By George Bass (Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist)
We Brits may view Halloween as an American import, but when it comes to films to enjoy with our candy pumpkins and spider cookies, horror fans would be lost without help from our mother continent: Europe. Filmmakers from both sides of the Channel have shaped many iconic TV and film frighteners: for every dismembered babysitter care of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, there are Swedish bloodsuckers in Let the Right One In (2008), Spanish ghosts in The Orphanage (2007), and the first screen vampire in Germany’s Nosferatu (1922). So, this year, in between the slashers and J-Horror, why not mix in some continental tales of dread? Here are nine of our favourites:
The Ghoul (1933)
T. Hayes Hunter’s macabre tale of Egyptology and resurrection may have been shot at Lime Grove Studios, but it was in 1960s Czechoslovakia that a nitrate print of the film was discovered after being thought lost for three decades. Like the story, which follows a wronged professor brought back to life by the mysterious jewel of Anubis, The Ghoul would eventually be resurrected in full, meaning horror fans can today enjoy Boris Karloff’s murderous rampage and extraordinary eyebrow work in high definition. Proof that mummification sometimes pays off.
The Dark Eyes of London (1939)
When you think of Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi, it’s easy to connect him to Dracula (1931), and the cloak-wearing Transylvanian count stalking the streets of London. But despite that film’s fangs and bloodletting, it would be eight years later that Lugosi would star in the first picture to be passed as H (for Horrific for Public Exhibition). This adaption of Edgar Wallace’s novel is as unsettling as you’d expect of a Lugosi vehicle, particularly one which focuses on a physician who slaughters his patients to collect their medical insurance. Featuring evil henchmen, river electrocutions, and the star actor in signature terrifying make-up, pre-war London has rarely looked as menacing.
The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)
East Germany’s answer to televised panto, The Singing Ringing Tree is an original fairy tale about a communist princess imprisoned by an evil dwarf. The fact it was frequently aired as part of BBC’s Tales From Europe series meant it no doubt caused many young British viewers to suffer night terrors in the afternoon. It’s hard to tell what’s scariest: the bear that looks like Leatherface? The winking goldfish the size of a Trabant engine? It certainly made a strong impression on members of The Fast Show: their spoof is almost as unnerving as the real thing.
The Headless Ghost (1959)
This light-hearted horror shows what could happen if you sign up to a continental exchange scheme. Danish student Liliane Sottane is one of three visitors to the supposedly haunted Ambrose Castle. With her American buddies David Rose and Richard Lyon in tow, she decides to spend the night inside its battlements in the hope of catching a glimpse of the decapitated former owner. What she finds instead is a plethora of ghosts, who throw dinner parties, recite incantations, and frustrate the local coppers. The film only needs a talking Great Dane to be the perfect precursor to Scooby-Doo.
The Human Jungle (‘A Friend of the Sergeant Major’, 1963)
Like Jimmy McGovern’s crime series Cracker (1993), ITV’s The Human Jungle follows a psychiatrist (Czech actor Herbert Lom) as he unpicks his clients’ often dangerous behaviour patterns. In the episode ‘A Friend of the Sergeant Major’, directed by Hammer veteran Don Sharp, our shrink tries to get to the bottom of a mysterious breakdown on a German army base, and determine why exactly career soldier Alfred Burke would vandalise a bar and risk dishonourable discharge. There are no ghosts or zombies stoking the characters’ fears here, just something even more chilling: professional disgrace.
Death Line (1972)
With London attracting over six million visitors from Europe annually, it was only a matter of time before one of the city’s most famous landmarks would receive a film of its own. Gary Sherman’s cannibal horror Death Line wasn’t the tube’s first appearance on the big screen, but it remains its most striking: the cavernous tunnels are home to the last of a race of subterranean predators (Hugh Armstrong), descended from 19th Century diggers trapped during a cave-in. Armstrong very nearly outshines co-stars Donald Pleasance and Christopher Lee with his pained cries of “Mind the doors!”, the only English he knows. No wonder today’s commuters all sport noise-cancelling headphones.
The Monster (1975)
This thriller from Hungarian-born director Peter Sasdy took the most diabolical of MacGuffins, the devil child as used by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), and nudged it into farce. Joan Collins is the stripper who escapes into the middle classes, but is cursed by sideshow dwarf George Claydon for the child to grow up into Beelzebub. After the infant trashes his nursery without moving from his cot and beheads her GP, she starts to take the prophecy seriously. Can she save her son before he begins to sprout horns? Could learning some Latin incantations really help her?
The Medusa Touch (1978)
Martian invasion The War of the Worlds wasn’t the only dystopic sci-fi that Richard Burton fronted during the late ‘70s: this whodunnit sees him playing writer John Morlar, who’s found beaten almost to death in his London flat. It’s up to dogged French detective Monsieur Brunel to investigate how he survived, and whether the grouchy novelist is capable of triggering disasters via psychokinesis. In our current age of cyberattacks, the scene where Morlar wills an airliner to crash is even more chilling now than it was in 1978.
Tales of the Unexpected (‘The Eavesdropper’, 1982)
This episode of ITV’s series of Roald Dahl adaptions focuses on paranoia, and how easy it is to fall into its web. We follow respectable Dorothy Tutin as she dines out for lunch, and begins to discretely tune into the conversation at the next table: could one of the two women with their backs to her be having an affair with her husband? If not, why is the other woman wearing the watch that our heroine’s hubby lost? As the conversation reveals details of a tryst in Paris, it looks like the city of love could well receive a lethal bout of English indignation.