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Horror Before Hammer

The early history of the British horror film

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The horror film in Britain is generally thought to have begun with the emergence of Hammer and its Curse of Frankenstein (d. Terence Fisher, 1957). But the roots of the genre can be traced back much further, and horror elements can be observed in films as diverse as Photographing a Ghost (d. G.A. Smith, 1898), The Haunted Curiosity Shop (d. Walter Booth, 1901) and Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn (d. Maurice Elvey, 1913).

Despite this, it wasn't until the 1930s that a consistent series of horror films could be identified, predominately due to the success of Universal Studios' productions in America. Gaumount-British attempted to cash in on this interest with two big-budget productions, The Ghoul (d. Todd Hunter, 1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (d. Robert Stevenson, 1936), both of which starred Boris Karloff. Sadly, the films were treated as poor imitations of Universal's product, and failed to match the success of their American counterparts.

Much more successful was Britain's one true horror star from the period, Tod Slaughter. His films, among them Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (d. George King, 1936) and The Face at the Window (d. George King, 1939), which revelled in his devilishly hammy performances, built on the traditions of classic stage melodrama, and harked back to an era that could be effectively marketed in America as 'typically British'.

By the mid-forties, the Second World War had exacerbated this sense of national identity, and horror was being employed as propaganda in films such as The Halfway House (d. Basil Dearden, 1944). But after the classic Ealing chiller Dead of Night (d. Alberto Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Basil Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945) the postwar mood of optimism meant that it would be over ten years before the country was willing to watch anything approaching horror. Hammer's arrival heralded a new era, but the studio's consistent and explicit use of nationalism highlighted its debt to these earlier productions.

Paul Moody

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