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British Horror Movies

Scary Films From the United Kingdom and Ireland

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British Horror Movies

Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid and Shauna Macdonald in The Descent .

Photo credit: Alex Bailey © Lions Gate Entertainment.

Although the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland are relatively new to the realm of horror cinema, Great Britain has a long history in the genre. The British imprint on horror films has been apparent since early in the genre's cinematic heyday, from Boris Karloff's iconic presence in Universal features like Frankenstein and The Mummy to director James Whale's steady hand behind the scenes of The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But Britain has also produced its share of scary cinema within its own borders, including some of the most highly regarded movies in horror history.

Early Scares

The Ghoul, released in 1933, was the first British horror "talkie." The Boris Karloff vehicle also had the dubious distinction of being the first film to receive the "H" rating from Britain's rating system, designating it as "horrific." Thus began British horror's struggle for legitimacy within its own country.

The British Board of Film Censors had existed since the early days of silent film, and its history had made it clear that horror movies should not be, ironically, too horrific. As such, horror filmmakers in the '30s and '40s tended to maintain the status quo -- even at the cost of their artistic integrity. Movies like The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935), The Face at the Window (1939), Dead of Night (1945) and A Place of One's Own (1945) stuck with safe, "polite" fare that was sure to avoid offending any sensibilities.

Hammer Time

In 1955, Hammer Film Productions released the horror/science fiction movie The Quatermass Xperiment, the intentional misspelling a pun on the new adults-only "X" rating that replaced "H" in 1951. The movie became the company's biggest hit to date and was one of the few to receive American distribution, albeit under the title The Creeping Unknown. Its success led Hammer to increasingly focus its efforts on horror, thus beginning an historic era in the genre's cinematic lineage.

While Quatermaass and contemporary films like X: The Unknown and The Gamma People followed the lead of American science fiction invasion films of the '50s, Hammer discovered what would become its bread-and-butter formula with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. As established with this movie, the gothic period piece would become a Hammer trademark, as would the vivid color film, which intensifed the heightened use of blood and explicit violence. With these elements, combined with the casting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the lead roles, Hammer would go on to redefine British horror for the next two decades.

Hammer revisited many of the same classic horror characters that Universal banked on for American productions in the 1930s -- Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula), mummies (The Mummy), werewolves (Curse of the Werewolf) and the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) -- but it did so with lurid details, in startling color and with untamed bloodletting, helping to set the stage for the more graphic horror movies of the '70s and '80s. Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, Hammer made several films in each of the Dracula, Frankenstein and mummy series, while expanding their monster stable to include the likes of The Reptile (1966), The Gorgon (1964) and Plague of the Zombies (1966).

Other horror film production companies soon sprang up around England, including the edgy and exploitive Tigon (Scream and Scream Again, The Creeping Flesh, Blood on Satan's Claw, The Sorcerers), Tyburn (Persecution, Legend of the Werewolf, The Ghoul) and Benmar (Psychomania, Horror Express). The biggest challenge to Hammer, though, was Amicus, which specialized in multi-story anthology films such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Asylum, From Beyond the Grave, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and The House That Dripped Blood.

By the '70s, though, the popularity of films following the established Hammer formula began to wane in light of a new wave of edgy realism in cinema worldwide. New horror movies like Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were more concerned with the real-life monsters in modern society than fictional monsters in the 19th century.

A few British films rose to the challenge of the new era. The Wicker Man (1973) was a particularly striking achievement -- set in modern times, confronting modern issues of faith and sexuality, while featuring a decidedly un-Dracula-like Christopher Lee. Alien (1979) meanwhile took things into the future with a stunning, bleak setting that would influence generations of horror and sci-fi filmmakers to come. (The film's success, however, drew director Ridley Scott away from the UK an into the lucrative Hollywood scene.) Earlier works, like 1970's intense And Soon the Darkness, Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and the ahead-of-its-time slasher forerunner Peeping Tom (1960), also managed to tie into a newer, more risqué line of material, but such envelope pushing ran the risk of meeting with censorship and critical disdain from the conservative British press.

Hammer attempted a few seemingly desperate moves to adapt their formula to public tastes. Dracula A.D. 1972 brought the gothic icon into the present day, while The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires threw Peter Cushing's Van Helsing character into a trendy kung fu setting, and several films -- such as Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire -- featured increasing levels of sexuality and nudity. None of this, however, prevented Hammer, Amicus or any of the other British horror companies from ceasing production of movies by the early '80s.

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