Crash Course: British Horror (1967 – 1971)

Every October I like to do a “crash course” article around horror movies of a certain theme or type.  The last two years my crash courses have been in the horror films of a certain country, namely Japan and Italy, so I thought I’d keep that up.  This year I’ve decided to look at some uniquely British horror movies and specifically British horror movies of a specific era straddling the late 60s and early 70s.  This era of British horror is often associated with Hammer Horror, and while some of the movies I’m looking at were indeed produced by Hammer I’m trying to dig at least a little deep than the usual assortment of Dracula and Frankenstein movies they’re most known for.  It should also probably go without saying that I’ve already seen The Wicker Man, which would of course fit right in with this collection.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth as it is known in America) is the third film in a rather unconventional series of films that were based on a trilogy of televised serials that aired on the BBC in the 50s.  The first two films, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, were made by Hammer before they were known as a horror studio in the mid-fifties not long after their respective TV versions aired and starred a guy named Brian Donlevy but before the third serial aired things changed at Hammer films.  “Hammer Horror” as a brand started taking off and the American distributors they were partnered with wanted as much Dracula and Frankenstein as they could get and the Quatermass series was put on the back burner for a decade.  Then in the late sixties it was decided that it was finally time to make a movie out of the third and at that time final Quatermass serial, which was also the best remembered of the three.  This adaptation would be disconnected from the previous two; it would be in color, it would have a new cast, and it would not really reference the first two.  This time around Brian Donlevy has been replaced by the Scottish actor Andrew Keir, who certainly seems a lot more professorial than Donlevy and original creator Nigel Kneale would have more control over the screenplay.

The story concerns a buried flying saucer which is discovered while trying doing some sort of digging on the London underground.  Surrounding the saucer are the remains of some ancient neanderthal-like humans and inside the saucer are a bunch of dead bug-like aliens.  The conclusion they eventually come to is that there was a race of Martians that went extinct on the red planet but desperately sent a ship to earth and influenced the evolution of ancient pre-humans like the Monolith from 2001 and that ancient Martian memories are also implanted into humans because of this.  That’s kind of a lot to take in and the movie brings it up kind of casually midway through.  I think the movie actually comes to this conclusion a little too quickly and would have been better served coming more towards the conclusion (this might have been a remnant of the story’s serialized origins and might have been better as an episode cliffhanger).  I would say that the movie’s other big drawback is that its technical elements are kind of garbage, especially the occasional moments where we see the small insect-like aliens who barely move their arms and the way the film’s finale hinges around a weird looking blob in the sky is just kind of terrible and I’m honestly not entirely sure what was going on in the last twenty minutes of the movie.  The film being in color also isn’t quite an asset for it as the earlier films’ use of black and white both gave them extra atmosphere and also hid some of the more questionable effects work.

**1/2 out of Five

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General is one of the most famous films to be made in the Hammer style even though it wasn’t actually made by Hammer.  The film was actually the work of a production company called Tigon British Film Productions, a studio which was founded in 1966 and appears to have folded sometime in the early 80s and are primarily remembered for having made a handful of low budget horror films in direct competition with Hammer and this one is probably the most famous of them.  The film was directed by a guy named Michael Reeves who started directing films at a very young age before dying at the age 25 because of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose and this was his third and final film.  It also features Vincent Price in the title role, a casting choice that was made on the behest of American International Pictures, who were co-financing and would eventually distribute the film in America under the title “The Conquering Worm” which was the name of an Edgar Allen Poe poem in an attempt to pass the film off as one of the Corman/Price “Poe” movies that had been popular earlier in the decade.

The film of course has nothing to do with that poem and is instead based on a historical figure named Matthew Hopkins who operated during the mid-17th Century English Civil War and would go from town to town trying and executing people for witchcraft.  The film is fictionalized and would never be mistaken for a documentary, but it’s more accurate to the exploits of the real guy than you might think.  There are no “real” witches in the movie, Hopkins is the villain here and his inquisitions are the film’s real source of terror. The film is actually so grounded in its period that it almost isn’t really a horror movie so much as it’s a violent for its time revenge movie which happens to be set against a strange and slightly horror adjacent moment in British history.  That violence also isn’t as shocking today as it apparently was in 1968 though there are some nasty moments like a burning at the stake and some torture scenes so it does make sense that it would disturb some audiences who were expecting something a bit more sedate.  The film is also notable for largely being set in daylight and for its ability to find some interesting British countryside locations to film in.  The film is a product of tis time and should be judged against the other films of its era, and on that front it’s an interesting work for sure.

*** out of Five

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (which was renamed The Devil’s Bride in America because the original title sounded too much like a western) was a Hammer produced film with a distinction of starring Christopher Lee as a hero rather than a villain.  In the film Lee plays The Duke De Richleau, a character that was created by author Dennis Wheatley and featured in a a series of pulp novels from the 1930s through the 1960s.  De Richleau was an aristocrat and a sort of amateur detective and adventurer, a lot of them took the form of regular mysteries, but a lot of them had him investigating occult dealings.  I suspect the character had some influence on the character of John “Hellblazer” Constantine and maybe even Dr. Strange, but he doesn’t appear to be one to dabble in the occult in order to fight with it, the setup to these seem to be that the occult is 100% evil and De Richleau is going to fight it in the name of Jesus.  Presumably if the movie had been a bit more films about the character would have followed, but Hammer still kept the potential series on ice for a while for fear that a movie about outright Satanism would have trouble with the censors but by 1968 they clearly had confidence in the property because they brought in Terrence Fisher to direct and he was the guy behind a lot of their biggest Dracula and Frankenstein movies.

In the film Christopher Lee finds himself in a high society party where people are behaving strangely and concludes that they are a coven that has been worshiping satan and he is right.  This is not a situation like The Wicker Man where people’s beliefs and superstitions lead them to do horrible things in service of ideas that are probably wrong, in this movie the devil is very real and the Satanists are able to successfully wield black magic to do evil stuff.  As stated previously Christopher Lee is playing the good guy this time around though he still has a somewhat malevolent look sporting this sick goatee and speaking really authoritatively.  The film’s villain is played by Charles Gray, who is the guy who played Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, and he has this sort of effete aristocratic villainy.  The exact rules of Satanism here are a bit unclear, Satan and various demons tend to show up in visions from time to time but they often don’t really do a whole lot and some of these visual effects are kind of charmingly corny, but the movie does pick up in a big way in its second half and I’d say it’s one of the better Hammer efforts of the era.

***1/2 out of Five

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

The House that Dripped Blood is a film from the third and probably least successful of the studios making low budget horror films during this era: Amicus Productions.  Amicus was a weird studio that for whatever reason found itself going all in on making anthology horror films that would feature a few short segments tied together by a framing story.  They made at least seven different horror films which had that format and after the studio folded their main producer appears to have gone on to produce even more anthology horror films in Canada and America including the Stephen King film Cat’s Eye.  Their interest in this format appears to have at least in part been influenced by some sort of partnership they had with the American horror writer Robert Bloch, who is best known for writing the novel upon which the movie Psycho was adapted but he also had a long and prolific career writing short stories for pulp magazines like “Weird Tales.”  Most of these anthology horror films were based on Bloch’s back catalog of stories and would be scripted by Bloch himself and The House That Dripped Blood, which is probably their most remembered film, is no exception.

The film largely consists of four stories, all of them about various people who lived in the same, apparently haunted, house: the first is about a horror writer who starts hallucinating that one of his creations has come to life and is stalking him, the second is about a man (played by Peter Cushing) who becomes obsessed with a local wax museum, the third is about a father (played by Christopher Lee) who seems mysteriously over-protective of his daughter, and the fourth is about a horror actor who comes to believe that an old cloak he found it turning him into a vampire.  The four stories are not terribly bloody (the title is strictly metaphorical) and are all big on having sort of ironic twist endings, which are kind of a staple of short genre fiction.  Of the four I didn’t really care for the second one with the wax museum, which was predictable and sort of diverted from the haunted house motif.  The first story has a pretty decent if not wildly original twist at the end, and the last story is kind of comical and was clearly meant to sort of lighten things up at the end.  I think the third story with Christopher Lee is probably the best of the three, in part because you could kind of sympathize with the nanny who is brought in to act as the audience surrogate.  All of this is wrapped in a slightly (and I do mean slightly) better framing story than these things usually have, which involves a detective investigating all the weird things going on at the house.  Not much happens in this framing story but it does a better job than usual bringing the stories together and making it feel like a real movies.  This is all very by the book standard old school horror writing and in general there’s very little in the film that will surprise you if you’re familiar with this genre, but there’s kind of a charm to that.  It’s a rather quaint movie, one of the last of a kind of horror that was about to be obliterated by the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later.

*** out of Five

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

In 1968 a then unknown (but soon to be very known) filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich was given the task of making something out of some unused footage from an unfinished gothic horror film starring Boris Karloff.  Being the forward thinker that Bogdanovich was he knew the movie they were making was already an anachronism and the movie he ended up making was a film called Targets which was all about how real life violence had made movies of the kind Karloff usually made kind of obsolete.  This was a pretty astute observation given that the film was released the same year that movies like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby would point to a new future for the genre.  But not everyone got that memo, or at least if they did they weren’t going to change fast enough to fully leave the old ways behind and change how horror movies were made completely.  Because of this people like Vincent Price, who were very much of the horror old school like Karloff, were still able to make movies well into the 70s, many of which weren’t sure how much to dip their toes into the waters of what’s new and how much to stick to the traditions that worked before.  A perfect example of this would be The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a very strange 1971 thriller which has a certain Hammer feel (though it was actually financed entirely financed and produced by Hammer’s American distributor AIP) but with a certain sadism which those movies lacked and just another layer of weirdness on top of that.

Dr. Phibes is a deranged genius who was believed to have been killed in a fiery car crash but who actually survived and now wants revenge against a whole team of surgeons who failed to save his wife.  As such he hatches a plot to kill all nine of these doctors in various elaborate ways with each of these murders thematically tied to one of the nine plagues of Egypt from the bible (albeit with some of the plagues changed from the source material).  That business with the murders resembling a set religious edicts will of course remind any modern viewer of David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Seven, and there may well have been some inspiration from this but mostly just in terms of plot and concept rather than tone because a lot of the killings here are kind of silly rather than genuinely disturbing.  That isn’t to say the kills aren’t kind of messed up, because they kind of are conceptually.  There isn’t much actual blood or gore (in fact it managed to get a PG-13 rating when it was submitted for rating during a re-release) but the basic ideas like someone getting their face squeezed in by a mechanical mask or someone getting their face eaten off by locusts are pretty out there.  In fact there’s a certain Jigsaw quality to Dr. Phibes in the way he is sort of trying to make a point with his various traps and murders and the Saw series definitely borrowed from one of his final traps which involves surgically removing a key from someone’s body.  But there’s also just a bunch of other wacky shit going on like Dr. Phibes affinity for organ music and his mute lady assistant and clockwork band, and the banter of the police trying to find Phibes is also comical at times.  Really the whole movie is kind of a dark comedy, and while it’s hardly a perfect movie it’s worth looking at.

*** out of Five

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

If nothing else The Blood on Satan’s Claw has one of the all-time great horror titles.  The producers originally wanted to call it “Satan’s Skin,” which actually ties into the story more, but that doesn’t invoke the image of the devil scratching someone to death (something that does not really happen in the movie).  This film actually fits within the very small sub-genre of “folk horror,” which is a somewhat nebulous categorization for British movies about that country’s pagan past or neo-paganism and it’s recently being revived by movies like Apostle and Midsommar.  The most famous example of this is almost certainly The Wicker Man and the previously discussed Witchfinder General are both considered prime examples of this, and those two movies make a pretty interesting contrast if you think about it.  The Wicker Man, which not in love with the judgmentalness of modern Christianity, ultimately falls down on its pagan cult being dangerous one on the side of evil.  Meanwhile, Witchfinder General places the Christians (or at least the most fanatical example of Christianity) as being much more dangerous than the so-called witches.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw is interesting in that it sort of splits the difference and views both Satanists and anti-Satanists as being kind of dangerous forces.

This was another film made by Tigon, who also made Witchfinder General and you can kind of pick up on a different house style at play.  Their films are set earlier, have more outdoor scenes, and frankly don’t look like they’ve been recycling the same costumes and sets for twenty years.  This one is also notable for being a lot more R-rated than a lot of the movies I’ve been looking at here.  There’s full frontal nudity in the film and it also has a pretty creepy ritualized rape scene (between this, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, 1971 was a really rapey year for British cinema).  Like with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, this cross between the old style of horror filmmaking and increased levels of sex and violence does feel a bit odd, but in an interesting way.  What the film lacks is a particularly strong protagonist and for that matter a central villain that can really embody the threat at hand but it does make up for this a little with some cool images, including a shot of someone finding a corpse half buried in a field which may or may not have been lifted by David Lynch in Blue Velvet.  That said I’m not sure if I would have been as interested in the movie if I hadn’t been watching it in conjunction with all the other British horror movies of the era recently, it’s kind of a film history curio with a weird abrupt ending moreso than a stand-alone horror experience.

*** out of Five


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