinando). He’s a jobless loner deserving of our sympathy. Through Ferdinando’s understated performance we shed light on a truly confusing vision of a victim of modern society. He is bullied by locals in the pub; bullied by the Job Centre into taking a meaningless job; exploited by his new employer. Plus, he is prime suspect in the minds of vengeful locals when a young girl goes missing. In isolation none of these things are fair or just. However, Tony, in an ode to the infamousDenis Nielsen, is turned on by death and finds people lower down the food chain than him – heroin addicts. He kills them and keeps them in his high rise flat. The pace is gentle and you’ll wait a long time for him to kill, but once he does you’ll see him for all his evil and none of his victimhood. The way the missing girl story and his serial killing intersect seems very real. Tony is an enthralling character and film alike.

The Innocents (1961) dr. Jack Clayton

Adapted from the Henry James novel, The Turn Of The ScrewThe Innocents is slow building ghost story about governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). She takes a job on a remote country pile looking after the orphaned nephew (Miles) and niece (Flora) for their wealthy, overburdened uncle (Michael Redgrave). From the moment Miss Giddens arrives a ghostly presence teases her ears with a beguiling song and it isn’t long before she is convinced that the house and grounds are haunted – by who and why she must figure it out. The housekeeper, Miss Jessel, is in denial, and the children impish at first, become increasingly unruly – especially Miles. It’s like the devil has got in him. Miss Giddens doesn’t blame the children, she is motivated by her responsibilities as their governess and deals with the ghostly apparitions – the male one is an early outing for Peter Wyngarde – head on.

Wicker Man (1973) dr. Robin Hardy

Originally the first on a double with Don’t Look Know (1973), Wicker Man has grown in stature over the last 40 plus years to become a great British horror film in its own right.Edward Woodward is brilliant as the stoic Sergeant Howie – a God-fearing policeman. His character is in stark contrast to the charming and sardonic Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. However, one of the real stars of the film is the music by Magnet. It contributes immensely to the film’s atmosphere. From rabble rousers like “The Landlord’s Daughter” to the innocent child singing “Maypole” or the erotic “Willow’s Song” that accompaniesBritt Ekland naked writhe-cum-dance.

Determined to solve the case of a missing girl, Howie wages a one-man Christian crusade against Lord Summerisle and his Pagan followers only to discover that no higher power has got his back – the islanders sacrifice him to save their crops. Trapped in the Wicker Man and engulfed in flames as he repeatedly cries: “Oh Jesus Christ” you see his faith in God wither and die – truly terrifying.

Dead Of Night (1945) dr. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer

Almost 70 years on, Ealing’s spooky anthology remains as scary and vibrant as ever. There are five stories in Dead Of Night. Each one we see told by guests at a country house for Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) benefit. The two scariest are: Alberto Cavalcanti‘s ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy‘, sees Michael Redgrave possessed by his lifeless doll; andRobert Hamer‘s ‘The Haunted Mirror‘, where Googie Withers gives her fiance a mirror as a birthday gift and it opens up a gateway to something monstrously evil. Basil Radford andNaughton Wayne play for laughs in Charles Crichton‘s ‘Golfing Story‘. However, where Dead of Night really succeeds is the overall narrative arc. Repeat viewings reveal the brilliant architecture of the framing story as it rushes headlong into murderous foul play, a nightmarish world and a satisfyingly surreal ending.

Don’t Look Now (1973) dr. Nicolas Roeg

When the daughter of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie tragically drowns they retreat to Venice. Sutherland, a rational man, who does not believe in the afterlife, has his scepticism gradually beaten out of him when he becomes haunted by visions of a funeral and small figure in a red coat. Sensing it’s the unsettled ghost of his daughter he loses himself in a never-ending pursuit that culminates in him coming face to face with a homicidal dwarf – the funeral, sadly, a premonition of his downfall. The visual style is fragmented, accumulating images that add up to a final bloody moment of truth for Sutherland’s grief stricken character. Kim Newman, in Nightmare movies, describes the supernatural elements of this horror masterpiece as: “veiled by director Nicholas Roeg‘s anti-literal sensibility and author Daphne du Maurier‘s classical fascination with doom haunted Venice.”

An American Werewolf In London (1981) dr. John Landis

Not strictly a British production, but if Gravity (2013) can claim to be British, then An American Werewolf In London deserves to be included in this list. The iconic Slaughtered Lamb scene alone, featuring a young Rik Mayall, and loud-mouthed northerners northernerBrian Glover takes us into a darkened comedic corner of Britain rarely seen in film. The authenticity of the werewolf transformation became stuff of legend, and, CGI technology aside, has rarely been bettered. Plus, for a film that uses a liberal sprinkling of humour throughout, the terrifying nightmares in a confused Werewolf mind of Nazi zombie-like creatures raiding David Kessler’s (David Naughton) hospital room catch most first time viewers on the hop unless you’re watching a TV edit of the film where it has been removed. But don’t worry he wakes from it with the sultry Jenny Agutter in a nurses outfit to wipe the sweat from his brow.

Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) dr. Piers Haggard

Josh Saco (aka Cigarette Burns Cinema) describes this film as: “the cream of the ‘Folk Horror’ crop”. Initially envisioned as an anthology horror film, the separate story threads were stitched together by screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons to be one story of a tiny village under siege from unworldly power. It’s set in the same 17th century world of Witch finder General (1968), but explores the idea that real witches and demons roamed the countryside. The elders and betters are God-fearing and the young ones are possessed by the power of their ‘evil’ Pagan beliefs. Given this was shot as we waved goodbye to sixties it could read as a reactionary allegory of the burgeoning generation gap that pop culture inevitably created.

Witchfinder General (1968) dr. Michael Reeves

Writer/Director Sean Hogan (The Devil’s Business, 2011) says: “Hard to pick a number one out of the ‘Folk Horror’ trifecta of this, The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, but the sheer nihilistic force of Michael Reeves‘ vision wins out for me.”

Firstly, Reeves takes us out on location with Witchfinder. The sight of the wild British landscape was a revolutionary change from Hammer‘s usual flow of studio-bound, colour-saturated and gothic output. It’s a harsh film that pits the purity of nature against the cruelty of man – in particular, one man, the sadistic mercenary Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price). He isn’t interested in finding witches – there’s no evidence of witchcraft in the entire movie. All Hopkins is doing is exploiting the ongoing tensions between the Royalists and Parliament Party to line his own pockets. Sadly that means people die – cruelly. And thanks to more enlightened times, the film is now available uncut compared to 1968 version – adding a further 90 seconds to the movie.

Shortly after Witchfinder was released, with only two other films to his credit, and Hollywood knocking down his door, Michael Reeves died from a fatal dose of barbiturates.

Hellraiser (1987) dr. Clive Barker

After writing both Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986), Hellraiser was Clive Barker‘s directorial debut. It’s a simple tale of getting more than you bargain for. A mystical puzzle – Lament Configuration – is bought from a far off land with a promise and warning. When the new owner solves the puzzle back in the United States he inadvertently opens up the gates to a sadomasochistic hell and releases the cenobites into our world – these demonic creatures derive the greatest pleasure from delivering the greatest pain. Back in the late eightes, as the slasher film factories in Hollywood were struggling to reinvent that wheel, Hellraiser was a daring change. And in Pinhead, one of the cenobites, Barker introduced a new horror icon to the genre. One that has endured too many sequels, but has survived, relatively unscathed and is still remembered and revered by horror fans to this day for the first film in the sequence.

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) dr. Shane Meadows

After a handful of gritty and/or bittersweet dramas Shane Meadows dive-bombed into the horror genre with an uncompromising revenge movie. It stars Paddy Considine as a discontented soldier who returns to his hometown to rid the place of the local thugs who brutalised and sexually abused his mentally challenged, kid brother. The lowlifes are led by Sonny (former boxer, Gary Stretch). These neanderthals are the proverbial big fishes in a small pond – they do what they like, when they like and to who they like. That is until Considine crosses their paths. At first they don’t see the danger signs, but when humiliation tactics turn to killing they try to play him at his own game. This only serves to bring them all one-step closer to death as one after another meet their maker. The film’s dark heart is not without a sense of humour and the likes of the narcotic fuelled set piece killings are as funny as they are manic and macabre. Meadows really does serve up a gripping, nightmare vision of a post-industrial provincial town.

Kill List (2011) dr. Ben Wheatley

Ben Wheatley‘s second film took the realistic, small time gangster characters of his first,Down Terrace (2009) and used it to set up a very different movie altogether. Neil Maskelland Michael Smiley play veteran soldiers turned hit men. It’s been a while since they last did a job and Maskell’s wife, played by Myanna Buring is nagging him to go out and do some work. Given it’s killing, he’s a little reluctant, but after a fiery, boozed up dinner party and drunk fight on the lawn the boys are ready for their next job. The screen time between Maskell and Smiley is so natural you’d swear it was all improvised. For 30 minutes it feels like Mike Leigh trying his hand at genre or Wheatley turning his hand to pure drama and then the killings start and here we see how unpleasant and frightening Maskell, more so than Smiley can be. By the time the penultimate target has been bludgeoned to death with a hammer Maskell wants out. The people who commissioned the hit refuse to take their money back. Here’s where things start getting crazy and enter the realms of pure horror via a pagan ritual finale. For some people this tone change is either the work of genius or so annoying it hurts – producer Andy Starke referred to the latter as Act Three deniers on theBritflicks Podcast.

The Descent (2005) dr. Neil Marshall

After the all men werewolf flick Dog Soldiers (2002) Neil Marshall opts for an entire cast of women for his follow up. Out in the wilds, they’ve come together to go on a gentle caving expedition and help Shauna MacDonald rehabilitate following a car accident she survived, but her husband and child did not. Once inside the caves, the spaces get smaller and the claustrophobia mounts to a crescendo when an unexpected rock fall blocks their exit. Searching for an alternative way out they find monstrous predators are hunting them. When all hope is lost the women allow personal rivalries and differences to fragment them as a group when they should be teaming up. Writer, and director, Neil Marshall shoves the terrified spirit of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre last girl standing into the confines of a reckless caving expedition that is as fast-paced as it is scary.

28 Days Later (2002) dr. Danny Boyle

The film that stunned many viewers with those amazing shots of deserted central London as Cillian Murphy stumbles across London Bridge in a hospital gown. And like Murphy you’re left wondering where has everyone gone and what’s happened. He soon learns, almost the hard way, that there’s been a zombie-like apocalypse. Only these bad boys are not the slumbering, rotting flesh shifters of Romero or Fulci. These zombies have what is described as the rage and they move with the kind of speed and intensity the name suggests. Like Kill List28 Days Later revels in being a film of two halves. There’s the learning about zombies, teaming up with a small group of survivors and the decision to head north in the first half. As they approach Manchester the dream is over as they see their dreams literally up in smoke in the near distance until they are found by a rogue troupe of soldiers who take them in. Holed up in an old stately home they are many, but the confused reality of the apocalypse means the desire for order becomes something you fight for. Unfortunately, Murphy and co don’t have the firepower. Plus, the crazed Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has promised his men they are the future once they find some women. There are two women with Murphy, and neither of them wants to be the nation’s baby makers, let alone impregnated by this group of lusting, blue balled soldiers. Man and zombie prove themselves to be equally evil to the bitter end.

From Beyond The Grave (1974) dr. Kevin Connor

It’s fun to imagine that the cinema choices of forty years ago for Britain’s horror fans might have been Tobe Hooper‘s Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Amicus‘s From Beyond The Grave (FBTG). Two films made in the same year, but rather like our Alice In Wonderland tea party psychedelia vs. America’s draft dodging garage rock, polar opposites in terms of the genre. Roger Ebert summarises these differences as: “the British do these things [horror] with a certain style and would rather amuse and scare us than disgust us.” FBTG stars Peter Cushing, with a gloriously thick Yorkshire accent, as the trusting antiques shopkeeper. Only the fool the consumers take him for is mistaken. Something sinister, visiting them in their homes, will be their reward for stealing from him, or tricking him into slashing his price, Cushing’s little shop of horrors ensure he always has the last laugh and we enjoy some jolly good frights into the bargain.

Triangle (2009) dr. Christopher Smith

Chris Smith‘s third feature film is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic time shifting terror. Melissa George is a single, suburban mum, just about coping with the mounting pressures of bringing up her learning difficulties affected son. Guilt for every ill judged raised voice is edged into her face. When she goes on a sailing trip, with friends, but without her kid, she finds it hard to relax. As she begins to enjoy herself, probably for the first time in years, disaster strikes in the shape of a freak electrical storm. The yacht flips and they seek sanctuary on a passing ocean liner. Only problem is it is deserted. A ghostly sense of déjà vu hangs over George and as they all die one by one at the hands of a masked assailant she survives to unmask the killer – herself.  She jumps overboard and it resets the whole horrific ordeal. This is repeated from all angle and points of view until, like George, you begin to get into the rhythm of its logic. It’s maddening as it is enthralling until we return to the calm of the opening sequence and it’s just mum and son heading out for day only to be killed when their car collides with truck. Is George locked in a looping, guilt-ridden death dream, or was the electrical storm a real event?

The Devil’s Business (2010) dr. Sean Hogan

The Devil’s Business is a horror version of Harold Pinter‘s The Dumb Waiter. Shot in just ten days, for very little money, it punches well above its weight. The story revolves around a time-served hit man, Pinner (played by Billy Clarke) and young first timer Cully (Jack Gordon). They enter a large suburban house under cover of night. It’s a simple job. Stake out the place for an hour or two until Kist (Jonathan Hansler), an old associate of their gangland boss Bruno (Harry Miller), returns, and execute him. But in the land of horror things are never that easy. A drawn out conversation that never concludes about what it takes to be a hit man is disturbed by noises outside. To satisfy their curiosity they investigate. From hereon in the film distorts early notions of a British gangster flick and transforms into something supernatural, and even more introspective that leads to a finale reminiscent of ‘Don’t Look Now’. Demonstrating that when the right atmospherics rumble alongside an impending sense of doom you can frighten people without the need for expensive gimmicks or SFX.

Night Of The Demon (1957) dr. Jacques Tourneur

Night Of The Demon is an adaptation of M.R. James‘ Casting The Runes and over the decades has cemented its place in film history as one of the greatest chillers of all time. It stars Dana Andrews as Dr John Holden, a keen sceptic, who has flown to the UK to attend and paranormal symposium and expose devil cult leader Julian Karswell as a fake. Before his arrival the film tells us that, far from being a con man, Karswell is indeed in charge of magical, dark powers. Holden’s transition from sceptic to believer could make an agnostic of us all – you should never say never.

It also a film cloaked in myth and rumour about the fractious relationship between the director, Jacques Tourneur and Hollywood producer Hal E Chester. Most infamous demand of them all was said to be that we must see the devil creature in the finale. Although Alex Cox argues, in his foreword to Tony Earnshaw‘s book, Beating The Devil: The Making Of Night Of The Demon (2005), that Chester’s meddling didn’t necessarily spoil the film.

Originally appeared at http://www.britflicks.com/blog.aspx?blogid=8536

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About Stuart Wright

Screenwriter, Podcast Host, Journalist, LFC, Horror, Leyton
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