British Horror Movies

Scary Films From the United Kingdom and Ireland

Christopher Lee in British Horror Movie 'Horror of Dracula'.
Christopher Lee in 'Horror of Dracula'. © Hammer

Although the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland are relatively new to the realm of horror cinema, Great Britain has a long history in the genre. The British imprint on horror movies has been apparent since early in the genre's cinematic heyday, from Boris Karloff's iconic presence in Universal classics like Frankenstein and The Mummy to director James Whale's steady hand behind the scenes of The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

But Britain has also produced its share of scary cinema within its own borders, including some of the most highly regarded movies in horror history.

Early Scares

The Ghoul, released in 1933, was the first British horror "talkie." The Boris Karloff vehicle also had the dubious distinction of being the first film to receive the "H" rating from Britain's rating system, designating it as "horrific." Thus began British horror's struggle for legitimacy within its own country.

The British Board of Film Censors had existed since the early days of silent film, and its history had made it clear that horror movies should not be, ironically, too horrific. As such, horror filmmakers in the '30s and '40s tended to maintain the status quo -- even at the cost of their artistic integrity. Movies like The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935), The Face at the Window (1939), Dead of Night (1945) and A Place of One's Own (1945) stuck with safe, "polite" fare that was sure to avoid offending any sensibilities.

Hammer Time

In 1955, Hammer Film Productions released the horror/science fiction movie The Quatermass Xperiment, the intentional misspelling a pun on the new adults-only "X" rating that replaced "H" in 1951. The movie became the company's biggest hit to date and was one of the few to receive American distribution, albeit under the title The Creeping Unknown.

Its success led Hammer to increasingly focus its efforts on horror, thus beginning an historic era in the genre's cinematic lineage.

While Quatermaass and contemporary films like X: The Unknown and The Gamma People followed the lead of American science fiction invasion films of the '50s, Hammer discovered what would become its bread-and-butter formula with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein. As established with this movie, the Gothic period piece would become a Hammer trademark, as would the vivid color film, which intensified the heightened use of blood and explicit violence. With these elements, combined with the casting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the lead roles, Hammer would go on to redefine British horror for the next two decades.

Hammer revisited many of the same classic horror characters that Universal banked on for American productions in the 1930s -- Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula), mummies (The Mummy), werewolves (Curse of the Werewolf) and the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) -- but it did so with lurid details, in startling color and with untamed bloodletting, helping to set the stage for the more graphic horror movies of the '70s and '80s. Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, Hammer made several films in each of the Dracula, Frankenstein and mummy series, while expanding their monster stable to include the likes of The Reptile (1966), The Gorgon (1964) and Plague of the Zombies (1966).

Other horror film production companies soon sprang up around England, including the edgy and exploitive Tigon (Scream and Scream Again, The Creeping Flesh, Blood on Satan's Claw, The Sorcerers), Tyburn (Persecution, Legend of the Werewolf, The Ghoul) and Benmar (Psychomania, Horror Express). The biggest challenge to Hammer, though, was Amicus, which specialized in multi-story anthology films such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Asylum, From Beyond the Grave, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and The House That Dripped Blood.

By the '70s, though, the popularity of films following the established Hammer formula began to wane in light of a new wave of edgy realism in cinema worldwide. New horror movies like Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were more concerned with the real-life monsters in modern society than fictional monsters in the 19th century.

A few British films rose to the challenge of the new era. The Wicker Man (1973) was a particularly striking achievement -- set in modern times, confronting modern issues of faith and sexuality, while featuring a decidedly un-Dracula-like Christopher Lee. Alien (1979), meanwhile, took things into the future with a stunning, bleak setting that would influence generations of horror and sci-fi filmmakers to come. (The film's success, however, drew director Ridley Scott away from the UK an into the lucrative Hollywood scene.) Earlier works, like 1970's intense And Soon the Darkness, Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and the ahead-of-its-time slasher forerunner Peeping Tom (1960), also managed to tie into a newer, more risqué line of material, but such envelope pushing ran the risk of meeting with censorship and critical disdain from the conservative British press.

Hammer attempted a few seemingly desperate moves to adapt their formula to public tastes. Dracula A.D. 1972 brought the gothic icon into the present day, while The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires threw Peter Cushing's Van Helsing character into a trendy kung fu setting, and several films -- such as Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire -- featured increasing levels of sexuality and nudity. None of this, however, prevented Hammer, Amicus or any of the other British horror companies from ceasing production of movies by the early '80s.

Post-Hammer Slump

Little arose to take the place of the defunct horror production houses, due in part to American investment in all genres of British film faded during the '80s. Fewer and fewer horror movies were made within Britain's borders, and many of the ones that were -- from The Awakening (1980) to Dream Demon (1988) to Proteus (1995) -- mimicked American hits (The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Alien, respectively) in hopes of gaining financial backing from the US.

With the dearth of quality homegrown products, British horror fans turned to imports. However, many of the popular slashers from America and blood-soaked giallo and zombie flicks from Italy had been banned from theatrical distribution in the United Kingdom.

The loophole came with the explosion in popularity of VCRs during the early '80s. Along with the VCR came an influx of unregulated video tapes featuring all of the uncut, "horrific" content that had been deemed unsuitable for British theaters. In response, there arose a tidal wave of heavy censorship and the outright banning of these so-called "video nasties," reinforcing the tradition of horror cinema repression in the UK and discouraging British filmmakers from entering the genre.

Of course, there were a few notable exceptions. Palace Pictures produced several horror titles in the '80s: The Company of Wolves, Hardware, High Spirits and the aforementioned Dream Demon.

The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan of The Crying Game fame, in particular received critical acclaim, lending to the theory that artsy, "serious" horror was not judged by the same censorship standards as the more popular horror fare. In that same vein, renowned director Ken Russell delivered a pair of erotic period pieces during this time: Gothic (1986) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988).

Modern Re-Birth

Despite dubious achievements like the alien-themed Inseminoid (1981) and Xtro (1983), the holiday slasher Don't Open Till Christmas (1984) and the demonic Rawhead Rex (1986), British horror showed some signs of life during the 1980s. Author Clive Barker, who wrote the story on which Rawhead Rex was based, decided to take matters into his own hands and direct his own tale with 1987's provocative Hellraiser. In doing so, he created one of the most enduring horror villains in modern history, Pinhead, and set the stage for more than a half-dozen sequels. In 1988, meanwhile, a quieter, more subtle film called Paperhouse struck a chord with critics around the world for its vision of childhood fear. Coincidentally, its director, Bernard Rose, would later bring Barker's tale Candyman to the screen in 1992.

Throughout the '90s, though, British horror struggled for an identity, with Barker providing the primary link to England in major horror releases like his directorial efforts Nightbreed (1990) and Lord of Illusions (1995), plus the series of Candyman and Hellraiser films. However, 1994's Shallow Grave hinted at a bold new direction. The feature debut of director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Shallow Grave combined classic storytelling with a dark humor that would come to characterize modern horror in the UK.

But Boyle would forgo the comedy route on his next horror outing, the apocalyptic infection tale 28 Days Later. Released in 2002, it became a hit in the coveted American market, thanks to a gritty style utilizing digital video cameras that created a hyper-realistic point of view. It proved so successful that a big-budget sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was commissioned in 2007.

The same year that 28 Days Later came out, director Neil Marshall released the quirky werewolf film Dog Soldiers to a solid reception in Britain. Although it never made it to theaters in the US, it gained a cult following on video with its wry British sense of humor and makeup effects that harkened back to they heyday of '80s American horror. Marshall would cement his place in the British horror pantheon with 2005's The Descent, a movie about monstrous cave dwellers that received superb critical acclaim and performed well at the box office despite a limited release.

Due to its success, he was able to secure a large budget for his 2008 apocalyptic sci-fi/horror tale Doomsday.

In 2004, one of the defining moments of British horror would come from...a comedy? Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic -- again, relative to its limited distribution. It established the term "zom com," short for zombie comedy, a hybrid genre that would gain popularity early in the 21st century.

The success of these films helped open the doors for smaller British productions, like Long Time Dead (2002), House of 9 (2003), Spirit Trap (2005) and Wilderness (2006). Emerging filmmakers like Christopher Smith (CreepSeveranceTriangle) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List) made names for themselves, and although their films received only limited releases in America, they helped to establish a new, higher standard for British horror exports.

That momentum came full circle when Hammer revived its operations in the early 21st century, releasing a mix of smaller films like Wake Wood and and major theatrical releases like Let Me In, and , the latter of which became the biggest British horror hit in decades and helped propel a new wave of popular ghost movies that began with in the US with . 

A good portion of the 21st century horror rejuvenation, however, came from other parts of the UK and Ireland. Welsh director Julian Richards delivered the inventive The Last Horror Movie in 2003, which received extensive distribution in the US on video, while the Wales-set ghost story The Dark received good traction from stars Sean Bean and Maria Bello.

Scotland delivered 2005's Wild Country, while also serving as the setting and filming locations for all of Neil Marshall's films, as well 2012's , which played at the South by Southwest Film Festival and received a US release by Bloody Disgusting Selects.

Ireland has been an especially active breeding ground for horror movies, with horror-comedies Dead MeatBoy Eats Girl, Stitches and , the rural horrors of Isolation and  and acclaimed fare like  (which earned director Ciaran Foy the job helming ), The Canal and Neil Jordan's return to horror, the vampire tale .

Notable UK/Irish Horror Films:

  • The Ghoul (1933)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)
  • Dead of Night (1945)
  • A Place of One's Own (1945)
  • The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)
  • The Gamma People (1956)
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
  • Night of the Demon (1957)
  • Fiend Without a Face (1958)
  • Horror of Dracula (1958)
  • The Mummy (1959)
  • Peeping Tom (1960)
  • Village of the Damned (1960)
  • Curse of the Werewolf (1960)
  • The Innocents (1961)
  • The Day of the Triffids (1962)
  • Night of the Eagle (1962)
  • Repulsion (1965)
  • Plague of the Zombies (1966)
  • Witchfinder General (1968)
  • And Soon the Darkness (1970)
  • Scream and Scream Again (1970)
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
  • The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
  • The Devils (1971)
  • Raw Meat (1972)
  • Tale From the Crypt (1972)
  • And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)
  • The Creeping Flesh (1973)
  • Don't Look Now (1973)
  • Horror Express (1973)
  • The Legend of Hell House (1973)
  • The Wicker Man (1973)
  • Frightmare (1974)
  • Alien (1979)
  • The Awakening (1980)
  • Xtro (1983)
  • The Company of Wolves (1984)
  • The Bride (1985)
  • Lifeforce (1985)
  • Gothic (1986)
  • Link (1986)
  • Rawhead Rex (1986)
  • Hellraiser (1987)
  • The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
  • Paperhouse (1988)
  • Hardware (1990)
  • Proteus (1995)
  • Dead of Night (2000)
  • The Bunker (2001)
  • 28 Days Later (2002)
  • Dog Soldiers (2002)
  • Long Time Dead (2002)
  • House of 9 (2003)
  • The Last Horror Movie (2003)
  • Creep (2004)
  • Dead Meat (2004)
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  • Boy Eats Girl (2005)
  • The Dark (2005)
  • Isolation (2005)
  • The Descent (2006)
  • Severance (2006)
  • Shrooms (2006)
  • Wilderness (2006)
  • Broken (2007)
  • Doomsday (2008)
  • Eden Lake (2008)
  • Outpost (2008)
  • Triangle (2009)
  • The Awakening (2011)
  • Kill List (2011)
  • Byzantium (2012)
  • Citadel (2012)
  • The Woman in Black (2012)
  • Grabbers (2013)
  • The Quiet Ones (2014)