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The Dreadful Ten: “MONSTER PARTY”‘s Top 10 British Horror Films!

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On the latest episode of FANGORIA’s resident horror chat show MONSTER PARTY, hosts Shawn Sheridan, Matt Weinhold, James Gonis and Larry Strothe sat down with comedian Greg Proops to dig into the esteemed history of British Horror. Between the five of them, there’s nary a rock left unturned in the beloved genre exports of the UK, but for those looking for some true terror from Britain, where does one start among the many macabre titles in their discussion? Thus FANGORIA thought it would only be appropriate if the fab four of fear put together- in no particular order- their top ten British fright films of all time!

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10. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (Dir. Sidney Hayers, 1962)
Also known as BURN, WITCH, BURN for U.S. release.  Cracking good thriller based on Fritz Leiber’s story “Conjure Wife”.  Peter Wyngarde is a successful college professor who specializes in debunking the supernatural.  Little does he know that all his good fortune is due to his superstitious wife who’s practicing witchcraft to protect him from his jealous, vindictive enemies!  When he finds out what wifey’s been up to, naturally the non-believing professor gets rid of all the magical charms and talismans around the house… BAD MOVE!  Convincing performances, an increasingly sinister atmosphere and a taut, intelligent script by horror/fantasy veterans Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont make this one of my all-time favorite witchcraft films.

Fright Fact: Leiber’s story was actually filmed previously in 1944 as WEIRD WOMAN by Universal as part of their “Inner Sanctum” mystery/horror series.  Starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers, it’s decent B-movie fare, but the above 1962 version is the one to seek out. – Shawn Sheridan

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9. THE DESCENT (Dir. Neil Marshall, 2005)
By far, one of the best horror films in the past 20 years!  Directed by Neil Marshall, who gave us the modern day werewolf classic DOG SOLDIERS (2002), the story revolves around a group of female spelunkers, trapped in an unmapped series of caverns and forced to fight for their lives against pale, rat-like, humanoid creatures or “crawlers”.  It’s a film that takes its time to build and effectively uses the claustrophobia of the caves to instill an ever-increasing sense of dread. But when the shit finally hits the fan, the action quickly turns into a frenetic, blood-drenched, no-holds-barred battle for survival. The mostly female cast do an excellent job at making you believe their predicament and manage to sustain a plot that’s ultimately about friendship, recovery, and betrayal.  And let’s not forget my favorite characters, the crawlers, who come off like hairless, howling, gravity defying versions of the Morlocks from the 1960’s version of THE TIME MACHINE.  Warning: Be sure to watch the director’s cut of THE DESCENT, not the theatrical version. It has a darker and more effective ending. 

Fright Fact: When my wife Carrie and I saw THE DESCENT in the theater, we ended up having to sit near a loud talking mother and her three toddlers. Yes toddlers! You know a movie is great when even though you’re fighting off the urge to call child protective services, you’re still enthralled! – Matt Weinhold

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8. DRACULA (Dir. Terence Fisher, 1958)
Also known as HORROR OF DRACULA for stateside release.  I was always under the mistaken impression that this predated THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were shoehorned into that picture to replicate “Dracula’s” success.  That it was the other way around makes this film even more remarkable, as Lee famously reinvented the count as a savage and commanding horror icon; even more impressive is Cushing’s Van Helsing, whose (very British) matter-of-fact stoicism simply kicks ass.  Many of the Hammer Horrors are arguably great, but this one’s my favorite for recasting the mold.

Fright Fact: Music composer James Bernard reportedly wrote the film’s three-note main theme by breaking down the title character’s name to its three syllables…DRAC—U—LA-A-A-! – James Gonis

Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist in Dead of Night.

7. DEAD OF NIGHT (Dirs. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945)
Said to be one of Forry Ackerman’s favorite films!  A great, chilling anthology that begins with a weary traveler arriving at a party, and upon seeing the guests explains that he has seen them all before – in his nightmares!  This prompts each of the guests to talk about their own strange, supernatural stories.  Each tale was helmed by a different director, so there’s a nice variety of styles to the eerie segments.  The film’s climax, featuring Michael Redgrave terrorized by a (living?) ventriloquist dummy, is outstanding and unforgettable – and pre-dates THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s “creepy dummy” episodes.  Classic!

Fright Fact: DEAD OF NIGHT was made by Ealing Studios, a prominent West London production house famous for British comedies such as KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951) and THE LADYKILLERS (1955), all of which starred Alec Guinness. – Larry Strothe

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6. NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Also known as CURSE OF THE DEMON for U.S. release.  Adapted from the M.R. James story “Casting The Runes”.  American psychologist and paranormal skeptic Dana Andrews travels to London to debunk a devil cult leader (played by the excellent Niall MacGuinnis).  But when MacGuinnis slips his adversary a parchment with ancient runic symbols, it seems a malevolent and terrifying force has been summoned to do away with the disbelieving Andrews.  Oozing with spooky, nightmarish dread, this movie has been debated for its not-so-subtle shots of a hellish demon/monster (added by the producers against the director’s wishes).  But I for one LOVE the demon, which is based on old woodcuts from black magic folklore.  One of the best and scariest Brit horror films to tackle demonology… Beware the runes!

Fright Fact: Reliable character actor Niall MacGuinnis can also be seen in the sci-fi creature flick ISLAND OF TERROR (1966), the Amicus horror anthology TORTURE GARDEN (1967) and the Ray Harryhausen fantasy classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) – where he plays Zeus himself! – Shawn Sheridan

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5. KILL LIST (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2011)
If you want to see a film that perfectly mixes the genres of mystery, horror, and suspense, look no further than KILL LIST.  Jay and Gal are two former soldiers turned hitmen, whose latest assignment pulls them into the influence of a mysterious, supernatural cult.  If I told you any more, I’d have to kill you, but only because I’m under the influence of a mysterious, supernatural cult.  What makes KILL LIST work so well is its often improvised dialog, stylish direction, and stand-out performances by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley as Jay and Gal.  Their relationship takes the shape of an emotional balancing act, with easy going Gal acting as a counterweight to the desperate and emotionally unraveling Jay.

KILL LIST is a film that takes you down a rabbit hole of tension and brutality, a provocative thriller with a finale that should spark some debate.  But if you like to be spoon-fed exposition and explanations, this movie is definitely not for you.  Like all interesting art, it leaves itself open for interpretation and I know that drives some people bananas. [sound of Matt coughing Larry Strothe’s name)] I would love to see this on a double bill with THE WICKER MAN, and as a game by Milton Bradley.

Fright Fact: Actor Neil Maskell also starred in the UK TV sci-fi drama HUMANS (2015), about robotic “Synth” androids infiltrating our society. – Matt Weinhold

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4. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (Dir. Wolf Rilla, 1960)
For some unexplained reason, everyone in a small English town becomes unconscious.  A short time later it’s discovered that all the childbearing women in town are pregnant.  In less than nine months, each woman gives birth to a bleach-blonde child with piercing eyes!  Professor Gordon Zellaby (a refined George Sanders) observes that these children grow faster, and have a much higher level of intelligence than other children.  Not only that, but by observing his own son David, who is one of the unique offspring, Gordon learns that these children have some sort of collective consciousness!  They don’t play like regular children, they’re cold and distant, and have the uncanny ability to READ MINDS – and make others do as they will!  At first the Professor wants to encourage and enable their powerful growth, until he realizes the dangers and horrors that these children can bring.  Perhaps I like this one because I’ve got a kid of my own… but she has yet to set me on fire with her mind!  Featuring an almost unbearably tense ending, this is smart, compelling sci-fi/horror as only the Brits can do!

Fright Fact: The film was based on the novel THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham.  Another Wyndham book, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, has been adapted into a movie several times; first in 1963, and twice as a mini-series in 1981 and 2009. – Larry Strothe

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3. PEEPING TOM (Dir. Michael Powell, 1960)
The year that gave us Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO also brought PEEPING TOM; a film with similar themes that pretty much destroyed its director’s career.  Michael Powell was a well respected filmmaker and had made more mainstream classics such as BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) and THE RED SHOES (1948), before tackling the controversial subject matter of PEEPING TOM.  Austrian actor Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a man whose mind has been twisted by the cruel experiments conducted on him as a boy.  Carl’s father, a famous psychologist, would film his son’s reactions to various frightening situations, such as being awakened in the middle of the night by a lizard tossed on his bed.  As an adult, Mark takes in his father’s pathology a step further, filming the horrified faces of the women he kills.  His weapon of choice: a knife that springs from the leg of his camera’s tripod!

Like Norman Bates in PSYCHO, Powell somehow is able to make the character of Mark sympathetic, especially when he starts up a relationship with Helen (played by Anna Massey), a woman who lives above him with her blind mother.  When it debuted, critics hated PEEPING TOM, with one review saying, “From its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil.”  Since that time, the film has been restored and reappraised with help of Michael Powell champion, Martin Scorsese.  Honestly, how could you not love a tale about sex, murder, voyeurism, and psychological abuse?  It’s practically a Weinhold family Christmas!

Fright Fact: When Mark shows Helen old home movies of him as a child being subjected to his father’s sadistic experiments… the Dad spotted in the footage is director Michael Powell! – Matt Weinhold

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2. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (Dir. Terence Fisher, 1961)
What’s special about this film is that it doesn’t follow the standard werewolf story, yet it’s just as tragic.  The story takes place in 17th Century Spain, where a young child is born from the violent rape between an imprisoned beggar and a jailer’s mute daughter.  As a child, the young Leon is taken care of by a wealthy merchant, who notices that his adopted son has violent, animalistic tendencies at night when the moon is full.  It is believed that an evil spirit of a wolf that has taken hold of Leon, caused by the cursed joining of his parents.  As an adult, Leon – now played by a young and very intense Oliver Reed – is thought to be cured.  But the influence of the full moon, combined with Leon’s now adult sexual urges, turns him into a savage, snarling werewolf!  We don’t get a full glimpse of Reed’s striking grey wolf make-up until late in the movie – but the wait is well worth it, and it’s in vivid Technicolor!   A solid, well-crafted Hammer production featuring one of the studio’s most memorable monsters.

Fright Fact: The ill-fated beggar in the film was portrayed by gifted British actor Richard Wordsworth, who played an equally tragic astronaut in the classic Hammer sci-fi thriller THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1955). – Larry Strothe

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1. THE WICKER MAN (Dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
Not only among the best British horror films, but one of my all-time favorite movies.  A police detective (Edward Woodward) traces a missing child to an isolated island whose inhabitants practice pagan rituals; a devout Christian, he is increasingly horrified, and with good reason.  It’s like an adult, sophisticated and genuinely terrifying version of CHILDREN OF THE CORN where the horror derives from cult mentality rather than a supernatural force.  The superlatives hoisted upon it are well deserved (but avoid the Nicolas Cage remake).  As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s got Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland!

Fright Fact: Before the part was taken by Edward Woodward, other actors considered for the role of the police detective were Michael York and David Hemmings. – James Gonis

And now, here’s a pair of Honorable Mentions who didn’t quite make the cut…

DEVIL DOLL (Dir. Lindsay Shonteff, 1964)

This is hands-down my favorite of the “evil ventriloquist dummy” genre.  His name is Hugo and he’s possessed by a vengeful spirit, so he actually walks around and kills (shades of Chucky!).  I caught this on late night TV in 1978 around the time that MAGIC came out, and this was so much more fun and creepy.  The black & white, low-budget vibe provides a seedy counterpoint to the “swinging London” of Bond & the Beatles, and the magician’s leggy assistants (including Yvonne Romain of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) positively radiate tawdriness.  MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 covered it, but it’s entertaining enough by itself.

Fright Fact: Actor Bryant Haliday, who plays the magician/ventriloquist, is no stranger to British horror/cult movies – he also appeared in THE PROJECTED MAN (1966), TOWER OF EVIL (1972) and CURSE OF THE VOODOO (1965). – James Gonis

 

PSYCHOMANIA (Dir. Don Sharp, 1973)

Shaggy-haired Nicky Henson (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, 1968) is the leader of the leather-clad motorcycle gang The Living Dead.  (They’re kind of like tamer, cycle-riding versions of the Droogs from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.)  Thanks to his spiritualist mom (Beryl Reid) and mysterious butler (an aging George Sanders), Henson discovers a secret to immortality: First, commit suicide (!), but at the moment before you snuff it, if you truly believe, you will return from the dead and can never die again!  Amazingly, this cockamamie idea works, and soon members of the biker gang are rising from the grave as unstoppable, unkillable ruffians!  Featuring some spectacular cycle stunts, a fun 70’s mod attitude, and a psychedelic, wah-wah rock-driven soundtrack that I can listen to over and over again.  This movie is bizarre, ridiculous– and great!

Fright Fact: Not long after filming the suicide-themed PSYCHOMANIA, legendary actor George Sanders took his own life, leaving a suicide note that read “I am leaving because I am bored.”  He did not return as an indestructible hooligan on a motorcycle. – Shawn Sheridan

For more MONSTER PARTY recommendations in British Horror, you can download the FREE new episode HERE.

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