It has never been a better time to be a fan of scary movies. With Get Out, A Quiet Place, The Conjuring cinematic universe and the latest Halloween setting the box office alight, it is clear that we’re hungry for horror. But with so many hits coming from across the pond, it’s easy to forget that we’ve made some crackers in our time. With the release of Slaughterhouse Rulez, let’s look back on just a few of Britain’s best horror movies.
(Please note, spoilers ahead!)
Dir. Terence Fisher
It’d be remiss for any article to miss out a Hammer picture when discussing British horror. Christopher Lee would play Dracula in ten movies throughout his career (seven for Hammer Productions), but none were so well received as his debut in 1958’s Dracula, a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original novel. Lee’s Dracula, 6′5” and often dripping with vibrant red Technicolour blood, finds a nice balance between Max Schreck’s grotesque Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi’s hoity-toity aristocrat – despite being onscreen for just ten of the film’s 82 minute runtime. Paired with Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, they make a formidable onscreen duo. For all the campy, cheaply-made fun of any good Hammer movie, Dracula’s death scene remains a brilliant and gnarly piece of special-effects work. As Van Helsing floods the room with sunlight, the count slowly disintegrates, screaming and clawing bits of his own face off as he crumbles to dust, finally vanquished…until the sequels, of course.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Dir. Michael Powell
It’s safe to say that 1960s audiences didn’t warm to Peeping Tom upon its first release. For those accustomed to Michael Powell’s earlier work (including The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death) the tale of a cameraman who murders women to film their dying expressions repulsed much of the viewing public – perhaps they didn’t enjoy the way in which the film makes accomplices of its viewers. Reviled by critics and promptly pulled from cinemas, Peeping Tom forever tainted Powell’s career. Today, thanks to vocal support from fans like Martin Scorsese, it’s revered as an ahead-of-it’s-time classic. Its horrors may seem tame by today’s standards – it’s certainly no gore-fest – but its exploration of cinematic voyeurism and complicity remains a fascinating watch.
The Haunting (1963)
Dir. Robert Wise
You know the story: a paranormal investigator invites a group of strangers to a spooky mansion to investigate some ghostly happenings, and Shit Goes Down. Currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts with its excellent Netflix series, Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House first found screen success with 1963’s The Haunting. Like any good ghost story, the star is the house itself. Masterfully designed by Elliot Scott, Hill House is all shadows and off-kilter angles and “Did I see a face in the shadows?” second-guessing. The name of the game here is suspense: Robert Wise mines some great scares out of very little, disorientating the audience and keeping the ghosts mainly offscreen (unlike its risible 1999 remake).
The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir. Robin Hardy
From the moment Police Sergeant Neil Howie sets foot on the isolated Hebridean island of Summerisle, he’s doomed. Paranoia and paganism envelop the devoutly Christian police officer as he arrives to investigates the disappearance of a young girl, stumbling into a community rife with secrecy and menace. With no supernatural creatures or bloodthirsty murderers in sight, it seems hard at times to categorise Robin Hardy’s unsettling film as true horror. But The Wicker Man has no need for ghosts or goblins, constructing a quietly creeping sense of dread that builds to a head in the film’s shocking climax. Boasting one of the most disturbing endings in film history, the islanders reveal their plans to sacrifice Howie, burning him alive in an immense wicker man in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. The viscerally terrified Howie screams and calls out to God as the flames rise, while the villagers happily sway and sing Middle English folk ballad Sumer Is Icumen In. It’s a shocking conclusion, and one that leaves you wondering what other dark secrets hide in unassuming little communities.
28 Days Later (2002)
Dir. Danny Boyle
In 2002 writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle brought the not-quite-zombie apocalypse to Britain. Echoing John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, bike courier Jim wakes up four weeks after an accident to quite possibly the worst post-coma surprise ever: the country has been ravaged by a pathogen that drives its victims to become mindless, bloodthirsty killers. The shots of Jim wandering through a desolate, unpeopled London are still fantastically eerie, giving British audiences accustomed to American zombie flicks a sobering chance to imagine what our own post-apocalyptic landscape would look like. A far cry from the slow, shambling undead of days gone by, these Rage infected monsters can sprint, forcing the less cardio-oriented members of the audience to seriously reconsider our chances of survival in this harsh new world.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Dir. Edgar Wright
The stellar first entry in Edgar Wright’s beloved Cornetto Trilogy, this self-described “rom-zom-com” follows slackers Shaun and Ed as they attempt to survive a zombie uprising in that most British of ways – by going down the pub and waiting for things to blow over. Like any Edgar Wright movie, it’s loaded with fun homages to other horror flicks (Shaun’s reference to a colleague named Ash, Ed’s “We’re coming to get you Barbara!” and the Raimi-like choppy cuts and fast zooms of Shaun making a cup of tea are particular standouts).The great thing about Shaun is how deftly it manages to balance comedy, horror and pathos. Smacking zombies with pool cues to the beat of Don’t Stop Me Now (“David, kill the Queen!”) is tempered by the tragedy of being forced to kill an infected family member, or watching a member of the party get their intestines pulled out. Sailing by on the incredible chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it’s perfect for comedy and horror fans (and all of us in between).
The Descent (2005)
Dir. Neil Marshall
Neil Marshall’s gory horror follows six women on a cave-diving mission in North Carolina that, needless to say, goes horribly, horribly wrong for all involved. A fun routine excursion becomes a fight for survival when one of the group admits she’s deliberately taken them to an undiscovered, unmapped cave system – and there’s something down there with them. Expertly building suspense, it’s almost a full hour before the terrifying ‘crawlers’ make their first appearance. They’re a brilliant and bloody addition, these carnivorous Gollum-like creatures who hunt by sound – but in some ways they’re superfluous. The Descent is that rare example of a horror in which you can take the physical threat out of the movie and still be left with an experience gruelling enough to make your palms sweat. With cave-ins, claustrophobia and compound fractures to deal with before we get even get so much as a glimpse of beastie, the real horror is to be found in the simple terror of being trapped in the darkness.
The Hallow (2015)
Dir. Corin Hardy
Tales of city slickers being bested by the horrors of the countryside are ten a penny, but Corin Hardy’s debut film adds a great fantasy twist with this 2015 creature feature. Husband and wife Claire and Adam relocate to rural Ireland with their infant son Finn, only to come a cropper of some seriously scary locals. Rather than cannibalistic hillbillies, it’s “fairies, banshees and baby stealers” that lurk in the woods by their new home. These demonic inhabitants are less Tinkerbell and more Guillermo Del Toro-style nightmares – and they’ve set their sights on baby Finn. A welcome return to practical effects and animatronics, this cabin-in-the-woods flick is Evil Dead meets The Shining by way of Labyrinth,and is definitely worth a watch.