Having explored Hollywood’s 30s and 40s golden era of horror, Mark Gatiss heads back home to look at how the UK cultivated its own obsession with the macabre in the mid-50s.
Following a brief flirtation with science fiction (an excellent big screen adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment), Hammer Film Productions quickly made a name for itself with a series of horror pictures that pushed the boundaries of screen gore.
The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and their lurid use of colour would go on to have a profound effect on filmmakers in the US and Europe. Hammer’s influence can be seen in the wave of Italian horror sparked by Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and the classic Poe adaptations essayed by Roger Corman in the US.
Where the last episode of A History Of Horror was comparatively small in scope, Gatiss casts his net wider in this instalment, providing a detailed and entertaining account of Hammer’s output, from its most creative period in the 50s and 60s, to its descent into soft porn and self-parody in the 70s.
Gatiss charts this rise and fall, punctuating his history lesson with entertaining clips from Hammer’s best and worst films (it’s remarkable, seen in isolation, just how gory the studio’s 50s films were), and interviews with creative talent such as screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and Roy Ward Baker, who directed numerous Hammer films, including my personal favourite, 1967’s Quatermass And The Pit.
Gatiss also provides a brief overview of Amicus, the tiny production company whose portmanteau movies such as The Vault Of Horror and Tales From The Crypt were a clear influence on Gatiss and his co-writers’ macabre comedy, The League Of Gentlemen.
Like last week, it’s Gatiss’ quiet enthusiasm for the horror genre that marks his series out as more than just another potted history, and where the previous episode spent considerable time relating the stories of Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula, rather than more obscure films like The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, this instalment focuses on the UK’s less obvious genre classics.
Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man are mentioned, but Gatiss spends more time discussing one of Britain’s less commonly discussed horror movies, 1971’s Blood On Satan’s Claw, visiting the film’s rural location and speaking to its director, Piers Haggard.
While I’d rate Witchfinder General over Haggard’s film, it’s refreshing to see Gatiss exploring less well-trodden paths of horror history, and Haggard provides a refreshingly honest perspective on his film’s disturbing content.
There are similarly informative interviews with the formidable Barbara Steele, the star of Black Sunday and Pit And The Pendulum, as well as the latter’s director, the legendary Roger Corman.
By the 1970s, horror audiences began to tire of the gothic trappings the genre so frequently relied on. And just as the monsters of the 30s and 40s were swept aside by the sci-fi mutants of the 50s, the old order of Amicus, Corman and Hammer soon gave way to a new breed of contemporary horror a world away from the comparatively cosy performances of Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.
Gattis’ third and final episode will look at the new wave of horror created by such directors as George Romero and Tobe Hooper. It’ll be fascinating to see what films Gatiss chooses to touch on next.
Read our review of the first episode, Frankenstein Goes To Hollywood, here.