Top 10 Films’ “world tour” of horror arrives on home shores with a look at the best British horror movies ever made inc. Witchfinder General, The Innocents & The Wicker Man
…Let’s take a look at the greatest British horror films of all time…
10. Blood on Satan’s Claw (Haggard, 1971)
When looking at the best British horror movies, we have to talk about Blood on Satan’s Claw. It follows in the footsteps of Witchfinder General before it and The Wicker Man after it, and is part of what actor, writer and fan Mark Gatiss calls the short-lived “folk horror” genre that depicted malevolent manifestation in the serene, tranquil surroundings of a green English countryside. In Witchfinder General it was torture and murder, in The Wicker Man it was pagan ritual and sacrifice, in Blood on Satan’s Claw it’s the reincarnation of the devil.
Made by Tigon British Film Productions and directed by Piers Haggard, the film was a box office disappointment. It didn’t make much money bemoans its director who, like Robin Hardy with The Wicker Man, found distribution and marketing a real challenge. However, the film has become a cult favourite, not least because it features an unforgettable but particularly hellish rape and torture scene (the sort of dispiriting sequence Straw Dogs became well known for) but because it has a genuinely unsettling tone from the outset.
9. The Devil Rides Out (Fisher, 1968)
The Devil Rides Out, known as The Devil’s Bride in America, was deemed too unsettling for an early 1960s British audience. This saw the project shelved for four years until censorship was relaxed in regards to depictions of the occult. Starring Christopher Lee (in what he has called his favourite role) alongside Charles Gray, Patrick Mower and Paul Eddington, this icy supernatural horror deals with the dark subject of devil-worship as Lee, somewhat surprisingly, sides with the “good guys”. It is illuminating that Lee himself cites this 1968 British horror classic as one of his best given the array of brilliant work he did for Hammer and, of course, 1973’s incredible The Wicker Man.
In The Devil Rides Out, directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, we see Lee play the suave Nicholas, Duc de Richleau, who begins to investigate the strange goings-on at the home of Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), a young man Nicholas swore to protect for a long-term friend. Simon appears to have become involved with a satanic cult as Nicholas finds macabre markings at his home in the countryside accompanied by a sacrificial white hen and black cockerel. Nicholas, along with friend Rex Van Ryn (played by Leon Greene but dubbed by Patrick Allen), investigates and finds himself thrown into the middle of a ritual to raise the Devil in order to officially initiate Simon and fellow newcomer Tanith (Niké Arrighi) into the group.
The film is one of the best Hammer ever did during its heyday and it comes as little surprise to learn it’s one of Lee’s proudest pieces of work. While it suffers from some dodgy special effects and unwelcome moments of camp, Lee is genuinely brilliant as a multi-layered “good guy” while the Devil’s fleeting appearance is one of the most unsettling incarnations of Satan in cinema. There’s also a number of stand out scenes, often cited as some of director Terence Fisher’s best moments behind the camera, such as the evil Mocata (Charles Gray) hypnotically possessing Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson). This all goes to making The Devil Rides Out one of the best British horror movies of all time.
8. Eden Lake (Watkins, 2008)
James Watkins’ 2008 countryside thriller was born out of a perceived growing British fear of feral, uncontrollable youths, exacerbated by the debate over the merits of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (or ASBO as it is colloquially known in acronym form). This fear, known as the “middle-class panic” given its roots revealing a leaning towards the working class as the purveyors of this assumed threat, plays out in Eden Lake like the class war nightmare Daily Mail readers love to smoother themselves in.
Michael Fassbender, before he had gone full frontal and become really, really famous (not necessarily in that order), is the unfortunate victim along with his loving girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly). They plan an idyllic retreat in the English country but their peace, and indeed their attempts at copulation, is interrupted by a gang of teenagers who have no respect for their elders. From simply asking their tormentors to turn their music down, the film quickly shoves its protagonists off the cliff into a nightmare even the most sadistic mind would find difficult to comprehend.
Eden Lake is more frightening because it is so matter-of-fact, while Watkins ensures his villains have a familiar contempt for authority often seen in rebellious children. That their barbaric actions display a complete lack of respect for the lives of others and become something marked with enjoyment and a sense of fun, is even more chilling. The film, especially its ending, will stay with you for a very, very long time.
7. The Descent (Marshall, 2005)
Neil Marshall should really be on this list twice (ultimately I stumped for The Descent over his brilliant werewolf-come-war-movie Dog Soldiers – which I like to think of as Aliens with Scottish accents). He’s not a filmmaker who set out to take horror in a new direction, he simply tapped into a 2000s audience begging for the sort of up-to-date but distinctly conventional genre thrills 1990s cinemagoers had experienced with the likes of Scream and the whole “slasher” film reinvention led by Kevin Williamson. With The Descent, and earlier in the decade Dog Soldiers, Marshall threw cinemagoers back into the cinematic jungle once populated in the 1970s and 1980s by the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes and An American Werewolf in London. It is throwback cinema with characters who talk and live in the modern world, but whose knowledge of the movies they unwittingly pay homage to offering a postmodern underscore that was, at the time, de rigueur.
Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent follows the doomed caving expedition of a group of friends who, after challenging themselves to an unmapped cave system in North Carolina, happen across a feral group of cave-dwelling cannibals. It’s time for a banquet in the dark but our protagonists are on the menu!
6. Hellraiser (Barker, 1987)
Clive Barker wrote and directed this adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart on a small budget of just £500,000. That was very little money given the amount of special-effects needed to bring this dark fantasy to life. Despite some of the visuals being criticised, Barker should be commended for doing such a good job on a tiny budget.
Barker has referred to his own work as “new gothic” or anti-gothic” and that’s witnessed in Hellraiser as the nuclear of the family comes under threat from a strangely sadistic, sadomasochistic antagonist. The emphasis on deformed human flesh is brought into sharp focus thanks to two sides of the villainous coin. One is the rebirth of Frank from the blood of unfortunate victims, his body slowly coming back to life as flesh and bone grows from within; the second is the Cenobites, otherworldly creatures whose monstrous appearance becomes more unsettling thanks to a human-like quality distorted by grotesque deformity.
Hellraiser was Clive Barker’s directorial debut and remains his best work as a filmmaker. It mixes a powerful visual aesthetic, characterised by images you’d rather not look at but find mysteriously fascinating, with an intelligent adult drama at its heart. This all plays out amidst a underlining sense of dread and foreboding.
5. The Haunting (Wise, 1963)
A rare British horror film within this top 10 given that Robert Wise’s The Haunting was not only well received by critics but audiences as well. It has since been called one of the greatest and scariest horror films ever made by such esteemed filmmakers as Martin Scorsese. Most modern audiences will know the story thanks to Jan de Bont’s awful 1999 remake in which a penchant for modern digital effects destroys any subtly the film may have had.
The original, adapted by Nelson Gidding from the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, is a meditation on technical ingenuity. Director Robert Wise credits production designer Elliot Scott for his interior sets which helped create a sense of claustrophobia to add to the supernatural occurrences. Surprisingly, instead of creating dark corners within the frame, Wise deliberately set up the interior scenes to be brightly lit so audiences could see all aspects of the frame.
He also used a 30mm anamorphic, wide-angle lens to increase the scope of the visible image. This was coupled with stylistic tricks to distort the audience’s interpretation of the story as it unfolds, adding to the sense of paranoia and fear (this included low-angle shots as well as unusual pans and tracking shots marked by a consistently moving camera).
4. Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)
Like a number of horror films, Peeping Tom’s reputation grew only after having suffered a critical backlash that saw the film almost disappear into obscurity. English director Michael Powell was a much-celebrated filmmaker thanks to his successful collaborations with Emeric Pressburger that saw them release some of the 1940s most memorable films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. However, when Powell decided to work with former World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks on his 1960 film Peeping Tom, the result wasn’t as expected. The story of a voyeuristic psychopath filming his murderous rampage was annihilated by the critics of the day. The anti-Peeping Tom vitriol was so great, Powell could not work in Britain anymore.
The film was revived in part thanks to Martin Scorsese’s love of Powell’s work with the film later gaining a following in America and also elsewhere in Europe where, for example, French critics were particularly fascinated by Powell’s depiction of a sympathetic villain (indeed, a sadistic murderer no less). Many of the film’s biggest fans claim British critics hated the film on its initial release because they were ashamed to have felt sympathy towards a villain who carries out such atrocious acts.
That’s what makes the film so fascinating. In 1960, it was ahead of its time, not least in its enigmatic depiction of the villain but also in its point-of-view photography which immersed the audience in the story. There’s a wit to Powell’s work here, one that challenges the audience as active participants in the killer’s voyeurism. Irony is also not lost on the director whose stylistic choices are born from both a love and a fear of the art form he had made a career out of.
3. The Innocents (Clayton, 1961)
The influence of The Innocents cannot be ignored. Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw took the horror genre in a new direction. Through its ornate depiction of late 19th century gothic, the film balances classical familial melodrama in a setting of unfamiliar macabre. Underlining it all is an ambiguous battle between the supernatural and the psychological, the tangible and the intangible.
The Innocents took its subject matter, which includes the strong possibility of paranormal activity occurring in a lavish English countryside mansion, with a seriousness not often seen within the genre by 1961. Previous attempts to popularise horror saw very discernible villains do battle with the power of good (the early Universal monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein with Bela Legosi and Boris Karloff in the 1930s, or Hammer’s movies with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the 1950s) leaving less to the imagination in favour of visceral shocks and, latterly, when colour film became prevalent, blood-red gore. The Innocents strips away the artificiality of these monster movies in order to offer something far more riveting. Indeed, in Clayton’s film it isn’t clear who the villain of the piece really is.
It is in this enigmatic prose that the film draws its ability to unnerve and disarm the audience. Much of its success comes from its technical ingenuity such as the use of the wide, letterbox frame to create a sense of spatial disorientation (you never know what might be in the corners) while deep focus and slow dissolves add an immediacy to the drama and an ethereal quality respectively. Deborah Kerr is also brilliant as the sexually repressed governess Miss Giddens. As the traumatic experiences slowly crack at her strength of character, her psychological downward spiral becomes a captivating emotional struggle. Despite an unrelenting determination to do the right thing for the children in her charge, her antagonist remains distinctly enigmatic. It makes for an experience that unsettles the mind in much the same way as Miss Giddens’ tranquil existence is rattled by the events that take place.
2. Witchfinder General (Reeves, 1968)
Witchfinder General was destined to become a cult hit. It was heavily censored, initially ignored by critics and audiences who were dismayed at the onscreen violence, and poorly marketed with the American release changing its title to The Conqueror Worm in order to tie it in with Roger Corman’s collaborations with Vincent Price in adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s work. When the film’s director Michael Reeves died of a drug overdose, aged 25, only nine months after the film was released, it seemed likely that Witchfinder General would become a lost British horror, destined to be forgotten.
But all these drawbacks played into its favour. After all, bad publicity is sometimes the sort of publicity a film, particularly a horror movie, needs to kick-start its momentum. Indeed, its violence, once too much for audiences not acclimatised to such visual carnage, would become an intrinsic part of its later success, just as its critical re-evaluation would ignite a newfound appreciation of this classic film.
It tells the fictionalised tale of 17th century English lawyer Matthew Hopkins who, appointed by the State, sets out across the country to find those supposedly practising witchcraft. His methods of torture often bring death to those he accuses of dark magic whether or not they prove his theory. An opportunist more than anything, he’s a malevolent force who takes advantage of social upheaval and the preoccupations of the government during the English Civil War, to enact a perverse, nihilistic pleasure in the destruction of others.
1. The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973)
Mad is one way to describe this unsettling masterpiece from director Robin Hardy. The appearance of Christopher Lee, his celebrity alive with the glorious blood red of Hammer horror, might suggest the artificiality of the famed British studio’s dalliance with camp, and the collective audience snigger that accompanies such creative indulgence, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, The Wicker Man is so unassuming you’d be forgiven for forgetting that you were indeed watching a horror film; an exceptionally frightening one at that.
Part of the film’s charm, moreover its ability to nestle itself under your skin, is that for much of the story you’re as clueless as well-meaning detective Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). Not only is he, and us the audience, no closer to solving the mystery of a missing girl, thanks to the islanders conspiring to thwart his attempts at every opportunity, but we become increasingly fascinated with the inhabitants of Summerisle despite our understanding of their motivations, and the their pagan rituals, growing more distant with every new development. It is therefore somewhat alarming to feel a kinship with the islanders, as if they are liberated by their values in a way that Howie is not. It muddies the line between hero and villain, interestingly developing these characteristics in both its protagonist and antagonist.
At its heart, The Wicker Man engrosses thanks to Howie’s determined attempts to find the missing girl, alongside Woodward’s mild-mannered but increasingly desperate pursuit of the truth. His self-conscious moral virtue is upended by Summerisle’s free spirit and collective enrichment of life while he himself is constrained by his devout Christian beliefs. Underlining this is director Hardy’s wry wit and the disconcerting sense of imbalance between seemingly harmless religious ritual and darker, sexual or violent subtext. There is also the brilliant Christopher Lee as the island’s patriarch and spiritual leader. The seasoned actor mixes brief moments of lunacy (his haphazard, childlike dance at the head of a parade during the film’s final act) with an unwavering, imposing belief in his system of values.
Given the film’s problematic distribution, which saw it severely cut from its original version, it is even more impressive that The Wicker Man managed to win over the hearts of filmgoers. The recently released longer cut emphasises the disconnect between both sides of the religious coin – Howie’s devout Christianity on one side, the islanders strong belief in pagan gods and the will of the land on the other. We also see more of Howie, getting to know about his life before arriving at the island. Yet, while the general consensus is that The Wicker Man improves in its longer incarnation, the scenes we lose in the 87-minute cut only add to the unnerving ambiguity that prevails throughout the story.
Great British Horror Film International Co-Productions
Do I hear a cry from the back of the room? There’s an indistinct sound I’m picking up – I can hear words such as American Werewolf, Shining and Don’t Look Now. Yes, these are three powerful horror films created in part by British production companies but I left them off my list as each was funded as a co-production with international investors. The Shining and An American Werewolf in London were both British-American productions while Don’t Look Now was jointly developed by London-based Casey Productions and Italy’s Eldorado Films.
In their own right, however, each would merit a place on this list. Moreover, they would quickly take up places in the top 5. An American Werewolf in London has been a long-time favourite of mine. It was one of the first horror films I ever saw and its enduring qualities have stayed with me ever since. It features a brilliant balance between moments of comedy and terror thanks to director John Landis’ cheeky sense of humour alongside his love of gothic horror. The film also marks a return to classic horror – recalling Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s. Landis’ use of a contemporary setting brings the story bang up to date, as does his ironic, self-aware attitude to the genre which enhances the film’s ability to effectively add humour amongst the horror. Adding to this subversive approach is the jaunty infusion of rock n roll bringing a party atmosphere to one man’s slow destruction. Landis’ keen eye for detail is not lost here either, with each song reminiscing about that folkloric werewolf trope – the full moon.
The film also features an incredible transformation scene thanks to Rick Baker’s special-effects which are all recorded in-camera. Baker’s work within the film, including the gradually decomposing body of Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne) opened up the genre to new ideas in the 1980s as filmmakers interested in visual horror allowed their gorier imagination to flourish.
Elsewhere, stripping away the humour are two earlier films – Kubrick’s The Shining and Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. What I love about these pieces of work is how they concentrate on delivering a character-driven story where a genuine emotional struggle ensues as a result of the implication of the supernatural. Instead of having a tangible villain, in a similar way to Clayton’s The Innocents, we are offered an enigmatic portrayal of evil, which impacts the lives of people and situations we can relate to.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
Over to you: what are the best British horror movies in your opinion..? Is The Wicker Man the best British horror film ever made? What would you add to this top 10?