LONDON — Think of British horror films, and the images that most likely spring to mind are of hammy English aristocrats and corset-bound maidens in any number of the dusty collection of Gothic period romps that emanated out of the Hammer House of Horror stable in the 1960s and 1970s.
A new generation of British filmmakers, however, is rewriting the rules for Blighty fright fare.
Their films, such as Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” and Jon Harris-helmed sequel “The Descent 2,” Sean Ellis’ “The Broken,” Olly Blackburn’s “Donkey Punch” and James Watkins’ “Eden Lake,” are more often than not psychological chillers rooted in reality.
“Donkey Punch,” for example, is centered on a group of girls whose Mediterranean holiday goes horribly wrong after a drug-fueled orgy. “Eden Lake” sees a young couple attempt to turn the tables on a gang of thuggish youths while away on a romantic break.
Even Hammer Film Prods. is getting in on the act in the wake of the banner’s revival last year by Dutch producer John De Mol by unveiling a slate of pics far removed from the bodice rippers of the 1960s and 1970s with which it made its name. The iconic studio is prepping three features that are a far cry from the theatrical dueling of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
Hammer is set to start production later this year on “The Wake Wood,” directed by David Keating, “The Resident,” a chiller directed by Antti Jokinen that is described as being in the tradition of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” and “The Quiet Ones,” based on the supposedly true story of a group of Canadian hippie scientists in the 1970s who attempt to create a ghost.
“Those earlier Hammer films were very much of their time, and there is a lot of affection for them, but we have to keep up with audiences’ expectations today,” says Hammer chief exec Simon Oakes. “I like to think of ourselves now as dealing more in the Hitchcockian areas of terror and suspense.”
A slew of British horror films is set to hit U.K. screens, with “Donkey Punch,” “Eden Lake,” “The Broken,” and Steven Sheil’s “Mum & Dad” all skedded for release this summer and fall.
“The Descent 2,” currently lensing in London, and Samantha Morton starrer “The Daisy Chain,” about a grieving couple’s move to a remote Irish village in the wake of their baby daughter’s death, are to follow shortly thereafter.
One reason for the current glut lies in the success of Danny Boyle’s 2002 “28 Days Later.” Pic’s critical and commercial success marked a paradigm shift for Brit financiers in terms of backing genre projects.
“With ’28 Days Later,’ you had a respected, nonhorror director in Danny directing a horror film, and the British establishment took note,” says Neil Marshall, whose “The Descent” is also cited by U.K. film execs as a successful example of the new wave of Brit horror. “It took me six years to get financing for ‘Dog Soldiers,’ and the money ended up coming from the U.S. After ’28 Days,’ though, people here saw horror films as lucrative and respectable. ‘The Descent’ ended up being financed 100% with British money, which is quite unusual.”
While the success of Boyle’s zombie pic about a deadly virus unleashed on Blighty was followed shortly by the resurgence of slasher films Stateside with the torture-porn school of such fare as the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, Brit chillers have largely stayed away from the gorefests of their U.S. counterparts.
“Horror in this country dates back to before Victorian times, with Gothic stories (and) characters such as Jack the Ripper,” helmer Sean Ellis observes. “In the U.S., their history is more about ghosts and psycho killer/slasher films. Ours is a little more cerebral and ideas-based. We’ve tended to cross-pollinate our horror with more serious genres such as dramas and thrillers.”
“The interesting thing about a lot of these British films is they don’t have parochial settings,” adds Christian Colson, who produced “Eden Lake” and both “Descent” films. ” ‘Donkey Punch’ is rooted in youth culture, while ‘Eden Lake’ is also centered around a contemporary reality.”
What all these films may well share in common with the post-9/11-imbued likes of “Saw” and “Hostel” is an uneasiness with a world increasingly filled with shadows and sociopolitical turmoil.
“We’re a society in change right now,” says Film4 senior commissioning exec Peter Carlton, who has invested in a number of the emerging Brit horror projects as well as other dark fare including Rufus Sewell starrer “Vinyan” and helmer Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.”
“When you have much bigger forces in the world, such as terrorism and climate change, that threatening to blow society apart, naturalistic dramas sometimes feel insufficient to deal with that feeling of going out of control. Horror films can tap into that sense of unease.”