Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s new film Ghost Stories is part of a long tradition of the British obsession with ghosts. Drawing inspiration from British folklore and classic literature, British ghost movies are characterised by stately manors, volatile women, and very subtle ghouls. Here are ten of the best British or British-themed ghost stories from the big and little screen.
Top 10 British Ghost Story Movies
Dead of Night (1945)
Ealing Studios mostly made excellent dark comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Wartime censorship in Britain meant that no true horror films could be made. Once peace was declared, Ealing went against type to make Dead of Night, an anthology horror film about a group of strangers brought together to tell their spooky tales.
Dead of Night still has the charm and quirkiness that made an Ealing Studios films so fun to watch but with a surprising commitment to the darkness of the genre. As each tale is told the framing story becomes more fraught and desperate, culminating in a terrifying descent into madness at the climax.
With the exception of the rather tedious The Golfing Story, the stories are excellent. Ventriloquist’s Dummy is the obvious standout, telling the tale of Maxwell Freer (Michael Redgrave) who is tormented by his puppet alter-ego, Hugo, who seems to have a mind of his own.
There are two traditional ghost stories. The Christmas Story sees a group of children play hide and seek in a spooky mansion only for young Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) to find someone unexpected. The Haunted Mirror is about a man who becomes obsessed with the visions offered to him by an antique mirror, driving him to madness. Most of these stories could be described as psychological horror, but the chilly gothic atmosphere represents an important aspect of the aesthetics of the British Ghost Story, as well as the dark sense of humour.
Night of the Demon (1957)
MR James was one of the key figures in Victorian Ghost Stories (and we shall draw from his work again later). His short story Casting the Runes was adapted by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, The Leopard Man) into his horror masterpiece Night of the Demon. Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England and begins investigating the mysterious and grisly death of his colleague. His investigation leads him to a satanic cult and a terrible curse that will befall whoever possesses a cursed piece of parchment.
As with most of James’ ghost stories, a fair amount of time is spent in the archives investigating the threat, building the tension before climaxing in a great horror set-piece. The scenes in which Dr. Holden must give the parchment to the cult leader before the time expires and the demon appears is very suspenseful, doubtlessly inspiring a similar sequence in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell.
There was a dispute in the production as to whether or not to show the Demon on screen. Eventually, they decided to do so and it’s good that they did as the effect is one of the most shocking and bizarre ever put to film. It materialises out of smoke and smolders in the distance, advancing on its victims. The effect has aged marvelously well. The film encapsulates the dread of the classic British Ghost Stories as a supernatural threat gets ever closer.
The Innocents (1961)
Miss Giddens is a governess, caring for two children in a large country estate that is otherwise empty…or is it?! Giddens comes to fear that the estate is haunted by the jealous ghosts of the previous housekeepers who now seek to possess the children.
Based on the Henry James novel and adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote, what’s most engaging about The Innocents is its palpable atmosphere. The gorgeous black and white photography by Freddie Francis (who himself directed some excellent horror films for Hammer and Amicus, as well as serving as cinematographer on The Elephant Man and Scorsese’s Cape Fear) captures the sinister unease of the house.
There are many modern horror tropes in the film. Mysterious voices that appear to come from nowhere, jump scares as faces appear in reflective surfaces, but all are in service of the unnerving atmosphere that pervades the film. Director Jack Clayton knows when to scare the audience and when to keep them in suspense. The quiet menace of the film is a staple of British Ghost Stories.
The Haunting (1963)
Legendary director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) adapts Shirley Jackson’s notorious ghost story The Haunting of Hill House into one of the best horror films ever made. The film starts with a grisly history of Hill House including misery, tragedy, and several suicides. The notion of history returning to haunt the present is ever-present in these ghost stories. Perhaps the very concept of ghosts is scary exactly because they represent the past incarnate.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) wishes to investigate the paranormal activity of the house and so invites a psychic named Theo (Claire Bloom) and a quiet woman named Nell (Julie Harris) who claims to have seen a poltergeist as a child. Russ Tamblyn also attends to remind modern audiences of Twin Peaks throughout (a very prescient move by Wise).
Hill House is a marvelously designed haunted mansion. There are strange angles and deep shadows all accentuated by Davis Boulton’s photography. He and Wise planned the camera movements to disorientate the viewer. The Haunting remains a thoroughly disquieting experience with a palpable sense of dread.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
A Ghost Story for Christmas was a brilliant series of short horror films broadcast by the BBC between 1971 and 1978, mostly directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. The films adapted horror stories by MR James, Charles Dickens, and others. These stories perfectly encapsulate the dread, creepiness, and yet charming quaintness that is synonymous with the British Horror Film. What other ghost stories could be enjoyed so comfortably at Christmas?
Before these movies was an episode of the British teleplay series, Omnibus, entitled Whistle and I’ll Come to You which greatly influenced the series and is usually counted as a part of the strand. The short film stars Michael Hordern as a fusty old professor undertaking a walking holiday along England’s East Coast. One day he finds a whistle inscribed “who is this who is coming?”. He cheerfully blows on it and over the next few days is haunted in his dreams by a bizarre spirit.
The stark British coast is an ideal setting for this sparse tale of a subtle but terrifying haunting. The Britain of the Christmas ghost stories feels deserted, leaving lots of quiet places to encounter something dreadful. The ghost of Whistle and I’ll Come to You appears as a sheet blowing in the wind, suspended presumably upon the true, invisible form of the spectre. The dream sequences in which this apparition advances on a terrified Hordern (who plays the role masterfully) ranks amongst the scariest ever filmed.
The Stone Tapes (1972)
Jane Asher (sporting the largest collar the BBC could afford in the seventies) is part of a research team investigating paranormal activity at an old Victorian Mansion. They believe the stones of the house are acting as a recording medium that has captured past tragedies. But as they dig deeper they discover something far more malevolent.
Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale wrote the screenplay for The Stone Tapes and once again blends horror and science fiction to create something as theoretically interesting as it is spine-tingling. The concept of “residual haunting” has actually become known as “The Stone Tape Theory”. It’s a film of ideas but also has an excellent chilling darkness that grows throughout.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
British filmmaker Nicholas Roeg specialised in surreal and thought-provoking films like Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth. His only outright horror film was Don’t Look Now and it ranks as one of the scariest films ever made.
John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) are in Venice recovering from the death of their little girl. They encounter blind psychics, scary visions, and glimpses of a young girl, wearing the same coat that their child died in, running about the ancient labyrinthine city.
Unconventional editing and disarming intimacy characterise the visually stunning and emotionally charged film. Featuring both one of the most erotic lovemaking scenes and one of the most brutal murder sequences ever filmed, it’s a film of great breadth encapsulating so much of the experience of grief. The film builds to a truly terrifying conclusion, one of the scariest sequences ever filmed.
If you found yourself watching BBC1 on Halloween Night 1992 you may have caught Ghostwatch. Appearing to be a live TV documentary hosted by the very face of broadcasting integrity Michael Parkinson. The documentary concerned a family living with a poltergeist. As you continued to watch you may be surprised as strange things start to happen to the family and in the studio.
In retrospect, it’s fairly obviously not a documentary, but instead, a very effective horror film shot to look like one. However, a large number of viewers were fooled by the film and the BBC received 30,000 calls, presumably all enquiring if the newly demonically possessed Michael Parkinson would still be interviewing Rod Hull later in the week.
Aside from the playfulness of this subterfuge, which included hiding the ghost in the background of various scenes to frighten eagle-eyed viewers, the film still works as a very modern ghost story in which hapless BBC investigators are gradually failed by all of their safety procedures and must come face to face with the ghastly “Pipes”. It’s also a haunting reminder of the early career of Craig Charles.
The Others (2001)
Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) lives with her two children in a remote country house shortly after the end of the Second World War. She hires three new housekeepers who soon discover there is something very strange about the house, Stewart and her children.
Clearly influenced by The Innocents and The Haunting, The Others is a slow-burning chiller that offers a superb atmosphere and terrifying surprises. It also features a very memorable twist.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Susan Hill wrote some spectacular gothic novels that made great use of the sinister quietness of the foggy British countryside. The finest of these is perhaps The Woman in Black which was adapted to the screen twice, once by Nigel Kneale for ITV (a wonderful and under-seen horror film) and again by Hammer Film Productions in 2012.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a lawyer who is tasked with settling the estate of the deceased owner of Eel Marsh House. The house is a sinister structure built onto a marsh, the rising water of which cuts it off from the rest of civilisation every evening. As he works away in the house’s grand rooms he begins to notice a sinister presence.
This production is unarguably less subtle than the 1989 film but is buoyed by a marvelous performance by Radcliffe who carries most of the film without dialogue. As with many modern ghost stories, this gets a little noisy and senseless near the end, but for the most part, the horror set pieces build great tension to their jump scares.