We take a look back at the curious case of 80s British Horror – an era of odd fusions, oddities, indulgent auteurs and flawed cult favourites…
Think of those iconic periods in horror around the world. German expressionist horror of the 1920s and 30s, the Giallo boom of the 60s and 70s, British hammer horror of the 1950s and 60s, and J-Horror in the noughties. There have been eras in respective regions that really do stand out as significant landmarks in horror cinema. There have also been a few periods which have been less culturally significant and certainly less successful. One such time and place is the 1980s and Britain’s contribution to the horror genre.
America was going into a boom of slashers and iconic villains, with wildly inventive young filmmakers like Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. The gothic infusions and atmospheric dread of films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist from the previous decade(s) gave way to more visually wild flights of fantasy. The slow burn was replaced by the stalk-and-slash simplicity of taut 90-minute horrors that went for shock and schlock over genuine skin-crawling terror. You need only look at A Nightmare on Elm Street and its increasingly fantastical sequels to see a growing trend in horror that was bordering on fantasy.
It seems that an increase in fantastical horror, combined with the new propensity for near-comical blood, guts and body horror was a huge pull, especially with the advent of VHS as a mass consumer item. America and Italy were leading the way to an extent, driving what horror aficionados were watching during the 80s and setting trends. It was an odd time for British film. Hammer had lost its lustre and a new wave of kitchen sink neo-realism was only just kicking in. Britain wasn’t producing war films with the same regularity and the bawdy sex comedies of the 70s had run their course. Aside from the Brit half of US/UK co-productions contributing to some memorable horror cinema of the 70s, the British horror output was at a crossroads.
What stood out about British horror in the 80s, was a sense of scattershot experimentation. It was a wild hit-and-hope approach, with filmmakers often trying to show the same kind of visual inventiveness as their overseas counterparts. There’s a legitimate argument that horror films of the 70s and 80s might well be one of the most visually inventive genres and eras in the history of cinema, perhaps since the early silent era trailblazers quickly tried to push the capabilities of narrative moving pictures.
Britain still had evocative, cerebral and engaging highlights in the 80s of course. Hellraiser, aided by its magnetic cover art adorning VHS covers in video stores across the world, became a cult film. An American Werewolf in London might have brought a vivacious young American director over with two American actors, but the film still feels quintessentially British as it fuses fish-out-of-water comedy with revolutionary body horror.
Then there were visual stylists like Ridley and Tony Scott doing their thing. Ridley had ended the 70s with an iconic fusion of Sci-fi and horror with Alien, before making a horrifying (but visually resplendent) kids film called Legend. Tony meanwhile made The Hunger, a steamy, languid and ambiguous vampire film with a curious (but great) cast.
If there’s a common thread running through 80s British Horror, it’s a story of near-career-ending films for big-profile directors. Ken Russell made Lair of the White Worm an early film on Hugh Grant’s CV that the foppish icon of 90s Rom coms would sooner forget. Yet, for all its Russell-inspired lunacy and initial derision, the film has grown a massive cult following in time. For one, it’s a film only Russell could have made and a perfect concentrated punch of all his excessive visual talents.
See also Mike Hodges’ Black Rainbow, a film long considered an unmitigated disaster before more recent reappraisals. Often this revisionism coincides with rereleases and/or remastering where suddenly a film returns under a spotlight looking spruced up and better than ever. We also live in an era where the visual aesthetic is more paramount over character development and narrative cohesion. A film as odd as Lair of the White Worm might have been hated back then but the visuals are wild enough to dazzle a modern audience.
Neil Jordan made his most visually elaborate and perhaps mainstream fantasy film, with The Company of Wolves. It was a film only Cannon could make, though less inherently flawed because of Jordan’s grip on the film. It brilliantly blended fantasy and gothic horror. If Cannon did one thing pretty well, it was allowing well-established directors carte blanche to make an auteur genre film perhaps unencumbered by some of the creative controls a larger studio might impose – even though the financial issues plaguing many of their bigger productions often caused entirely different problems.
Lifeforce, a blend of Alien and Inseminoid is probably the most ‘Cannon’ movie ever made. It’s an explosion of ideas that don’t always gel, with visual effects and production values which vary wildly throughout the film. However, it beautifully encapsulates the 10 lines of coke before a pitch meeting approach to greenlighting films back then. A sexy space vampire is brought down from an alien world and rampages through London with no clothes on.
There are gems only more recently hitting their second wind. Xtro introduced the world to future Bond girl, Maryam d’Abo – soon to be starring in Flickering Myth’s own British horror The Baby in the Basket. This totally bonkers riff on body snatchers sees a man abducted by aliens before an alien later comes down, impregnating a woman who then rebirths the man. It’s loaded with ludicrous but unforgettable moments, replete with ragged but memorable special effects (not least that birth sequence and a scene where an action man doll becomes human-sized and goes on a rampage). Britain kind of gave up on whimsical, hair-brained experiments like this by the time the 90s rolled around sadly.
Speaking of stars from our upcoming The Baby in the Basket, there is also Annabelle Lanyon in Dream Demon, a film made for the kind of visual renovation it received from Arrow Films. It’s dazzling, colourful and like many British experiments of this era, given a pretty hefty budget. Of course, the film bombed but it’s something of a British answer to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. A young woman is haunted by dreams and apparitions, soon unable to distinguish between dreams and reality, joined by a young American woman she encounters who is inescapably curious about the house.
Flaws aside this has the interesting addition of recognisable British faces (this was a regular part of the genre throughout the decade) with Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail popping up. Where this differs from the slightly endearing shoddiness of Xtro is that Dream Demon is really well made in every aspect with some very striking visuals. It just doesn’t quite compare with the Elm Streets, nor does it have a significant villain of Freddy’s stature.
Many of these enjoyable British horrors still drift under the radar but have their own unique feeling in the same way that Italian horror or American horror of the era were so distinct too. As more of these films hit a second wind, we may just discover more cult films to add to the pantheon of intriguingly flawed British horror from the 1980s.
What is your favourite 80s British horror? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.