Sunday, 31 October 2010

British Horror Cinema: A Literary Guide

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

For decades the study of British horror cinema lay in an arid literary wasteland. During the period of the British horror films greatest commercial success (which can be put at 1957-76) just a single dedicated volume was published. This was David Pirie’s landmark polemical A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946 - 1972. Pirie’s was a solitary voice in an empty ocean. Ironically when the second edition of this book was published in 2007 it largely got overlooked in a market overcrowded with yet more substandard books on Hammer Film Productions. British horror had been sustained through the 1980’s and first half of the 1990’s by genre specific magazines and fan publications (the best of which still remains Little Shoppe of Horrors) before a relative deluge of material flooded the market. Much of it was of poor quality, for example of the huge number of books dedicated to Hammer, I consider only five of value. The increasing popularity of horror cinema on undergraduate degree courses, and the continued ascendancy of the study of cult film has enabled publishers to take advantage. But the question still remains; where to begin? This guide is intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to offer the best overall library of books for the appreciation of British horror. There are over one hundred books on the subject, this guide reduces that number to fifteen. This will probably be a contentious selection, but I hope it helps people to make informed decisions, that will also hopefully save them a few pounds or dollars.

TITLE: A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-72
AUTHOR: David Pirie
PUBLICATION DATE: 10th September 1973
As alluded too in my introduction David Pirie's A Heritage of Horror remains a vital cornerstone to the study of British horror, and horror in general. This book has never been reprinted in its original form, and few can spare the large sums that collectors pay for it. In 2007 Pirie returned to the original text, added some bits and pieces here and there, and included additional material to cover the genre up to the present. Imaginatively titled A New Heritage of Horror, this book isn't a patch on the original. Pirie was caught in the academic dogma of the day, which makes his case for Terence Fisher and Michael Reeves to be acclaimed as auteur's charming and as history would show somewhat naive. The text may have lost some of its bite now, but it became a polemical call to arms, and was the first book to really write about British horror films as though they were art. For this Pirie deserves a great deal of credit for starting the ball rolling for future authors to take up. Special thanks to Jonathan Rigby for the cover scan of the original first edition.

TITLE: Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker
AUTHOR: Steve Chibnall
PUBLICATION DATE: 1st March 1998

Overlooked and underrated the films of Pete Walker are long overdue appreciation and academic Steve Chibnall's 1998 publication went some way to remedying that state of affairs. Chibnall naturally takes a more academic approach and its clear he intends to make a case for Walker as an auteur. This is an area fraught with danger, largely because Walker was his own producer and the marketplace imperatives had far too strong a bearing on his cinema. Chibnall's 'auteur' thesis rests on Walker's social horror trilogy Frightmare (1974), House of Whipcord (1974) and House of Mortal Sin (1976), but there isn't much to support it in his earlier films. If you can forget Chibnall's bland academic hubris and scholarly tone and can appreciate it as the first book length work to deal with Walker's films then there is much here of value.

TITLE: Ten Years of Terror: British Horror Films of the 1970's
AUTHORS: Harvey Fenton & David Flint
PUBLICATION DATE: 25th June 2001

The 1960's has long been viewed as the 'golden age' of British horror, and the decade that followed a ghost town of tumbleweed with the occasional nugget of gold found by determined prospectors. It comes as no surprise when an attempt is made to reclaim something unfashionable. But when that attempt is supported by enthusiastic and intelligent defences for marginalised films, and a lavish visual presentation the result is this book. The authors perhaps try a little too hard to be revisionist and at times there is a self conscious attempt to court controversy. Unfortunately this great book from FAB press is incredibly hard to come by now. It has yet to be reprinted and regularly commands large sums on Ebay and the Amazon Marketplace. If you get the opportunity to pick this up for a reasonable price, don't think twice.

TITLE: British Horror Cinema
EDITORS: Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley
PUBLISHER: Routledge
PUBLICATION DATE: 15th November 2001

This volume of essays on British horror formed part of Routledge's 'British Popular Cinema' range and is an essential title. This collection wisely chooses to avoid the widely covered terrain of Hammer, and instead we have amongst others essays on Pete Walker, Amicus Productions, the relationship between horror and the censors, the psychological horror film, witchcraft films, and the excellent 1970's film Death Line. This volume covers most bases and avoids an over statement of academic jargon, a chronological timeline of British horror up to 2000 is also a vital addition. This is an important book because of the breadth of subjects discussed.

TITLE: English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema
AUTHOR: Jonathan Rigby
PUBLISHER: Reynolds and Hearn
PUBLICATION DATE: 7th March 2002 - 2nd revised edition

First published in 2000 Jonathan Rigby's summary of the history of British horror is one of the few books on the subject to be regularly reprinted. Rigby brings with him a love and enthusiasm for the genre which is matched by his imaginative use of language. The book has a significant bias towards the 1960's, which is totally understandable. But its clear that Rigby's fondness for this period does not extend elsewhere. Apart from a few exceptions the 1970's are largely dismissed and the 1980's and beyond (admittedly a fallow period) is given scant attention. A small section on how television adopted the horror genre is most welcome and an area of greater potential study. This is the most readable and enjoyable overview of British horror to date.

TITLE: Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years
AUTHOR: Wayne Kinsey
PUBLISHER: Reynolds and Hearn
PUBLICATION DATE: 24th October 2002

Your interest in this book will probably rest on whether your preference is for facts and figures or critical studies. I personally prefer a combination of both, so at times Kinsey's book is dry. However one cannot fault the level of research conducted by the author. Kinsey takes us into the minutiae of the production process of low budget film making in Britain during the 1950's and 1960's, and also explores the many battles that Hammer undertook against the BBFC. We gain an invaluable insight into the ingeniousness of Hammer's technicians, and shows to what extent the productions of Hammer were a collaborative process. The sheer wealth of detail and behind the scenes photographs makes this a vital addition to your British horror library.

TITLE: 'Dracula' (British Film Guides)
AUTHOR: Peter Hutchings
PUBLICATION DATE: 25th April 2003

In any account of British horror the 1958 Hammer production of Dracula will loom large. It is only right that a film of such importance should have a study of its own. The author Peter Hutchings is no stranger to British horror with two earlier books about Hammer and Terence Fisher respectively to his credit. Unfortunately these earlier volumes are weighed down with academic baggage, although this does infiltrate his study of Dracula, Hutchings sticks in the main part to close critical and textual analysis. Hutchings is clearly of the opinion that Dracula is a major landmark in British cinema and this book reflects that. This is a slim 128 page book, but don't let this put you off. Hutchings makes economical use of his word count and contributes something of value and importance to the literature on British horror.

TITLE: The Remarkable Michael Reeves: His Short and Tragic Life
AUTHOR: John B. Murray
PUBLISHER: Midnight Marquee Press
PUBLICATION DATE: 15th September 2004; Revised Edition

With just three films to his credit the enigmatic Michael Reeves ensured his immortality in British horror history. His 1968 film Witchfinder General still remains one of the most important horror films, and it is a testament to his vision that he has inspired two books. I prefer this one to Benjamin Halligan's due to the author John B. Murray's bracing prose and detailed research. Murray paints a vivid picture of a young and determined cinephile who was uncompromising in the achievement of his vision. Reeves was at the forefront of a new breed of young filmmakers who were conversant with film history and its generic systems, and were well positioned to revise these systems. Murray takes an objective approach to the material and pieces together the young mans fraught life through the contributions of numerous friends and colleagues.

TITLE: Beating the Devil: The Making of 'Night of the Demon'
AUTHOR: Tony Earnshaw
PUBLISHER: Tomahawk Press

Night of the Demon has with some justification risen to the forefront of British horror history. It was released at a time when Hammer were enjoying their first successes with a lurid brand of colourful Gothic horror. Jacques Tourneur's film based on a short story by M. R. James, chose a different stylistic and structural path which has benefited its cult status tremendously. Tony Earnshaw's book is a meticulously researched history pieced together through several years of interviews with the key personnel behind the production. At just 158 pages this is a snappy read which avoids getting bogged down in critical textual analysis. With the recent UK DVD release (which offers both cuts of the film) and this book, one can gain a full appreciation of the making of an important, and sometimes overlooked British horror film.

TITLE: Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser
AUTHOR: John Hamilton

With such films as Repulsion (1965), Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and Frightmare (1974) produced under his auspices Tony Tenser is a crucial figure in the story of British horror. At one point his company Tigon very nearly bought Hammer out, and the films produced by him and his colleagues always had an edginess that other producers could not match. Publisher FAB press continued their excellent run of books devoted to British genre cinema with this title by John Hamilton. As always from FAB press the presentation of the book is superb, with plenty of rare b/w photographs in addition to Hamilton's always readable text. Tenser worked in numerous exploitation genres, so this book has an interest beyond the remit of horror. A great summary of the practices of low budget exploitation film making during the 1960's.

TITLE: Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years
AUTHOR: Wayne Kinsey
PUBLISHER: Tomahawk Press
PUBLICATION DATE: 22nd January 2007

This second volume from Wayne Kinsey picks up the story from 1967 when Hammer Film Productions sold off their spiritual home Bray Studios. This decision seemed to herald a major decline for the company and Kinsey explores, through the use of some excellent primary evidence, the reasons for Hammer's failure to remain relevant and to engage with an increasingly intelligent and politically aware audience. Kinsey had long documented the history of Hammer in his fanzine The House that Hammer Built and the Elstree and Bray Studios volumes are the culmination of this long project. Once again the priceless element for me are the BBFC case files, the wealth of exclusive photographs and the obvious enthusiasm of the author. I found this book is better to dip into rather than read right the way through. Unfortunately the price of the book has shot up in the last year or so, so if you haven't already got a copy you may have to wait a while until it becomes affordable.

TITLE: Seduction of the Gullible: The Truth Behind the Video Nasty Scandal
AUTHOR: John Martin
PUBLISHER: Stray Cat Publishing
PUBLICATION DATE: 18th October 2007; 2nd Edition

Although only one British film actually made it onto the Director of Public Prosecutions list of banned 'Video Nasties' the ensuing hysteria is an important moment in British horror history. It distilled in one short and feverish period decades (and some may argue centuries) of prejudice against fantastical forms of cultural expression. Horror films on video cassette become a political tool brandished by an unpopular government, a scapegoat for social ill, and also a brilliant money making venture which put out of joint the noses of numerous major distributors. John Martin's book is almost entirely made up of primary evidence from the newspapers of the day, and through this material he makes a compelling argument as to how these films were used for agenda driven purposes. There have been several decent books on the subject, but few reproduce in such detail the tenor of the debate that raged at the time.

TITLE: The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films
AUTHORS: Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes
PUBLISHER: Titan Books
PUBLICATION DATE: 26th October 2007; 2nd Edition

This beautifully presented book is the first port of call for an overview of Hammer Film Productions. In many ways this is an illustrated history of Hammer, the text is informative and full of interesting trivia details and manages to avoid lengthy critical statements. The book overflows with one eye popping visual after another; reproductions of colour posters, rare behind the scenes photographs, lobby cards, novelisations and more. Hearn and Barnes use their knowledge to good effect, take an admirably objective stance and present an enthusiastic celebration of British cinemas greatest independent production outfit.

TITLE: A History Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer
AUTHOR: Denis Meikle
PUBLISHER: Scarecrow Press
PUBLICATION DATE: 1st December 2008; Revised Edition

In many ways this book is the complete opposite to the one above. First published in 1996 Denis Meikle's book is a critical history of Hammer, and the author isn't afraid to express his view at those examples he considers incompetent or poor. I admire this stance, even if I did find myself disagreeing with Meikle on a regular basis. Meikle has written extensively for Little Shoppe of Horrors and currently runs Hemlock Books, and writes with the confidence of a man assured in his grasp of the facts and figures. This makes the book a particularly lively and enjoyable read. Meikle takes a more intellectual approach to the material and to his credit rarely looks down on even the lowliest of films. I can imagine this book being of particular use to undergraduates and to those looking for a more textual approach to film analysis.

TITLE: Inside 'The Wicker Man': How Not To Make a Cult Classic
AUTHOR: Allan Brown
PUBLICATION DATE: 1st May 2010; 2nd Edition

First published in 2000 (this edition can be quite expensive to obtain) Allan Brown's lively history of The Wicker Man received a timely reprint at the start of this year. One major improvement is the cover design, I always thought the first edition was poorly designed. Like Night of the Demon and Dracula, The Wicker Man looms large in British horror history, one of the few genuine cult movies to emerge from this period, it is no surprise that the film has generated a number of books. The others are somewhat dry and academic, which makes Allan Brown's the most readable and accessible. The story of The Wicker Man is fascinating, so Brown has a built in narrative of production problems and hardships  to bring life to the book. These problems continued long after the film was made, so at every turn there is a twist in the tale that inspires one to continue reading. An excellent account and essential addition to ones film library.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Wonderful post, Shaun! I have a few of those there and was recently looking at the 'A History of Horrors' book as a future purchase.

  2. Cheers Brian! - I'm glad you enjoyed it. Your recent book reviews and the ensuing discussion inspired it. 'A History of Horrors' is well worth a purchase, as are all the books here to be honest.

  3. Compleatist and informative as usual Shaun.

    The rest of the Western World still has a way to go before they come close to the legacy left behind by British proto-modern horror cinema.

    All Hail Team Hammer!!!

  4. Valuable resource! Thanks, Shaun.

  5. Thanks for the comments chaps - always appreciated :-)

    A belated Happy Halloween to you too Lazlo!


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