British Horror Films: From Gothic Classics to Modern Thrillers

British Horror Films: From Gothic Classics to Modern Thrillers

British horror isn’t just the dreadful mould attack in your overpriced flatshare or the drunken finance guy who staggers out of the pub at four pm, unable to keep his inappropriate thoughts to himself. It’s Frankenstein’s monster driving a whole town to madness. It’s the terrifying presence of Jack the Ripper lingering in each cold and distant London night. It’s the Claw of Satan and The Wicker Man, the British Gothic classics that have unearthed the dark secrets of the supernatural world of horror and laid the groundwork for the modern thriller that we’d all secretly choose over the artsy French film.

Horror films aren’t often part of the sophisticated, intellectual cinema conversation, yet they are an integral part of pop culture, one that has transcended trends many times and continues to dominate major cinema programmes. Indeed, we are drawn to the experience of recreational fear, a parallel universe where zombies take over our supermarkets and hunt down the last remaining humans. How often have we tried to convince our parents that the age restriction on the DVD cover doesn’t apply to us, only to end up needing a light next to our bed?

Horror is thrilling, British horror is exciting, it can be funny, and sometimes it can even be somewhat sexually intriguing. Britain’s history of cinema has a lot to show for these endearing stories that make us want to look away but are too good to do so. Let’s look at the classic paragons of British Gothic cinema.

If there is one thing that the English have undoubtedly pioneered and mastered over the last three centuries, it is the chilling, goosebumps-inducing literary depictions of rural landscapes with creaking doorsteps and howling graveyards of old, Victorian England. It’s especially with our beloved classics, such as Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations, one wonders how Gothic Victorian life bears such beautiful literature against the scary backdrops of abandoned London valleys and ominous, sketchy personas. Thanks to literary adaptations, our favourite horror stories are classic introductions to the cinematic world of lab-born monsters and blood-sucking vampires.

Unquestionably, Britain can, to this day, pride itself on one literary figure in particular: Mary Shelley. The mother of all horror and an inspiration for Gothic art for centuries to come. Her masterpiece Frankenstein introduced the world to science fiction, a genre that is so often closely intertwined with horror. When we talk about British classic Gothic cinema, we must also talk about Frankenstein and the ever-legendary woman who, at the age of only 19, created the well-known archetypes of the unlovable monster and the ‘mad scientist’ who ends up fearing his creation.

Reading Frankenstein will surely send a chill down your spine, but there’s only so many times one can find joy in the sweet agony of literary horror. Luckily, a long list of directors and writers came after Shelley, bestowing the story of Frankenstein with their own twisted versions. Facilitated by Hammer Film Productions, directors such as Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis have gifted us with a seven-part sequence of Frankenstein movies.

British horror - Dracula

Starting off with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), only the second film version of the literary treasure, a long trajectory of spin-offs and modernised portrayals of the crazy scientist’s monster would follow, establishing a creative legacy that endures to this day. It must be almost impossible to trace back all the Frankenstein-infused films, inspiring modern twists such as the female version of the monster in Academy Award-nominated Poor Things (2023), where we see the lonely and deformed Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) create a scientific ‘mishap’, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone)

British Horror: A Legacy of Fear and Thrills

Frankly, I am more of a Dracula kinda-gal, which, similar to Frankenstein, is yet another horror classic that continues to inspire creatives to this day. First brought into the world in 1897 by Irish author Bram Stoker, the elegant, blood-thirsty vampire inspired a number of books and films, among them a great array of British Gothic classics.

Following the success of the Frankenstein sequel, it was the Hammer Film production company that, again, established a long movie sequel of the book, with no less fuss than with our scientific creature. Starting off with simply ‘Dracula’ (1958), the sequel counts a total of 9 films that bring you close to the majestic castle of Dracula and his companions—the dark and sinister.

British horror

Hammer and Amicus, the two major studios that would define the cinema of British horror, granted us more teeth-shivering epics with titles that single-handedly set the tone for true goth and horror. Films like ‘The House That Dripped Blood’ (1971) or ‘The Psychopath’ (1966) are just part of a long list of gruesome but exhilarating stories. During their peak in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘twins of evil’ brought horror cult icons like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to the surface of all things scary, forging a landmark in cinematic history.

The duo, after filming the infamous ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ and despite the many blood-dripping scenes and life-threatening stunts, would go on to make a number of horror films, including ‘The Mummy’ (1959) and ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1959). Working side by side, Lee and Cushing eventually became the faces of horror (that is, with excessive makeup and scary voices, of course).

They are ultimately part of a cycle of so-called ‘folk horror’ movies. A genre that is niche and explicit, with British horror classics like ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (1971), ‘Night of the Eagle’ (1962), and ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968). The screaming horror of dead cities and cursed witches did not shy away from the screen and instead represented how rationality can quickly turn into madness, overwhelmed by forces beyond logic. These classics foresaw the dangerous attraction of seemingly calm and rural settings, turning idyllic England into the perfect setting for blood massacres and satanic rituals.

Last but not least, let us not forget the gem of British Horror films—Antony Balch. For everyone who likes it rather strange and out of the ordinary, Antony Balch provides the world of horror with a little pinch of weirdness and ordinariness. Employing the wealth of Robin Askwith and his (blessed) tight red pants, Balch’s movies are yet another horror territory to explore for those in favour of a little adrenaline rush.

Modern Thrillers

Eventually losing their gloomy spark, Hammer and Amicus left the world of horror to the modern British thriller, a genre that is built on gripping suspense and shocking plot twists. Among the most popular ones are Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’ (2002), some good oldies such as ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) by John Mackenzie or ‘The Hit’ (1984) by Stephen Frears, and the more recent ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ (2017), the film that brought Irish actor Barry Keoghan to our attention and to our hearts.

Must-sees that will have you look twice under the bed and continue to keep curious film lovers on their toes. A personal recommendation is ‘Blow-Up’ (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni. Whilst the direction is Italian and the writing Argentinian, it is Antonioni’s first English-speaking film set in the deep hollows of London in the 1960s, and it is promised to catapult you right back into the grisly and rather dodgy conditions of criminal England.

Speaking of which, let me remind you of the endless collection of true crime stories and horror thrillers detailing the unexpectedly high number of British serial killers that have caused uproar in their times and suspense and mystery in ours. In the depths of England’s sewage systems and uninhibited alleys, the stories of ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ (2020) or serial killer Dennis Nilsen in ‘Cold Light of Day’ (1989) have stirred up a great amount of worry and panic, which is strangely enjoyable from a distance nowadays.

Thriller Series

Following the progression of modern times and the popularity of streaming platforms, thriller series hold a special place in the hearts of people like me. People who’d choose a day in bed with a binge-worthy show over the packed bar with loud music and sticky bathroom floors. What is so amazing about these shows is that there is no end to the variety of thriller series, yet they all manage to do the same: keep your eyes peeled and your Netflix account paid for.

Often enough, I have had to live with the shame of being asked the most alarming question of all, more than once on the same night: ‘Are you still watching?’. The two options that reveal my lack of discipline; ‘Continue watching’ (and ruin my sleep schedule once more) or ‘Back’ (and keep my sanity). Against my better judgement but in benefit of my persisting curiosity, more often than not, I chose the first because some things are just too good to wait until the next day! Some of these haunting and soul-stirring shows include, without a doubt, the renowned seasons of ‘Stranger Things’ (2016) or the surprisingly educational episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ (2011).

You’ve got the sci-fi thriller for those who like it supernatural, and you’ve got the psychological thriller, suitable for people who aren’t scared to sleep alone at night after watching ‘The Fall’ (2013). There is also the witty comedic thriller like ‘The End of the F*ing World’ (2017)**, or the agent thrillers with the recent release of ‘Slow Horses’ (2022), starring the brilliant Gary Oldman. Without a doubt, there aren’t enough of these shows, and some of them are definitely worth losing your sleep over!