10 great overlooked British horror films of the 1970s

Because there’s a world beyond The Wicker Man...

14 April 2016

By Kevin Lyons

Symptoms (1974)

The restoration of José Larraz’s Symptoms, now made available on BFI Blu-ray/DVD, returns a lost gem to the British horror canon. It was previously only available in shoddy bootlegs that did little for the film’s oppressive atmosphere, so the restoration finally gives us a chance to savour the film’s peculiarities in all their offbeat glory.

Unexpectedly chosen as an official British entry at the Cannes festival of 1974, it’s a creepy, modern gothic tale, as inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as it is by Repulsion (the more obvious comparison). Set in an English country house, where a neurotic woman (Angela Pleasence) has invited her girlfriend to stay, it’s a slow burner but John Scott’s excellent score and Larraz’s sparse but effective use of shock tactics (a face at a window; a briefly glimpsed figure at the edge of the frame that really shouldn’t be there) ensure a mounting sense of dread. Pleasence steals the show but is capably assisted by Lorna Heilbron as the new object of her twisted affection and Peter Vaughan as the reddest herring in 70s British cinema, a brooding handyman who knows more than he’s letting on.

If the return of Symptoms has piqued an interest in the often very peculiar world of 70s British horror films, you may be wondering where to go next. The Wicker Man may be the obvious entry point but there’s a wealth of strange and perhaps less well-known films out there to enjoy. Fans of British horror will be more than familiar with most of the films on this list, but those coming new to the genre and looking for more could do worse than hop aboard with any of the following oddities, which run the gamut from the more traditional Hammer gothics to a new breed of Home Counties nastiness that flourished during the decade. Those wanting to dig deeper should refer to Jonathan Rigby’s definitive study of the British horror film, English Gothic.

Demons of the Mind (1972)

Demons of the Mind (1972)

Director: Peter Sykes

As the new decade dawned, Hammer were looking to spread their wings and were willing to try new ideas. Some of these experiments failed badly but Peter Sykes‘ Demons of the Mind was one of the more interesting successes. Unusually, the titular demons are more psychological than supernatural in a tale of familial madness in which deranged Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) becomes even more unhinged when he starts to believe that he’s passed his madness on to his children. The experiment was deemed a failure by distributors EMI, who unceremoniously dumped it onto the wrong end of a double bill with the altogether less interesting Tower of Evil.

Death Line (aka Raw Meat, 1972)

Director: Gary Sherman

Death Line (aka Raw Meat, 1972) poster

Boasting a wonderful performance by Angela Pleasence’s dad Donald as a no-nonsense copper, this grisly gem tells of the last survivors of a Victorian tunnelling disaster who are living in the labyrinthine depths of the modern-day London underground network. Desperate for food for himself and his dying wife, ‘The Man’ ventures out to Russell Square station to abduct unwary commuters for his larder… 

Pleasence is given a run for his money by Hugh Armstrong as the cannibalistic survivor, his only words (“Mind the doors”) being used to express a greater array of emotion than most of the supporting cast can muster. Gruesome, hilarious and unexpectedly moving, Death Line is the perfect example of the direction British horror was beginning to take in the 70s, ramping up the violence, stirring in a vicious streak of dark humour and largely opting for contemporary settings.

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Director: Freddie Francis

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Gothic films were still around in the 70s of course and, as was often the case, the better ones starred the perennial Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee tag team. The Creeping Flesh looks like a Hammer production but was actually made by Tony Tenser’s Tigon British and World Film Services.

Cushing, marvellous as ever, plays the emotionally unstable anthropologist (relating the film in flashback from an asylum cell) who resurrects an ancient evil when the prehistoric skeleton he’s working on regenerates. Meanwhile, Lee is perfect as his unpleasant half-brother and Lorna Heilbron, the victim of another’s madness in Symptoms, goes impressively insane herself here as Cushing’s daughter, driven over the edge after her father injects her with a serum derived from the blood of “the Evil One”. The Creeping Flesh was directed by Freddie Francis, who had a spotty career in horror. It remains one of his very best.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Director: Terence Fisher

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

By the early 70s it looked as if Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein films had run their course, the release of the terrible Scars of Dracula and The Horror of Frankenstein (both 1970) suggesting that the company no longer had any idea what to do with their most famous monsters. Thankfully the Frankenstein series went out in some style with this, the sixth sequel to the film that began their cycle of gothic horrors, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Peter Cushing – sporting an alarming bouffant – was back as the baron (taking back the role from Ralph Bates, who did a terrible job in The Horror of Frankenstein) and just as crucially Terence Fisher was back in the director’s chair. The baron’s final fling sees him creating a hulking brute of a monster in an insane asylum. Long disliked for its supposed mean-spiritedness and coldness, the film is finally starting to be recognised for the fitting series finale that it is.

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

Director: Kevin Connor

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

Since Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, Amicus had been crafting a series of much-loved anthology horror films. Tales from the Crypt is arguably the better known, but the best is this, the seventh and final entry in the series. The obligatory comedy episode gets in the way as they always do, but the rest form a fine collection of macabre tales held together by Peter Cushing’s charmingly sinister junk-shop owner.

Donald Pleasence is outstanding (again) as the ex-military man worming his way into the life of Ian Bannen’s hapless commuter, luring him into a bizarre extra-marital affair with his creepy daughter (eerily played by Symptoms star Angela). Pick of the crop though is the opener, in which David Warner finds something very nasty indeed lurking in the ornate mirror he tricks Cushing into selling him for a knock-down price.

Vampyres (1974)

Director: José Larraz

Vampyres (1974)

Symptoms may have got the Cannes kudos but the more disreputable Vampyres is probably the horror film for which José Larraz is most fondly remembered by the fans. Lesbianism is again a central concern but the presentation is altogether more exploitative this time. Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska are the titular undead, luring passers-by to their rambling mansion, draining them first sexually, then of blood.

The film owes more to French sex-vampire specialist Jean Rollin than it does to Terence Fisher. The BBFC were not at all amused with its graphic sex and savage violence, reducing both dramatically. Hammer had been flirting with lesbian vampires since 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, but even their more transgressive efforts looked terribly coy compared to the frankness of Larraz’s film. Fun though it undeniably is, there was never any danger of Vampyres getting shown on the Croisette.

Frightmare (1974)

Director: Pete Walker

Frightmare (1974)

Pete Walker made a string of confrontational horror films throughout the decade, starting with the censor-baiting House of Whipcord in 1974. His second, Frightmare, is his brutal masterwork, a genuinely unsettling tale of Home Counties cannibalism with another tour-de-force performance from his regular leading lady, the formidable Sheila Keith.

As far removed from the Hammer/Amicus style as possible, Frightmare has more in common with contemporary American horror (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had opened in the States on 1 October 1974, just two months before Frightmare opened and five months before Tobe Hooper’s film was formally banned in the UK). It features a string of increasingly gruesome murders that culminate in a Grand Guignol finale involving impromptu brain surgery with a power drill. Walker continued to plough this blood-soaked furrow with the likes of House of Mortal Sin (1975), Schizo (1976) and The Comeback (1977) but none proved to be as viscerally effective as Frightmare.

Full Circle (1977)

Director: Richard Loncraine

Full Circle (1977)

Richard Loncraine’s almost forgotten ghost story features Mia Farrow as Julia, a young mother grieving the loss of her daughter and finding herself stalked by the ghost of another child, a vicious little brat who led a gang of 1930s children in the brutal murder of a young German boy.

The film was the first of a series of Anglo-Canadian co-productions (hence the always welcome presence of Keir Dullea, a regular in Canadian films of the time, as Julia’s estranged husband). It all takes a while to get going but culminates in an unexpectedly moving finale that does indeed bring the story full circle. A decade on from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Farrow is still struggling with an unearthly child, heading a top-notch cast that also features Tom ContiCathleen NesbittPeter Sallis and a young Sophie Ward in her film debut as Julia’s ill-fated daughter.

Prey (1977)

Director: Norman J. Warren

Prey (1977)

Like Pete Walker, Norman J. Warren was one of the stalwarts of the independent horror scene in Britain during the 1970s, and this science fiction/horror hybrid is one of his best. Lesbian lovers Jo (Sally Faulkner) and Jessica (Glory Annen) find their already strained relationship stretched to breaking point by the arrival of a strange young man, Anderson (Barry Stokes), who occasionally shows his true colours as a dog-faced alien, on Earth looking for a new food source for his people and deciding that humans are “easy prey”.

Jo goes very noisily insane (she’s already murdered a previous male visitor) before Anderson and Jessica fall into bed for a tryst that will end in a shockingly gruesome bloodbath. An excruciating slow-motion sequence in a nearby pond is the sort of thing the fast-forward button was made for, but that aside this is a nicely claustrophobic melodrama that remains one of Warren’s best pieces.

The Shout (1978)

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

The Shout (1978)

Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski adapted this deeply unsettling film from a very short story by Robert Graves and tells the tale of a psychiatric patient Crossley (Alan Bates) who claims he has learned a singular skill from his time with Australian Aborigines – he can kill just by shouting. He inveigles his way into the lives of experimental musician Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his wife Rachel (Susannah York), embarking on an emotionless affair with her and memorably demonstrating his power to him on a remote Devon beach.

The story is told in flashback, related by Crossley to one ‘Robert Graves’ (Tim Curry) at a hospital cricket match. Is any of it true or is it just the deranged ramblings of a madman? Skolimowski isn’t telling (the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous) and the film is all the more disquieting for his reluctance. Given the subject matter it’s appropriate that this was the first British film with a Dolby soundtrack and Skolimowski makes stunning use of the technology, particularly during the aforementioned beach scene.

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