The evolution of British horror films

Words: Claudia Jackson | Subbing: Tracey Popoola

Speaking to horror expert Darrell Buxton, we look at the changes the British horror films have seen from the very beginning to today’s slashers and freight-fueled films.

British horror films are known to break genre boundaries. In 1973 The Wicker Man shocked audiences with an eerily unsettling horror set in broad daylight. Before that, in 1960 Peeping Tom was one of Britain’s first glimpses at the now famed slasher.

Although It is tricky to pin point when horror films first made a splash in Britain, they can be dated back to as the early 1900’s with films like The Doll’s Revenge (1907) which started a horror trend that still dominates the genre.

Today, Tomas Alfredson’s Nordic-noir nightmare The Snowman arrives in cinemas. But the film, which focuses on serial killer Harry Hole (played by Michael Fassbender) has been met with harsh criticism.

Hammer films are now also seeping back into public interest, with live events like ‘Hammer House of Horror Live: The Soulless Ones.’ An immersive theatre performance that will aims to shake audiences to their core.

We interviewed horror expert Darrell Buxton, to see how British horror films have changed over time and why cult favourites like hammer films are back again.

Things started to get interesting for British horrors when they made their break in mainstream cinema. Darrell Buxton explains: “The impact of Hammer Films, from the mid-fifties, was the major turning point.”

Of course, there was some popular successes in the genre prior to this. The first major horror star was Todd Slaughter in the late 1930s, appealing to bread-and-butter audiences in the same way that a Gracie Fields or George Formby might have done.

After this, the genre became a little more middle class during the forties, and Hammer then somehow retained this approach but was able to successfully pitch it to a younger crowd.

The Hammer films were the first real concerted attempt to sell horror as a brand.  Buxton notes: “Once the impact of colour and the vibrancy and liveliness was brought to a familiar subject matter, and Hammer attained an audience and turned them on to shock cinema, UK style.”

Although the rush viewers get from being scared hasn’t changed, there is a definite difference in the way that modern audiences are more vocal about their desire to be shocked. Buxton says: “There’s always been a sort of cynicism, coupled with an attitude of ‘just try and scare me, if you can!’ from British audiences, even those receptive to horror.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean modern British horrors are scarier. It is rather that the response is much more overt and demonstrative, whereas audiences in the past may have just shrugged at such conventions as jump scares. (Although, Buxton adds that jump scares themselves are nothing new; they can be traced back as far at 1927 with films like The Cat and the Canary.)

Once British horror reached the 1970’s, the genre was a favourite among cinema-goers. The decade brought with it consistently spooky horrors and cult classics like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1976) are now studied by film students over the country.

The 1970’s took the cultural upheaval and general economic malaise, and transformed it into a breeding ground for creepiness. Many of the films from this time defined the genre in Britain and ultimately altered the course for British horror films.

“The sixties and seventies saw an explosion of ideas and styles – though oddly our horror films during this fertile period seemed to favour experimentation above scares.” Buxton notes. We can see this in films like Robert hardy’s The Wicker Man. (1973) You won’t find any jump scares here, but a lingering sense of uneasiness is ever-present as the characters on the Scottish island get stranger.

Once horror rolled into the eighties (a decade which Darrell Buxton has written extensively about), many hidden British treasures began to emerge.

“The accepted wisdom that our film industry was in decline at that time is proved way off the mark once you begin to delve into the diverse nature of 1980s UK horror.” Buxton says.

Filmmakers ditched the more art house approach and went in for the scare. Films like Death Ship In 1980 and then Hellraiser in 1987 showed a fresh side to the genre.

Once we reached the nineties there was less British horror being made. Buxton adds: “The nineties were something of a wasteland, with only one or two stray titles of interest.”

We’ve since had a 21st century boom; genre authority Kim Newman once lamented the fact that “there have been almost no British slasher movies.” That is something that’s certainly changed, Buxton adds that now “young directors are taking inspiration from giallo films and the American summer camp/masked psycho concept.”

Films like 2008’s Eden lake, starring Michael Fassbender, seemed to cement Britain’s leading horror film status.  But could it be that we are looking at a repeat of the 90’s wasteland for horror?

Darrel Buxton doesn’t think so: “More horror movies are being made here than ever before, with the release of Dog Soldiers (2002), 28 Days Later (2002) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) having rekindled interest in the genre among UK filmmakers – their seismic effect is still being felt fifteen years on.”





A few of Darrell Buxton’s top British horror picks –



The Wicker Man, “An obvious choice, but there really is nothing quite like it. How a musical about harvesting apples can turn into something quite so upsetting.”


Sleepwalker, “A forgotten political horror drama that I helped to bring back into prominence, eventually securing a Blu-ray release via the British Film Institute. Fierce dinner-table debate turns to late-night slaughter in a crumbling old mansion symbolically called ‘Albion’. The frantic closing line of dialogue, “Wake up! Wake up!” ought to have been a rallying call in Thatcher’s Britain.”


I,  Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain, “Made for just £10,000 by moonlighting BBC technicians, this is a grim mini-masterpiece where a young scientist documents the decay of his own body after being attacked by a marauding, virus-stricken figure. It’s been described as ‘Ken Loach meets George Romero’. Relentlessly depressing, hauntingly and achingly sad.”


The Last horror Movie, “An astonishing central performance by Kevin Howarth as the cheery psychopath who gets away with dozens of savage murders around London, filming each killing as he goes and then gleefully and interactively presenting them directly to us. Poses all kinds of questions to which you really, really don’t want to know the answers.”


Black Death, “Christopher Smith’s stunning period drama left me shaking and tearful by the end. A shattering experience that convincingly whisks the viewer back to plague-ridden, witch-fearing, 14th century little Britain.”


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