A Book Review by Alex Brannan.
Steven Gerrard’s The Modern British Horror Film (Rutgers University Press, 2017) is a slim, pocketbook-sized volume. It is part of the Quick Takes series, which provides “succinct overviews” of distinct avenues of cinema. While entries in this series are at least partially summative in their examination of genre, they also look at how films in a given genre interact thematically in the broader cinematic landscape. For Gerrard, this pursuit makes for a proving ground. “When multiplexes show the latest Hollywood blockbuster across seven screens and hard-earned cash has been wasted on a film that panders to the most easily satisfied of film audiences,” Gerrard writes, “perhaps the main point of this book will then become apparent” (26). In a global box office that is increasingly dominated by Hollywood, Gerrard sets out to defend British horror as a genre of equal, if not superior, aesthetic merit to Hollywood horror.
As such, the films that he provides analyses of are sometimes not as familiar to non-British audiences. He tackles an international hit like The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012), but adamantly refuses to give credence to one of the biggest horror films coming out of Britain since the Hammer era, 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). Instead, he opts to discuss the Ray Stevenson Nazi zombie vehicle Outpost (Steve Barker, 2008). Gerrard seems more compelled to explore the hidden gems than the mainstream successes, mainly to drive home his point that British horror is an underappreciated genre.
While one need only to look at United States domestic grosses to see that he is correct in his point, sometimes, due to his title selection, the well of critical analysis runs dry. The through-line of argumentation in the book is that the post-Hammer revival of British horror was not accompanied with the studio backing of Hollywood productions or the critical exposure of J-horror films, but instead it has long-lasting appeal through an ability to “engage and critique the society in which [the films] so obviously belong” (24). The first chapter illustrates this distinction concisely, as it isolates a clearly British subgenre of horror: hoodie horror. The films discussed in this chapter – Heartless (Philip Ridley, 2009), F (Johannes Roberts, 2010), and Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008) – exemplify a sociopolitical fear of youth culture that is perpetuated by right-wing British media. The “hoodie” persona became a symbol of this fear. Gerrard looks at how the three films depict, in slightly different ways, this persona as a monstrous threat borne out of differences in generation, class, and social standing. For the uninitiated, it is a well-rounded introduction into the hoodie horror subgenre.
The subsequent two chapters, however, stray from the central conceit of modern British horror as societal critique. In discussing the Gothic in chapter two, Gerrard makes clear the distinctive Britishness of early Gothic literature. Setting, both natural and man-made, is an undeniably crucial aspect of the works of Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, whose Gothic texts laid the groundwork for early horror cinema. But the settings that Gerrard goes on to discuss in the chapter are not entirely British, even though he frames his analyses around setting. Severance (Christopher Smith, 2006), a horror comedy, features British people attacked during a business trip in Hungary. The Triangle (Smith, 2009) features characters caught in a time loop while vacationing in Florida. And The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) features a group of backpackers who get trapped in a cave while spelunking in North Carolina. The films are British productions, and Gerrard’s takes on them have merit, but they do not adhere to the author’s sociopolitical thesis. The Descent was shot in United Kingdom, and Severance partially so, but all three films tell stories about the natural world outside of the United Kingdom. Gerrard returns to the Gothic in chapter three with discussion of The Woman in Black and, by doing so, steers the conversation back to Britain. Given the film’s international success and its roots in both British literary tradition and the famous British horror studio Hammer, the analysis reads more apropos of Gerrard’s main argument. Even so, the film is a period piece that does not seem to represent societal concerns or fears of contemporary Britain, and Gerrard does not provide any evidence to the contrary.
Obviously, it is not a requirement that films within a geographically-defined subgenre maintain an identity synonymous with that geographic place. All the films discussed in The Modern British Horror Film are British productions, at least in part. It is Gerrard’s passionate conclusion that makes the claim that modern British horror films have something to say about British society. He chooses nine films out of this modest subgenre of modern British horror to discuss, and he only manages to link a handful of these case studies to critical views of British society. Although all his analyses are eloquently composed, there is a fundamental error in either the construction of his thesis or the selection of films.
The other major point made in his concluding statement is that there is a clear divide in British horror between the old guard and the new. Given how often his analyses lead to paratextual critiques and an emphasis on industry, this point comes off as a better thesis statement than the one he chose. His knowledge of Hammer and desire to separate contemporary horror from the outdated Hammer oeuvre is a perfect platform from which to explore the modern British horror subgenre. It is also a distinction that could have helped his crusade to give modern British horror a place in the canon of genre filmmaking.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.