Cities have layers, and not everything that lives and happens within them is pleasant. Behind everyday city life sits a strangeness, a weirdness even: the “urban wyrd”. Whether this manifests as a deranged killer living in the flat next door, cannibals living in the underground or suburban occultists running the latest psychiatric scam, the urban realm on screen is a wellspring of the bizarre.
The genuine case of Jack the Ripper was a turning point in the public sense of metropolitan strangeness, creating an unease that the most violent and unusually motiveless of horrors exist in the same streets that we traverse every day. That atmosphere has recently been explored in Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem (2016), the Victorian city always a place where reality can tip into violent and strange realms, as characterised in the fictions of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Machen.
The following films tap into the same seediness, griminess and grittiness of the urban territory but in stranger, more horrific ways than the crime drama or film noir. As the late theorist Mark Fisher suggested, the weird is a sort of “thing-ness”, a palpable dread as opposed to the eerie, the latter being an uneasiness at absence/emptiness. This contrast is felt most keenly in the city, where the ordinary is a palimpsest under which writhes both human and nonhuman strangeness, sitting in defiant confidence.
So, here are 10 films to introduce the idea of the ‘urban wyrd’.
The Lodger (1944)
Director John Brahm
As the atmosphere of the urban wyrd properly stems from the Ripper murders, it’s only right to include one of the best films inspired by them: John Brahm’s 1944 version of The Lodger. Based – like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent film of the same name – on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, it accumulates a gradual sense of unease as a well-to-do family begins to suspect that their soft-spoken tenant is actually the Ripper himself.
Mr Slade, the chief suspect, is played by the brilliant Laird Cregar, who would find an equally tormented yet demented role the following year in Brahm’s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1945). Though The Lodger largely avoids the cliched visions of the Ripper mythology, it still manages to portray that same sense of the weird, finding its way obscurely but rapidly into the most urbane and lavish of London environments. The sense of unsuspecting violence is one of the urban wyrd’s key traits, with such actions sitting unusually against backdrops of refinement and civilisation.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Director Michael Powell
Such was the negative response of critics to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom that it all but destroyed the director’s reputation overnight. However, thanks to reappraisals by notable figures, including Martin Scorsese, Powell’s film has since been established as one of the classic portrayals of the sleaze brewing quietly under the surface of everyday London. Following an abused filmmaker (Karlheinz Böhm) who obsessively films his murders of young women, Powell’s film disrupts classical representations of the city, mapping out an underbelly of street-corner pickups and secret porno shoots taking place above cornershops.
Though Peeping Tom is remembered for some of its brilliantly detailed sets, the director wandered further into Fitzrovia and Holland Park in order to tap into the right sense of dread. The underworld of the desperate and lonely is on open view for one of the first times in popular British cinema, with Powell pioneering the same atmosphere later found in the likes of Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972).
Director Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski’s ‘apartment trilogy’ – rounded out by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976) – could all fit into some sense of the urban wyrd, presenting strange happenings in locked-off flats, with a macabre sense of weirdness at their heart.
Repulsion is the most effective of these, following the mental disintegration of Carol (Catherine Deneuve), who is pushed over the edge by the sex life of her sister and the past horrors this triggers for her. A hidden cycle of abuse causes her a series of physical and psychological horrors, including a variety of startling hallucinations. London becomes the canvas on which her traumas play out, resulting in one of the most unusual and disturbing portrayals of the city.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Director Roy Ward Baker
Nigel Kneale was the master of imbuing strangeness into everyday places – rural or urban. In Hammer’s adaptation of Kneale’s original BBC screenplay, the urban environment becomes a claustrophobic zone where a buried malevolence is hidden beneath a London tube station – and as well as within us as a species.
The object discovered is a buried martian spaceship, which points to the influence of insect-like aliens upon everything from our folklore and superstition to our violent tendencies and even our presence on the planet. Race memories hide our latent fear of the other, as central London becomes more and more unsettled by the unearthing. Kneale would explore this M.R. James-esque idea in a number of other works, especially for television, but in Quatermass and the Pit its effectiveness is palpably heightened by the urban setting. The weird is out in the open, ready to tear apart the fabric of society.
Death Line (1972)
Director Gary Sherman
Sometimes known under the alternative title of Raw Meat, Gary Sherman’s Death Line is a quintessential urban wyrd film, hinging on a string of disappearances on the underground that baffles rival police detectives Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee. It transpires that a group of London transport workers digging a tunnel many years previously became trapped, evolving into a community of cannibals and living in the disused tube line.
Shot with a surprisingly straight sense of brutality and with some excellent location filming on the tube, Death Line is perhaps the best of a number of films that take advantage of the strange potential of the underground network. Having regressed so much, the lead cannibal (Hugh Armstrong) can no longer communicate in anything other than grunts and what he mimics from the train announcements. His final cry of “Mind the doors!” is one of the most tragic and disturbing moments in British horror, urban or otherwise.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)
Director Alan Gibson
Alongside the same director’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and Peter Sykes’ To the Devil a Daughter (1976), The Satanic Rites of Dracula is one of a number of Hammer’s attempts to move their typical gothic fare to the modern-day city. The results were interesting and humorous variations on their franchises, with the oddness coming from the temporal clash between the contemporary world and the incongruous gothic characters.
This is most enjoyably apparent in The Satanic Rites of Dracula when Van Helsing’s ancestor (Peter Cushing) is on the search for Dracula’s lair. This being 1973, Dracula (Christopher Lee) is now a high-rise property mogul (itself an element from Bram Stoker’s original book) whose power is wielded from the top of an office block. Most amusingly, it is only the recognition of a commemorative blue plaque on the site of Dracula’s original church that alerts Van Helsing to the villainy taking place in the modern block. The weirdness remains as heritage.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
Director Douglas Hickox
Director Douglas Hickox had already explored the atmosphere of brutal urban realms in his brilliant crime thriller Sitting Target (1972), but he doubled down on the theme with this classic Vincent Price vehicle. Price plays wronged actor Edward Lionheart, who exacts methodical revenge on the socialites of a London critics circle with a series of gory, Shakespearean-themed murders.
Set amid both a newly refurbished high-rise sector lining the Thames and still derelict parts of central London, Theatre of Blood plays on the contrast between the critics’ luxury realm – Peninsula Heights on the Albert Embankment no less – and the underground world of dilapidated buildings where the disenfranchised dwell. As such, it typifies the urban wyrd perfectly, presenting a journey under London’s surface into the city’s dark heart.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis
Though opening in foggy Yorkshire moors and isolated rural pubs, as the title of John Landis’s film suggests, something weird ends up roaming the streets of London. The contrast between the urban and rural in the film shows how differently the backdrop can affect our perception of supernatural presences. An American Werewolf in London is built entirely on this idea of bringing something strange from the countryside back into the populated streets of the urban. In the rural realms that open the film, it almost feels typical and expected; the desolate hills are, of course, hiding a vicious, stalking werewolf. But, when it moves to an incredibly 1980s London, the presence of a werewolf takes on a more unusual, incongruous tone.
Perhaps most effective, and again using the tube, is the famously tense chase sequence in which a businessman is stalked and hunted in an unusually quiet Tottenham Court Road station late at night, eventually meeting his demise on the escalators.
Director Christopher Smith
Following a variety of characters trapped on the underground and at the mercy of a hermit who has become demented and violent, Christopher Smith’s Creep plays like an updated version of Death Line. But there’s a metallic visual quality to Smith’s film, unlike the greasiness of Sherman’s, that gives the narrative a queasy quality, especially in its raw moments of violence.
Again there is something in the urban realm that should not be there, the presence of which causes violence and tension. The film is littered with an incredibly detailed mapping of the tube network, the cavernous labyrinth underneath the city’s pavements and roads turning into a literal underworld once the shutters have been brought down on Charing Cross tube station. Essentially Creep is a slasher film moved underground, but the recognisability of the platforms, escalators and tunnels makes it a doubly unnerving watch.
The Ghoul (2016)
Director Gareth Tunley
Produced by Ben Wheatley, another director who has mined the nastiness in the urban environment, Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul finds a secret gestalt of occult psychologists hiding in plain sight in the gleaming metallic modernity of 21st-century London. Following the investigation of an unusual suburban murder, troubled policeman Chris (Tom Meeten) finds his identity crumbling as he goes undercover as a patient to infiltrate the occult sect connected with the murder.
Is he a policeman still investigating the murder or is a he a troubled patient, living on the poverty line and at the mercy of a ritual destined to give the occultists immortality? Tying into London’s thriving underground occulture, and with references to William Blake’s visions and Dr John Dee’s alchemy, The Ghoul presents a nightmarish vision of the urban environment that’s lurking behind the looking glass.