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Washtenaw Flaneurade
22 August 2010
The Worlds of Michael Ripper
Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Sarn Helen"

The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960-1969 (2010):

"When I was a child my mother used to own a cat--a seal point Siamese. Whenever he was found to have done something wrong--shred my father's books, unravel toilet rolls, shit in the washing basket--he would be carried out, glaring malevolently over my mother's shoulder with an expression that clearly said 'The world shall hear from me again.' People who have seen the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films [not that you should, if you've got any sense, at least the two by Jess Franco, which are fucking wretched--Ed.] may see the connection.

"It has to be said that none of these films features Christopher Lee shitting in a washing basket. We can be reasonably sure that had this appeared in the script, he would have refused to do it. Or alternatively, he would still be complaining forty years later about the fact, stating that it was not something that Sax Rohmer had ever written about and insisting that he had not appeared in a film featuring a laundry/faeces interface since 1968 and why was it all that anyone ever asked him about?"

--James Brough, review of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) in The Shrieking Sixties.

"The British made horror films?" I still remember the frisson of, yes, horror on hearing my ex-roommate say those words. My ongoing love of Doctor Who and the much beloved 80s cable TV staple Commander USA's Groovie Movies more or less condemned me to an eternal fondness for British horror both cinematic and literary, much of it more nuanced and layered, especially in terms of class, than its American equivalent. My love for The Wicker Man (1973), Horror Express (1972), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) first led me to Chris Wood's British Horror Films site in the summer of 2003, and I've been commenting there ever since. Many of the comments involve, as one might imagine, reviews and criticism, sometimes lengthy, of British horror films. After Chris' 2006 success with The First BHF Book of Horror Stories (in which I had a couple of pieces), board maven and film expert Darrell Buxton got the idea to create a sort of companion piece to the Harvey Fenton's FAB Books classic Ten Years of Terror. The latter was a collection of reviews of British horror films of the 1970s, making the provocative claim that such films (for instance, the ones I mentioned earlier and some of Pete Walker's grungy, socially biting classics like 1973's House of Whipcord and 1974's Frightmare) could be seen as part of a genuine cinematic movement, the same way many French films of the 1950s and 1960s comprised the Nouvelle Vague. Darrell's idea was to do a similar job on British horror films of the 1960s. The 1970s had already been covered (though are still considered somewhat controversial in this respect) and the 1950s have become perhaps a little too celebrated for their role as the decade that saw Hammer Films rise to become a global icon. The intervening years have, it seems, seen surprisingly little systematic criticism, and it's to fill this deficit that The Shrieking Sixties came about. Darrell solicited reviews for a set amount of films per year, and sundry BHFers rose to the occasion (I've got several in there myself, and forced myself through Jess Franco's spectacularly terrible Fu Manchu films--following The Face of Fu Manchu--starring Christopher Lee to write them).

Looking through the films themselves, it's not all that surprising that they haven't really attracted the kind of sustained cult attention that their companions of the bookend decades did, as there's no one "house specialty" along the lines of the cozy yet increasingly erotic Gothic horrors of the late 1950s or the scabrous, gory, full-on sexual suburban horrors of the 1970s. The 1960s was such a wildly experimental decade in so many artistic arenas that perhaps it's little wonder that there seems too much to take in. Michael Armstrong, wunderkind director of 1969's Haunted House of Horror (featuring Frankie Avalon as the "epitome of Swinging London"--that would have been a hefty typo--and nearly featuring a young David Bowie as a psycho killer), pens an affectionate foreword that vividly evokes the era's kaleidoscopic qualities. When it came to British horror, films of every kind proliferated, from (to name two flicks I reviewed that pretty much conform to the 1950s and 1970s types I mentioned) 1960's countryside-in-peril classic chiller Village of the Damned to 1969's genetically-enhanced-psycho-on-the-loose freakout Scream and Scream Again*. The same goes for the review styles on offer in The Shrieking Sixties, from the militant joviality of Jed Raven to the affectionate, slightly mocking pieces by Chris Wood himself, to Fangoria writer Mike Hodges' brisk professionalism to a hilariously creative take on The Body Stealers by David Dent to the expert analysis of IMDB sleaze cinema guru Gavin Whitaker (whose excellent reviews on said site could make their own book) to James Brough's afore-quoted piece on The Face of Fu Manchu, my single favorite review in the book. And that's not to mention the great Neil Pike's authoritative rundown of 1965's controversial The War Game--Peter Watkins forever! The 1960s saw the apotheosis of Hammer and the glory days of American International Pictures' prestige Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but it wasn't all casks of Amontillado and increasingly delusional and complicated plans to reanimate dead flesh. To give an example of some of The Shrieking Sixties' far-reaching and eclectic nature, the 1967 section features (adjacently, no less) Paul Higson's review of The Return of Dracula, a low-budget 8-mm curio filmed, performed, and exhibited entirely in British Sign Language, and Darrell's review of Ruddigore, a "Halas/Batchelor animated version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta." Exciting as it was to see my own stuff in print, more exciting by far was the prospect of getting to read that of others. The book really does capture the essence of the British Horror Films board, one of the nicest (with the occasional tussle, to be sure) and most erudite on the web, and it's a real kick to see people wax hilarious and thoughtful on some of their favorite films. As if that weren't enough, there are appendices on "borderline" titles, censorship, short films, an afterword by noted film historian and English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby, and illustrations throughout by Sam Trafford and Jed Raven (the former does a particularly ravishing Barbara Shelley in his rendition of Quatermass and the Pit).

The Shrieking Sixties was pre-released for the Southend Film Festival in May (a rollicking event, I hear, featuring stars Hilary Dwyer and Nicky Henson of Michael Reeves' 1968 classic The Witchfinder General, one of the commonly agreed highlights of British horror cinema of the decade), and is now available in the United States from Amazon or from Midnight Marquee Press--the latter offering, I understand, a discount if one orders directly from their site (some ways down the page). It's gratifying to learn that there's already been a bit of positive comment.

*Both of which I review in the book, by the way.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:05 AM EDT
Updated: 24 August 2010 9:18 AM EDT
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