Guest writer DR JAY DANIEL THOMPSON looks to rural England to discover some quaint British horrors…
There’s a classic scene in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) when Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) utters: “Pass the marmalade.” These innocuous three words are uttered at the breakfast table, moments after Frankenstein has despatched his monster to do his dirty work.
For me, this “pass the marmalade” scene perfectly encapsulates what I love about vintage British horror cinema: the juxtaposition of dastardly doings with scenes of quaint, warmly-lit domesticity. This is the kind of juxtaposition that Hollywood just could never pull off. Ever.
So here are my top five ‘cosy’ British horror movies. All are set in rural England, and all mix the snug with the spooky. Kick back, pour yourself a nice cup of Earl Grey, and enjoy.
1. Dead of Night (1945)
In this classic portmanteau film, an architect (Mervyn Johns) travels to a country manor to quote on some work. Upon arrival, he finds a gathering of perfectly charming folk who look uncannily familiar (cue sinister music) and who seem willing to exchange stories involving murderous mirrors, devilish dummies, and more.
There’s something irresistible about the way in which these prim, plummy-voiced people seem so eager to chat about the strange and supernatural. Theirs is an otherworldly afternoon tea, alright. The whole film has the feel of a nightmare that you just can’t seem to wake up from. The hapless architect certainly can’t!
2. Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
An unsuspecting chap (Nick Adams) arrives in a quaint village to visit his girlfriend and her family. Unfortunately, none of the villagers are willing to assist him. There’s something evil at this family’s mist-shrouded mansion, something that is Best Avoided. I mean, c’mon, Boris Karloff lives there!
The villagers who cower in terror at an evil estate on the moors/in the forest are a staple of vintage British horror. These people want to feel cosy, I think, and this means not naming the horror they nonetheless can’t help but warn others about.
On another level, Die, Monster, Die! is a rather cosy-looking film. Everything here seems just so warm and inviting. Except for the 1960s special effects, which are guaranteed to make you guffaw.
3. The Deadly Bees (1966)
An overworked chanteuse (Suzanna Leigh) adjourns to a farm run by a middle-aged couple, (Guy Doleman and Catherine Finn) for some much-needed R&R. Unfortunately for our exhausted superstar, the title creatures are out to disrupt her (and everyone else’s) downtime.
Shots of brightly-lit farm life are set alongside shots of the title beasts assailing their victims. The SFX here make those in Die, Monster, Die! seem sophisticated, but Leigh always looks convincingly terrified.
A similar-ish premise appears in Killer Bees (1974), though that US production lacks The Deadly Bees’ unmistakeably British charm.
4. Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
A middle-aged academic (Michael Hordern) discovers that there are things more nerve-wracking than the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. While staying at a seaside hotel, he encounters a number of ghostly goings-on, each more chilling than the last.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You might just be the perfect ghost movie. The paranormal activities unfold within elegantly appointed rooms and on windswept beaches. The black-and-white cinematography contributes to the constant sense of dread.
5. Vampyres (1975)
A bland young couple (Brian Deacon and Sally Faulkner) park their campervan in a forest deep in the heart of bucolic Britannia. Unfortunately for them, they’re actually camping on the grounds of a mansion inhabited by a pair of beautiful, bisexual vampire lovers (Marianne Morris and Anulka).
Vampyres is commonly discussed as a sexploitation flick, but let me tell you, this is the ultimate in cosy British horror. The film frequently cuts from tea and toast in the couple’s campervan, to T&A and torture in the bloodsucker’s lair. And, as we discover, there might be a few dark secrets lurking beneath the camping couple’s makeshift domesticity.
DR JAY DANIEL THOMPSON lectures in media writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is also a freelance journalist, editor, blogger, and life-long fan of vintage British horror cinema.