The Horrific History Of The ‘H’ Certificate

The short-lived effort by the British censors to give “morbid and horrible” films their own restrictive adults-only category.

British censors have always fretted most about sex but horror comes a close second. As we saw in the horror comics and Video Nasties scares, the very idea of horror is upsetting to the censorial, who see the morbid, the sinister, the gruesome or the downright scary as being inherently unsavoury and dangerous to simple minds that will be damaged, corrupted or warped by such ideas. It’s a belief that has long gripped the British Board of Film Censors (as was)/British Board of Film Classification (as is). Even as ‘monster movies’ were being shown at kiddie matinees in the US, the British censors were slapping ‘adults only’ certificates on them – remember that such harmless fare as King Kong vs Godzilla was being rated ‘X’ by the BBFC as late as the mid-1960s.

In fact, the BBFC were so stressed at the idea of horror films that within a year or so of the genre becoming a recognised thing, it had imposed a special classification to deal with them. From 1913, the BBFC had two film ratings – U and A. The former was, then as now, for entirely wholesome movies that were suitable for all ages. The latter was to signify that a film had more adult themes and so might not be suitable for younger viewers – but significantly, neither actually had an age restriction. Like the U and PG of today, they were strictly advisory. But then came Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, along with all the other horror films that followed in their wake. In the summer of 1932, London County Council defined ‘horrific’ films as those “likely to frighten or horrify children under the age of 16 years” – less a genre-specific description and more a catch-all for what we might now call non-sexual ‘adult content’.

These ‘frightening’ films were a new and disturbing thing for the British authorities, always concerned that the lower orders might be corrupted by new and worrying art forms, even if the Universal films were based on classic novels of English literature that had already been adapted for the stage. Literature and the theatre have always been seen as more respectable than cinema in the UK – and if that’s true now, imagine how things must have been when talking pictures were still new and novel.

In January 1933, at the urging of the newly-formed government body Film Censorship Consultative Committee, the BBFC introduced a new advisory category specifically to deal with these unpleasant films – the ‘H’ certificate. The ‘H’, in case you hadn’t guessed, stood for  ‘horrific’ and was initially an advisory statement, a way to let parents know that the film in question was particularly scary or unsavoury – at least in theory. But just as some local authorities had restricted ‘A’ films to adult audiences, so the ‘H’ was immediately treated in many areas of the country as an age-restricted category and several authorities banned under-16s from attending ‘H’ certificated films – which I suspect was the plan all along. After this period of testing the waters and seeing how people reacted to age restrictions on films rather than mere advice about suitability (and this was Britain, so of course, everyone was in favour of being told what to do), in May 1937 the ‘H’ was officially made the BBFC’s first age-restricted category with the certification of The Thirteenth Chair, a seance-based detective thriller. That it wasn’t a full-blooded monster movie that received the first ‘H’ is interesting and signalled that this new ‘adults only’ rating was going to be rather more expansive than people had perhaps expected.

The establishment of the ‘H’ gave some sort of official recognition to the horror film. Recognition is not respectability, of course. In the BBFC’s annual report of 1935, the organisation’s President Edward Shortt commented “Although a separate category has been established for these films, I am sorry to learn that they are on the increase, as I cannot believe that such films are wholesome, pandering as they do to the morbid and horrible”. And this was hardly an ‘anything goes’ category. Around the same time that the ‘H’ was being tested out, the BBFC rejected Freaks, Island of Lost Souls and The Monster Walks (the latter was passed ‘H’ within a few years; the former two had to wait a few decades before being approved for British release) – and over the existence of the certificate, when US horror had eased back considerably on the sadism and overt horror under the cosh of the Hays Code, the Board banned outright the likes of Bedlam and Buried Alive while cutting many other movies to make them suitable for UK audiences.

You might think that setting up a specific category for horror films would make classification straightforward – from this point onwards, any horror film would be slapped with an ‘H’ and that would be that. You would, of course, be wrong. The decisions over what was or wasn’t ‘horrific’ seemed to be very random. The films classified as ‘H’ include non-horror oddities such as Boy Slaves, A Child is Born, J’Accuse and United Nations War Crimes Film – the latter unquestionably horrific but perhaps something that all audiences needed to see. These movies sit alongside more traditional shockers like The Return of Dr X, Son of Frankenstein and The Vampire’s Ghost in a curious list of titles that feels all the more random when you realise that films like The Wolf Man, The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein were passed ‘A’ (though the latter was re-rated ‘H’ for a 1943 re-release). Like most British film censorship – especially in the days before there were specific guidelines to follow – the ratings seemed to be at the whim of whoever watched the film that day.

A Child is Born

The ‘H’ would prove to have another, more sinister purpose as time went on. During World War 2, audiences were deemed – without much evidence, it must be said – to have had little appetite for horror and such subjects were seen as unsuitable for public display. The turning point seems to have been the summer of 1942 when the BBFC decided that any films that would have qualified for the ‘H’ would now be banned – at least for the next three years. As we saw in the James Ferman years decades later, putting films like Reservoir Dogs and The Bad Lieutenant on indefinite hold for approval during difficult times was a common BBFC trick. To say that horror was completely banned in the war years would be an exaggeration but between the BBFC and the UK distributors, very little – and only the least unsettling – made its way into British cinemas. Notably, 1946 was one of the busiest years for films being rated ‘H’ as distributors began to work through their previously forbidden back catalogue.

The ‘H’ was never a popular film certificate but by the start of the 1950s, it was starting to look like a bit of an anachronism, barely used and unfit for purpose in a world where cinema was becoming more adult. Stuck with a system of advisory ratings and one age-restricted category that only applied to ‘horror’, the BBFC faced having to ban or heavily cut many new, serious and acclaimed films that were entirely suitable for adult audiences. Something had to change. After much consultation, in 1951 the BBFC announced the ‘X’ certificate, replacing the ‘H’ with a rating that more widely covered ‘adult’ content and restricted admission to the over-16s (later over-18s). The ‘H’ – which had barely been used – was quickly forgotten. A pity in a way – I rather imagine that Hammer Films would’ve worn the ‘H’ as a badge of honour just a few years later.

Here is a complete list of the films that were given the ‘H’ certificate, bearing in mind the lack of available, confirmable information currently available. BBFC records are, of course woefully inaccurate – for instance, The Mad Ghoul is listed on their awful website as being passed ‘X’ in 1945, six years before that certificate existed. This is the most exhaustive listing of ‘H’ certified films that we can find, as listed in 1973 by Denis Gifford and cross-referenced with the BBFC.

May 1937: The Thirteenth Chair

April 1938: J’Accuse

January 1939: Son of Frankenstein
March 1939: The Monster Walks
April 1939: Boy Slaves
June 1939: The Dark Eyes of London
July 1939: Hell’s Kitchen
September 1939: A Child is Born
September 1939: The Man They Could Not Hang
November 1939: The Return of Dr X

September 1941: The Monster and the Girl
November 1941: The Monster Walked

April 1943: The Bride of Frankenstein

November 1945: United Nations War Crimes Film
December 1945: The Invisible Man’s Revenge
December 1945: The Return of the Vampire

January 1946: The Mad Ghoul
June 1946: The Corpse Vanishes
July 1946: The Mummy’s Curse

August 1946: The Mysterious Doctor
September 1946: The Vampire’s Ghost
December 1946: The Jungle Captive

January 1947: The Mummy’s Ghost

May 1948: The Fall of the House of Usher
June 1948: Tall, Dark and Gruesome

Denis Gifford also claimed in his 1973 book A Pictorial History of Horror Movies that the following were certified ‘H’ but there is no evidence to back this up and some of them seem unlikely candidates even by the standards of the time. However, I would trust obsessive researcher Gifford above the BBFC website:

June 1939: The Gorilla – first BBFC listing: June 1939 rated A
August 1939: On Borrowed Time – first BBFC listing: August 1939 rated A
November 1939: The Cat and the Canary – first BBFC listing: September 1939 rated A

1942: The Ghost of Frankenstein – first BBFC listing: September 1954, rated X

February 1946: The Lady and the Monster (The Lady and the Doctor) – first BBFC listing: February 1946 rated ‘A’
March 1946: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – first BBFC listing: September 1954 rated X
April 1946: The Ape Man – first BBFC listing: September 1951 rated X
June 1946: Voodoo Man – first BBFC listing: August 1949 rated A
July 1946: House of Frankenstein – first BBFC listing: July 1956 rated X

January 1947: The Mummy’s Tomb – first BBFC listing: January 1952 rated X

January 1948: House of Dracula – first BBFC listing: February 1957 rated X
June 1948: Dead Men Walk – first BBFC listing: March 1953 rated X
June 1948: The Monster Maker – not listed by the BBFC

July 1950: Captive Wild Woman – first BBFC listing: December 1951 rated X

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2 comments

  1. There’s a funny story that the BBFC only passed The Mad Monster with an X in 1954 (12 years after it was made), providing cinemas put a notice up stating that the public shouldn’t think that animal blood is used in regular blood transfusions!

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