Jan 6, 2017

13 Amazing British Horror Films

Article By: Tony Timpone

It’s a country we kicked off our soil over 240 years ago, but Americans still consider Great Britain to be the bee’s knees. We devour their fiction (The Girl on the Train), movies (James Bond) and TV shows (Downton Abbey). We even cast their citizens to play our most beloved superheroes (the last two Spider-Men and current Superman are both Brits). Horror’s no exception. British fear fare has traveled well to the States since the early days of cinema. Today Chiller’s Friday 13 reviews the brilliant best from Bloody Olde England! (List focuses on chiefly British-financed productions directed by Englishmen. Friday 13 picks arranged according to year of film’s release.)

1. Horror of Dracula (1958)

By casting the 6-foot 5-inch-tall Christopher Lee as Dracula, Britain’s Hammer Films reinvigorated the Bram Stoker monster previously played by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine in the US. Sporting blood-dripping fangs, Lee’s Count exuded more menace and sensuality than ever before. Like previous versions, Horror of Dracula (just Dracula in Blighty) deviates from Stoker’s original text. The Terence Fisher-directed film remains, arguably, the finest version of the novel. Credit goes to the wonderful Gothic trappings, bombastic James Bernard score and the dynamic casting of Lee and Peter Cushing as his perennial rival, Van Helsing. Their knees-up final clash still thrills.

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2. Peeping Tom (1960)

The same year that birthed American Psycho Norman Bates, British director Michael (The Red Shoes) Powell helmed this sumptuous arthouse slasher show. While Psycho provided Alfred Hitchcock his biggest financial and critical success, the reviled Peeping Tom nearly destroyed Powell’s career due to the movie’s unflinching nature. Decades later the film and director’s rep would be positively reevaluated when the likes of Martin Scorsese championed this disturbing film. Handsome photographer Mark (Austrian actor Carl Boehm) draws perverse pleasure when photographing women at the moment of death, which he orchestrates himself by impaling the beautiful victims with the deadly tip of his retrofitted camera tripod leg. Like the troubled main character, you will become a voyeur too watching Peeping Tom’s compelling horrors unfold.

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3. The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee enjoyed one of his few heroic turns in another smashing Hammer production (released here as The Devil’s Bride), also directed by studio workhorse Terence Fisher. Lee essays the aristocratic Duc de Richleau, who attempts to save a young couple from the clutches of a demonic cult, lorded over by future Blofeld Charles Gray. Fisher’s direction moves at a fast clip, almost like a Saturday matinee serial, as our heroes escape one diabolical circumstance after another. Lee’s dream to remake the film in his later years, with Joe (Gremlins) Dante behind the camera, never materialized. Bollocks!

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4. Witchfinder General (1968)

Horror great Vincent Price delivered his most chilling, camp-free performance as real-life 17th-century witch hunter Matthew Hopkins in this dark gem. Traveling the English countryside, the sanctimonious figure falsely accuses people of witchcraft, then tortures and executes them. Charlatan Hopkins’ scheme eventually comes undone when a heroic soldier (actor Ian Ogilvy) metes out his own brand of gruesome justice. Saddled with the Conqueror Worm title by US distributor AIP to milk an unnecessary Edgar Allan Poe association, Witchfinder General does not paint a rosy picture of humankind. Tragically, Michael Reeves, the film’s 25-year-old director, died a year after its completion of a drug overdose.

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5. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

Another superlative (but not as heralded as Witchfinder General) period horror cast the striking Linda Hayden as an enchantress bewitching a 17th-century English village. Hayden seduces the local priest (in his church, no less) and inducts the town’s innocents into her coven, until the townsfolk rally against her. Piloted by Piers Haggard, Claw boasts a number of extreme highlights: in close-up, a girl has “Satan’s skin” sliced from her leg and a randy satanic orgy closes the proceedings. A few modern critics have noticed similarities between The Blood on Satan’s Claw and 2015’s much-praised The Witch.

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6. The Wicker Man (1973)

No, not the Nicolas Cage stinker! The original movie follows a police sergeant (future TV Equalizer Edward Woodward) as he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island. The devout Christian officer experiences a major culture shock: the isle’s residents practice paganism by worshiping the earth, sea and sun and offering up human sacrifices to insure healthy crops. Women also flout their sexuality to the devout copper at every turn and his values are further challenged by Lord Summerisle (bewigged Christopher Lee in his favorite role). Thanks to Anthony (Sleuth) Shaffer’s blinding screenplay and first timer Robin Hardy’s assured direction, The Wicker Man continues to upset, its bleak ending destined to burn a hole in your consciousness. Skip Hardy’s dodgy semi-sequel The Wicker Tree (2011).

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7. Hellraiser (1987)

In his directorial debut, British author Clive Barker reached into the deepest pits of Hell to conjure up a quartet of S&M-clad demons to terrorize an American dad (Andrew Robinson) and his pretty daughter (Ashley Laurence). A dead, flayed uncle and his hammer-wielding lover add further terror to the grisly story, which mostly unfolds in a once quaint cottage home. Barker creates a uniquely frightening universe, while his Lead Cenobite (later christened Pinhead and performed by Barker school mate Doug Bradley) returned over the course of one good sequel (Hellbound a year later) and several daft ones.

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8. 28 Days Later (2002)

Get infected with Trainspotting director Danny Boyle’s electrifying reinvention of the zombie film, though don’t call them zombies! A lab-born virus has spread throughout England in less than a month, turning citizens into rampaging (living) maniacs who spread the infection with a saliva-packed bite. Boyle infuses the screen with breathless action and sudden violence. Breakout star Cillian (Batman Begins) Murphy stars as an unassuming bike messenger who wakes up out of a coma to unwittingly stumble into a desolate, abandoned London, a set-up lifted to a great extent with Rick’s initial plight in season one/episode one of The Walking Dead. You can give the worthy follow-up, 28 Weeks Later, a try too.

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9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

In the most excellent mix of shocks and yocks since Abbott and Costello’s kerfuffle with Frankenstein’s Monster and company, two London losers (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) come face to face with a Dawn of the Dead-style zombie outbreak. The film’s first major joke reveals itself when the hapless blokes fail to realize the terrifying insanity unfolding around them until many of their friends and neighbors hungrily lunge for their throats. Directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by his Spaced collaborator Pegg (now of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible reboots), Shaun of the Dead adeptly plays its horror largely straight (and scary!) while balancing uproarious character and situational comedy. Hope the real apocalypse is this hunky-dory.

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10. The Descent (2005)

Dive into one of the most claustrophobic horror films ever made from either side of the pond, courtesy of writer/director Neil (Dog Soldiers) Marshall. The setup involves a group of gutsy women spelunkers who go exploring an unexplored cave and encounter ravenous, humanoid, batlike creatures (terrific FX by makeup artist Paul Hyett). Marshall expertly exploits our fear of the dark and tight dark spaces with his grim scenario. Kudos also to the filmmaker for introducing six fleshed-out heroines, many of whom lose their flesh to the razor-toothed/clawed monsters. Wisely, Marshall sat out The Descent Part 2, a tosh sequel where a few unlikely survivors face additional Crawler perils.

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11. Eden Lake (2008)

Before he began popping up in every other big-budget American sci-fi and action film, German actor Michael Fassbender (last three X-Men movies, Prometheus, upcoming Assassin’s Creed, etc.) wrestled with a gang of violent juvenile delinquents while on a rustic holiday with his girlfriend (Kelly Reilly from True Detective). The guy means to propose to his lady, but all goes to pot with the arrival of some vicious thugs. Sure, we’ve seen this story countless times before and since, but writer/director James Watkins (who graduated to the scary The Woman in Black) finds new trails to explore and interesting character shadings for his weekend of terror in the woods. Rising star Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, Money Monster) appears as the leader of the cruel killers.

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12. The Children (2008)

The holidays couldn’t be less happy than the one experienced by the families in this thriller from Tom (House of Cards) Shankland. Two couples with little tykes in tow head to a secluded country home to celebrate the yuletide season. When one of the kids takes ill, the puzzling sickness quickly spreads to the entire cutie-pie brood, with the chief symptom exploding into horrendous psychopathic behavior. With a nod to Night of the Living Dead and Who Can Kill a Child?, The Children pits parent against offspring in a bloody battle royale guaranteed to have you gutted.

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13. Monsters (2010)

Before hitting the big leagues with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Nuneaton, Warwickshire-born Gareth Edwards shepherded this impressive $800,000 sleeper. Six years after mammoth octopi-like extraterrestrials pay Earth an unexpected visit, a journalist (Scoot McNairy) drops into Mexico’s Quarantine Zone to rescue his boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) and escort her back onto American soil. While the creature chaos unfolds around them, the love-smitten pair makes a mad rush to the border where Trump got his wall after all! In a twist we didn’t see coming, the film’s gargantuan luminescent aliens shag each other for a gobsmacked ending.

Be sure and track down more entries in the Hammer catalog and those vintage Amicus anthologies (Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, etc.). More jolly good favorites helmed by limeys: Dead of Night (1945), Fiend Without a Face (1958), Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), Don’t Look Now (1973), Evil Aliens (2005), Black Death (2010) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Send your cheers and jeers over to our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13.

Fangoria Editor Emeritus Tony Timpone attended the 2016 American Film Market.

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