Exclusions and Exchanges in the History of European Horror Cinema
British horror cinema is often excluded from critical work dealing with European
horror cinema or, as it is frequently referred to, Eurohorror. This article argues
that such exclusion is unwarranted. From the 1950s onwards there have been many
exchanges between British and continental European-based horror production. These
have involved not just international co-production deals but also creative per-
sonnel moving from country to country. In addition, British horror films have exerted
influence on European horror cinema and vice versa. At the same time, the exclusion
of British horror from the Eurohorror category reveals limitations in that category,
particularly its idealisation of continental European horror production.
This book is about the British film director Terence Fisher. It begins by setting the context by detailing Fisher's directorial debut to Hammer's horror production and the importance of the Hammer horror to Fisher's career. Hammer's horror production represents one of the striking developments in post-war British cinema. The book explains some professional and industrial contexts in which Fisher operated and shows how these relate both to the films he made and the way in which these films have been judged and valued. It presents a detailed account of The Astonished Heart, Fisher's sixth film as director, highlighting the benefits and some of the problems involved in thinking about Fisher's career generally in its pre-horror phase. The successful Hammer film, The Curse of Frankenstein, both inaugurated the British horror boom and established Fisher as a film-maker whose name was known to critics as someone who specialised in the despised horror genre. After The Curse of Frankenstein, Fisher became primarily a horror director. The book presents an account of the highs and lows Fisher faced in his directorial career, highlighting his significant achievements and his box-office failures. It also shows Fisher as a director dependent on and at ease with the industrial and collaborative nature of film-making. In a fundamental sense, what value there is in Terence Fisher's work exists because of the British film industry and the opportunities it afforded Fisher, not despite the industry.
The introduction to the first edition sets out the book’s cultural-historical perspective, and explains how it traces the changing nature of British horror from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s, as it constantly sought to redefine itself in the face of social change. Hutchings explains how films of some distinction are identified and discussed through the work. But the worth of British horror does not reside entirely, or even perhaps mainly, in such films. Instead, the genre, or movement if you prefer, the possibilities it offers and all the films it comprises can be seen in total as offering a rich, fascinating and multifaceted response to life in Britain.
Horror is often a problem for critics. The all too visible stress in many horror films on morbid themes and acts of violence; the openly exploitative nature of much horror; the association of the genre with a predominantly adolescent audience: all these factors militate against the horror genre being viewed in anything but the most derogatory or patronising of terms. So much is this the case that even those critics who want to argue for the worth of these films sometimes find themselves negotiating what appears to be inhospitable terrain, with their work taking on an accordingly defensive tone. This unease is evident in the various critical responses provoked by British horror cinema over the years. From the outraged to the laudatory, these responses are part of the baggage which British horror inevitably brings with it to any critical discussion. If we are to move beyond some of the less helpful long-standing assumptions about horror and towards a more systematic understanding of this sector of British film production, we need to consider this legacy of criticism. The chapter explores the various responses to and readings of British horror since the 1950s and concludes by attempting to identify what it is that makes the horror film so distinctive and important a part of British cinema.
Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is the first important recognisably British horror film. However, to view Dead of Night as marking the ‘birth’ of British horror cinema is rather problematic, for in many respects Ealing’s film is very different from the long stream of horror films that eventually followed from the mid-1950s onwards. This 1950s wave of horror was in large part initiated by the enormous commercial success of Hammer’s SF/horror The Quatermass Experiment in 1955. In seeking to explain the transition from Dead of Night to The Quatermass Experiment, as well as the virtual absence of horror from British cinema in the intervening years, the chapter considers both the broadly social and the specifically cinematic context of each film’s production. Such an approach reveals the way in which the identity of British horror cinema was subject to constant and substantial revision during this period.
The period 1956–64 can be seen as the classic phase in British horror production, years during which a particular national horror movement emerged. The most famous (or infamous), influential and commercially successful sector of British horror at this time was that produced by the Hammer company, and this chapter will be devoted in the main to a discussion of Hammer horror. The 1956–64 period is ‘bookended’ by two important Hammer films, The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer’s first colour horror, 1957) and The Gorgon (1964): these were, respectively, the first and last of the five Hammer films on which horror stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and principal Hammer director Terence Fisher collaborated. This fact alone marks the 1956–64 period as a distinctive stage in Hammer’s development. However, any discussion of British horror production in this period should not lose sight of the fact that while Hammer was certainly dominant, approximately two-thirds of horror did not fall under Hammer’s auspices. In addition to discussing Hammer, then, the chapter also shows that while films made by Hammer’s competitors were often working with the same issues as those addressed by Hammer, on the whole (and with a few distinguished exceptions) they lack the richness and energy of Hammer’s more successful approach.
Frankenstein (or the monster that often goes under his name) and Dracula are without doubt the two ‘stars’ of the horror genre as well as being the most influential and widely known products of literary gothic. This raises the question of how Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula cycles relate to the earlier novels and films which originated and developed these figures. To put it another way, how can one conceive of Frankenstein’s and Dracula’s historical passage from their nineteenth-century literary origins to their entrance into British cinema in the 1950s? This chapter considers the ways in which Hammer established its own versions of the Baron and the Count, how it differentiated them from earlier versions, and how these figures were developed throughout the cycles in which they featured. As far as the latter is concerned, one often finds – particularly in the Frankenstein cycle – that there is rather more innovation and rethinking than one might have supposed.
By the mid-1960s the British horror film, largely because of Hammer’s unprecedented success, had become firmly associated in the public’s mind with period settings. What one finds between 1964 (the year of The Gorgon) and 1966 is a cluster of films which seek, presumably in the commercial interests of product differentiation, to relocate horror to a recognisable present-day world while at the same time appealing to the already established market for that period horror. This chapter considers a number of case studies – including Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), Witchfinder General (1968) and others – and explores the extent to which their makers succeeded in the attempt to rework and modernise British horror. David Pirie identifies this period as decisive in the history of the genre, with an influx of young, new talent which transformed and regenerated British horror. The chapter offers a different reading, arguing that, while new talent was to be found in the genre (namely Michael Reeves), older hands such as Terence Fisher were still producing significant work. The chapter contends that the films of this time, rather than simply moving on from the outmoded and inflexible certainties of previous horror productions, project a decidedly ambivalent relationship to earlier horrors.
The marginalisation of both Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein in British horror cinema of the 1970s was only one part of a much wider rejection and casting out of those male authority figures who had been so important in earlier Hammer horrors. At the same time the question of the woman’s desire became a more pressing and unavoidable issue in 1970s horror, with this sometimes having surprising consequences for the sorts of films actually produced. Clearly an important factor in this disruption of male authority, one that impinged on horror from outside, was the historical challenge delivered by the feminist movement of the early 1970s. But this needs to be linked with other influential factors, both within and beyond the film industry. For instance, one can point to the increasingly politicised and rebellious youth culture of this period (youth, of course, being the principal target audience of British horror), with its vociferous dissatisfaction with and alienation from many of society’s traditions and institutions and the often paternal authority embodied by these. The chapter examines these issues in relation to case studies such as The Vampire Lovers (1970), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) and Hands of the Ripper (1971).
The conclusion briefly reflects on subsequent developments in British horror following Hammer’s ‘demise’ in the late 1970s. Brief consideration is given to such films as The Wicker Man (1973) and Hellraiser (1987) and Hammer’s newfound ‘respectability’.