English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema: 1897-2015 by Jonathan Rigby (book review)

June 26, 2015 | By | Reply More

The photo of Christopher Lee on the cover of Jonathan Rigby’s fourth edition of ‘English Gothic: Classic Horror Cinema’ covering UK films from 1897-2015 should tell it all. Chris Lee is, after all, an icon of the horror scene here and who better to symbolise it. If you think American horror films are being missed, Rigby points out that there is a companion volume, ‘American Gothic’, due out that is also going to be updated. Reading his list of what he includes and doesn’t based on the horror definition makes me think there are grounds for sub-category books on these as well. After all, nothing ever really fits any one particular category.


The evolution of British horror film came in part to stop American films swamping the home product. However, the American distributors saw it as more of a quota to be fulfilled and kept the budgets down. No wonder the cheaper horror films got made, more so as they weren’t in competition with anything from across the pond. Our lot were equally canny and brought Boris Karloff and Bella Lugosi over here to star in some films which must surely have been seen as given the industry a kickstart. When you consider the evolution of the horror film in the States was for similar reasons of being cheap with big profits, there’s an interesting parallel of exploitive horror at low price.

The history puts the films in context and how they grew. Oddly, Hammer Films had to be brought in screaming (sic) to do horror films and the success of ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (1954) based off the BBC TV series and carried on from there. The year previous, Hammer also had a certain Christopher Lee starring for the first time in a film short called ‘The Mirror And The Markheim’ as a doppelganger. You’re going to get a lot of extra information like this turning up as you read this book.

Back in the mid-1950s, Science Fiction was perceived as a film failure in the UK because of its low budget effects and lack of appeal although quite where that puts ‘Children Of The Damned’ (1959) depends on your genre perspective. Hammer concentrated more on horror with ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’ making this significant and for a time, even US studios like Universal relied on them to make decent remakes of their own material.

Seeing how the censorship in the 1950s radically eased off by 1964 compared to America but we had already entered the more, shall we still call it, the swinging era and a lot more freedom although it wasn’t really to the start of the 70s, that nudity became ever more explicit but didn’t boost viewing figures, just saved them from dropping. The horror film genre in the UK not only hit the doldrums but was dead in the water within a few years. Looking back now, its easy to see it didn’t evolve nor had the budgets to match and got swept away by the American product who did both when they realised horror could sell. Oddly, I never saw ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) when it first came out and saw it a few years ago from a TV recording and didn’t think it particularly horrific. Either that is a sign of the times or how horror doesn’t necessarily age well. Saying that, one of the last of the 70s horror films ‘The Legend Of Hell House’ (1973), I still find atmospheric and scary. Likewise, ‘Theatre Of Blood’ (1973) is also still a classic although not quite sure why Rigby downplayed actress Diana Rigg’s part considering she was the co-star.

There are a good selection of black and white photos as well as two colour sections of photographs. Selected films also get full cast credits but only up to the mid-70s. From here on, this is where Rigby has added his additions and I suspect space was a premium. It isn’t until the turn of the century that horror films started to rise again in the UK, helped along by some tax relief and the fact that they could make a profit.

From the mid-70s to the present, I was amazed that although there was only a small number of British productions but also how many of the significant ones I’ve seen on the box. As many of them were filmed abroad where costs could be brought down probably disguised that fact. At the end, I agree with Rigby that the horror film isn’t dead but just building up again and the home product will undoubtedly survive.

If there is a significant fault is the change from film to film as it is written as a history text than by film. If you have a drop in concentration, you can suddenly be sidetracked into another film without realising it. Although Rigby has various heading breaks, I think it might have helped had he done this on a film by film basis or at least gone for bold instead of italics with the film titles or its going to become a harder book to use as a reference tome. Having said that, ‘English Gothic’ is a useful history of British horror films that you should not only have on your bookshelf but read as well.

GF Willmetts

June 2015

(pub: Titan Books. 384 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £24.99 (UK), $34.95 (US), $41.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-957-64816-6)

check out website: www.titanbooks.com


Category: Books, Horror

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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