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Ghoul Britannia: A New Wave of Home Grown Horror
Josh Saco , June 22nd, 2009 12:25

Josh Saco discusses the new wave of British Horror as the latest gem, The Disappeared, is screened at the ICA tonight with a director Q&A

We are stood on the cusp of something great, something as yet unseen on these shores. British Horror, for so long filled with failed Carry On could-have-beens squealing and prancing about Dracula's castle in their bright green bosom-constricting dresses, has finally returned — digging its name into the filthy dirt walls with broken jagged fingernails, celebrating the bleakness of the all-too-familiar low grey clouds that hang over this green and pleasant land, peeling back the grass to expose the worms and raw dirt beneath.

Britain has had its share of hits such as The Innocents, The Haunting and Repulsion, but the genre suffered a bump to the head and emerged in the woods around Black Park, confused and lost somewhere in a mess of bloodied costume dramas and shoddy pagan rituals. Finally, after nearly 50 years of wandering aimlessly through rom-coms and east end gangster films, Britain has a chance at reclaiming its former glory, planting itself firmly on the shelf next to classics such as The Omen and holding its own against The Hills Have Eyes.

Sure, you could say this started several years ago with Danny Boyle and 28 Days Later — but that was missing a certain edginess and rawness. Yes it was post-apocalyptic, but it was much closer to Threads than it was to Dawn of the Dead. 28 Days Later never got itself dirty; it never risked anything. It was always too pristine with its digital video — the grainy filth of the tape was lost to the pixel.

What is happening now has to tip its hat in the direction of Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers and The Descent. These are films of passion that cast aside crisp, bright aesthetics in favour of creeping, scratching death from the unknown. Marshall showed a bunch of 21-year-olds that it was time to get out of the flat, toss aside that take-away and start believing that Britain had some scares left in her. And why not? They'd seen all the same films as him, they loved them just as much. They shared these shores with a man who wasn't afraid to unleash horrid cave creatures on a group of pretty young girls covered in muck and blood and disembowel them. More than can be said for Hammer.

Over the past year or so, Neil's Children (they probably won't like that) have effortlessly picked up where he left off and have been producing one solid film after another (with the exception of Doomsday, a failed attempt at setting Mad Max on a tiny island). Having dug back through the annals of horror, these guys know their stuff; they slip in sneaky little nods here and there just to remind you of the pedigree. But more importantly, they're passionate about what they're doing. These labours of love are the true gems of the genre, they're what we missed out on for all these years. We've seen the toe-curling Eden Lake, the inventive and gripping Hush, the vile nastiness of Mum & Dad, and now The Disappeared — all shot by first time directors with small budgets, all delivering the unflinching goods. Not worried about an easy 15 rating that will get the kids down the aisles and into the seats, they don't seem to care about making investors happy. They know if they keep on down this dark path, the rewards will be far greater — they are making the films they love to see.

Eden Lake promised a holiday retreat for a lovely couple and pitted them against an group of unruly yobs. It was set up as a classic revenge film, a la I Spit on Your Grave or the original Last House on the Left; except that we live in England, where it's always nasty and rainy and we like to knock people back to the ground — kill the pretty couple.

Hush took us up a lonely, rainy West Midlands motorway, and also showed us a glimpse of the terrors that the Daily Mail always promises us exist. This was Duel meets a crazed machete-wielding manic with a fantastic finale: genuinely unexpected.

Mum & Dad take their depraved notion of what a family is far beyond the heights of any of the planes at Heathrow. You can only pray that the expansion doesn't turn anything like this up.

The Disappeared takes the classic ghost story and brings it to the empty courtyards and dark stairways of the looming concrete council estate, highlighting the failures of the state and exploiting those concrete mazes with expertise.

Like old Doc Martens, these films are stamped proudly: Made in Britain. They kick the old guard into the gutter and drop crumpled up tins of backwash on their heads. Confidently executed, they more than hold their own with whatever the US throws up over the Atlantic, standing proud alongside some of the best French, Spanish and Asian genre Cinema.

As the skills are honed and the confidence builds, I have a feeling the best is yet to come. These explorers in the further reaches of horror — demons to some, angels to others — have opened the box and they have such sights to show us. . . .