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Page Boy

As this month’s blog coincides with the publication of my new book - by this very publishing house - I hope that you will excuse a modicum of self-indulgence. I would like to take this opportunity to explain a little about Urban Terrors: what it’s about and how and why it came to be. The sort of stuff that might easily have been included as some sort of preface. However, as the book already includes a prologue, an introduction, a Foreword (by the legendary Mr Sean Pertwee), an author’s note, a dedication, a contents page and a copyright page - frankly, there wouldn’t have been any room for a preface even if I’d written one. The reader would have been halfway through the book before they’d even started.

      It was back in 2010 that I started writing these monthly musings at the invitation of Mr Denis Meikle, proprietor of Hemlock Books - a ploy which I at one stage thought might have been a cunning attempt to get a book-length manuscript out of me 2,000 words at a time without my noticing. For Denis was aware that my long-awaited Elsa Lanchester biography had been announced by Tomahawk Press as ‘coming soon’ for the best part of a decade (not my fault: I was all set to finish it off during my imminent redundancy four years ago when I carelessly went and landed a new job).

      It was on the Hemlock Books staff outing to Margate last year that DM cornered me by the whelk stall and asked 'When are you going to write a book for me?' 'Oh, I don’t know,' sez I. 'What would I write about?' To which Denis astutely replied, 'Well, you’re always banging on about that so-called "British Horror Revival". Why don’t you do something about that?' Now, truth be told, I had been contemplating a book on what I now habitually shorten to the ‘BHR’ for quite some time. Not too long, obviously, on account of the phrase only having been coined (not by me) in 2002 and the whole thing, with the best will in the world, extending no further back than 1997. But long enough.


      It had been evident to me for some time that there was an unarguable renaissance in British horror film-making, predominantly among the low-budget, independent sector. I was in a good position to both notice this and comment on it, as I had been working on SFX in the late 1990s and had afterwards established my website MJSimpson.co.uk where I have reviewed all manner of new British indie flicks, as well as interviewing their casts and crews. Over the years I have been sent many screeners, hot off the Avid, not just by mates whom I have got to know through the old freelance journalism but also by complete strangers who have spotted that my site is generally sympathetic to these sorts of films and who value my honest, informed, sometimes absurdly detailed criticism.

      But what sort of book should I write? How could these many, varied films be grouped. (Because one thing I was damn sure I didn’t want to do was just some alphabetically-arranged film guide.) There was a story to be told here, but it was actually many stories, happening to many people, simultaneously but at very different speeds, intersecting without any overall pattern - and not yet over. Should I look at each director in turn? Not really viable: many of these people had made a single film. Perhaps I could group the films thematically? I really tried with that, but many of the films fell into no obvious thematic group while others fell into more than one. To pick just one example, The Zombie Diaries is a found-footage picture (like Vampire Diary and My Little Eye), an anthology (like Cradle of Fear) and, obviously, a zombie picture (I’m sure you can name plenty of them).

      In the end, I was reduced to printing out the titles of the 100+ films, cutting up the paper into little bits and then shuffling them around on my living room floor, trying to find some way that they could be arranged into a reasonable number of logical groups without any stragglers. Eventually I went by year - which might seem bleedin’ obvious but is actually nowhere near as simple as it might be for any other group of films. Everybody who writes about films knows that there’s an insoluble problem around film dates. Some people, for example, list The Curse of Frankenstein as a 1957 film because that’s when it was released, but others list it as 1956 because that’s when it was made. And really, what matters is consistency and a note somewhere indicating which way you’re swinging on this one.

      Clearly if the focus of your work is on the critical or popular reception of a film, then it should be grouped with other movies released at the same time, irrespective of when they were made. Or, if your book/article is concerned with the making of the film, perhaps from the POV of one of the cast or crew, then the year of production is relevant and it should be grouped with other films made around then. In the vast majority of cases, whichever option you choose, the group of associated titles will be roughly the same. Because throughout history, films have generally got made then got released a few months later (so either the same year or the next). Sometimes problematic movies sat on the shelf for a while, but those were the exceptions.

      Also, films had a clear ‘release date’. It was documented in the trades and it was when the film went on general theatrical release in its home territory. Sometimes it could be tricky working out where the ‘home territory’ was for an international co-production, but again that was exceptional. For the vast majority of movies, this data was straightforward. Not any more though. Quite a number of the films in Urban Terrors never played cinemas. A fair few have never been released in the UK. A couple had played cinemas but never had a home format release. Increasingly, even DVD is being seen as just one of many options. As for production, some of these films were made in less than a week, others were shot at weekends over four years. There’s no consistency. Well, maybe just one.

      I realised that what all the films I wanted to include had in common was that they had all been distributed in some form or another, in one or more territories. To this day, many films get made, play a few festivals and then disappear for good. I wasn’t bothered about those. I might have included them in an appendix if I had had the room. But I didn’t, so I was forced to remove my own appendix. I decided that the best approach would be to group the films together by year, based on that first date of commercial release - whether that was theatrical, VHS, DVD or VOD. Within each year, I was free to shuffle films around in order to provide some semblance of narrative flow. For example, the much ballyhooed company Four Horsemen Films only made two pictures, released a full year apart, but by putting the awful Octane at the end of the 2003 section and the even worse LD50 near the start of 2004 (even though it was first released in November of that year), I was able to give a sense of structure to the rise and fall of Four Horsemen.

      The first few films in the book are lumped together as ‘The 1990s’, which brings me to the question I am expecting to be asked most often about this book (although I haven’t actually been asked it yet, so consider this a pre-emptive strike). Why does the book cover the period from 1997 to 2008. Why not a nice, neat decade like 2000-2009? Well, the glib (but accurate) answer is that the book covers these years because this was the period during which the films in the book were released. Or, to put it another way, I believe that the BHR is an identifiable and discussable cinematic movement, and that it started in 1997.


      There have been other books looking at specific decades of British horror cinema, and I have no doubt that someone will, before long, write about the period 2000-2009. But any book about a decade - whatever the subject - is by definition about a completely arbitrary slice of history. Singularities don’t happen at the start and end of decades, or centuries. Historians often nowadays talk about ‘the long 19th century’ which ran from 1789 to 1914, on the grounds that the key singularities were the French Revolution and World War 1. Writing about the British Horror Revival but starting in 2000 would be like writing about the Golden Age of British Horror but starting in 1960. Just as The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 (or 1956, whatever) signalled the start of the first British horror boom, so the current boom, though in a sense it started in 2002 with Dog Soldiers, 28 Days Later and My Little Eye, really started at the end of the previous decade.

      There are two main themes to the BHR, and hence to my book. One is the modern style of combining horror with social realism, eschewing the genre’s gothic traditions for stories set in contemporary Britain - but retaining all the zombies, vampires, ghosts and psychos that we love. The first film to do this - noted by all the critics at the time - was Julian Richards’ Darklands, released in 1997. This was followed by Chris Jones’ Urban Ghost Story and Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain. I maintain that any consideration of the BHR cannot be complete without considering those three key films.

      Okay, so why does it all wrap up in 2008? Well, the other theme of the book is changes in marketing and distribution. I, Zombie is an important film there - the first successful British horror movie to make its mark not in cinemas, not even through rental, but as a sell-through VHS tape. Over the next few years, with the introduction of DVDs and especially of online promotion and sales, the whole UK film distribution system changed beyond all recognition. Instead of an audience consisting solely of people who could get to a certain cinema or a certain video store (or bought a certain fanzine), suddenly absolutely anyone in the country - indeed, the world - could read about, maybe even buy, your little horror movie.

      Denis had given me 100,000 words for the book, with a 10% tolerance, and I wanted to write an average of about a thousand words, give or take, on each film, so I was looking at about 100-110 movies. My original list ran to 92 films if I cut it off at the end of 2008. Over the course of writing, I added some more titles, dropped a few others, and ended up at 114 films. But there is more to that 2008 cut-off point than simply running out of pages. The very last UK horror film released that year, on Boxing Day, was Steven Shiel’s magnificent Mum and Dad - the first ever British film released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, on demand and online. If that’s not a (very convenient) singularity, I don’t know what is.

      Am I going to write a second volume is another question I haven’t yet been asked. Probably not. I wrote two books on one subject before and got typecast. I’ve got a local history book I want to write next, or maybe finish my half-completed book on space exploration. Or maybe I’ll finally get round to finishing off that biography of Elsa. But for now, I’m enjoying my first book in nearly a decade. And I genuinely hope that you will too.



MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.