Horror is one of the most popular film genres and yet, it receives the least attention from critics. It evokes feelings within us that we are not used to experiencing. Horror is an acquired taste, you either love it or hate it, welcome it or avoid it.
In his book, ‘Hammer and Beyond’, Peter Hutchings recognises that this audience can be split into two groups, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ being supporters of entertainment who can see how exploitative horror is and ‘them’, naive and unquestioning fans who are immature or even possibly mentally disturbed.
In recent years, the horror genre has crossed into other genres in the hopes of attracting a new audience. Horror has met with romance and comedy through films such as Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies and Zombieland.
So where did British Horror begin?
Production Company Hammer, dominated the industry between the mid-1950s until the 1970s. The company was founded by Enrique Carreras and William Hinds who both shared a passion for producing. Hammer is best known for a series of Gothic horror films made during this period bringing classic Gothic literature to a new audience. The most well-known Hammer films were The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula.
By today’s standards, Hammer films seem pretty tame, but to a 1950s audience, these films were terrifying. They depicted images of gore, severed limbs and blood. Such images 60 years ago were unimaginable.
Horror films in the 1940s were under much scrutiny. There were questions surfacing on whether or not horror films were acceptable to view and fears for these film’s effects on its audiences. The press published stories on these films, labeling them ‘video nasties’, essentially scare mongering, causing moral panics throughout Britain. However, these publications didn’t seem to have much affect when it came to the popularity of the genre. Remember, horror films became popular during the years following WW2 and so, still scarred with the real horrors of War, British people looked for an escape, much like the Germans after WW1 when German Expressionism began to take hold of film, new medium as opposed to paintings and architecture.
In the 1970s, Hammer Productions fell at the hands of an influx of American horror films such as The Exorcist and The Omen, that were considerably more frighting that the films coming from Hammer.
After Hammer’s glory days were over and the company ceased producing, British Horror took the genre in a different direction. Folk Horror began to take hold including films such as The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man isn’t conventional nor is it particularly horrific. The film doesn’t depict the physical horror we can see on the surface, but instead, it is the ideas presented in the film that are most shocking. Rather than the traditional themes of blood and gore, The Wicker Man focuses around themes of sex and religion to evoke shock in their audiences. In one scene, a group of schoolgirls are dancing around, practically naked. In another, the girls are learning about sex education and how the maypole is a phallic image. Even today, this is still quite shocking.
British Horror has come a long way in the last 70 years and Hammer’s glory days are still cherished in the hearts of horror fans and in pop culture, forever immortalised in British Cinema history.
David Pirie ‘A New Heritage of Horror’
Steve Chibnall & Julian Petley ‘British Horror Cinema’