When British horror comes up in conversation, most genre fans think of Hammer, Britain’s horror crown jewel, a studio that made a name for itself with new interpretations of Dracula and Frankenstein in the late ‘50s and continued their reign of terror through the ‘70s with some truly wonderful horror classics boasting opulent sets, flowing blood, and even more overflowing cleavage. Their most major competitor was Amicus Productions, a studio mostly known for horror anthology films like Dr. Terrors House of Horrors (1964) and the beloved Tales from the Crypt (1972). Another, smaller company was Tigon, ran by exploitation master Tony Tensor, now remembered for witchcraft-themed horror like Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1978), and the infamous Witchfinder General (1968).
But what about all those other small studios largely forgotten about in the wake of Hammer and Amicus, companies that did not extensively make cult or genre films but produced one or two gems? This Halloween I’m here to recommend some British horror classics and oddities not associated with Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon.
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Director Tourneur is best remembered for a series of films he made in the U.S. for RKO Pictures during the ‘40s, such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, but he also made Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon), one of Britain’s first classic horror films. Adapted from M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” a psychologist attempts to expose the powerful leader of a devil worshipping cult with some very unpleasant results.
Fiend Without a Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958)
In addition to Hammer’s Four-Sided Triangle and The Quatermass Xperiment, one of the first notable British sci-fi horror films was Arthur Crabtree’s Fiend Without a Face. At a U.S. military base, bodies turn up missing their brains and spinal cords. Though radiation poisoning is believed responsible, the culprit is really a monstrous entity caused by telekinesis experiments gone horribly wrong.
The Haunted Strangler (Robert Day, 1958)
Shot back to back with Fiend was The Haunted Strangler, a rare British Boris Karloff vehicle. Karloff, British by birth but made famous in the U.S., returned to his homeland for a few underrated horror films in the late ‘50s. A writer investigates the case of the Haymarket Strangler, believing that the man tried and executed for the crimes was innocent. But as his obsession with the case grows, the murders begin again.
Corridors of Blood (Robert Day, 1958)
Robert Day reunited with Karloff for this blend of sci-fi, horror, and crime about a scientist who tries to develop an anesthetic drug for use in surgery. He is ridiculed by his colleagues when a test goes wrong and the drug he is experimenting with has an unfortunate effect. Soon he is wrapped up in a world of crime, black market corpse selling, and murder.
Horrors of the Black Museum (Arthur Crabtree, 1959)
Michael Gough stars as a bored author, Edmond Bancroft, who is suffering from writer’s block. Bancroft is interested in torture and owns a “black museum” full of historical implements. He hypnotizes his assistant and coerces the man to commit a number of horrible crimes, in order to write about them.
The Flesh and the Fiends (John Gilling, 1960)
Hammer director John Gilling and star Peter Cushing teamed up for this entertaining version of the infamous story of “resurrectionists” Burke and Hare, two grave robbers, murderers, and black market corpse sellers. In 19th century Edinburgh, they work with Dr. Robert Knox (Cushing), who gets swept up into their illicit world when he begins experimenting on human bodies.
Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
One of the most important films in British horror, Peeping Tom effectively ended the career of auteur Michael Powell. Peeping Tom explores the life of photographer, voyeur, and sexual killer Mark Lewis. Far more graphic than Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out the same year, audiences and critics were horrified by its graphic nature and the film has only been elevated to classic status somewhat recently.
City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960)
One of the best early satanic horror films that would help usher in two decades of satanic horror in the U.S. and U.K., City of the Dead is a U.K. production set in New England. Starring Christopher Lee, the film concerns a young college student who travels to a small town to do research on witchcraft. Much to her horror, she stumbles across a satanic cult more powerful than she could have imagined.
Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960)
This sci-fi-horror is based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos and concerns a British village that undergoes some strange events. The town falls unconscious and when they awake, the women and girls are pregnant, causing near hysteria. Their children are all born on the same day, oddly resemble each other, develop at an unusual rate, and begin to exhibit some very strange behaviors…
Circus of Horrors (Sidney Hayers, 1960)
Circus of Horrors continues the themes of cruelty, torture, sex, and murder found in Horrors of the Black Museum. A disturbed surgeon flees to Europe to evade arrest and hides out in a small circus. He performs reconstructive surgery on the daughter of the circus owner and they warm to him. When the owner has an “accident,” he takes over the circus and begins recruiting the city’s deformed and disfigured women.
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
One of the most effective ghost stories and psychological horrors ever put to film, Jack Clayton’s interpretation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is still chilling and terrifying over fifty years later. A governess takes a position at an isolated country mansion where she has to look after two troubled children. Are they merely disturbed or is something supernatural effecting them? Between the troubling psychosexual themes and creepy use of sound and visuals, The Innocents remains one of the finest films on this list.
Night of the Eagle (Sidney Hayers, 1962)
Also known as Burn, Witch, Burn!, this lesser seen witchcraft tale was scripted by the great Richard Matheson and is based on Fritz Leiber’s novel, Conjure Wife. A fun psychological thriller with some effectively eerie moments, this concerns a psychology professor who discovers that his wife is a practicing witch. When he forces her to stop and get rid of her paraphernalia, his life begins to unravel.
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
Yet another of the finest supernatural films ever made, The Haunting is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s powerful novel, The Haunting of Hill House. A doctor investigates paranormal activity in an allegedly haunted house along with the skeptical heir of the house, a young woman who is allegedly psychic, and a lonely and repressed woman. The house forms a strange and unpleasant attachment to her…
Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1966)
David Niven, Deborah Kerr, David Hemmings, and Sharon Tate star in this tale of rural witchcraft about a wealthy man who returns to an isolated vineyard he owns and discovers some very strange behavior from the locals. Forgotten alongside more popular folk horrors like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, this is a solid entry in Britain’s subgenre of films focused on witches and pagan sacrifice.
Girly (Freddie Frances, 1970)
In a totally different vein than any other film on this list, Girly, also known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly is a horror-exploitation film akin to the earlier Spider Baby (1964). In an isolated country house, a small family acts out something called the Game. They lure men back to the house to play along with them, but if things don’t go their way, it quickly turns to violence, murder, and even snuff films.
The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook, 1972)
A lesser seen, but effective film, The Asphyx concerns a society of parapsychologists taking photographs of people at death. They discover that each image has a strange blur around the body and some of the men assume it is the soul. A scientist discovers that the blur is something far more sinister and begins a series of dangerous experiments. An unsettling, and imaginative film, there is nothing else quite like The Asphyx.
Raw Meat aka Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972)
An insane film about a group of cannibals living deep in London’s Underground, this is a loose precursor to C.H.U.D. (1984), it’s just even more nuts. Donald Pleasance stars as an Inspector who must trace down a missing politician, the latest victim of cannibalistic underground dwellers, the surviving remnants of Victorian works who were trapped during a cave in years and years ago.
Legend of Hell House (John Hough, 1973)
For this violent and sexual spin on The Haunting, a physicist and a small group of people visit a haunted house to study the supernatural. Unfortunately for them, the house was owned by a sadistic 6’5” millionaire known for his cruelty and sexual perversions. He disappeared after a massacre in his mansion where a number of people died. Are they still in the house, ready to haunt the newest guests?
Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)
Nicholas Roeg’s chilling tale of loss concerns a couple vacationing in Italy after the devastating death of their daughter. A local women claiming to be a psychic tells them their daughter is trying to contact them. Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), this is an obvious precursor to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and contains equally explicit sex for the time period, as well as some genuine scares.
The Devil Within Her (Peter Sasdy, 1975)
I wanted to end this list on a fun note and this absolutely ridiculous horror-exploitation flick certainly fits the bill. A stripper turns her fortunes around by marrying a wealthy man, but beforehand, she is attacked by a lecherous dwarf coworker. He curses her and tells her that her child will be possessed by the devil. When they do have a baby, it is not quite right. Is it in her head or did she give birth to the devil’s child?
Of course there are more than just 20 worthwhile British horror films not related to any of the major horror studios, but this is a solid place to start. I’ve also left off the exploitation/horror films of director Pete Walker, because he deserves his own list or article, so you may want to give those a try as well. Happy viewing and Happy Halloween!