British Horror Cinema’s Repressed Heritage And Censorship

Steve Chibnall

Steve Chibnall

It is now nearly thirty years since David Pirie published his seminal ‘A Heritage of Horror,’ and far too many since it was last in print. In the intervening period, there has been an explosion of interest in the Gothic in general and in horror cinema, Gothic or otherwise, in particular. Whereas the unfortunate David Pirie had little more to draw on for critical sustenance than works such as Mario Praz’s ‘The Romantic Agony’ (1933), Devendra P. Varma’s ‘The Gothic Flame’ (1957) and the journal Midi Minuit Fantastique — all of them admittedly formidable in their different ways — the modern enthusiast for horror in all its forms has a truly remarkable number of texts to consult.

However, in the case of texts on British horror cinema, too many fail to progress beyond considering what has become a pretty limited canon. In this respect, Jonathan Rigby’s recent ‘English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema’ deserves particular welcome for bringing such a wide range of films within its ambit, as does the ten-part survey of British horror in the 1970s and 1980s carried out by Flesh & Blood Magazine. Indeed, the appearance in recent years of genre magazines written by enthusiasts for enthusiasts has been one of the most welcome developments on the horror scene, helping to create a valuable sense of community among horror fans in hostile times, allowing new writers on horror to emerge and develop, and drawing attention to neglected films and directors. Magazines such as Little Shoppe of Horrors, Dark Terrors and Hammer Horror have also performed an invaluable service in minutely excavating the archaeology of Britain’s most prolific supplier of fantasy films, Hammer Film Productions. In fact, the diligent borrowings of the researchers associated with these Hammer fanzines, together with academic work on the studio and its leading director by Peter Hutchings (1993 and 2001) and Wheeler Winston Dixon (1991), have cleared a space for this article to explore more neglected areas of Britain’s horror film heritage. In doing so, we hope to embed the fanzines’ empirical findings on production histories more securely in the generic and reception contexts of the films.

In bringing together the various contributors to this article we were certainly motivated by the desire to draw attention to films and figures outside the cannon, movies and people who have still not significantly benefited from the recent upsurge of interest in British horror cinema. To extend a metaphor first used by one of us a decade-and-a-half ago, now that the ‘Lost Continent’ of British fantasy cinema has been rediscovered, we want to continue its cartography beyond the landing zone. Hence, for example, Peter Hutchings’s chapter on ‘Amicus’ (dealt with fairly briefly by David Pirie, but recently celebrated by Alan Bryce’s ‘Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood’ (2000), a book emanating from another fanzine, The Dark Side), which also very usefully suggests that as well as locating their films within British culture at the time of their production, we also need to look at the American influences at work on them. Similarly, Ian Conrich delves further into the past than David Pirie to resurrect such largely forgotten early British horrors as ‘Castle Sinister’ (1932), ‘The Ghoul’ (1933) and ‘The Face at the Window’ (1939), while Marcelle Perks contributes the most substantial study to date of the woefully neglected ‘Death Line’ (1972) and Steve Chibnall explores the work of a post-Hammer “auteur,” Pete Walker, who, for a moment in the mid-1970s, suggested new possibilities for Gothic cinema in Britain. By taking a thematic approach, as opposed to one centred on a particular auteur or company, Leon Hunt, Kim James Newman and Steven Jay Schneider are able to tackle an extremely wide range of films, many of which have barely received serious consideration before, and to isolate recurring motifs and patterns which suggest the deep cultural strains and tensions into which these films were tapping. Many of the films they discuss are original screenplays, but we are also mindful that one of the distinctive features of the horror films produced in Britain is their strong links to a tradition of fantasy literature, and these connections are foregrounded in John C. Tibbetts’s close examination of the adaptation for the cinema of Henry James’s novella, ‘The Turn of the Screw.’

This article, however, is about not simply British horror films but British horror cinema. In other words, it is concerned not simply with films as texts but with the institutions and discourses within which those texts are produced, circulated, regulated and consumed, and the article begins with three contextualizing chapters. Almost inevitably, given the amount of cutting and banning with which horror films have always had to contend in Britain, the first chapter is on censorship. Mark James Patrick Kermode examines how the British Board of Film Censors/Classification has dealt with British horror films by placing this in the wider context of the Board’s treatment of horror films in general. Especially valuable are his close textual readings of passages from former censor John Trevelyan’s book ‘What the Censor Saw,’ which exposes many of the unspoken assumptions and attitudes underlying the censorship of the moving image in Britain.

That these are extremely deep-rooted within the British cultural establishment, of which the mainstream critics make up a key cadre, is demonstrated in Julian Petley’s chapter on critical attitudes towards horror, which also suggests that, in certain respects, these attitudes have significantly hampered the development of horror cinema in Britain in recent times. The paranoia which censorship and critical denigration of the genre have fostered in many horror fans is amply illustrated by some of the remarks cited by Brigid Cherry in her study of female horror film enthusiasts. However, Brigid Cherry’s main focus is the role played by horror cinema (particularly vampire films) in the lifestyle of a range of women. Her work represents an important corrective to the easy gendering of the genre’s audience (and, by extension, the genre itself) as male, and offers valuable insights into the way female enthusiasts actually relate to the films they watch — as well as to other fans.

The last two chapters of this article attempt to bring up to date the story of the horror film in Britain. Paul Wells looks at the work of one of Britain’s recent undoubted horror auteurs, Clive Barker, and, in his interview, Clive Barker’s highly articulate discussion of the genre and of his own work within it makes for a remarkable — not to say welcome and refreshing — contrast with the journeyman attitude of many of its past practitioners. The same is true of the account of recent horror by Richard Stanley, who was responsible for ‘Hardware’ (1990) and ‘Dust Devil’ (1993), two of the last decade’s most striking British entrants in the horror, or horror-related, stakes. Richard Stanley’s chapter mentions numerous British horror movies of the 1990s but does so in a distinctly valedictory spirit, and this prompts us to conclude this introduction by reviewing the various reasons put forward for the decline of the British horror film, and by enquiring if this decline is, in fact, more apparent than real.

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