Monday, 28 February 2011

Borderline? Feels like I'm going to lose my mind

I saw a film the other night which featured wince-making scenes of children having their eyes gouged out. It began with brutal torture, treated us to people being set on fire in the street, and for an hors d’euvre had a woman pursued by relentless killers through a railway station. When they got her they dragged her into the back of a car and slashed her face with a knife. It was British, it was all filmed in shaky, grainy digital video, people were raped, shot and beaten in an ever increasing catalogue of atrocity. Now, you might well be reading this, British horror fan, thinking “Ooh, sounds like Chris has turned up yet another obscure Brit horror classic. I wonder what it’s called and where I can get hold of it?”

Well, wonder no more, gentle reader. The film is widely available even as I type this. You might even have heard of it. It’s called Slumdog Millionaire.
Yes, that’s right – the Oscar winning “feel good” movie that everyone was talking about but no-one you know went to see apart from your mum, because she’d seen that nice Mister Boyle grinning like a loon and waving around his gold statue on the BBC news. Quite what everyone saw in it is beyond me – horror elements aside, it’s a generic romantic thriller with a vaguely pointless inclusion of a popular television quiz show. And as for “feel good” – well, it just made me feel a bit empty and depressed about the human condition.
But it does raise an interesting (and pertinent) point about a strange section of the British horror genre – that of the “borderline” film. Britain is rightly famous for its horror output – these islands were home to iconic companies like Hammer and Amicus, we produced timeless classics like The Wicker Man and Dead Of Night, and it was British talent that created An American Werewolf In London and The Shining. Yet Brit horror fans are always looking for more. It seems unlikely that anywhere else in the world would fans seek to blur the genres quite so much, but blur ‘em we do. Books and websites about British horror films (mine included) will often suggest that science fiction, thrillers and even children’s films should be included in that all-encompassing pantheon of chills we call “The British Horror Film”. Perhaps it’s part of the charm of those genuine films that we want to add more, to expand on people’s enjoyment of a late night showing of Tales From The Crypt by suggesting that they might check out the same company’s Mind Of Mister Soames for more early 70s frivolity.
I’m not suggesting for one minute that Slumdog Millionaire is a horror film. But what of Boyle’s other offerings? 28 Days Later obviously is, but what about Trainspotting, with its nightmarish visions of drug abuse, or Shallow Grave, with its psycho-in-the-attic and multiple killings? It’s a fine line.

It’s all down to perception, really – one man’s horror film is another man’s thriller. Recent cinematic offerings Like Eden Lake and Donkey Punch are really thrillers, but by using certain horror movie clich├ęs (nice people attacked for no reason, nasty torture scenes, shock jumps, outboard motors used as weapons etc) they could be, and are, classed as horror. According to my handy reference thingy, a horror film is described as “a genre of motion picture intended to thrill viewers by provoking fear or revulsion through the portrayal of grotesque, violent, or supernatural events.” That covers a massive area – including, possibly, certain scenes in Slumdog Millionaire. Other recent examples might include The Last King Of Scotland (nasty torture), Enduring Love (psycho stalks unwitting lust object), Hot Fuzz (townsfolk exact bloody revenge on anyone breaking the law) and St Trinians (audience suckered into cinema by promise of naughty schoolgirls, realises mistake five minutes in, assaulted by poor script and lame performances for next 90 minutes, ho ho).

The argument rages on. For my part, the British Horror Films website is run as a totalitarian state – if I think it’s a horror film (or even vaguely British, as it happens) it goes in. Here’s a few examples of “classic” borderline films – and if you’ve got any examples of your own, why not add ‘em in the handy space below?

The Mind Of Mister Soames – the inclusion of this got a few people raging on the BHF forum, but I stand by it. Terence Stamp comes out of a lifelong coma as a baby in a man’s body. Shady Doctor Napoleon Solo acts like a modern day Frankenstein, attempting to bend the baby-man to his own ends. Baby-man revolts and runs away, film ends tragically in classic Hammer territory, an old barn. And it’s made by 60s and 70s horror factory Amicus.

Doctor Who And The Daleks / Daleks Invasion Earth 2105AD – two more Amicus films that always appear on horror film lists. The first is a standard sci fi tale of earth people arriving on a strange planet, but does star horror god Peter Cushing. The second has slightly more horror-acity (is that a word?) as it is set in post-apocalypse London, and anything set in a post-apocalypse London is horror by default.

Don’t Look Now – deeply unsettling psycho thriller which follows couple who move to Venice to attempt to get over the death of their daughter. The woman (Julie Christie) becomes convinced her daughter is haunting her. The man (Donald Sutherland) gets more than he bargains for when he thinks he’s caught the ghost. The whole film is steeped in dread and spooky premonition, but is it horror?

The Amazing Mister Blunden – delightful children’s time travel / ghost story starring a plethora of Brit horror talent and with a few creepy moments, ending with a conflagatory climax that’ll put a lump in your throat.

Straw Dogs – Sam Peckinpah brings the wild west to the land of pasties and cream teas (Cornwall), as Susan George gets the local men all hot under the collar and her wimpish husband (Dustin Hoffman) is forced to extreme violence to defend her and their home. Banned for years because of a particularly nasty rape scene, it seems it was the ban which gave it a horror reputation it doesn’t really deserve – although there are a number of horror elements (the unwelcome outsider etc).

The Offence - Moustachioed detective Sean Connery loses his rag when interrogating a suspect in a particularly nasty child murder case. A grim little film which Connery was allowed to make as long as he also did the bigger budgeted Diamonds Are Forever, well worth checking out and a top-notch little horror/thriller with a lovely early 70s look.

Live And Let Die - Yes, the Bond film. But a Bond film with a difference - it’s scary. Voodoo, zombies, an unkillable witch doctor… terrifying stuff. And while we’re on the subject, what about You Only Live Twice, with it’s piranha pool?

So, do you have any examples of British films that weren’t horror but managed to raise a chill? Us fans are always looking for “borderline” stuff… who knows, you might even get an honourable mention on the British horror films website if you unearth a previously undiscovered classic!

(A truncated version of this post appeared on the Sci Fi Channel website bloody ages ago, and no bugger read it, so I thought I'd give it another airing)


Jim Moon said...

Well I for one am very glad you resurrected this article! It's very true the British film does excel in bending genre boundaries...possibly its kicking against the class system or maybe just because our long winters infuse creepiness and dread into all kinds of non-genre works!

ANd I'll definitely get hunting down some of these borderline flicks (great term BTW) - The Offence looks like a real treat!

Matthew Coniam said...

Good points. Films like Fear in the Night and And Soon the Darkness aren't really horror films either, are they; it's just convenient to label them thus because of the people who made them and the fact that horror fans are likely to be their best audience.

I could not agree more with your comments on Slumdog Millionaire. What a load of rubbish. (Not that that was exactly the point you were making, but I think I sensed it, peeking satisfactorily from between the lines.)