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August 15, 2017

Contemporary British Horror Cinema: Industry, Genre and Society

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Johnny Walker - 2015
Edinburgh University Press

Sixty years following the release of The Curse of Frankenstein seems like an appropriate time to contemplate the state of horror movies from Britain. The film catapulted a small British company to an internationally recognized brand. The horror genre has remained commercially viable in a way it hadn't been previously, and as such, shares some of the characteristics of its subjects, never really dying, and always finding a way to come back, often in a different form.

Walker, a lecturer at Northumbria University, discusses a handful of films made in this current century, but is primarily focused on the context of the filmmaking. This first chapter is on the various convulsions of the British film industry, with the ways films have been financed and released. Walker also looks at the ways certain films were made for a general audience, while others were made primarily to appeal to a niche group of viewers. The chapters that were particularly striking for myself were about the "video nasties", a group of banned films that proved to be inspirational for several contemporary filmmakers, and the chapter on youth centered horror films in the wake of various riots or activities deemed anti-social. And it's not like these films can not be enjoyed without knowing about any of the various forces, historical, cinematic or social, that come into play here, but it's of help, especially when discussing a genre that has often been deemed disreputable.

There are no lurid descriptions of scenes of mayhem or gore. Those who value film history might be shocked and amused to read of a critic who complained that Eden Lake and Donkey Punch took their cues from other then current "torture porn" films, rather than a classic movie like Peeping Tom, conveniently forgetting that Michael Powell's film was considered extreme at the time of its initial release.

There is also a chapter on Hammer, a company both dependent on nostalgia for its older titles, and its various attempts, with new ownership, to attempt being a commercially viable producer of horror films for an entirely new, younger audience.

In the chapter on Hammer, Walker covers how the company initially returned to film production with an episodic film made to be seen on the social network site, MySpace. Walker later surveys how horror films are now visible through a variety of platforms - theatrical, home video and internet.

Films are mentioned based on how they fit into the individual essays, but there is no hierarchy of films or directors. Still, that Walker finds more to write about the critically dismissed Lesbian Vampire Killers makes that film intriguing in spite of itself - with paragraphs on the financing, it's brief life as a possible Hammer production, and as a product celebrating and satirizing the attitudes of the some of the specifically British "Lad Mags" of the 1990s.

The book did inspire me to check out a documentary on "Video Nasties" by horror filmmaker Jake West, on the internet horror channel, Shudder - a good source for seeing some of the titles Walker mentions. One of the several people discussing the hysteria of that time is Martin Barker, one of the few voices that openly questioned the censorship that took place at the time. Barker reminds the viewer to pay attention to history. In addition to West, filmmakers who have grown up with the video nasties getting some current consideration would include Neil Marshall, Philip Ridley and Christopher Smith. With that in mind, it may well be that some of the films considered extreme or culturally of little meaning could well be reevaluated as classics in the future, and Walker's book will have even greater value for future film historians.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 15, 2017 06:38 AM