The Darling Buds of
The most celebrated of ‘serious’ British directors have taken detours into horror over the years, often producing some of the most thoughtful, nuanced and impactful genre highlights committed to celluloid. Matt Rogerson takes a look at the UK’s long lineage of cinema darlings who turned to the darkest of genres…
It started with a Psycho.
In truth, it started with a Peeping Tom, but it would be celebrated English ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 foray into horror that would change the landscape of cinema forever and go down in history as perhaps the most celebrated ‘low’ genre film ever made. In 1960, horror was a genre that was taken seriously by virtually nobody. While the roots of the genre lie in the quintessential Expressionist movement of Germany’s Weimar Republic, and its classic elements were codified by Universal Studios’ hugely successful Monsters, pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency in Hollywood and the advent of the Hays Code applied rigid moral scrutiny to cinema that stifled creatives not just in the US but in the UK as well. The strict policing of ‘correct thinking’ affected any filmmaker who wished to see success in cinema’s biggest market, which put an end to everything from interracial dating to risqué religious content and, of course, murder, blood and horror. From 1938 to 1968, the horror genre suffered greatly; a thirty-year period that is essentially known only for the RKO/Val Lewton macabre melodramas (all released over a four year period from 1942 to 1946) and the various small, short-lived B movie studios of ‘Poverty Row’.
In April of 1960, Michael Powell, one half of the lauded ‘Powell & Pressburger’ partnership that created cinematic powerhouse productions such as A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes would release his voyeuristic psychosexual horror film Peeping Tom on an unsuspecting public. While the film is now considered a classic and a progenitor of the modern horror film, at the time it garnered a frosty reception from shocked critics, was largely pulled from distribution and Powell’s career never recovered from the ignominy. No more than two months later, Hitchcock would release Psycho and, despite the many similarities between the two films, this Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins-starring film would prove incredibly successful with audiences and go on to be praised as a major work of cinematic art. In essence, the difference between the failure of the first and the success of the second lay in public relations and advertising: Hitchcock, having seen critics eviscerate his countryman’s film, took a page from the maestro of gimmickry William Castle’s playbook; cancelling advance screenings for critics and forcing them to see the film alongside regular theatregoers in packed screenings. By the time any negative reviews of the film made it to print, word of mouth had fuelled virtual stampedes from the general public.
One thing Hitchcock’s Psycho (and Powell’s Peeping Tom) did was to inspire a number of celebrated British directors to occasionally deviate from their careers in more respectable genres to direct their own horror masterpieces.
Richard Attenborough – Magic (1978)
Somehow, despite being directed from a William Goldman screenplay, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret and Burgess Meredith, and making $23.8 million at the box office in 1978 (from a $7 million budget), Magic remains almost criminally underappreciated and under-discussed, to the point where many remain unaware that actor, director, producer and British institution Richard Attenborough ever made a horror film.
Yet, the Oscar-winning director of Gandhi and star of the Jurassic Park movies turned to horror relatively early in his directorial career. An actor of repute since the 1940s, Attenborough formed a production company in the late 1950s and produced the likes of The League of Gentlemen (1959) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961), before turning to directing in 1969 with a screen version of the hit musical Oh! What a Lovely War.
Magic marked only Attenborough’s fourth time in the director’s chair, and is a masterful exercise in psychological horror, dripping with suspense and dread. Hopkins stars as Charles ‘Corky’ Withers, a magician who suddenly becomes a huge success when he incorporates Fats, a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, into his act. What follows is a disturbing loss of identity study, as Corky’s personality is gradually overcome by that of his macabre wooden pal.
Attenborough paints this bleak tale of obsession and psychological disintegration with a washed-out palette and coaxes some excellent (if awkward and off-kilter) performances from his cast. Ann-Margaret, in particular, is a standout, as love interest Peggy who finds herself caught between her boyfriend Duke (Ed Lauter), Hopkins’ Corky and, of course, Fats the dummy. The final act hinges on her performance in more ways than one, as we wonder if Fats will successfully convince Corky to kill her, and what will become of both Fats and Peggy when Corky eventually takes his own life to end the torment of his apparent psychological breakdown.
Attenborough’s film is a cold, oppressive experiment that gets under the skin. It confused critics upon release: not least at Time Out, which considered it unsuited “Attenborough’s ‘epic’ approach to movie-making”. Despite critics giving it the cold shoulder, Richard Attenborough’s film was a success and would lead to his career-defining work in 1982’s Gandhi. As already stated, the film’s success does not appear to have translated into long term plaudits, yet it remains one of the true surprises of the 1970s.
Ridley Scott – Alien (1979)
The most famous name on this list (with the exception of Hitchcock), Ridley Scott is celebrated as the genre-hopping director of Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (amongst many others). After a stint in television, Scott cut his teeth directing commercials in the 1970s, but it would be his sci-fi influences (ranging from H.G. Wells to the 1950s kitsch nightmares of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them!) that would lead him to direct his second feature (after historical epic The Duellists) in 1979.
There is little to say about Alien in the year 2020 that hasn’t been said a million times before. Essentially a slasher film set in deep space, the choice of Scott and screenplay writer Dan O’Bannon to feature a band of blue-collar space truckers rather than the ‘traditional’ bold space adventurers of sci-fi epics such as Kubrick’s 2001 gave the film that relatable something that other genre pics lacked. The wonderful designs of H.R. Giger arguably did as much world-building as anything Scott and O’Bannon contributed, and the central performance of Sigourney Weaver skyrocketed her into mass mainstream appeal. To this day it remains an enduring franchise that has crossed back and forth between horror, sci-fi, action and existentialism, seen its universe visited by a wide array of celebrated directors, and also seen Scott himself return to the franchise in recent years. A staple of ‘Greatest Horror Films of All Time’ lists, Alien arguably remains the film Scott is synonymous with, even in the face of his many cinematic successes since.
Ken Russell – Altered States (1980); The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Ken Russell is an unparalleled director. Generally regarded as the true enfant terrible of British cinema, his pioneering work in television gave way to a series of flamboyant and controversial features that evoked Fellini as he mined material from the Romantic era to create what are considered his signature films: Women in Love, an Oscar-winning adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel exploring the nature of love and commitment; The Devils (adapted from Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play), a film that would be described as “monstrously indecent” by critic Alexander Walker and one that, to this day, Warner Bros refuse to allow to be released uncut.
Beyond these, Russell created two of the most seminal progressive rock-operas in Tommy and Lisztomania (both 1975), multiple biopics including Mahler (1974) and Valentino (1977) and, of course, two forays into horror.
For Altered States, Russell directed Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay and added a suitable amount of religious and sexual imagery to the hallucinatory story of an obsessed psychopathologist (William Hurt) who begins experimenting with sensory deprivation and Ayahuasca in attempts to tap into primal states of consciousness. Hurt’s character eventually regresses, both psychologically and physically, into an early Homo sapien state, before becoming an amorphous mass of primal consciousness that threatens to destroy everything around him.
Altered States marked an interesting waypoint in Russell’s career, in that critics who had previously censured his works for their controversial content began to take him seriously. In a significant irony, it would take a detour into the ‘low’ genre of horror to receive praise from legendary critic Roger Ebert, a man notorious for being ill at ease with the genre. Ebert would call Altered States “a fiendishly constructed visual and verbal roller coaster” and “one hell of a movie” and awarded it 3.5 (out of his customary 4) stars.
Russell would continue his experimental, genre-hopping ways, but returned to horror in 1981 for a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, about a Scottish archaeology student (Peter Capaldi) investigating the apparent discovery of the skull of a mythical snake-like creature from the area’s ancient past.
Reportedly disappointed with Stoker’s novel, Russell took the spine of the story and crafted his own mystery narrative around it. The finished film was deliberately ironic and mischievous, something which the very serious British critics struggled to reconcile with, but Janet Maslin of the New York Times celebrated its “slyly tongue-in-cheek” style and considered Russell’s career to be “on an unexpected upswing” after seeing the film.
Shane Meadows – Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Before This Is England (2006) and its television sequels made Shane Meadows one of British independent cinema’s most valued players, the young working-class director made a number of micro-budgeted dramas with a unique, wry sense of humour with his regular collaborators Paul Fraser and Paddy Considine. Films such as Small Time (1996) and A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) impressed and brought comparisons with the likes of Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke, and led to romantic comedy Once Upon A Time in the Midlands (2002), featuring a cast of modern British legends such as Ricky Tomlinson, Kathy Burke, Shirley Henderson and Robert Carlyle.
Unfortunately, Meadows’ 2002 film was neither successful nor well-received, and the director and his friends Fraser and Considine decided to go back to the drawing board. What they produced was a blackly comic thriller that took elements of Death Wish-style vigilante movies and the popular slasher sub-genre, brought them together on a Midlands council estate with a combination of ultraviolence, poignant drama and sheer terror.
As Considine’s ex-army loner Richard picks off members of a small-time gang one by one, in an escalating series of violent set-pieces, flashbacks reveal the extent of the abuse his disabled younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) suffered at the hands of the petty criminals. While Richard slowly sees himself become the very same monster he seeks to destroy, it is the portion of the story featuring Kebbell that provides the film’s beating heart.
Meadows’ follow up would be the 1980s period drama This is England that would define his career, but the macabre melodrama of Dead Man’s Shoes his perhaps his most singular and disturbing work, and remains one of the finest British independent feature films of the last twenty years.
Ben Wheatley – Kill List (2011); Sightseers (2012); The ABC’s of Death (2012); A Field in England (2013)
Of every director mentioned in this article, Ben Wheatley is probably a bit of a cheat: the acclaimed director has himself directed no fewer than three horror feature films (and one short), and has served as a producer on offbeat genre films such as Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! (2015), Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric.
However, in between his frequent work in horror, Wheatley has directed thrillers (2009’s Down Terrace and 2016’s Free Fire), adapted JG Ballard (High Rise, 2015) and Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, 2020) and will direct the action/monster movie sequel Meg 2: The Trench.
That Wheatley hops so effortlessly between genres is what makes the former advertising creative’s career so intriguing. His career has followed a somewhat unpredictable path, something first announced with Kill List. Wheatley’s second film followed comedy-thriller Down Terrace, which had set expectations of the director to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Shane Meadows. His second feature would instead mix tropes of Hammer Horror with surrealist elements familiar from the work of Bernard Rose and Jennifer Lynch. It also borrows liberally from parochial cult horror such as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, to create the most original and exciting British horror film in years.
He would, of course, follow that up with the blackest of horror comedies Sightseers (written by and starring Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) and the experimental historical horror A Field in England: a film that was experimental not just in its fractured narrative and distorted directorial style, but even in its release (A Field in England was released simultaneously in cinemas, on home video, on-demand screening and broadcast on Film 4 all on the day of its release).
1 Time Out (1978) Magic [online] Available at: https://www.timeout.com/movies/magic [Accessed 2 December 2020]
2 Jeffries, S (2011) Ken Russell interview: The last fires of film’s old devil [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/28/ken-russell-the-devils [Accessed 29 November 2020]
3 Ebert, R (1980) Altered States [online] Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/altered-states-1980 [Accessed 29 November 2020]
4 Maslin, J (1988( Review/Film; The Forked Tongue of Ken Russell [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/21/movies/review-film-the-forked-tongue-of-ken-russell.html [Accessed 29 November 2020]