The decision by Hammer
Films to start producing first science fiction / horror hybrids,
then pure gothic horror had an enormous effect on the British
horror film. What had once been a scattered collection of individual
films, often merely hinting at the supernatural and coyly skirting
around the fringes of horror, suddenly had a focus and was now
more than willing to fully embrace gothic mayhem in all its Technicolor
The successes of the Hammer
Draculas, Frankensteins and other horrors sounded a rallying call
for like-minded entrepreneurs, and soon Hammer's virtual monopoly
on British horror was being challenged by the likes of Amicus,
as British horror diversified and headed into strange new territories.
Hammer in particular
did well overseas, particularly in the States and Japan, and the
company were rewarded with a Queens' Award for their work.
The late 50s and 1960s produced a slew of British horror stars,
chief among being the Twin Titans of Terror, Peter Cushing and
Christopher Lee whose work for Hammer,
Amicus and the
many independents that were starting to spring up are among the
very best that British horror has to offer - indeed Dracula
(1958), their finest pairing, is one of the very best genre movies
produced anywhere at any time. The proliferation of low budget
movies gave many a struggling young actor the break they needed
and soon a small repertory company of familiar faces were turning
up time and time again in British genre movies - Michael Ripper,
Ingrid Pitt, Donald Pleasance, Michael Gough and many others turned
up time and again.
Directors too were starting to specialise in the genre, chief
among them the much-loved Terence Fisher who did so much to shape
the look of the Hammer gothics. Other Hammer
alumni included Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy and Roy Ward Baker,
while among the independent sector Robert Hartford-Davis, Peter
Collinson and Gordon Hessler were among the many names emerging
as offbeat talents.
Going into the 1970s, British horror looked healthy - the House
of Hammer may have passed
its creative peak and be on its way to finally collapsing, but
a new batch of independents - chief among them Pete Walker and
Norman J. Warren - were waiting in the wings to nudge British
horror along, adding even more sex and violence than Hammer could
imagine. But by the middle of the decade, times were getting hard
for British film-makers of any genre and, as the money dried up
and the economy collapsed, the independent sector shriveled and
died. By the end of the decade, the great production companies
were gone and many of the directors were either dead, retired
or working in semi-anonymity in television.
The small screen provided many of the best examples of filmed
horror, particularly in the BBC's much-loved series A
Ghost Story For Christmas (1971 - 1978), but also
in the likes of The
Stone Tape (1972) and Beasts
(1976) (both by Nigel Kneale) and others. Doctor Who
(1963 - 1989) got into hot water when it ventured into gothic
territory, but produced some of its best stories while working
in the genre - Pyramids of Mars, The
Brain of Morbius and the wonderful The Talons
of Weng Chiang among them.
In the 1980s, the home video market seemed to offer a new outlet
for low budget film-makers, but the backlash against violent horror
on video that lead to the "video nasties" debacle did
little to encourage a revival in fortunes. The availability of
increasing cheap and sophisticated video camera equipment kick-started
a thriving community of enthusiastic amateurs who were able to
get their films seen by a much wider audience than the previous
generation of Super 8mm film-makers thanks to the miracle of tape-to-tape
The professionals, though, were finding it hard and British film
production slumped. What few feature length films were being made
soon ended up gathering dust on video rental shelves up propping
up the bottoms of bargain bins in retail outlets.
The story remained pretty much the same throughout the 1990s,
but towards the end of the decade several things happened at once
to give British a horror a shot in the arm. The British film industry
in general was enjoying a revival, thanks to the international
successes of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral
(1994), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998),
Billy Elliot (2000) and others. The industry
seemed more confidant and buoyant and, coupled with the arrival
of professional quality video equipment at a reasonable price,
an upturn in the economy and the sheer number of professionals
looking for work, British horror and other low budget genres suddenly
became popular again.
As the millennium turned, British horror seemed to be on the
cusp of a rebirth - films like Dog Soldiers (2002),
Deathwatch (2002), My Little Eye
(2002) and particularly Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later...
(2002) all appeared within 18 months of each other and the latter
was a success in the States. It paved the way for other fine movies,
particularly Edgar Wright's riotous Shaun of the Dead
(2004) though changes in the tax laws governing film production
in early 2004 caused some concern and may yet affect future investment.
Whether British horror really is going through a renaissance
remains to be seen, but the fact that British film-makers are
still willing to give the genre a try is cause for some celebration.
The glory days of Hammer
in the 1960s may be a very long way away now, but while genre
films of quality are still being made in the UK, British horror
is far from dead.
Part One: The Pre-Hammer Years
The greatest of all the British horror studios and creators
of some of the best horror movies ever made.
The great pretenders to Hammers crown, often regarded as a
worthy runner-up, but capable of making films every bit as
good as Hammer.
Less well known, but Tigon were responsible for some of the
best remembered genre movies of the late 1960s
The johnny-come-latelys of 1970s British horror never really
made it that big, but gave it a fair try anyway.
Best known as importers and distributors of foreign language
art films in the 50s and 60s, the also bankrolled Polanski's
The most revered name in British horror direction helped to
shape the look of British horror for nearly two decades.
Although he stared out at Hammer, former director of photography
Francis did his best work for Amicus.
One of the new bloods that invigorated 70s British horror,
Walker made a handful of films before retiring way too early.
That other bastion of 70s Brit-horror, Warren also made a
clutch of movies but like so many found it hard to get financing
in the 80s.
The greatest. The Gentleman of Horror appeared in all of the
best 60s Brit-horrors and continued working throughout the
The other great Brit-horror star and the greatest screen Dracula
ever, Lee is one of the best actors Brit-horror ever produced.
Not often thought of as a horror star, but one look at her
impressive filmography shows just how hard Massey has worked
Hammer had a lot of beautiful leading ladies - Shelley was
one of the first and remains one of the best.
One of the best known faces in Brit-horror, Michael Ripper
was a regular fixture in 50s and 60s Hammer films.