House of Horror: Given Britain's long history of horror content, where the hell is our Blumhouse?
This is a subject that I’ve spoken about before, but recently the idea was reignited when Jed Shepherd, the co-writer of last year’s lockdown-based zoom horror, HOST, tweeted about it. Moving aside my totally illogical frustration with Shepherd and the film’s director, Rob Savage, for beating me to the punch (I was writing a zoom set horror and then HOST came along and made it stall… not that my film was ever going to be as brilliant or impactful and theirs anyway), it’s strange that almost two years after I originally wrote about this subject it remains a genuine source of confusion. Where the hell is the British Blumhouse?
When we think of British cinema, it’s almost a given that many of us are immediately drawn to Hammer. Their output shaped the landscape of not only British cinema, but of horror cinema as a whole. It’s next to impossible to even consider classic monsters like Dracula or Frankenstein without Hammer entering the discussion at some point, and even now when we do get the occasion British horror the Hammer comparisons come thick and fast.
But Britain’s film relationship with the best of all genres goes far beyond Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and the legendary goings-on at Bray Studios. Around the same time as Hammer, we had the likes of Amicus, with their still iconic and brilliant portmanteau movies, themselves inspired by Ealing Studios’s classic Dead of Night. Meanwhile, Peeping Tom is often mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock’s Psycho as influencing the slasher boom of the late 70s and early 80s Hollywood film system, while the likes of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, Terence Fisher’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Robert Wise’s The Haunting cast long shadows over the entire genre.
The list is as endless as it is impressive; The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Don’t Look Now, Hellraiser, The Lair of the White Worm, An American Werewolf in London, Lifeforce…
All of this, of course, is not to mention Britain’s long history of influential and terrifying televised horror. From Doctor Who to the BBC’s Ghost Stories at Christmas, to public service information films starring Donald Pleasance and basically Nigel Kneale’s entire filmography, the small screen here in the UK is arguably just as, if not more important. Even Hammer tried it on for size not once, but twice. And I haven’t even mentioned Ghostwatch!
Even more modern outputs here in Britain can’t escape our long history with horror. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers and The Descent, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later blew up the world over, Eden Lake remains, in some places, one of the most controversial films out there, The Borderlands continues to quietly make a name for itself as one of the best found-footage movies ever made, and then, of course, there’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
As far as I’m concerned it is clear that Britain and horror are a match it is almost impossible to separate. And moving beyond film and television for a second, we have a long, long history with ghost stories and spooky tales stretching back to M R James, Charles Dickens, and even further. Ancient pre-history conjures up images of ritual sacrifice, Devil worship, and dark goings-on, and there isn’t a town, village, or country road you can visit in Britain that doesn’t have some sort of sinister, unsettling folktale or urban legend attached to it.
So, why is it, with all that in mind, that we seem to have allowed the British film industry, and specifically the British genre film industry, to die? This isn’t hyperbole, either. Funding is available for independent film, but it’s elitist and closed off. The interest starts and ends with Ken Loach-style dramas. Looking more broadly, our output is exclusively pompous period pieces and Hollywood level blockbusters that have been outsourced by American studios to our industry.
Even Hammer, the studio synonymous with British horror, when they attempted their revival was preoccupied with America. The Woman in Black had all the staples of a classic British ghost story, but it was an incredibly Hollywoodized affair, while their other new movies – Let Me In, The Resident, The Quiet Ones – all skew to the folks on the other side of the Atlantic. Only Wake Wood stands as an example of a British made, British produced, British starring production… and it’s arguably the one film the studio released during its attempted return that they failed to properly promote at all.
In the film world, Blumhouse has made a name for themselves investing in low-budget (by Hollywood standards at least) genre movies that make a decent return investment. The current landscape of cinema proves horror is profitable. A24 hold their corner with more “arty” output, while Blumhouse provides the ghost train thrills, and audiences lap it up. Big-name studios have even got in on the action recently, with IT: Chapter One and Chapter Two bringing in the big bucks and Universal handing over the reigns of their most recognizable monsters to the folks over a Blumhouse.
Yet, despite all this evidence, despite the clear desire and demand for genre thrills, the British film industry continues to totally ignore horror in favor of critically-acclaimed-but-audience-dismissed kitchen-sink-realism. Why? Is this yet another example of horrors continued dismissal as somehow a lesser genre? Surely not. After all, the growing community online and across the globe of horror fanatics are there, and they show up. Making horror is just… like… good business, right?
There are, of course, people here in the UK working hard to make genre movies. Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd may be the most recognizable at this point – HOST was a megahit by streaming standards and tops best-of lists for last year across the board – but beyond them, there is an entire community of horror producers, writers, and directors making content. Graham Hughes, Charlie Steeds and his Dark Temple Films production company, Hex Studios, Bad Blood Films, and Richard Rowntree to name but a few… I mean, I’d include myself in that list – I have made two genre features and am in pre-production on my third – but that seems slightly arrogant.
It isn’t as if we’re lacking in talent or demand, we’re just lacking in funding and a willingness from those in a position to do something to do something. All it would take is investment and drive. Audiences and filmmakers alike are there, ready and waiting to take it. To quote Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. But someone has to build it.