10 great overlooked British horror films of the 1980s

Digging deeper into a decade’s horror cinema.

9 December 2022

By Kevin Lyons

White of the Eye (1987)

The 1980s were a difficult decade for the British film industry. The American funding that had kept filmmakers in gainful employment during the 1960s was now long gone. The Eady Levy, a tax on box-office receipts ploughed back into production via the British Film Production Fund, would be scrapped by the middle of the decade. And the rise of home video proved more detrimental to the industry than anyone could have suspected. As the decade wore on, Colin Welland’s triumphal cry of “The British are coming!” at the 1982 Oscars (he was picking up the best screenplay award) was starting to look like the hollowest of boasts. Yet British films kept getting made.

Foreign investment was still there, just harder to find, and the video boom gave makers of lower budgeted films a new outlet. British horror had peaked in the 1970s – Hammer was in hibernation and their rivals Amicus, Tyburn and Tigon had shut their doors. Yet a raft of independent producers were ready to ride out the rough waters of the decade. They made some interesting films, many of which flew below the radars of all but the most dedicated of fan.

Here are 10 homegrown genre films that deserve more attention. Horror fans will be familiar with most, if not all of them, but for those less familiar with the genre, these are films – by both big names and the now all but forgotten – that should amply reward the curious.

The Appointment (1982)

Director: Lindsey C. Vickers

The Appointment (1982)

A recent BFI Flipside Blu-ray release of Lindsey C. Vickers’ The Appointment has breathed new life into a film lost to semi-obscurity for far too long. It’s not without its faults, but what it gets right it does so brilliantly.

The opening scene, in which a schoolgirl is violently dragged into the woods by an unseen and barely explained supernatural force, is genuinely terrifying, while a climactic car crash is expertly done. And if the story – about a father stalked by supernatural forces after he’s unable to attend his teenage daughter’s concert recital – is slight, the gorgeous photography by Brian West and Trevor Jones’s score add to its eerie, otherworldly atmosphere. Meanwhile, Vickers certainly has a way with the long drawn-out tracking shot. His camera prowls with nervous energy around the family home at night, picking up on tiny incidental details (a clicking alarm clock, a dripping tap) that assume all kinds of sinister connotations.

Britannia Hospital (1982)

Director: Lindsay Anderson

Britannia Hospital (1982)

The final chapter in Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy following the exploits of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) – the other films were If…. (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973) – is a coruscating satire on the state of the nation, and particularly the state of the NHS. Graham Crowden’s mad scientist does double duty as head surgeon and creator of monsters in a new hospital wing caught up in the chaos of a royal visit, with increasingly belligerent protests outside and Travis’s television journalist threatening to spill the beans.

The horror element is minimal, as the film is more focused on rattling political cages on both the right and left of the political spectrum. But Crowden’s Professor Millar is an heir to Dr Frankenstein and Travis’s ultimate fate is quite chilling. Hated by critics on release, it’s ripe for re-evaluation in the era of a beleaguered, under-funded NHS. Every year it looks more and more like a work of prophecy.

The Sender (1982)

Director: Roger Christian

The Sender (1982)

Slow and thoughtful, Roger Christian’s The Sender was a far cry from the effects-heavy slashers that were starting to dominate the genre in the early 1980s. Blessed with a notably well-written script and claustrophobic lighting, The Sender tells the tale of John Doe no. 83, a mysterious patient at an imposing asylum, who seems to be psychically projecting his fears and nightmares into the minds of others.

Christian was never to be as good as this again. His direction here is both subtle and inventive, creating an atmosphere of melancholy decay within the gloomy setting of the asylum. There’s a core of sadness and melancholy throughout, aided immeasurably by Zeljko Ivanek’s moving, understated performance in the title role. Altogether a very impressive film, which deserves much more attention than it has received.

The Keep (1983)

Director: Michael Mann

The Keep (1983)

In 1941, a detachment of German troops is menaced by the demonic Radu Molasar in a remote keep in the Carpathian alps in Michael Mann’s much-troubled adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s 1981 novel. It’s not easy to adequately assess the film given how shabbily it was treated by its producers, who brutally cut it down from Mann’s original 210-minutes, first to two hours and then to 96 minutes.

Wilson dismissed it as “incomprehensible”, and it’s true that the story makes little sense, but it’s dripping in atmosphere. A gorgeous Tangerine Dream soundtrack adds to the nightmare-like ambience and although it could be seen as a misfire, it’s a beautiful looking and sounding one. A restoration of Mann’s original cut, unlikely now even if all the footage still exists, would very likely be a joy to behold.

Sleepwalker (1984)

Director: Saxon Logan

Sleepwalker (1984)

By 1984, Britain was five years into Margaret Thatcher’s divisive reign as prime minister, and this set the context for one of the oddest British horror films of the 1980s: Saxon Logan’s politically committed Sleepwalker. Revolving around a dinner party at the crumbling mansion Albion where the guests are the Britains and the Paradises (the satire isn’t particularly subtle), it uses the familiar emblems and images of horror to launch a vivid and stylish attack on the state of 80s Britain. It culminates with one of the characters screaming “Wake up!” at the audience.

A BFI Blu-ray release has helped to rescue Logan’s film from obscurity, but it still deserves to be better known, particularly in these even more politically charged and divisive times. Watch it in a double bill with Britannia Hospital for maximum political-horror effect.

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1985)

Director: Raju Patel

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1985)

Directed by Hollywood-based producer Raju Patel, this is a sweaty, dusty tale of nature run amuck, set in Kenya, the country of Patel’s birth. A group of white miners and Maasai tribespeople in a drought-stricken region of the country are united in a battle against an unusually intelligent troop of baboons who have turned on the human population. Although the cast is headed by familiar faces John Rhys-Davies, Timothy Bottoms and Irene Miracle, the human drama is inevitably less interesting than the baboon attacks and the sight of the seemingly genuinely enraged primates swarming over their prey, often in eerie slow motion.

There’s a half-baked ecological message here (rain proves to be everyone’s saviour), but the baboons are the real attraction, never more terrifying than in the climactic assault on the mining colony during a raging storm. As the end credits roll, a final caption tells us: “The film you have just seen is a fictionalised account of a true incident.” As ever with such claims, it’s complete nonsense.

Link (1986)

Director: Richard Franklin

Link (1986)

It would take a particularly dedicated and curmudgeonly film purist to be able to resist the sight of the great Terence Stamp acting up a storm as anthropologist Dr Steven Phillip opposite Locke, the 45-year-old circus chimpanzee who takes the title role of an ape trained to be Stamp’s dutiful butler. The bulk of the film is carried by Elisabeth Shue as an American zoology student whose arrival coincides with the disappearance of Phillip and a rebellion among his menagerie of increasingly belligerent chimps.

Although financed by London-based Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment and produced by Verity Lambert, Link was respectively directed and written by those stalwarts of 80s Ozploitation Richard Franklin and Everett De Roche, who just about manage to keep an absurd plot on track. It’s ridiculous but well-acted and briskly directed – a lot of silly, undemanding fun.

White of the Eye (1987)

Director: Donald Cammell

White of the Eye (1987)

The third feature by Scottish painter and filmmaker Donald Cammell, who is best known for co-directing Performance (1970) with Nicolas Roeg, White of the Eye is an unpredictable and unorthodox serial-killer thriller set in the sun-scorched Valley of the Sun in Arizona. There are flashes here and there of the Italian giallo (the opening murder set-piece wouldn’t look out of place in a Dario Argento film), with hints of Native American mythology and mysticism stirred in for good measure.

A perfectly constructed and layered mystery that rewards repeat viewings, White of the Eye remains one of the more enigmatic films in Cammell’s sparse filmography. At the centre of it is a standout performance from David Keith, but the real star is Cammell, who lets rip with every bit of directorial and photographic trickery he can think of. His camera swoops and swirls above the arid wastes, giving life to the ancient spirits seemingly summoned by the killer.

Paperhouse (1988)

Director: Bernard Rose

Paperhouse (1988)

Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Catherine Storr’s 1958 children’s novel Marianne Dreams (already adapted by ITV as the six-part television series Escape into Night) may look at first like a children’s film, but it’s very far from that. The story of a young girl and the unsettling dreamworld she conjures from the drawings she makes of an old house, it may not be quite as creepy as the TV version, but Paperhouse has more than its share of chilling gothic set-pieces.

It failed to find an audience in 1988 (it was too strong for kids, who would surely have got the most from it) but has grown in stature in the years since. It’s at its most unsettling when Anna’s father invades her dreamworld – a Freudian monster who obsessively pursues his daughter, angrily stamping about the moors like an enraged Heathcliff.

Black Rainbow (1989)

Director: Mike Hodges

Black Rainbow (1989)

Mike Hodges’ haunting and hugely underrated supernatural thriller boasts a terrific performance from Rosanna Arquette as Martha, a fake spiritualist initially angered and embarrassed by her duplicitous ways and later terrified by the sudden development of what appear to be real psychic abilities. It’s one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking of the psychic phenomena movies that proliferated briefly at the end of the 1980s, more interested in theology, belief, fear and exploitation than in straightforward shocks and scares.

A subtle, clever and chilling thriller, Black Rainbow follows its own course and dares to be off-beat – cue baffled reviews and consignment to semi-obscurity. Yet it’s brimming with beautiful images, intelligent and witty dialogue, and chillingly apocalyptic visions of nuclear disaster.

In Dreams Are Monsters: A Season of Horror Films is in cinemas across the UK and on BFI Player now.

Further reading

10 great overlooked British horror films of the 1970s

By Kevin Lyons

10 great overlooked British horror films of the 1970s

A great horror film from every year, from 1922 to now

By Anton Bitel, Michael Blyth and others

A great horror film from every year, from 1922 to now
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