|Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is a major four-month film season at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.|
There comes a moment in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel when Dr Frankenstein travels to Orkney, which is described as a “desolate and appalling landscape”. Since then, gothic and horror tales have made extensive use of British landscapes, not just as atmospheric settings but also as objects of interest in their own right.
Through these fictions a sense of our uneasy relation to the land has become manifest. Instead of signifying our home, and supporting our shared identity, the natural environment has been transformed into a site for anxiety, uncertainty and alienation. It haunts us, undermines our modern sensibilities, and diminishes or effaces us entirely as figures in the landscape.
British cinema has approached this theme in various ways. Brooding gothic landscapes full of dark secrets feature in British-set Hammer horrors such as The Mummy (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). There is also the alienated, and in some cases literally irradiated, landscapes found in British science fiction/horror, where futuristic technology threatens environmental destruction. Perhaps most intriguing of all is a cycle of films made in the 1960s and 1970s that have been dubbed ‘folk horror’, among them The Witches (1966), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Here pagan beliefs and practices threaten and often overwhelm modern rationality.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Borders and peripheral settings loom large in this type of horror, among them deserted beaches, inaccessible islands, and isolated woods and marshes. However, so do apparently more reassuring settings such as, most of all, the village. Indeed it is probably here that British rural horror is at its most unsettling, rendering strange and dangerous what many think of as the ideal community.
Quatermass 2 (1957)
Director Val Guest
Hammer’s version of Nigel Kneale’s television series Quatermass II retains its sense of a rural landscape being gradually refitted for alien occupation. Technological advancement is depicted here as both extraterrestrial in origin and destructive of traditional rural communities. The scientist Professor Quatermass’s (Brian Donlevy) drive through a weird, alienating countryside to a sinister refinery is arguably the first major representation of landscape-based anxiety in a British feature film.
The film as a whole speaks eloquently of a postwar encroachment of state institutions out into the rural world, and it suggests that for all the narrative’s extraterrestrial shenanigans, it is ultimately human-based forces that are doing this to us.
Village of the Damned (1960)
Director Wolf Rilla
The science fiction/horror hybrid Village of the Damned is the first great ‘strange village’ movie in British cinema. Adapted from John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, the ostensible threat seems initially to come from outside the village of Midwich in the shape of telekinetic blonde children born of human mothers as a result of an extraterrestrial intervention. Clearly these well-mannered but dangerous children represent a technocratic future inimical to the village’s traditional community. However, they also belong to the village.
In subsequent scenes Midwich tears itself apart over its new inhabitants, concluding with a suicide bombing directed against the children by one of the village’s leaders. It’s one of British cinema’s more disturbing conclusions, and an early indication that all might not be well in the 1960s British countryside.
The Reptile (1966)
Director John Gilling
The Reptile was shot back to back by Hammer with The Plague of the Zombies, using the same sets and some of the same cast. Both films merit inclusion on this list, but The Reptile scrapes into first place for its dark, mysterious qualities as opposed to The Plague of the Zombie’s more schematic criticism of the British class system.
Colonial secrets lurk in the Cornish countryside, atmospherically presented even though the filmmakers never went anywhere near Cornwall. Superstitious villagers refuse to engage with whatever it is that’s killing them, and it takes a square-jawed Hammer outsider-hero to recognise that the threat is both foreign and female. Order is finally restored but the conclusion is perfunctory and a sense of unease lingers long after the film is over. This is simply one of Hammer’s best gothic productions.
The Witches (1966)
Director Cyril Frankel
The second Hammer film on the list is very different from The Reptile. In effect, The Witches kickstarts the ‘folk horror’ cycle with its story of pagan rituals within an apparently idyllic village. Yet it is rarely considered as part of that cycle, perhaps because it lacks the iconoclasm and nastiness of some of the later folk horror films. As adapted by Nigel Kneale from a novel by Norah Lofts, its gentility is deceptive, however. The slowly dawning realisation that most of the villagers are accepting of human sacrifice is chilling primarily because the earlier presentation of the village is so conventional. By the time the pagan leader announces that she wants a skin for dancing in, we know that she means it quite literally.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
Director Jonathan Miller
Whistle and I’ll Come to You is one of the greatest of British ghost stories, even though it does not feature a ghost. What it does feature is someone haunted and terrorised by something, although what that something is remains unclear. Its inclusion here might be seen as a cheat as it was made for British television, but it was shot on film, it has received cinema screenings, and it certainly possesses a cinematic quality.
However, the main reason for its inclusion is that it underlines the importance of television in the development of rural horror, especially in the 1960s and 1970s where cinema and television share an iconography and a set of thematic preoccupations. There are differences between the two media, of course, but looking at them together reveals how pervasive anxieties about the rural actually are.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Director Michael Reeves
Set at a time of nationwide witch-hunts during the 17th century, Witchfinder General is a doom-laden film. Many of its characters are either left dead or end up in a terrible state, while Michael Reeves, its brilliant young director, died shortly after the film’s release while still in his 20s.
Yet it’s also an extraordinarily beautiful film that makes great use of extensive location shooting in the east of England. Here it is not the landscape itself that is the source of unease but rather the savagery of the people who occupy it. This juxtaposition of an indifferent nature with appalling human behaviour recurs in other British rural horrors, but it is never done quite so effectively.
And Soon the Darkness (1970)
Director Robert Fuest
The inclusion on this list of this proto-slasher or English giallo might raise some eyebrows, mainly because it takes place entirely in France. Yet it presents a rural setting as alienating as anything presented in other rural horrors and refracts it through a distinctive English sensibility. Two female English tourists (Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice) cycle along a country road. One of them vanishes and the other spends the rest of the day trying to work out what happened to her. The outcome is not particularly surprising, but the film’s evocation of an increasingly menacing landscape – menacing, that is, to the English – is remarkable.
And Soon the Darkness presents a rural location in which an inability to speak French puts you in extreme danger. Neither of the English cyclists know the language, and to encourage our identification with them in this foreign land, the film has no subtitles.
Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
Director Piers Haggard
It’s surprising that Blood on Satan’s Claw received so little attention on its initial release given that it is such a remarkably accomplished piece of work. It shares its 17th-century setting and an emphasis on the possibilities of human cruelty with Witchfinder General but that is about all, for here there really are witches and demons on the loose in the English countryside.
Benefitting from being shot mainly on location, the film is a triumph of the picturesque and the atmospheric. Inasmuch as it has a politics, it is on the reactionary side, with the God-fearing elders putting the young rebellious pagans to rights, but it is more remembered now for its disturbing imagery.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Director Robin Hardy
When it comes to putting together a list of British rural horror films, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is probably the most obvious choice of all. Largely ignored on its initial release (which, given its distinctiveness, now seems utterly incredible), it has since become a major cult classic of British cinema.
A Scottish island where the ‘old religion’ lives on, folk music, Christopher Lee in drag and in fine voice, human sacrifice, and a final appointment with the wicker man himself. What is there to say about this film that has not been said before?
Dog Soldiers (2001)
Director Neil Marshall
Dog Soldiers is a prime example of the new British rural horror, which is much more aware than before that horror is a truly international form. Dog Soldiers might be set in Scotland but it was filmed mainly in Luxembourg and is clearly made with an international market in mind.
It might show the British Army versus Scottish werewolves and be full of references to English and Scottish culture (with a very good Antonioni joke for good measure) but it is also looking over its shoulder at the likes of Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987) and other monster movies. This is still Britain but it is also something else: an isolated rural setting that can play everywhere for everyone.
“What would you add?” we asked, and soon our Facebook page was awash with suggestions. From the bucolic chills of established classics like Night of the Demon (1957) and The Devil Rides Out (1967) via less familiar titles like The Beast in the Cellar (1970) and The Beast Must Die (1974) to the modern waterside terror of Eden Lake (2008).
One name loomed largest, however: that of director Ben Wheatley. Adam Fripp wondered whether Wheatley’s cross-country spree-killer black comedy Sightseers (2012) could be considered a horror film. James Merchant, Nick Roubles and Tracy Thompson all suggested Wheatley’s phantasmagorical nightmare A Field in England (2013).
But most popular of all was the film that first cemented Wheatley’s reputation as the heir apparent to the witchy tradition of Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. Kate Fitzpatrick, Serena Dea, Jason D. Goddard and Dylan Lancaster all put forward Wheatley’s 2011 movie Kill List. The story of a soldier who returns to Britain from service in Kiev then takes work as a contract killer, it’s film that’s difficult to describe without giving the game away. Suffice to say, it only makes clear its claim on the canon of rural British horror in its later stages. Wrote Lancaster: “I will never forget the way I felt when I came out of that film.”
Director Ben Wheatley