One man’s mission to watch, review or simply acknowledge the existence of the endless number of zero-budget British horror films made – so far – during the 21st Century.
How many horror films are made in Britain each year, on average? Five? Ten? Twenty if you include low-budget nonsense few people have heard of? According to somewhat obsessive documenter of the subgenre (and occasional Reprobate contributor) MJ Simpson, it’s about a hundred.
Simpson has recently completed his third volume of books covering 21st Century British Horror Films, a self-published encyclopaedic catalogue of every feature-length horror movie that can stake a reasonable claim to Britishness and was released in the first two decades of this century. Across the three volumes, he has reviewed 1,051 movies, the annual output rising exponentially through the noughties before settling down to a steady 80-100 features per annum.
While you might reasonably assume that to reach this figure he has cast his net pretty wide, MJ insists that his definition of ‘British horror film’ is actually quite conservative.
“You have to establish parameters with a project like this,” he says, “since concepts such as ‘horror’, ‘British’ and indeed ‘film’ are highly debatable. My criteria boil down to this. First, was it marketed as a horror film? Was it reviewed by horror mags and sites? Did it play horror festivals?
“Second, was it marketed as British? Or does it feel British? Irrespective of where it was shot, was it primarily paid for with British money? And third, I define a feature film as anything not made specifically for television and at least 60 minutes long.”
This is in contrast to the work of MJ’s friend Darrell Buxton, whose vast Pass The Marmalade online listing of all British horror films ever is inclusive of anything even slightly British or even tangentially horror, and which – like the BFI – defines a feature as anything over 45 minutes.
“If I took the same approach as Darrell, the books would be twice the size,” says Simpson. “There’s no right or wrong in these things. You just have to set out your criteria and be prepared to be fuzzy around the edges. But however you measure it, if you’re consistent on both sides of the millennium, it’s clear that there have been vastly more horror films made in this country in the past 20 years than in the preceding 80.”
Mention of the BFI brings up the topic of budgets. The Institute’s annual data on British film production rather oddly – and some might say elitistly – only considers pictures costing half a million pounds or more, which disqualifies the vast majority of films made in the UK.
“I doubt if there are more than twenty features in the whole set of books that would meet the BFI’s criteria,” says Simpson. “Most UK films are made for under a hundred grand, often well under. Production costs are tiny nowadays: no equipment rental, no film stock, no processing. You can shoot with a crew of two or three people and everyone, including the actors, gets paid. The filmmaker can then turn a profit by selling to distributors and streaming services. Of course, there are also plenty of amateurs making horror features for fun with their mates. If it was made, it meets my criteria and I can watch it – that’s a British horror film.”
What about quality? “I would say about a third of these films are good, sometimes excellent. A third are poor, sometimes utterly awful – they are the least fun to watch but the most fun to write about. And about a third or either middling or patchy. And twas ever so. People look at things like Hammer and Amicus through rose-tinted blu-rays but there has never been a truly golden age of British horror cinema. We sing the praises of The Wicker Man and try to quietly ignore The Blood Beast Terror…
“Thematically, there was a real vogue in the noughties – actually it kicked off right at the end of the nineties – for social realist horror. Films about ghosts, vampires, evil cults etc set in the bleak mundanity of British housing estates, whether middle-class suburbia or grim tower blocks. There has been a real reaction against the clichés of Victorian gothic. Something like The Woman in Black is about as atypical as it’s possible to get. Like some of the other high profile, heavily marketed films – Ghost Stories is another one – it’s actually a fairly poor movie but it’s what people have heard of if they’ve heard of anything.”
What most distinguishes 21st-century British horror from pre-2000 films, according to Simpson, is the range of distribution channels.
“When theatrical release was the only way to see a film, it was fairly easy to document what got made. It was all listed in the trade mags. Straight-to-video indies started to complicate matters, and now it’s the wild west. Films might be released on any streaming service, or on DVD in any country. Often they have no festival play or sometimes they take years to appear. Some perfectly good films have just been put straight onto YouTube.
“There’s no single place that documents everything that gets released. So researching these books was a massive job and had to be done in real-time, by making spreadsheets and constantly monitoring things like German Amazon or actors’ pages on Mandy.com. Sometimes it was just regular googling of titles I’d seen references to several years earlier in the hope they might have popped up on DVD in Argentina or South Africa or somewhere.”
Of the 1,051 films in his books, Simpson has seen about 95%. Some have proved simply impossible to locate and may now in fact be lost forever.
“In the early days of streaming, there were services like Indiereign and Distrify that picked up some of these films but have since gone bust. So where does that leave us? There are no prints, no negatives, no tapes, no discs. In some cases, I was able to track down the director and blag a screener, but there are some films in these books that have disappeared into the same black hole as London After Midnight. And there might conceivably still be a print of that somewhere!
“That’s one of the main reasons why I wrote these books: to document the undocumented while it was still documentable. But I set myself an absolute cut-off point of 31st December 2019 because otherwise we’re in Achilles and the tortoise territory. Anything released after that is outside my remit. There are some great sites reviewing UK horror films, but they’re not as obsessive as me, mostly sticking to stuff on Amazon Prime or UK discs. All the obscure stuff, the movies on YouTube, the films sold through someone’s Facebook page, that’s all slipping away, unnoticed.”
Simpson’s three volumes – Dog Soldiers and Doghouses (2000-2011), White Settlers and Women in Black (2012-2015) and Killer Clowns and Demonic Dolls (2016-2019) – have all been produced in a limited run of just 100 copies each. They are only available direct from the author via mjsimpson.bigcartel.com. Copies will also be on sale in January 2023 at Horror-on-Sea in Southend, by which time a final volume – an addendum of unreleased and unfinished films – should also be available.
After which, Simpson emphasises, he has no intention of watching any more modern horror films for a very long time, and will instead detox his viewing habits with a non-stop diet of Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.
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