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Horror Month Top Ten - British Seventies Horror

With Halloween bearing down on us all like Christopher Lee in some very unconvincing fangs, the Criterion Forums staff felt duty bound to each cobble together a top ten list of some of our very favorite horror films. We hope they provide you with some viewing recommendations as they're published throughout the month, and that you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them.

We Brits were quite good at knocking out horror films during the 50's and 60's, a period most famously represented by the success of Hammer Studios and it's own particular brand of Gothic horror. However the double whammy of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the early seventies changed all that forever, with both films rapidly becoming the benchmark by which all future horror films would be judged.

Overnight British horror became old fashioned and somewhat quaint, a flash of Ingrid Pitt's assets and some fake blood seemed a bit creaky compared to Leatherface going nuts. But despite Hammer's output dribbling to a halt by the end of the decade, there really was a fantastic array of British horror films made during this period. Personally it's my favourite era for British horror, I think directors, writers and producers were forced to be more creative and take a chance on edgier ideas, instead of churning out yet another Dracula flick (although they did that too). Anyway here's my top ten British horror films of the Seventies. Enjoy.

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01. And Soon the Darkness - Robert Fuest (1970)
This is an absolute corker of a film, the premise is simple enough - two young nurses on a cycling holiday in the French countryside fall out and split up, after which bad things happen. You really don't need to know more than that. Honest. It's all about the endings with films, much more so with horror than most other genres, the stuff that comes before is important too, but if they don't get the ending right then the whole film is blown. This film has a great ending, which isn't all that surprising really since Brian Clemens and Terry Nation were on script duties. Their real masterstroke however was setting the story in France and tapping directly into the British xenophobia about our old enemies across the Channel. The two leads are convincing and the film itself looks pretty decent, with director Fuest finding some interesting places to put his camera. There are enough twists and turns to keep you occupied throughout And Soon the Darkness' running time, which in the end actually feels more like a taut thriller than a horror. Well worth hunting down.

02. Blood on Satan's Claw - Piers Haggard (1970)
The only film in this top ten not to have a contemporary setting, Blood on Satan's Claw instead takes place in a 17th century English village. It's a tale of children, possession, witchcraft and all the hullabaloo that goes with that. It all kicks off when a farmhand unearths part of a corpse in a field he is ploughing. From there on strange things start to happen to the children of the village, and for the next ninety minutes you'll find yourself glued to your seat, out of both fear and anticipation. Horror staple Patrick Wymark is as always worth the admission price alone, but the real star of the show here is writer/director Haggard. He knocks together a world that feels authentic, which is something that not many period films from this era manage to do. You can practically smell the film. Being the seventies there is also a hell of a lot more nudity on display than in previous horror efforts, although it does feel integral to the film in this case rather than just pure exploitation. I should make a quick mention of Marc Wilkinson's aces score too, which is easy to find and well worth buying. Blood on Satan's Claw makes a perfect first feature in a double bill with Witchfinder General too, if you like that sort of thing.

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03. 10 Rillington Place - Richard Fleischer (1971)
Based on the true case of notorious British serial killer John Christie and the simpleton who was wrongly hanged for Christie's crimes - John Evans, this grubby film is an absolute masterpiece. A never better (and that's saying something) Richard Attenborough plays the titular character, and manages to make a monster into a human being. John Hurt plays Evans and gives a performance that makes it obvious that he was already one of our greatest actors. Director Fleischer drops the flashiness of his earlier serial killer flick (The Boston Strangler) and opts instead for a non fussy approach, keeping the audiences attention strictly on the actors and the story. Like all decent non fiction films you'll be wanting to dig deeper into the story and find out what really happened by the time the credits roll. Unlike most films of this ilk though you won't be disappointed by how much has been changed in order to make it more filmic.

04. Frenzy - Alfred Hitchcock (1972)
Of the sixty or so films Alfred the great made I can safely say this is my favourite. It's an overlooked last hurrah for Hitch, who had struggled through the previous ten years with varying degrees of success. Returning home to England and without the pressure or expectation to deliver hanging over him, he made the last of his innocent man on the run films. Frenzy showcases everything the big man had learnt during his long career and is of course peppered with everything you'd expect from one of his films. So we get audacious long takes, moments of pure cinema, visual puns, tar black humour, food and of course murders. Lots of them. This is the nastiest film Hitchcock ever made, and Bob Rusk aka The Neck Tie Strangler is his greatest villain since Norman Bates. Set around the then fruit and flower market of Covent Garden (Hitch's dad was a greengrocer) there is a surprising amount of location work for the notorious (pun intended) sound stage loving director. Jon Finch who had impressed so much in Polanski's Macbeth is fantastic as Dick Blaney (our innocent hero), he spits his dialogue out as he crashes from bad situation to worse situation, generally making it very difficult for the audience to warm to him. Cary Grant he ain't. Barry Foster is Rusk, he sweats and smarms his way through the film and is one of the great screen psychos. Add to that a supporting cast consisting of Billie Whitelaw (who gets a wonderful crash zoom entrance) and Anna Massey (I love the moment when she puts her socks on in the hotel room), and you really can't go wrong. With screenwriting duties being handled by Anthony Shaffer (The Wicker Man) the script is in rude form. One day Frenzy will receive the plaudits that have never come it's way, of this I'm certain.

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05. Psychomania - Don Sharp (1972)
Of all the films on this list this is probably the one that most would disagree with. It's not the most beautiful, well scripted or even best acted film, but for some reason or other it has stood the test of time and grown old with me. Like the other nine films here this was first seen by me after I taped it off of late night TV. It's a surprisingly confusing tale of a gang of bikers called The Living Dead who manage to stumble across a way to return from the dead. Hint - you have to commit suicide first. This is low budget British horror at it's best, with very few exceptions the whole thing is shot on location, and has a real seventies vibe to it. A young Nicky Henson (best known as the undercover orangutan copper from Fawlty Towers), is the leader of gang, who are less like the security at The Stones Altamont gig and more like the little oiks that would hang around a new town shopping center. Both Beryl Reid and in his last ever role George Sanders are the two standout actors for me. Add to that some strange interdimensional guff and something about a frog and you have one of the weirdest horror flicks around. I can't write about Psychomania without giving a nod to John Cameron, whose soundtrack to the film is a slice of pure psychedelic funk, and one of my favourites of the period.

06. Death Line - Gary Sherman (1973)
Cannibalism on the London Underground is the simplest way to sum this up. It's an odd little film is Death Line, on the one hand you have a never madder Donald Pleasance playing the inspector investigating a recent spate of killings around Russell Square tube station, while on the other you have Christopher Lee playing a plummy upper class secret service bod. To say it's an odd film is a bit of an understatement really, at times it's quite gruesome - not quite up there with Cannibal Ferox, but still grim all the same. Yet like so many British films it has some splendid comedic moments, such as the scene where a publican tries to eject a plastered Pleasence from his pub. The soundtrack by Wil Malone is as grubby as the film, and as such well worth hunting down too. Death Line is probably a bit of an acquired taste if I'm being honest, but if you already have a liking for these sort of films then it's well worth a punt.

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07. Don't Look Now - Nicolas Roeg (1973)
Arguably the best film on my list is this tragic tale of a couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) relocating to Venice in order to overcome the accidental death of their daughter. Don't Look Now grows stranger and darker by the minute, eventually twisting into something quite bizarre and unexpected. It's a truly creepy film, that manages to draw you deeper and deeper without your knowledge or consent. The off season Venice setting is a character all of it's own, it's deserted back streets and canals are eerie to say the least. Christie and Sutherland are exceptional, never feeling anything less than a married couple. In fact the best scene in the film is the one that I so often think is the worst in a film - the dreaded sex scene. In Roeg's hands though it becomes something stunning, a stand out moment that is an editing tour de force. Nic Roeg was at his absolute best during this decade, and shoots the whole thing through with his distinct dreamlike vision. Along the way he even manages to do for red rain macs what Jaws did for swimming. Utterly essential.

08. Nothing But the Night - Peter Sasdy (1973)
The two most famous Brit horror actors (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing of course) pair up again in this weird little film. For once they aren't pitted against one another but rather find themselves drawn together to investigate a trio of murders. It's a strange film this, and is quite unlike any other film I can think of. It also contains the most memorable and shocking ending I have ever seen in a horror film. Yes even better than The Wicker Man's pay off. Hunt it down for this and Diana Dors larger than life acting alone, you won't regret it.

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09. The Wicker Man - Robin Hardy (1973)
It's hard to think that there was a time, not all that long ago, when this film was fairly unknown. That's all changed now largely thanks to Christopher Lee telling pretty much anyone he's ever met that it was the best film he'd ever made. Even the longer version of the film is now widely available despite the fact that most of us never dreamed it could ever exist, and let's not forget that there was even a big budget Hollywood remake staring Nicolas Cage. Well alright let's forget the last bit. Still despite all that, the film itself is still as great today as it ever was. Edward Woodward is the God-fearing policeman Sergeant Howie who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. Christopher Lee plays the eccentric Lord Summerisle who despite bursting into song and dressing in drag actually does turn in one of the most subtle performances of his career. As Howie makes his way around the island he encounters many of the locals and finds that all is not (as they so often say) as it seems. The local population is suitably odd, and Hardy makes good use of his locations and actors (including a dubbed Britt Ekland). What Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer do best though is take what is a simple missing person mystery and twist and build it to a wonderful climax. I own two different DVD versions of this, as well as three different versions of the soundtrack. It's that type of film.

10. To the Devil A Daughter - Peter Sykes (1976)
This shares DNA with my favorite ever Hammer film - The Devil Rides Out. Same studio (Hammer), same star (the ubiquitous Christopher Lee) and same author (Dennis Wheatley), that's where the comparisons end though. To the Devil A Daughter has a story that should be simple enough, but somewhere along the line became far too complex. Chris Lee is a (satanic) priest who raises Nastassja Kinski in his church, the thing is it turns out that her dad (Denholm Elliott) has promised her to some demon called Astaroth when she turns 18. Denholm has second thoughts about this scheme (well you would wouldn't you), and ropes in an old mate (Richard Widmark), to help him sort it out. So what we basically get throughout the running time is two pensioners battling it out for a teen girls soul. Which is much better on screen than it sounds on paper. Peter Sykes has a real eye for camera angles and as such the film looks top notch. This was definitely a step in the right direction for Hammer, but it was a case of too little too late. There are only two real problems with the film, if you don't count the absolute struggle to keep up to snuff with what's happening on screen. The first are some of the ropey effects which must have looked awful even in '76, worse than that though is the ending, which is frustrating, not dreadful, just frustrating. The end of an era, Lee wouldn't make another film for Hammer until they relaunched themselves almost 40 years later. British horror might have seemed dead, but there was still some life left in the corpse.

by Lawrence


DEATH LINE is streaming on Netflix under the title RAW MEAT. I just watched it, and what a great flick! For such a salacious story, the entire production is incredibly artful, particularly in the several very long, slow takes that reveal the film's great menace. Donald Pleasance is excellent as always and there's a wicked bit turnaround in that the "monster" becomes the most sympathetic character. What a great recommendation.
I'm glad you liked it, I never really liked the American title. What is it with Donald Pleasance and his acting style? Part of me knows he's terrible, but that's what I want from him. I love him when he screams out what on the page would appear to be an ordinary line of dialogue.
Whoa! I've never heard anyone say that Donald Pleasance is terrible? I can't get behind that. Even Roger Ebert, in his original review of the film, praises Pleasance's work even though he didn't like the movie.
Some great movies here. Blood on Satan's Claw, 10 Rillington Place, and The Wicker Man are all personal favorites.

A few recommendations I'd toss out:
Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead, starring Christopher Lee)
The Devils (does this count as horror?)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (same director as And Soon the Darkness)
Witchfinder General
Horror Express (I'm cheating here....it's actually a Spanish production but it's starring Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing)
Girly (aka Mumsy, Nansy, Sonny & Girly)

and then some of my favorite Hammer films of course:
Curse of Frankenstein
Horror of Dracula
Scream of Fear
Devil Rides Out
Quatermass and the Pit
Brides of Dracula
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Unbelievably, I have not seen The Wicker Man . I really need to remedy that.
Sam, some good choices there - some of which came close to making my top ten (The Devils and Mumsy). It's a 70's one though so a few of yours such as the aces Witchfinder General weren't applicable. The Devil Rides Out is my favourite ever Hammer, it's perfection (if you walk out of the room for the giant spider).

Izo - you have to see The Wicker Man, especially when you have such a love of horror. Halloween is just around the corner, it'd be a perfect time to pop that particular cherry.
Oh wow, my mistake. I completely missed the "Seventies" part of the title. Would have been nice if I caught that. Sorry there.

And I agree, Izo you definitely need to see The Wicker Man. Probably in my Top 10 all-time horror. Christopher Lee is excellent as well. Love the film.

Also, since I already went ahead and recommended some non-1970s British horror, one more wouldn't hurt. Have you seen Night of the Eagle ("Burn, Witch, Burn" in the U.S.)? Very fun and enjoyable 1962 film about black magic, superstition, and witchcraft.
I don't even know the title. But I'll add it to the list, I'm quite fond of witch burning films.
Oh! I've passed up Burn Witch Burn on Netflix a ton of times! I'll have to check it out.
Yeah, I had forgot that it was on NetFlix. I own the Region 2 edition of it, and whenever you get a chance, I do recommend you check it out.
I plan on it this month.

For others with the service, And Soon the Darkness and To the Devil a Daughter are also on there.
If we're being perfectly honest, I found To the Devil a Daughter as bit of a chore to get through. The entire production - with the major exception of Christopher Lee, in one of his best roles I think - is kind of lifeless. Even Richard Widmark, who I love, seems to be going through the motions. Still, there's Lee's great performance and a handful of really nice, memorable scenes. On top of this, it's the final film of Hammer's classic period. I'm glad I saw it, definitely, but I don't think it'll enter the rotation like Death Line.
On the other hand, And Soon the Darkness is every bit as good as you say. The really nice thing about the film is that it never manages to show you its cards until the very end. I hate speaking in clichés, but the movie really does keep you guessing. The resulting film is almost more of an Agatha Christie-style whodunit (itself a very British invention) rather than a really "scary" film, but no matter. The suspense is enough to make you forget such distinctions. The ending that Lawrence discusses above isn't necessarily a surprise as much as a realization of one of several possible solutions to the central mystery that the movie has set up. While I do question some of the logic of the male lead, but all is forgiven when everything else is so good.
Have you seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes? Same director as And Soon the Darkness but a completely different movie. While And Soon the Darkness is more reminiscent of Hitchcock, Phibes is a beautifully colored film that almost comes across as a precursor to the Saw movies as far as the creativity of the deaths and "traps" that are implemented to the victims. Plus, Vincent Price as the title character portrays probably one of the most eccentric villains you'll find in horror.
I haven't, but I've meant to for years. The sequel was also directed by Fuest, and it's on Netflix, but the original isn't so I haven't watched it.
Well... I've just watched The Wicker Man, and I'm still gathering my thoughts on it. It is certainly unique, though. While not particularly scary, there is something genuinely unsettling about it, isn't there? What an odd movie. I dig it.

What I wasn't expecting is that the film is damn near a musical.
It is very musical, I love the soundtrack but really don't need to hear Lee singing The Tinker of Rye ever again. I find the film disturbing more than scary, it's when the penny drops that everything had been planned from the start, that I think it becomes very creepy. 'You did it beautifully.'