Making a first feature is daunting enough for any filmmaker, and, you could argue, choosing a horror movie for your directorial debut is braver still. It takes a confident hand to illicit genuine chills in an audience. Yet the genre also provides freedom for creative invention. It’s forgiving of smaller budgets, values passion over perfection, and comes with a vocal and supportive built-in audience. That’s part of the reason why filmmakers like John Carpenter and George A. Romero made their debuts – and, often, their entire careers – in scary movies.att Similarly, a raft of British filmmakers have also chosen to start out in horror, with notable success.
The most recent addition to these ranks is Corinna Faith, whose film The Power showcases an intuitive mastery of craft. This 1970s-set story, centring on a nurse who encounters a terrifying entity while working a hospital nightshift during a government-mandated blackout, is bolstered by a superb physical performance by Rose Williams and prowling cinematography from Laura Bellingham (who also shot 2017’s Double Date, below).
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As director, Faith knows instinctively how to effectively build tension, when to pull back and when to jump in full throttle. The result is a genuinely unsettling mix of the psychological and the supernatural, and a memorable calling card for an exciting new filmmaker.
Here, we take a look at other superb horror debuts from British directors that have left an indelible mark on the genre.
The Power, which was backed by the BFI Film Fund, is available to stream on Shudder from 9 April 2021.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
The first – and only – film directed by British actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter may not have been billed as a horror but it remains a chilling watch almost 70 years on. A Hollywood production set in the American south, it stars Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell, a religious fanatic who marries and subsequently terrorises a widow (Shelley Winters) and her two young children in an attempt to get his hands on her late husband’s money. Working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Laughton tells this nightmarish tale through an expressionistic lens, casting shapes in the shadows and presenting a stylised portrayal of Americana that intensifies the fear as the preacher closes in on his goal.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
Now regarded as a benchmark of British folk horror, The Wicker Man marked the directorial debut of filmmaker Robin Hardy – and was one of only three films he made in his entire career. But what a film. Often emulated (and unfortunately remade in 2006 with Nicolas Cage), it sees Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie arrive from the mainland on to a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing girl who the locals claim never existed. Hardy effectively captures the eerie, insular atmosphere of this cut-off community, and Christopher Lee turns in a phenomenal performance as the menacing local patriarch. Once seen, never forgotten.
The Hunger (1983)
Director: Tony Scott
Before he went on to direct actioners like Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990), filmmaker Tony Scott – brother of Ridley – made his full-length debut with this glossy vampire thriller, adapted from the novel by Whitley Strieber. Catherine Deneuve is the ageless bloodsucker who is looking to replace her (very) long-term partner (David Bowie), ideally with beautiful doctor Susan Sarandon.
Scott paints this portrait of blood, sex and death in exquisite smoky long takes (at direct odds with the frantic pacing he favoured later in his career). If the story is wilfully languid and convoluted, the visuals are beguiling and the performances are involving enough to seduce even the most cynical viewer. Knowing nods to the genre, such as Deneuve and Bowie prowling a disco as 80s goth rockers Bauhaus perform ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, are also artfully done.
Director: Clive Barker
When British novelist-turned-director Clive Barker decided to adapt one of his own works for his debut behind the camera, it turned out to be an inspired move. As was the decision to cast actor Doug Bradley – also making his debut – as the film’s sadistic villain Pinhead, so creating a movie monster for the ages. As Pinhead and his Cenobites bring unbearable pleasure and devastating pain to anyone who enters their orbit (via a mysterious box), Barker upends the action from the UK to an unidentified Americanised setting but retains the intensity of his source novel. Despite the gore – and there is plenty of that – Barker trades in building dread rather than lazy shocks, and delivers one of the defining horror movies of the 1980s.
The Reflecting Skin (1990)
Director: Philip Ridley
After writing novels, short films and screenplays, Philip Ridley made the move to feature directing with his mesmerising debut The Reflecting Skin. Setting this story in rural Idaho in the 1950s, Ridley uses elements of fear and surrealism to explore the often nightmarish experiences of childhood through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy.
Seth (Jeremy Cooper) believes his glamorous reclusive neighbour to be a vampire but, as Ridley shows, the true horrors of life lurk in the shadows of his own home. Cinematography from Dick Pope expertly plays on that universal childhood fear of the dark.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Director: Neil Marshall
It’s almost two decades since writer-director Neil Marshall made his feature debut with the sharp-toothed Dog Soldiers, and it retains its place alongside An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ginger Snaps (2000) as one of the best lycanthrope narratives ever committed to screen.
A fantastic Sean Pertwee is front and centre as the no-nonsense leader of a military squadron on manoeuvres in the Scottish wilderness, who witnesses his men descend into madness as they are attacked by a vicious creature. It’s thrillingly intense and unflinchingly gory – you’ll get to know Pertwee inside out. But it also has a dry humour that cuts through but never undermines the scares.
Director: Marc Price
While it may have garnered plenty of attention for having reportedly been made for just £45, writer-director Marc Price’s super-low-budget debut stands on its own merits as a sensitive, accomplished zombie movie. Alastair Kirton puts in a moving performance as the titular Colin, who shuffles around his home town in search of a bite to eat after unexpectedly being turned into the walking dead.
Price makes the low budget work to his advantage, the hand-held camera and no-frills approach driving home the raw desperation of Colin’s experience. Completely imprisoned by his instincts, driven by a half-remembered sense of belonging but unable to ever go home.
Attack the Block (2011)
Director: Joe Cornish
Attack the Block gave British actor John Boyega (Star Wars, Detroit) his big break, but that’s far from the only reason that Joe Cornish’s directorial debut remains so memorable. Cornish wrote and directed this story of a south London tower block under alien attack, which also stars Jodie Whittaker and Luke Treadaway, and it’s a superbly effective blend of comedy and chills. While it leans heavily on the humour as the hapless residents attempt to outwit the murderous deep-space invaders, Cornish also proves adept at ramping up the gore. A lift-set bloodbath from which Boyega is the only survivor is one such crowd-pleasing moment.
Director: Alice Lowe
British actor Alice Lowe is no stranger to genre, having made memorable appearances in such things as Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s TV show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, so it’s fitting that Lowe chose to make her directorial debut in the same tone. Lowe wrote, directed and starred in pitch-perfect pregnancy horror Prevenge, the dark and moving story of a woman attempting to cope with her partner’s death, who becomes convinced that her unborn child is making her kill people. And, while the idea of having body and mind taken over by an alien entity is a familiar horror trope, Lowe also makes it clear that, for many women, the physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy can also be a real-life nightmare.
Double Date (2017)
Director: Benjamin Barfoot
While filmmakers such as Joe Cornish, Alice Lowe and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) make it look easy, effectively blending horror and comedy takes a confident hand and a light touch. Lean too heavily on either element and it can completely dilute the other. With Double Date, director Benjamin Barfoot and writer (and star) Danny Morgan get the balance just right. This narrative unfolds over one mad night, as awkward virgin Jim (Morgan) and his mate Alex (Michael Socha) slowly realise that the gorgeous girls they have picked up in a club (Georgia Groome and Kelly Wenham) are lusting over their blood rather than their bodies. With a mix of hilarity and horror – and an expertly choreographed fight scene between Socha and Wenham – it’s a must-see for genre fans.
Director: Matthew Holness
Matthew Holness is no stranger to genre weirdness, having created and starred in the early 2000s TV comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace along with Richard Ayoade. For his feature debut, however, he leaned much further into the darkness, with a genuinely chilling tale of a children’s puppeteer forced to confront long-held secrets on a return to his childhood home. Sean Harris is exceptional as the broken man struggling to hold on to his sanity, while Holness and DP Kit Fraser make the most of the empty expanses and desolate isolation of the Norfolk locations. And if that’s not enough to send a chill down your spine, then the puppet itself – a huge mechanical spider-like monstrosity – is the stuff of the worst kind of nightmares.
Saint Maud (2019)
Director: Rose Glass
Sometimes, a horror film comes along that transcends the genre to simply be an astonishing piece of cinema, full stop. Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) was one such movie, as was Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Rose Glass’s BAFTA-nominated debut Saint Maud stands alongside them. Masterful in both story and craft, it also features an incredible performance from Morfydd Clark as the titular Maud, a former nurse who has been driven to extreme religious fanaticism and experiences saintly events that may – or may not – be a product of her fractured psyche. This is a film of poise and restraint, with Glass expertly ratcheting up the tension through slow-burn suggestion, and choreographing several genuinely jaw-dropping sequences. Utterly mesmerising from its opening titles to its shocking denouement, Saint Maud is a film that leaves one hell of an impression.
His House (2020)
Director: Remi Weekes
It’s no surprise that Remi Weekes’ debut, His House, has secured three BAFTA nominations (for outstanding British film, outstanding British debut and best actress for Wunmi Mosaku). The writer-director has created an impressive blend of social commentary and genre scares, exploring the experiences of a refugee couple as they escape from war-torn Sudan to England through nightmares both real and supernatural. As they try to make a home in a run-down London neighbourhood, they begin to realise that they are not alone in their crumbling new home. But they can find no one willing to help them, and have nowhere to go for safety. It’s horrifying in all senses of the word.