“I think we saw a lot more films where the victims were neither innocent nor particularly likable. It felt like the genre was saying – the party’s over, time to pay the price.”Sarah Dobbs, Chillenial Horrors Podcast
To coincide with our pod episode discussing J-Horror we’re also looking at the national horror traditions of two countries nearer to home. First up, Russell Bailey unpacks the curious and bloody history of British Horror in the 2000s…
There was a movement across the globe in the 00s – perhaps born out of a reaction to the sleek horrors of 90s or events outside of the multiplexes – that was meaner, nastier and altogether more unforgiving. France had the New French Extremity, America had torture porn and in South Korea we got a series of extreme works which grew out of the end of censorship. And it was big business, with the mega franchises of Saw and Paranormal Activity sitting comfortably next to hit remakes like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead.
Here in the UK we got a series of horror films that shared some of that nastier DNA: works that were lean, mean and came with a wicked sense of humour.
“If you take three of the biggest British horror movies of the 2000s – The Descent, Eden Lake and 28 Days Later – they all tap into a distrust of human beings, and fears of where we were heading.”Mike Muncer, Evolution of Horror
Many of the stand out films of the era were rooted in the culture that existed at the time. The sense of Western balance that seemed to exist in the 90s had been shattered, as paranoia and fear set in. In the UK in particular a number of works felt at least influenced by tabloid headlines about youths in revolt (Donkey Punch, Eden Lake, The Hole) with others focusing on crime and violence interrupting a domestic or familial setting (Mum & Dad, Hush, The Children). Some of these are exploitative and some used morally grey areas to effectively discomfort their audience. And many were very, very violent.
Furthermore the 2000s were a decade defined by a collection of filmmakers whose careers very much weaved around the annual August bank holiday horror bonanza that is FrightFest. Neil Marshall exploded onto the scene with the propulsive ‘squaddies vs. werewolves’ fun of Dog Soldiers and followed it up with one of the scariest British horrors ever made, The Descent. As well as screening the sequel to The Descent, Frightfest also hosted D-Day – a triple bill celebrating Marshall’s work – to coincide with the release of Doomsday.
“[FrightFest is] still the biggest horror festival in the UK and it has helped to boost the profile of a lot of films and filmmakers from around the world.”Jonathan Hatfull, Chillenials Horror Podcast
But Marshall was not the only director producing mean, interesting fare that caught the FrightFest team’s attention. Christopher Smith made the delightfully vile (although somewhat dated in its gender politics) Creep, the hilarious Severance (one of the better post-Shaun of the Dead films) and the gloriously ambitious, timey-wimey Triangle. All played FrightFest in one form or another, with the latter even opening the 2009 edition.
FrightFest has always felt like a genre thermometer, a good place to spot the trends and direction of travel for horror. Other British gems of this decade that played the festival include Marc Price’s Colin (the legend goes it was made for £45 and absolutely slays), Anthony DiBlasi’s Dread and the aforementioned Eden Lake and Mum & Dad from James Watkins and Steven Shiel respectively .
“When you’re writing a horror movie, you’ve got to write two movies. There’s the movie that’s gonna happen if the slasher doesn’t arrive, or the ghost doesn’t possess somebody, so the horror doesn’t start happening, and that should be enough to sustain a whole 90 minute movie – and then, half an hour or so in, that’s disrupted by the horror element crashing in and stuffing everything up.”James Moran, writer of Severance.
Horror often feels like an interruption but this was particularly pronounced in the 2000s. Perhaps it was world events filtering through but many of the stand out films of the era for British horror (The Cottage, The Descent, Shaun of the Dead) begin as one thing (a kidnapping, a holiday, the aftermath of a break up) before shifting into macabre territory.
Be it the indie roots of many of the films on this list (unlike their American counterparts, this is not a decade of franchises and remakes in the UK) or a thematic trend tapping into viewers’ sense of uncertainty, the 00s were an unpredictable time for its characters, with a nasty surprise just around the corner or – in the case in Severance – hidden in a nearby shrubbery.
But what are the ten films that feel essential to grasp this period of British horror?
A little note: on this list we’ve kept it to one film per director. This means that the likes of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, Christopher Smith’s Triangle, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Neil Marhsall’s Dog Soldiers are all absent.
And before we get into the films we have included it has to be acknowledged that some aspects of them have aged poorly, with humour often feeling mean-spirited and targeting specific groups of people. Some get beyond this better than others, but it is worth bearing in mind that twenty years of progress leaves some of these feeling pretty dated. The point here is not to celebrate every title discussed, but to acknowledge its influence in helping shape the genre landscape.
With that in mind strap in, as we break down the ten most important British horrors of the 00s…
10. LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS (2009)
We begin with one of the worst films ever made, a viewing experience so dreadful you’ll be surprised anyone had a career afterwards. Taking comedy duo James Corden and Matthew Horne the film plonks them in a rural village that happens to be rampant with lesbian vampires for the pair to kill.
Coming at a bizarre cultural nexus for Corden and Horne (this was the same year as the final series of Gavin & Stacey and their ill-judged sketch show) Lesbian Vampire Killers got everything wrong – from terribly drawn leads through to a confusing narrative (characters are built to be important before being unceremoniously turned into vampires and killed off) to an overall cheapness that means the film mostly takes place in a single room of a country house and one studio lot. There’s also a gross strain of misogyny throughout, that while not as egregious as in Dog House (don’t seek it out) is still unforgivable. Example: when the aforementioned blood suckers are killed they explode in a few litres of male ejeculate. I cringed just typing that.
But if you truly want to understand where British horror was at in the 00s (uncomfortably crossing into other genres with lashings of ‘Nuts’-style comedy, learning all the wrong lessons from Shaun of the Dead) then Lesbian Vampire Killers is the film to endure.
9. DEATHWATCH (2002)
British horror has a tendency to combine with firm staples of the nation’s cinema as a whole, with numerous examples where a gangster film or period drama are interrupted by something supernatural. And so it is with M.J. Bassett’s Deathwatch, set during World War One with a squadron of British soldiers who find themselves in abandoned trenches that somehow hold something worse than what’s in No Man’s Land.
While the middle is a tad muddled, Bassett’s film is still starkly effective with imagery that lingers long after the credits. Add to this is a great cast (Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Matthew Rhys) and you have a film certainly worth seeking out. Bassett’s sophomore effort, Wilderness, is also a lot of gory fun.
8. EDEN LAKE (2008)
Perhaps the nastiest British horror of the era, Eden Lake is like a fever dream of right wing tabloid hysteria when a couple (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender – both on their way to bigger things) find their weekend in the country ruined by a vicious pack of youths.
Sharing some DNA with the torture porn that was sweeping the States at the time, it’s brutally tense all the way to the nihilistic gut-punch finale. Unsurprisingly director James Watkins also previously wrote the equally mean-spirited My Little Eye.
Eden Lake is a bit of a relic of its era and, perhaps, the best example of horror tapping into an ugly mindset that can be found in British culture.
7. THE CHILDREN (2008)
What would you do if your children turned into murderous psychopaths? That’s the question at the heart of Tom Shankland’s nifty horror, a nasty little gem guaranteed to speak particularly to parents everywhere.
Whilst some of the performances are a tad ropey and the plot is guilty of a soap opera quality in the first half, what impresses most is the commitment to the set up: there’s no getting around the fact that children are killed on screen in vicious fashion. Shankland (and Paul Andrew Williams, who gets a writing credit here) hold their nerve right up until a finale that ends on a gloriously ambitious beat.
6. SEVERANCE (2006)
Christopher Smith’s follow up to his wonderfully vile Creep finds a group of office workers on an away day crossing paths with vicious mercenaries.
With an ensemble that includes Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens, Andy Nyman and Danny Dyer, Severance – from the casting to its mix of lad humour (of course Eastern European prostitutes turn up) and excessive violence – is the perfect example of the tropes of 00s Brit horrors. It also perhaps includes the most endearing Dyer performance ever put to film.
5. THE COTTAGE (2008)
Playing out like an extended episode of Inside No 9, The Cottage pairs Reece Shearsmith and Andy Serkis as brothers at the centre of a kidnap plot. A particularly funny pairing, their prickly dynamic keeps the laughs coming even as the narrative morphs from gangster drama to something decidedly more nasty.
Having impressed with the gruelling London to Brighton (and his latest Bull gaining critical acclaim) director Paul Andrew Williams is clearly having fun here as things escalate: body parts are hacked off, people die horribly and the brothers come together to bond over the bad times.
4. DEAD MAN’S SHOES (2004)
Shane Meadows is a director who’s dabbled with horror throughout his career (there are sequences in This Is England that are particularly traumatic) but the closest he got to the genre is this tale of righteous vengeance in the Midlands as a veteran returns home to right the wrongs that befell his brother.
Though more horror adjacent than outright scare-flick, Dead Man’s Shoes has some truly unnerving imagery and one of the most effective uses of a gas mask in cinema history. Wrenchingly sad and tapping into a sense of a place left behind, it contains a performance from Paddy Considine that showcases why he’s one of the finest actors of his generation.
3. 28 DAYS LATER (2002)
Of course the director of such outstanding British fare as Shallow Grave and Trainspotting would innovate the zombie genre. After a brief prologue, Danny Boyle’s film presents an eerily empty London (a long time before Covid emptied our streets) as Cillian Murphy encounters a terrifying version of the living dead (or – in this case – the infected). Mixing propulsive action with extended sequences of quiet humanity the apocalypse is portrayed in minute detail, all filmed in an engrossing handheld style.
While the last act may feel like a notch down from the opening, 28 Days Later still proves to be one of the best ‘end-of-the-world’ films, with stellar performances and a horrifying vision that has aged wonderfully.
The sequel is also effective – with a cracking opening sequence – and gives hope that we could still get a third instalment in 2030 for 28 Years Later. Pretty please.
2. THE DESCENT (2005)
Some horrors ease audiences in, using the first act to bring us into their world before the chaos is unleashed. And some films attack you right out of the gate, like The Descent which is a terrifying before our protagonists even meet the beasties that stalk the caves they’re exploring. As we watch this sextet squeeze through crawl spaces and become increasingly lost, our hearts never leave our throats.
Neil Marshall, following up the also great Dog Soldiers, crafts one of the very best British horror films ever made, with a raft of sympathetic, complicated characters going through a subterranean nightmare. It’s also unbelievably sad, from the opening accident that haunts the group right down to the bleakest (for the UK cut at least) ending possible, all shot with tight claustrophobia that uses minimal light and ink-black darkness.
Oh and you can avoid the sequel, which mostly serves as an exercise in why the original is so effective. Instead seek out The Ritual, which shares some DNA with Marshall’s work and has a truly terrifying monster in its finale.
1. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
Edgar Wright’s sophomore feature is, frankly, a masterpiece. One of the funniest comedies of its era and a charming love letter to the zombie sub-genre, it made stars of central pair Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and set Wright on the path to being recognised as one of the great directors of his generation.
On a narrative level Shaun is wonderfully efficient, with a simple set up – man sets about ‘rescuing’ his mum and recent ex during a zombie uprising – and a sprightly pace that keeps the momentum going even as the ghouls shuffle. Add to this is a rich strand of pathos with a genuinely likeable lead going through a terrible time and you have a film that’s as richly rewarding the second, third or hundredth time you watch it.
The film inspired a raft of other comedies (including several on this list) and its style has been adopted by many indie directors. Wright may have borrowed his quick cut montages from Raimi’s Evil Dead series and honed it whilst working on Spaced, but it’s Shaun that would breed a raft of imitators. The director’s ambition can also be seen in several other sequences, in particular a stand out pair of tracking shots as we follow Shaun to the corner shop (before and after the zombie outbreak).
It’s a testament to the director’s prowess that the best British horror comedy to follow his break-out hit was his follow up, Hot Fuzz. For some this is the superior work, but for its influence on cinema as a whole and – in particular – the horror genre, Shaun of the Dead is the essential film to understand British horror in the 00s.
Special thanks to Mike Muncer from Evolution of Horror and Jonathan & Sarah from the Chillenials Horrors podcast for chatting about this decade. They each have many fabulous episodes covering this decade for you to devour.