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English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema 1897-2015

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Jonathan Rigby
Publication Date: 
Signum Books
Bottom Line: 

When it was first published back in April 2000, “English Gothic”, Jonathan Rigby’s now seminal account of the history of the British Horror film, seemed to tell a story already in possession of a very clearly defined beginning, middle and (unfortunately) a rather undignified and unprepossessing end. It was a story that in many ways mirrored in general the British Film Industry’s fortunes as a whole, its fate decided by repeated cycles of boom and bust often tied to infusions of money from America followed by the vagaries of economic recession. Despite never being considered ‘respectable’ or even worthy of serious evaluation for decades (until the unprecedented success of Hammer Productions in the mid-50s made it impossible to ignore) by an entrenched film establishment firmly wedded to the notion that realist film-making ranked above that which was considered to be ‘mere’ fantasy, themes incorporating horror, and rooted in Britain’s 18th century tradition of the literary Gothic, proliferated in the medium from the very earliest instances of moving pictures to emerge in Britain during the late 19th century. The first British technical innovators and its travelling showmen impresarios alike, both made healthy use of previously-adapted-for-the-stage Gothic melodrama or macabre short stories in which assorted spectres and spooks proved ideally suited for showcasing the latest trends in photographic effects.

Early subjects, like the story of Maria Marten or the tales of Sherlock Holmes; and 19th century works of the macabre by the likes of Richard Marsh, Rider Haggard and W.W. Jacobs, provided plentiful material for early British dabblings in a horror cinema of sorts during the silent era, culminating with the young Alfred Hitchcock, in the 1920s, adopting the techniques of German Expressionism and combining them with the home-grown folklore of Jack the Ripper (and the box office draw of matinée idol Ivor Novello) to create his first dark suspense masterpiece in “The Lodger”  (1927), simultaneously laying the groundwork for not only the rest of Hitchcock’s own career but  for the shadow-laced imagery that marked out the visual style of the Universal cycle of horror cinema of the 1930s. British attempts to replicate the latter efforts were at first lumpy and uncertain and hampered by a general lack of tolerance for the genre by the country’s censors, who, as a matter of habit, took scissors to many of the titles that came before them during the ensuing flood of American Horror imports. English actors like Leslie Banks, Charles Laughton, Claude Rains and Lionel Atwell -- and, of course, Boris Karloff -- did rather better in Hollywood than they ever had at home, and their careers were done no lasting harm by their associating themselves with the disreputable Horror boom taking place abroad.

But it took Bela Lugosi in the Walter Summers directed Edgar Wallace thriller “The Dark Eyes of London” to really cause a stir in the home market, leading to the introduction, by a rattled British Board of Censors, of the  infamous ‘H’ for Horror certificate in retaliation for the film’s more gruesome extravagances. From then on, from the lip-smacking melodramatics of Todd Slaughter in the late ‘30s to the Ealing Studios classic “Dead of Night” of 1945, Britain’s embryonic dealings in horror were often very noteworthy when they did appear … it was just that they were extremely sporadic and few and far between. Rigby’s story only really gets going in the 1950s, with the reconstituted, postwar version of Hammer Studios discovering first the concept of a horror-tinged science fiction, after the success of their adaptations of two BBC Quatermass serials, and second the genius idea that the old classics of the Universal Horror cycle could in fact be revisited and revitalised by being presented in full-colour, where their more lurid elements could be purposely accentuated to (as it turned out) huge financial box office rewards. Of course, there was a great deal more to the Hammer vision than simply bringing colour and gore to the table, but the unprecedented worldwide success of the Hammer formula put the company’s uniquely British brand of Gothic horror firmly on the international stage; and through the many financial ups and downs and distribution quirks that ensued, the company’s indelible genre fingerprint made itself known everywhere during a boom period that lasted for twenty years, from the mid-1950s through to the mid ‘70s, when the American money Hammer had been attracting to its unique product finally pulled out in the midst of a deep recession, and the British horror film began to suffer from, in Rigby’s phrase, ‘a shortage of money and a surfeit of sleaze’. 

“English Gothic” catalogued this boom period and its aftermath (which itself has its nostalgic charms), in a text which has become, during the last fifteen years, the most essential critical guide on the subject available, and a model of how to approach the genre film study in general through a winning mix of social background, production history, critical reviews (the main body of the book is structured around reviews of one hundred of the boom period’s major productions, starting with Hammer’s “The Quartermass Xperiment”) and a completest’ urge to ensure a text that is made as comprehensive and authoritative a record as possible by its willingness to mention even the smaller films from Hammer and Amicus’s many fly-by-night rivals of the period. None of this would have made half as much impact if Rigby’s writing hadn’t also been both extremely readable and unceasingly elegant -- a trait which has made follow-up surveys of his such as his “American Gothic” and the recently published “Landmarks in Horror”, equally as enticing to the aficionado of the Horror genre.

The first edition of this volume took the story up to and as far as 1999, by which time the flood had long since become a grey drizzle, the last really noteworthy genre entry being Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” in 1987. Occasional tokens of interest like Richard Stanley’s “Dust Devil” (1991) or Danny Boyle’s horror flavoured thriller “Shallow Grave” (1997) hardly seemed to bode well for the genre’s prospects of recovering its former health, and the book’s trajectory of decline implied an account that could not possibly lead anywhere but to Rigby’s closing pronouncement of its death. The book seemed to be telling a story that was in mourning for what had once been -- of Britain’s once proud Horror tradition, and its fateful passing into history. A reprint in 2002 had to take stock of complicating factors in this narrative such as the critical and commercial success of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” (both 2001) and by the 2004 reprint it had become clear that the corpse of British Horror was still spasmodically twitching on the mortuary slab after all, its many fruits, such as “Shaun of the Dead”,  “The Decent” and “Eden Lake”, requiring further additions to the original text and amendments to the original conclusion.

The glory days may’ve long gone it seemed, yet the British Horror film was very much alive. And in the ten years since the last update, It’s become abundantly clear that, though it has never really been a factor in public consciousness and is certainly never commented upon in the media, the UK is in fact experiencing what can only be described as another boom period in Horror, with the numbers of horror related films going into production across the United Kingdom over the last fifteen years now probably outnumbering that of the golden age described in the main body of the book! With this realisation in mind, the original text of “English Gothic” has now been substantially added to, with a whole new section of about 35,000 words bringing the story of this unlikely re-animation right up to date, the final film discussed in depth being the 2015 sequel to “The Woman in Black”, “Angel of Death”. One of the neatest and most satisfying aspects of the revival has been the re-emergence of the Hammer brand name as a contributing factor to the success story, with Hammer’s 2010 adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel  “The Woman in Black” becoming one of the most commercially successful British films of recent years, thereby proving that stately Gothic melodrama could still draw and captivate a young audience, and ensuring that the flood of similar ghostly fare (even if the new breed was highly indebted to the tropes of J-Horror from the late 1990s more than to the Hammer formula of old) is not likely to let up for some time to come. It’s doubly fitting therefore that the recently passed Christopher Lee should be the cover star of this expanded volume (appearing looking noble and commanding in a still from “Dracula” [1957]), having been one of the key faces of British Horror throughout its first flowering, and subsequently coming back to it for a recent guest appearance in a film also, at least nominally, associated with the Hammer name, called “The Resident”, and the misguided ‘sequel’ to “The Wicker Man” -- Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Tree”. 

The main advantage of Rigby’s decision to incorporate the last fifteen years into the main narrative is the freedom it now gives him to try to examine the recent phenomenon, if only in terms of a general overview of the scene, in the context of what came before it, allowing him to discuss many of these newer films in relation to where they fit in with the broader traditions of British Horror. It’s clear in retrospect that “28 Days Later” was much more important than it at first appeared: not only did it kick-start the now insatiable appetite for endless, cheaply made reiterations of the flesh-eating zombie trope (albeit at first, the fast-moving, rage-infected, not-really-a-proper-zombie kind  -- although the original lumbering variety has since come back into favour) which now dominates not just the UK scene but pretty much the whole of the Horror genre in general right across the world; but it was also the first film to highlight the liberating qualities unleashed by the method of shooting entirely digitally rather than on film. This development has since had a galvanising effect on the emergence of a whole DIY subculture of production and self-distribution of horror films. The straight-to-DVD culture, and the recent emergence of digital distribution platforms, means that a film now need never trouble an actual cinema in order to still stand a chance of finding an audience, which is often now located online. This environment has  brought forth occasional interesting oddities such as “The Fallow Field” or “The Borderlands” -- both profitably expanding on the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre -- but equally it has led to a deluge of unimaginative zombie-slasher-torture dross that is virtually impossible for even the most dedicated fan to keep up with or even to want to (although one cannot exclude the possibility, however unlikely it seems at the moment, that this subterranean world of amateur DV effort won’t one day command its own dedicated breed of nostalgic fan, much like the Italian giallo genre does today).

One trend Rigby’s new chapter latches onto quickly, and identifies as being probably the most significant development of the revival, is its tendency to set its horrors – whether they be based around zombies, ghosts, witches, werewolves or more abstract threats – in a gritty social realist milieu. Sometimes this is more a function of the cheapness of the form (the found footage genre also benefits from this aspect of low budget production) but recent films such as Colm McCarthy’s “Outcast” and Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” (which is treated surprisingly dismissively by Rigby here), two of the best instances of this noticeable feature of contemporary British horror films, are emblematic of a preference for the supernatural and the fantastical being intertwined with an often grimly realistic backdrop of, say, modern council estates, and frequently laced with a forbidding atmosphere of urban alienation. Andrew Parker’s “Dead Creatures” (2001) was one of the first films of the revival to explore what has now become a fully-fledged sub-genre of urban British Horror, with the tabloid moral panic over feral youths and ‘Broken Britain’ in the first decade of the 21st century later leading to the emergence of the class conscious fears represented by the ‘Hoddie Horror’ films that were exemplified by “Eden Lake” and “Cherry Tree Lane”. The latter films may be politically reactionary (which doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t good films … although in the current context of the demonization of the poor working class being fostered by austerity economics, “Eden Lake’s” denouement now seems far more offensive than it did originally) but that fact itself in a way locates them firmly as belonging to part of an earlier tradition: Rigby identifies this intriguing blend of contemporary fear and fantasy horror as a solution to an age-old British bias against the fantastical in favour of social realism that was first pioneered by the maverick producer-writer-director Pete Walker in the difficult years of the 1970s, but many of the better new films that fit this tag also betray a deeper understanding of the concept of the uncanny, and work in a space where unease and dread is created by juxtaposing something every-day and mundane with a bizarre detail here or a weird image there.

Rigby’s original text remains largely unaltered, and there is really very little that needed to be, since it is still one of the best accounts of the golden age of British Horror available. A new introduction has been added by the author, though, while the Forwards by Richard Gordon and Barbara Shelly respectively, also remain unchanged along with an afterward by Pete Walker’s screenwriter David McGillivary. The valuable original appendix, “Gothic on Television”, has now been expanded to include commentary on the corresponding boom in television horror which has taken place over the last few years, and ends with an interesting list of other relevant TV productions that range from 1949 to 2014, and indicate that there is a much fuller volume on British TV Horror just begging to be written by someone out there. There is also a brand new appendix, designed to make the book not just comprehensive but near exhaustive in acknowledging the films that were either previously excluded from Rigby's survey for being borderline British or borderline horror, and still others that have only come to light since the original publication. Along with the source notes, a list of alternative titles and an index, the new hardback volume published by Marcus Hearn’s Signum Books now runs to an arm-aching 384 pages! Little more needs to be said to recommend it: its place at the forefront of the scholarship on British Horror was already assured before, but with this expansion of the original study, that place now becomes more unassailable still. Essential reading.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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