Ghost Stories and 10 British horror films that terrified us
PUBLISHED: 17:24 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:27 04 April 2018
Terrifying stage show Ghost Stories has been turned into a film that is set to scare the pants off cinema audiences this week. Simon Parkin looks at 10 British horror classics that still have the power to shock.
Andy Nyman’s West End show Ghost Stories was described as “deeply unsettling” and “pant-wettingly terrifying”, so you’d be right to approach the film version which opens this week with some trepidation.
“I think on a basic level there’s a human need to get that jolt, that jolt that reminds you you’re alive. Thank God, most of us live safe lives and don’t have to worry about that sort of thing in real life says Derren Brown collaborator Nyman who plays Professor Phillip Goodman, a psychologist and arch-sceptic who embarks on a mission to find rational explanations for ghostly stories.
Co-created by League of Gentleman member Jeremy Dyson, who also directs, with a cast that includes Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther, the anthology film is the latest in a long-line of British horror films that still have the power to shock.
The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy’s tale of virginal Protestant policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on the little Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old child remains the gold standard for British horror and retains a disturbing power. He stumbles upon a close-knit community devoted to strange Pagan practices, led by sinister island leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in one of his finest performances, and the late actor’s favourite of all his films). The ending still shocks. Forget the Nicholas Cage remake though, because that truly is horrific.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw
Stylish folk horror that along with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man makes up a sub-genre of rural British horror classics. It’s 18th-century Britain and a furry, one-eyed skull found in a field leads to all manner of evil mayhem, starting with a local toff amputating his own hand – which has turned into a claw – after his fiancée goes bonkers in the attic. Things get considerably worse as the local teens engage in unspeakable satanic rituals. Patrick Wymark as the perplexed judge, is the nearest thing to a hero.
Dead of Night
Haunted mirrors and murderous ventriloquist dummies this 1945 anthology film by Ealing Studios is arguablt Britain’s first proper horror film. The individual segments were directed by top notch directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. The film is most remembered for the concluding story starring Michael Redgrave, which concerned a malevolent ventriloquist dummy.
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg’s beautifully restrained horror film, based around a Daphne Du Maurier novel, has lost none of its chill. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a well-to-do couple who, in every parent’s worst nightmnare, see their young daughter drowned. Cut to Venice, out of season, where the couple encounter a pair of sisters, one of whom claims psychic powers and to have communicated with their dead daughter. Superficially calm, it is a film underpinned by a constant sense of foreboding which erupts into bloody horror only at the climax.
Night of the Demon
Hypnotically terrifying adaptation of MR James’ Casting The Runes. The plot revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of murders. Jacques Tourneur 1957 film helped pave the way for later occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man, and remains a haunting, chillingly plausible tale of witchcraft and the occult, as well as the conflict between rationality and superstition.
Michael Powell’s controversial meditation on violence and voyeurism effectively destroyed his career when it was released but today is regarded as a masterpiece. A suitably creepy Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, aspiring movie director and part-time taker of porno pictures, begins murdering women in order to record their contorted features and dying gasps. This horror thriller marked a surprising change of direction for Powell, but in 1960 it proved too much and was so critically mauled that he struggled to find work.
Deborah Kerr stars in this chilling drama, regarded as one of the best psychological thrillers ever made. With its superlative script (largely by Truman Capote) and arguably the finest performance of Kerr’s career, Jack Clayton’s film of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is one of cinema’s great ghost stories. Hired with little ado by their uncaring, absent uncle, Miss Giddens arrives at Bly House to oversee the welfare of orphans Miles and Flora; after the housekeeper mentions her predecessor’s fate, she becomes convinced her charges may have been possessed.
The Witchfinder General
Vincent Price is wonderfully cast as the titular witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, whose bloody and usually sexually motivated persecutions across civil war-torn East Anglia are carried out with much relish, graphic blood and lots of screaming. Ian Ogilvy plays the upright new model soldier who swears vengeance. The chills have extra relevance in this region as filming took place at locations in Bury St Edmunds, Lavenham, Kentwell, Orford Castle and more. Its director Michael Reeves died shortly after the film’s release while still in his 20s.
One of the creepiest modern horror movies, mainly because it draws on contemporary fears rather than the supernatural. A young middle class couple (portrayed brilliantly by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) take a trip to a lakeside location for a holiday, only to find themselves on the receiving end of the malicious intentions of a gang of insolent teens (and their dog). It’s a grisly, nasty and brilliantly plays on class suspicions.
The Woman in Black
Like Ghost Stories, the 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill was first a terrifying stage play (not to mention a TV film and radio play) before the 2012 film. Less is certainly more as Jane Goldman’s adaptation foregoes dialogue to concentrate on old-fashioned horror traditions, rendering leading man Daniel Radcliffe mute for extended periods. It opens with a chilling scene of three girls committing suicide by jumping from the window of their attic playroom, and continues to unnerve until Radcliffe is compelled to speak.
Terrifying Honourable Mentions…
The Descent — Six women take a trip into an unknown cave system with unpleasant inhabitants and a great big pile of human bones.
The Devil Rides Out — Christopher Lee in one of his personal favourite roles based on the Dennis Wheatley novel, one of Hammer’s most thrilling horrors.
Village of the Damned — This 1960 chilling adptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos still inspires parodies and reboots.
Kill List — Ben Wheatley’s genre-mash-up tale of former soldiers turned hitmen takes a terrifying turn into Wicker Man territory.
Dog Soldiers — 2002 updating of the werewolf genre with a group of British squaddies on a mission in the Scottish Highlands.
The Omen — Raising the Antichrist stills holds up well, and is the reason why the name “Damien” was ruined for children everywhere.