Monday, 17 August 2009

British Horror Cinema

Published in 2002 this anthology is part of the British Popular Cinema's series on British genre cinemas, with other volumes discussing science fiction and crime films.

Like most collections it's a bit hit and miss, with certain chapters likely to be more or less relevant depending upon your own particular interests. Similarly, there's also inevitably a degree of overlap and boundary making with those texts that potentially fall into multiple categories or sub-categories – more on which later.

Nevertheless, the chances are that if you have an interest in British horror cinema you will get something out of this volume. The academic essays which form the bulk of the book are uniformly well-written and well-researched, with the reader all but guaranteed to come away with some new facts, ideas to test out, or texts to seek out.

The first essay by Mark Kermode charts the history of horror film censorship in Britain, from the H certificate in the 1930s through the 1960s and 1970s onto the video nasties in the 1980s and the fallout from the Jamie Bulger case in the 1990s. Though containing nothing really new, it's a useful primer.

Julian Petley then discusses the relationship between critics and censors, finding it to be a close one whereby critics' negative opinions have often encouraging censorship. What makes his analysis more interesting is that he works back from 20th century cinema to 19th and 18th century fiction, showing that the critical preferences for realism over fantasy, suggestion over showing and terror over horror are historically well-established, with works repeatedly being attacked for what they were not rather than being considered in their own terms.

This is followed by Bridgit Cherry's empirically study of female horror fandom, in which she points out some of the differences between the genders in their approach, such as the importance of trivia to male fans. Interestingly in the footnotes Cherry explains the way in which a chi-squared test works, hinting at a difference in knowledge realms between audience and text based research, with none of the other authors employing statistical techniques to demonstrate the confidence they have that some finding is not merely by chance.

Next Ian Conrich examines the horror film in 1930s Britain, foregrouding the absence of horror per se insofar as alternative labels were repeatedly used, with US productions being labelled as horrific and domestic productions with horror components being identified in the first instance as thrillers (The Ghoul) or melodramas (Tod Slaughter's films). Also of interest here is the way in which the H certificate initially operated: Like the US R-rating today, it did not prevent children from going to see H-films if they were accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Following this Kim Newman discusses the British psycho-thriller, which he distinguishes from the psychological thriller, in his typically exhaustive genealogical manner, with a useful check-list of titles linked by theme, but comparatively little detailed mise en scene analysis. The difficulty I had here was that the boundary between the two sub-genres – a psycho-thriller must feature a psychopathic killer whereas a psychological thriller need not – seemed a somewhat 'angels dancing on pinheads' one.

The problems inherent in any exercise in boundary drawing were brought further to the fore by Leon Hunt's examination of the British occult film: Given that The Wicker Man features no supernatural manifestations, might it be said that Lord Summerisle is a psycho-thriller killer? Or, casting things into the terms of Charles Derry's distinction between the “horror of personality” film and the “horror of the demonic” film, what happens if we have a human occultist committing murder on account of their beliefs, without any definitive manifestation of the demonic? These questions and overlaps aside, Hunt's is a useful discussion, which brings out the distinction between two phases of the British occult film, the first – the 1950s and early 1960s – marked by a not-quite British quality (Night of the Demon, Night of the Eagle etc.) and the second – the late 1960s and 1970s – more British (Virgin Witch, Satan's Slave) and marked by the increasing correlation between magic(k) and sex. What Hunt gains in detailed analysis compared to Newman, he loses in completeness: There is no mention of Michel J. Murphy's (admittedly later) Invitation to Hell, for instance, although with its to the devil a daughter theme, it clearly engages with occult sex.

I didn't get much from Michael Tibbets's discussion of architecture in The Innocents and Turn of the Screw, but that's perhaps because my own understandings here been shaped by other influences, particularly Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.

Nor was I particularly enthused by Stephen Schneider's discussion of female madness in British horror cinema, in part again because of that awkward sense of individual texts, here Repulsion, being arbitrarily discussed more within one essay/context than another.

Things picked up with Peter Hutchings's chapter on Amicus, always one of the problem entities in British horror because of the transatlantic / Mid-Atlantic nature of its productions. Although providing detailed analyses of key scenes and images from The Skull and The Psychopath among the company's single-subject features – with the latter film identified as having affinities with Argento's Deep Red that make me want to seek it out – Hutchings identifies Amicus's portmanteau films as its most important product. Usefully establishing the history of the form and noting the similarities between the films' masters of ceremonies and the parallel figures in EC horror comics and US television horror film screenings, he also begins to disentangle them from Dead of Night and the inevitable negative comparisons that ensue.

Next, Michelle perks presents an impressive analysis of one of my own favourite 1970s British horror films, Gary Sherman's Death Line. The thing that really impressed me here was the way she went from examining the film's aesthetics and thematics, and the way that they are intertwined, onto relevant psychoanalytic theories, rather than – as is so often the case in this kind of writing – taking the theory and then applying it to the film, regardless of its suitability or otherwise.

Steve Chibnall's chapter on Pete Walker is somewhat redundant if, like me, you've read his book-length study Making Mischief, but presents a useful primer on the director and his work if you have not. In the context of this collection, however, there are again some overlaps and connections that aren't fully drawn out. For example, I didn't realise until now that Walker's Flesh and Blood Show screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy had earlier directed the similarly theatrical The Impersonator, as mentioned by Newman.

Though Paul Wells's interviews with Clive Barker and Doug Bradley and Richard Stanley's personal memories and opinions of the Scala Cinema and Palace Pictures are perhaps a bit out of place, they also provide a useful views of British horror from film-makers' perspectives.

Overall, British Horror Cinema is itself a bit many portmanteau films with multiple directors: Not always representing the individual authors' best work, a bit uneven, but with enough to be worthwhile.


Elliot James said...

Pete Walker's films always bored me. House of Mortal Sin and House of Whipcord had some interesting moments and performances. Someone once called his films dreary and I agree.

Norman Warren's films had a much more horrific and crepuscular punch in his particularly British horror sub-genre.

mayhem said...

You should seek out The Psychopath indeed - It's silly, but you can see how a link to Deep Red can be made.

Chris Cooke