When the average film buff thinks of British horror, odds are that he or she will automatically zoom in on Hammer, the studio that, from 1957 until the early ‘70s, dominated the English fright market in a very big way. But, of course, Hammer was hardly the only game in town. In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to focus on a half dozen very fine British horror films that were not a product of Hammer Studios, but all of which might provide for some shivery entertainment value during this scariest of holiday seasons:


The notorious exploits of 19th century cadaver peddlers Burke & Hare have been the inspiration for numerous films, but none perhaps as faithful to the facts as 1959’s The Flesh and the Fiends. Although other movies have depicted the pair as grave robbers, here they are correctly shown to be not so much ghouls as brutal murderers who think nothing of slaying any drunkard, trollop or easy mark they come across to make a few extra guineas, selling their “fresh as a new-cut cabbage” wares to Dr. Robert Knox at a nearby Edinburgh medical school. Though the pair’s murders took place from 1827 – ‘28 in real life, here, the action is compressed to the span of a few days’ time, and whereas in actuality Burke was a lodger at Hare’s home, this picture reverses those roles, strangely. But the film hews closely enough to the true story, and George Rose and Donald Pleasence are top-notch as the seedy duo. Playing the real-life Dr. Knox, Peter Cushing gives one of the finest performances I have ever seen him contribute; he is truly superb here in his morally conflicted role. Kudos also to Billie Whitelaw, The Omen’s nanny from hell, here playing a tragic pub girl. A literate script, handsome production values, striking B&W photography, some unflinching murder scenes and a few gross-out sequences really do put this picture over. One would think, with Cushing’s presence and director John Gilling at the helm, that this might be a Hammer film (Gilling later went on to give us such extraordinary Hammer fare as The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile), but in truth it was shot at Shepperton, and its creators have done a good job at pastiching the Hammer style. The nice-looking widescreen DVD that I just watched, from the fine folks at Image, also contains the racier “Continental” version of The Flesh and the Fiends, which adds little more than a few topless tavern floozies and a slightly more explicit hanging sequence; not much of an improvement. Whichever version the viewer chooses to watch, however, a highly entertaining and, yes, educational time is almost guaranteed. I really did enjoy this one.


DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN The 1961 British horror film Doctor Blood’s Coffin has been given the DVD treatment by an outfit called Cheezy Flicks, but I believe that appellation does this film an injustice. Far from cheesy, it is, rather, an intelligently written, well acted and atmospherically shot picture that makes excellent use of its English coastal locale. In it, Kieron Moore plays Dr. Peter Blood (hey, wasn’t that Errol Flynn’s character’s name in the 1935 swashbuckler Captain Blood?!?), a modern-day research scientist who returns to his hometown in Cornwall after his experiments on bringing the dead back to life with still-living hearts cause him to be kicked out of Vienna. Back home, he enters into a relationship with his father’s pretty nurse assistant, Linda, played by Hazel Court (in the late ’50s and early ’60s, surely one of the prettiest actresses the U.K. had to offer), and secretly continues his work, using several of the town’s unwilling test subjects. Moore is just fine in the lead role as the dedicated but quite insane scientist, Court is gorgeous as usual (especially when shown in a low-cut sundress), and Australian character actor Kenneth J. Warren (who will always be Emma Peel nemesis Z.Z. von Schnerk to me!) is quite sturdy as the local police sergeant trying to get to the bottom of all the mishegas. The film gets increasingly bizarre as it progresses, especially when Dr. Blood decides to prove his case by bringing Linda’s late husband back as a nice surprise. There are several mildly gross surgical sequences to please all the gorehounds out there, and, for me, the highlight: a fine and heated discussion between Blood and Linda regarding the moral consequences of his work. This three-minute scene provides possibly the best thesping I’ve ever seen either actor give us. Ultimately, this supposedly “cheesy flick” turns out to be anything but, and is highly recommended for all fans of levelheaded British horror.


What an act the Great Vorelli has, in the 1964 British horror thriller Devil Doll! Not only can he hypnotize audience volunteers to perform any kind of outlandish stunt, but he can also make his ventriloquist’s dummy, Hugo, talk and act most uncannily lifelike. But how to explain Hugo’s ability to locomote all by himself? That’s what reporter Mark English (excellently portrayed by American actor William Sylvester) tries to find out, in this very effective little sleeper. While I would never dream of revealing Hugo’s back story, I will say that he is a much creepier presence than the modern-day Chucky, if perhaps not as homicidal; the filmmakers of Devil Doll get maximum bang out of Hugo’s merest eye movements and head turnings. It really is remarkable how much emotion can be inferred in the little puppet’s homely mug; his is hardly a wooden performance! In addition to this living doll’s eerie presence, the film, as directed by Lindsay Shonteff, boasts stunning B&W photography, uniformly fine acting (especially by Bryant Haliday as Vorelli, who comes off far more sinister here than the evil hypnotist played by Jose Ferrer in 1949’s Whirlpool), intriguing FX (negative images, freeze frames) and a literate script. Despite the central doll character, this is very much an adult film that is not suitable for the kiddies. The crisp-looking DVD from Image that I recently watched also includes the so-called “Continental” version of the film, which contains a striptease sequence and several bits of nudity not present in the American release. As does producer Richard Gordon, I prefer the American version, simply because the “racier” print excises an entire scene between Vorelli and his assistant Magda that helps us better understand Vorelli’s character. Either version, though, is a surprisingly winning entertainment.


I got to take a look at Horror Express a few years back at New York City’s Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center (part of its annual “Scary Movies” fest), and was reminded again of what a fun experience it is. The film concerns an alien life force that has taken possession of a fossilized man-ape, and then “thaws out” while en route to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express in the year 1906. Hammer superstars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are on board for the wild ride, and theirs are always welcome presences. This movie really is pretty well done, with an interesting story, good acting, decent production values, some so-so special effects, and some good shocks and surprises. I was a little disappointed at first when the fossilized man-ape critter got killed so early on, but then the alien life force started to jump around, from the man-ape to a Russian police inspector to a mad monk, and that kept things interesting. (I’m still a little unclear as to just WHY the monk, who was so direly warning of the danger of the beast in the film’s beginning, decided to go over “to the dark side” so suddenly, after watching one of its murders. Perhaps someone can explain that part to me.) Telly Savalas is just a weeee bit over the top as the Cossack inspector, but it’s all in good fun. The scene in which Peter Cushing trepans the baggageman’s skull to examine his smoothed-out brain (did I mention that the alien life force can suck the thoughts and memories out of its victims’ eyeballs, leaving those orbs whitened and bloodied?) was a nice touch; just the right amount of grisly fun, without being too much of a grossout. Besides the cool trepanning, we are also treated to multiple murders, two (2!) hot-looking redheads, and – shades of Night of the Living Dead – reanimated, bloody-eyed zombies running amok at the end. All topped off by a nice train crash and multiple explosions! And Lee and Cushing, needless to say, are their usual suave and wonderful selves. The movie is an excellent minor affair that makes one wonder why filmmakers can’t carry off such feats today with all the tools at their disposal. Horror Express has abundant atmosphere and creepy charm, and that’s something that all the $$$ in the world can’t buy. Horror talents such as Cushing and Lee only come along rarely; who do we have to take their place in the modern era? No one. It occurs to me that there are NO great horror actors today to speak of, for the first time, practically, since moving pictures began! Am I right? Who can you think of that is on a par these days with Lon Chaney, Lionel Atwill, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Vincent Price, Ingrid Pitt, Barbara Steele and so on? We’ve got NOTHING to compare! Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why even a relatively minor entry such as Horror Express seems so good. The two leads are as charismatic as can be, and carry their horror history into whatever picture they decide to grace. Can you imagine this picture being made today with, say, Brad Pitt and Mark Damon? Ugh!


I, along with maybe 20 million other male baby boomers, first fell in love with British actress Jill Haworth after her film debut in Exodus in 1960, and one of her too-rare screen appearances in 1973’s The Freakmaker was reason enough for me to rent this film out. And while her role in this picture is disappointingly small, the film does have much else to offer. To begin with, it tells the unusual story of Dr. Nolter, a professor at an English university whose hobby is trying to cross plants with humans and, through genetic manipulation, create a new hybrid race. His human guinea pigs are conveniently provided by the Elephant Man-like proprietor of a local freak show, and Nolter’s many failures are just as conveniently dumped in that circus. The film features much talent both behind and in front of the camera. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff directs the picture competently (if undistinctively), and an outre, discordant jazz soundtrack has been provided by one Basil Kirchin. In a very interesting cast, Donald Pleasence underplays the part of the mad doctor; future Dr. Who star Tom Baker is unrecognizable behind his Elephant Man makeup; little person Michael Dunn offers up the film’s best performance; and Norwegian sexbomb Julie Ege emotes most awfully (but honestly, who cares?!?!). Not to mention yummy Jill Haworth, in her small role. The film makes at least half a dozen references to the 1932 movie Freaks, and fans of that Tod Browning classic should enjoy the real latter-day freak show that is on display here. Despite the plot holes and cheesy plant monster FX, the picture is undeniably fun, although certainly nothing great. Fortunately, the fine-looking DVD from Subversive Cinema that I recently watched, loaded with extras, shows it off very nicely. “Plant” yourself down and watch!


Opening with a shot of the Battersea power station, a site that the Pink Floyd album cover for Animals would make world famous three years later, Frightmare tells the story of quite a strange human animal indeed. She is Dorothy Yates, who, along with her more normal husband Edmund, had been institutionalized in 1957 for crimes that the sentencing judge called “sickening” and “disturbing.” Fifteen years later, the Yateses are released, but unfortunately, Dorothy suffers what Edmund can only call “a very serious relapse,” one requiring her to go after ever increasing quantities of … let’s just call it “brain food.” As portrayed by Sheila Keith, Dorothy Yates is surely a candidate for the pantheon of all-time-great cinematic nutjobs, right besides such other wackos as Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter and Leatherface. Matronly sweet one moment and icily psychotic the next, she surely does make for one mighty creepy and intimidating customer. It is a memorable performance by Ms. Keith, and she is more than ably abetted by Peter Walker’s fine direction and by fellow actors Rupert Davies, Deborah Fairfax and (the appropriately named) Kim Butcher, as members of her nuclear family. Frightmare features several mildly gory sequences, although most of the violence is either implied or shown as an aftermath. The picture ends on a suitably downbeat note that is completely devoid of sentiment and should manage to shock most viewers. Had this picture been made in America, rather than the U.K., it surely would have resulted in a sequel, and truth to tell, it almost seems a shame that the fascinating story of the Yateses was a one-shot. There have been many films dealing with devoted husbands and man-hungry wives, but never one quite like this! All fans of intelligent horror should, uh, just eat this one up!

So there you have it, FanLit viewers … six wonderful British horror films that demonstrate that although Hammer Studios surely was top dog at the time, it was not the only outfit in England producing terrific horror fare for the masses. I hope you get to enjoy some of these very fine and scary films one stormy night soon…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....