Every Halloween, the DVD racks fill up with box sets and toothless remakes. We’re encouraged to dig out the same old warhorses or watch the latest group of pneumatic teens get shish-kebabed by yet another mouth breather in a cheap mask. But look a little closer to home and there’s a wealth of solid schlock to be explored.
Here’s a quick – and very subjective – list of ten Brit curios you might want to spend your pennies on, in order to ease you through the spookiest of holidays.
Death Line (1973)
An endearingly grubby 70s tragi-horror, heavy with sleaze and cut to a wonderfully funky soundtrack. A cave-in traps a group of Victorian tunnel workers deep in the London underground and, decades later, the last of their descendants has become a gibbering wreck who survives by picking off late-night stragglers and dragging them back to his bone-strewn lair for a quick spot of supper.
Donald Pleasance gives it both barrels as the perma-sozzled inspector hard on the cannibal’s case, and Hugh Armstrong delivers a sterling performance as ‘The Man’ whose only dialogue, “Mind the doors”, gets more varied line readings than the B-roll on a Will Ferrell flick.
Death Line (also known as Raw Meat) was a clear influence on Christopher Smith’s Creep (though the director has insisted that he hadn’t seen it), but with additional colour and a spot of inspired nastiness at the business end of a spade. Christopher Lee drops by for the briefest of cameos, barely raising an eyebrow in the process.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny And Girly (1970)
A deeply peculiar horror farce in which a disturbed upper-crust family lure ‘friends’ to their crumbling pile, before forcing them through a round of party games and finally dispatching them with a range of blunt instruments.
Girly was filmed on location at Oakley Court, home to many a Hammer flick and backdrop for Frank-N-Furter’s Transylvanian hi-jinks in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film never quite escapes its stage origins, though there’s much to enjoy in the off-key performances and general air of polite menace. Among the cast are a quick turn from Robert Swann, best known as Rowntree, ringleader of the bullying prefects in If…., and Vanessa Howard essays the murderous ingénue role with sizzling style.
Girly has been described as resembling a Joe Orton piece, but more closely resembles a better mannered Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film it also echoes through its refusal to offset the air of gothic decay with any major onscreen bloodletting.
A smokey low budget neo-noir, Puritan was barely released, but deserves more than a little cult affection. Nick Moran is a fake medium and bum writer who finds himself tangled up in occult messiness (don’t they all?) after he starts messing around with the wife of dodgy businessman David Soul. A chance encounter with a mysterious stranger leads to murderous shenanigans, and the East End setting brings out shady whisperings of Hawksmoor, Crowley and the usual Moore/Sinclair connections, as well as a light spot of time travel.
The stately pace makes for ideal early hours viewing and, while saddled with a couple of rather obvious twists, this wee gem of a flick is laden with dingy atmosphere and a vivid palette of reds and sickly yellows, meaning that your eyes are in for a treat even if your brain remains half engaged as the plot fails to ignite.The Shout (1978)
In Jerzy Skolimowski’s proggy curio, Alan Bates unleashes aboriginal magic on John Hurt’s ineffectual sound recordist before moving in on his beautiful wife. Meanwhile, Tim Curry presides over a very odd cricket match and Jim Broadbent gets his bum out and rolls in some mud. Odd.
Unlike some of the other entries in this list, The Shout’s horrific elements are just one strand of the whole puzzling affair. Skolimowski also lavishes running time on Hurt’s musical experiments (he records flies trapped in jars and marbles sloshing about on an oven dish) and generates a wonderful air of menace simply by letting the camera wander amiably around the secluded rural setting.
Skolimowski recently returned to the director’s chair with Essential Killing, but where that film was a sparse, efficient chase thriller coloured with occasional dashes of poeticism, the joy of watching The Shout is in the way it revels in its oblique tangents and the swooning tilt and roll of its soundtrack, composed by half of Genesis (back when they were exciting).
Corruption is a woozy ‘homage’ to Franju’s Eyes Without A Face. A sweaty Peter Cushing chases down dolly birds while dressed in a natty yellow mac, forcibly extracting their pituitary glands using an ancient Egyptian laser contraption that resembles an upmarket anglepoise lamp. As a depiction of a strained individual in an advanced state of crack-uppery, it’s a fair companion to Polanski’s Repulsion, and the manic tone seldom wavers below the genuinely cracked.
Most centrally, there’s a genuine frisson to seeing Cushing, so often cast as a gentlemanly defender of decency, revel in the crueller, stabbier excesses of his very mad scientist. One notable moment sees him butcher a prostitute in her doll-lined flat, the camera catching each knife thrust from the point of view of his victim. The ending’s a cop-out of a non-twist plucked from the exercise books of many a primary schooler, but there’s a nasty taste to the whole business that lingers impressively.
The Last Great Wilderness (2002)
A creepy debut from David Mackenzie, director of Young Adam, Hallam Foe and the recent Perfect Sense. A cuckolded husband on a revenge mission (Alastair Mackenzie, the director’s brother and – more curiously – best known as the star of Monarch Of The Glen) is waylaid when he picks up Vicente, a Spanish gigolo fleeing mafia heavies. Running out of petrol, both wind up in a dodgy retreat high in the, uh, highlands, run by an RD Laing-alike Peter Mullan and home to a cast of liberated mental patients.
There’s some spooky business involving an attractive ghost, and the final reel leads to some rather nasty bloody retribution. Shot on digital film and soundtracked by lo-fi legends The Pastels (with a guest vocal spot from Jarvis Cocker), the whole production is blessed with a kind of ramshackle charm, shot through with wry Scottish humour and wonderfully framed. It might have made a fine tourist ad, but for the madness and murderising.From Beyond The Grave (1974)
In this, the very best of the much-loved Amicus portmanteau flicks, Peter Cushing wreaks antiques-based vengeance on a cast of petty crims, like some sort of schizoid Lovejoy. David Warner falls foul of a haunted mirror, Ian Carmichael is butchered by a boggart (this passes for light relief), and Donald Pleasance casts homemade spells on the family of a lonely commuter. Despite the flashes of gore – especially during Warner’s opening segment – the whole thing bounces by with a kind of innocent joie de vivre, and is never more than lightly menacing.
It’s competently shot and the famously quick turnarounds of Amicus production – a micro-company run from a hut in the grounds of Shepperton Studios – don’t seem to have harmed the product at all. Perhaps the deepest pleasure comes from the fact that the whole package lacks the customary weak link, and the wrap-around narrative fits each of the pieces neatly in place before reaching its own amusing conclusion (complete with tooth-grinding pun).
The Sorcerers (1967)
An excellent body-swap film, with a bedsit-bound Boris Karloff taking possession of Ian Ogilvy and carving a wake of destruction across swinging London, driving his poor victim about the West End like a fleshy bumper car. Karloff objected to his character being an outright villain and so, one rewrite later, it’s his wife, a marvellously creepy Catherine Lacey, who spurs poor Boris on to ever greater outrages, imbuing the film with a weird energy, as much of the violence is perpetrated against women.
This is the second of only three films shot by Michael Reeves, the tragic young talent who also sired the magisterially creepy Witchfinder General. Despite being a period piece, it has a real sense of grit and flinch-inducing detail, from the peeling wallpaper of Karloff’s grubby home to the glass and flames that greet the several outbursts of ugliness. Everything feels very tangible and it’s the sort of flick that leaves you wanting a deep clean as the final credits roll.
Eden Lake (2008)
Superior hoody horror with Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender as middle class do-gooders tracked across a picturesque holiday spot by vengeful youths. It’s as tense as a Sunday scoot round Ikea with a ripping hangover, and only marginally less horrific. Up and comers Jack O’Connell (Skins) and Thomas Turgoose (This is England) are chief among the gang of roaming antagonists – as ringleader and sympathetic weak link, respectively – and manage to be sufficiently threatening as to make the age gap between themselves and their victims something of an irrelevance.
Perhaps it flirts with the deepest fears of the average Mail reader, but the hard edged realism only makes it grip deeper. First-time director James Watkins aces on atmosphere (he’s also behind the helm on the upcoming Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, Woman In Black, boding well for lovers of high-end Gothic creeps), and there’s a scarring finale which leans heavily on the latter end of the nature/nurture debate.
The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
The connoisseur’s classic – a staggeringly black comedy blessed with a stiletto sharp script and inventive production design rendered on a Blue Peter budget. In a setup which utterly defies the possibility of being boring, Vincent Price is a deformed concert pianist capable only of speaking through a gramophone wired to his throat, and seeking revenge on the surgeons he blames for his wife’s death.
Now more than a few hoops short of a croquet set, Price contrives a cruel ending for each of them, loosely themed around the nine biblical plagues: one has his head crushed by a frog mask, another is devoured by crickets and yet another is – um – impaled by a flying unicorn’s head.
The cast is peppered with familiar faces (a favourite being Terry-Thomas as a doomed letch) and the whole package is so purely, deliciously bonkers as to be remembered with the fondness of a beloved relative, in spite of the litany of mad butchery around which the whole plot is framed.