In the mid-1950s, the vast majority of British motion pictures were sedate almost to the point of being sleep-inducing. The “angry young man” was still a figure unknown to most English audiences who little expected the characters on the movie screen to lash out at society, let alone go for its throat in the literal sense. As a result, when the Hammer studios began to engage in their reanimation of the Dracula and Frankenstein narratives, the public and the critics alike were shocked. Hammer’s first world wide hit, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), was dubbed by one writer “among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have ever encountered” while another proposed a new rating designation for such fare: “SO” (“For Sadists Only”).
Exaggerated as such responses might seem, they represent how a significant portion of the English public were appalled by the unprecedented level of violence and mayhem engaged in by the Hammer films. It was as if these pictures unleashed sentiments that English society customarily kept restrained. The sight of their fellow countrymen hammering stakes into the hearts of vampires or creating the living out of pieces of dead tissue struck a raw nerve that little else appearing at the time in the cinema could stimulate.
The success of the Hammer studios led to other companies like Amicus and Tigon getting in on the act. British horror films proliferated, and, in the process, actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became international icons. The impact of the British productions on horror films produced in other countries was considerable. The bold color, sexual innuendo, and vigorous action set a new standard for what the audiences expected from the genre. Despite all the hue and cry associated with the Hammer films, however, they were not altogether excursions to the abattoir. Something in the national sensibility desired that these genre exercises break the rules but not break them altogether. Unrestrained outrageousness was out of the question.
A combination of the genteel and the gruesome therefore seems to coexist in the most effective English horror films. The British seem to function most successfully in this genre when they allow excessive imagery or narrative content to be kept under a sort of pressure cooker. Once that restraint gives way, the narrative that results does not simply titillate but rather taunts the viewer with truths about our nature, and that of our civilization, which we would rather not consider. In this context, the work of the late Michael Reeves comes to mind. Dead by an apparently accidental drug overdose at only twenty-five, he managed in a short time to put on screen in a handful of films as bleak and foreboding a world view as any I can imagine in world cinema. His most successful pictures, Sorcerers (1966) and Witchfinder General (1967) can be compared to Luis [Buñuel] in their acidic examination of social and culture mores, although Reeves is without the Spaniard’s caustic sense of humor.
Reeves’ death in 1968 occurred just as the prohibitions of state censorship became unhinged, and a newfound liberality permitted that pressure cooker to let loose its lid. Unfortunately, for the most part, this opportunity for license was not conducive to either imagination or innovation on the part of the makers of horror films in England. That is, unless one considers more ample displays of naked women or dollops of stage blood and exposed viscera the fruit of deliberate forethought and not simple commercial calculation. The tension that led to the best work in the genre gave way to a kind of routine grimness and predilection for slapdash offensiveness.
As a result, many of the films produced at this time are more interesting to read about than actually watch. Take, for example, those directed by Pete Walker. In his day a determined commercial moviemaker, Walker’s work is now analyzed for its reflection of certain English cultural assumptions, particularly about organized religion and the state apparatus of law and medicine. While it is not hard to see these notions embodied in works like Frightmare (1974) with its cannibalistic family unit or House of Mortal Sin (1975) with its conniving, psychotic clergyman, what lingers in the mind is a succession of mangled corpses and not an exercise in ideological critique. Walker’s flat direction, the second-rate acting on the part of most characters, and the flimsy plot lines seem to be merely a contrivance whereby one’s attention can be directed to what Monty Python liked to call the “naughty bits.”
With this in mind, one turns to the lavish and often thoughtful collection on the British horror films of the 1970s, Ten Years of Terror. The editors, Harvey Fenton and David Flint, bring an open mind to the subject and draw upon the recent work of others who have investigated the substantial body of English commercial film. The contributors examine the 133 pictures produced during the course of this decade with neither a jaundiced eye nor the kind of slavish affection for the gruesome that makes much of the writing on horror films juvenile in the extreme. That balanced point of view is, however, only intermittently productive of new interpretations of this material. On more than one occasion, the entries are at times a bit too willing to overlook the absence of talent or an underwhelming level of execution. In a number of cases, lapses of skill and sensibility are pointed out only to have a commentary conclude with the author’s admonition that we will have a “jolly old time” watching the picture. This is particularly hard to swallow in the material that addresses the Hammer releases of the period. For a variety of reasons, the studio lost its way at the time, either endlessly rehashing old characters like Dracula and Frankenstein or indulging in often overboard abuse of the latitude that the erosion of censorship permitted. While the company did attempt to find new, young directors and writers with a fresh point of view, pictures like Demons of the Mind (1972) and Hands of the Ripper (1971) are exceptions to the rule that led to hackneyed product like Lust for a Vampire (1970).
On the other hand, the volume has some telling comments on the black comedies of the day, like the Dr. Phibes films (1971, 1972) and Theater of Blood (1973), all of which starred Vincent Price. Their over-the-top satirizing of the horror film’s cliches can be thought of a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the genre that results in a cartoonish sequence of elaborate executions. The entries on these pictures focus, instead, on the works’ wit and polish, their tongue-in-cheek collaboration with the audience in making light of the genre’s conventional patterns and practices. Attention is also brought to such striking productions as the effective period piece Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970), with its often shocking evocation of the evil takeover of the young, as well as Death Line (1972), its outrageous story about a group of individuals trapped in an abandoned subway line that succumb to cannibalism masking a thoughtful and even touching evocation of how the innocent are led to embrace violence.
Ten Years of Terror is more than likely neither the best nor the last word on the subject of British horror film. Whatever the case, it must be said that the publishers did not skimp on the physical production of this book. The over three hundred pages include lavish examples of publicity photographs and poster art. The fact that much of this material was created in its own right with no connection to the events of the films amounts to a typical practice on the part of exploitation filmmakers: use any means necessary to attract an audience and then offer it less than promised. Ten Years of Terror will not, one imagines, turn away those interested in the subject. It will certainly stir aficionados of the field to re-think their estimate of British horror films of the period as well as introduce novices to a body of sometimes compelling if often simply mind-numbing material.