If the novels of writers like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker or Stephen King represent the main course in horror’s tasty banquet, there are plenty of tantalising morsels that come in short form too. Many long-standing writers of supernatural fiction established their craft in the short tale, with masters of the medium including Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.
Terrifying short stories have always been part of horror cinema too. There’s the long established trend for horror anthology films, which see multiple short tales compiled together for one creepy feature. But there is also the now bygone tradition of programme-filling shorts and featurettes that used to play as supporting films for a main feature or double bill.
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In the 1970s, prompted by loosening censorship, British horror cinema was moving in some fascinating directions. There were 2 main diverging trends. On the one hand, established studios like Hammer and Amicus continued to mine the gothic tradition, often – especially in the case of Amicus – with a contemporary twist. On the other, a sleazier, more raucous side emerged through Britsploitation, in which directors like Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker made their mark.
These 2 trends were also reflected in the short horrors of the period. As noted in the booklet accompanying Short Sharp Shocks, a new Blu-ray collection of macabre short films, the 1970s was something of a golden age for the short genre film. Due to legislation set out to protect the British film industry – for example The National Film Finance Corporation, which ensured films could be funded nationally, and The Eady Levy, a voluntary tax on distributors – there was plenty of cash to go around, and the market cried out to be served. As long as the imagination was there, short films were relatively easy to fund and distribute. And when it comes to the 70s in particular, it appears to be a case of the weirder or wilder the better.
Of the pair of 70s films included on Short Sharp Shocks, The Sex Victims (1973) is very much part of the Britsploitation fold, featuring gratuitous nudity, working-class vernacular and rough sex. Yet director Derek Robbins also veers into some of the same uncanny territory directors like José Larraz would later explore at feature length, making it a unique hybrid. In fact, The Sex Victims would make a perfect bill cousin for Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) for the way in which it combines ample nudity with supernatural elements.
The short features a lone truck driver who is lured into the woods by a nubile Lady Godiva, only to discover after he’s slept with her that all is not as it seems. Interestingly, the film also takes something of a unique tangent into a key 70s theme, largely seen in exploitation films: female revenge. But unlike the burgeoning rape revenge subgenre of the period, it does so without using any violence whatsoever.
By contrast, 1978’s The Lake stays firmly in the classic ghost story mold, at a time when ghost stories were thriving on British TV but not so much in national cinema. Unlike Derek Robbins, who only accrued one other film credit during his career – sexploitation anthology Sextet (1976) – director Lindsey Vickers and his cinematographer, Norman Warwick, came to The Lake with a fair amount of experience under their belts. Vickers had served as assistant producer on a number of 70s Hammer films, while Warwick, who also did a short stint at Hammer, worked with Amicus on anthology horrors including Torture Garden (1967), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Tales That Witness Madness (1973).
Yet, The Lake is quite unlike anything produced at those studios during the 70s. Instead, it takes a brooding, slow-burn approach, unravelling a creepy ghost story about a romantic picnic that goes horribly wrong after mysterious supernatural forces get involved.
The Lake is a precursor to Vicker’s memorable, but sadly obscure, feature film The Appointment (1981), with both titles covering some of the same themes, tone and atmosphere. Both films place a special emphasis on dogs, for example; both take place following some ominous mystery that locals gossip about; and both use nature to convey an incredibly unsettling atmosphere. The Lake – like its follow-up – is the kind of horror you can just soak in; ambiguous, even dream-like at times.
The Sex Victims and The Lake point back to a particularly virile period in British genre film history, one where the short was a platform for open experimentation, which was sadly all but gone by the next decade. But while that particular banquet wrapped up long ago, as these films show, its flavours are as tasty as ever.