The Supernatural On Film Part 2


Films can shape writers as much as books. My love of the supernatural stems from the earliest films I saw, although none were from Hollywood except ‘The Haunting’. On Sundays we always had double cinema bills of old – sometimes very old – films. It was a great cheap way of catching up with what you’d missed.

The supernatural movies I saw this way were ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘The Innocents’, ‘Village of the Damned’, the Quatermass films and ‘Dead of Night’, one of the few anthology films that really works, along with ‘From Beyond The Grave’, with its eerie pairing of real-life father and daughter Donald and Angela Pleasance.

It always surprised me that there weren’t more British supernatural films, because supernatural literature was born in our hillsides and woodlands, from MR James to Robert Aickman. More recently, a movement of ‘rural folk supernatural’ films has appeared, citing titles like ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Wake Wood’, ‘Night of the Eagle’, ‘A Field In England’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s beautifully observed novel ‘The Loney’ returned to the rural supernatural by allowing religious elements back into nature as the early 20th century writers did, but we’ve lacked a film equivalent. Supernatural themes need a sense of the unknowable, and Hammer’s directors were far too unsubtle to allow for the mysterious.

The closest I can think of, oddly enough, is ‘Kill List’. Wheatley has – or at least can sometimes have – a sense of strangeness it’s hard to shake off, and the film’s late left-turn into the unknown leaves a real mark.

Hammer stands out more uniquely than ever now that its films have become a peculiar pastime for middle-aged-to-elderly folk to pore over as if they were trainspotting. The films that caused such outrage could now (mostly) be released under general certification, and can finally be seen for what they are – an interconnected series of European chamber fables, rich in folk lore and superstition.

They are static and verbose, replete with overheated arguments about good and evil, and feel like medieval morality plays or even puppet shows. Yet for all their cod philosophising and outmoded effects, they often have a curiously sinister and supernatural atmosphere that should be laughable but isn’t because everyone takes it so seriously. If I was putting together a showcase of say, six Hammer films that say something about the supernatural, I’d choose ‘Dracula, Prince of Darkness’, ‘Brides of Dracula’, ‘Plague of the Zombies’, ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’, ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ and ‘The Reptile’.

As a body of work they feel remarkably consistent in in their pursuit of traditional supernatural themes. In the same way, the Corman/Poe films, copying Hammer, had  a claustrophobic and peculiar atmosphere of their own. Helped by the fact that they were created by teams so that the design, writing, music and casts remained consistent, these two cycles are ripe of rediscovery from a different angle; far from being shockingly new, as critics proclaimed, they were returned to much early ideas about supernatural from the literature of the past.

The Corman/Poe films are far more concerned with the melancholy of death and loss, and the taking of revenge, whereas the UK ones are riven with problems of class, morality and propriety.

The big problem is that as the grip of religion recedes, how will we reimagine the supernatural story? Perhaps it has reached the end of its line…



34 comments on “The Supernatural On Film Part 2”

  1. Jan says:

    Look Mr F I am just about getting over Part 1 of this mini series.

    I can only be classed as being “in recovery”

    What was that film with Donald Pleasance where he was a DI or DS investigating cannibalism on the underground? Turned out to be some workers trapped underground near Russell Square /British Museum at the time of its construction. They had gone on to survive down there. I couldn’t work out really where the females came from. If indeed there were females underground which I think they were. Liked that film very much Pleasance’s Bobby seemed a very true to life representation of CID officers of the early 1970s. Example of quintessentially British horror of its era.

    The chap whose name I can’t possibly spell Ben/David(?) AARANOVITCH being my best guess nicked part of this scenario for one of his wonderful “Rivers of London” books. Great reads those books.
    Someone else used that idea of “Troglodytes”. Can’t recall who.

    Apparently the British government at the start of WW2 actually believed people would adapt to underground life and discouraged the use of London Underground stations as shelters. They believed folk would want to remain down there.


    I have always wondered whether the other major religions have an equivalent figure to an exorcist, or have a cathartic ceremony equivalent to an exorcism.

    As our society becomes ever more multi- stranded, multicultural this could be a base idea for a story or novel. A Christian non Christian “exorcism” partnership. Be a minefield of political correctness though.

    The idea of possession by devils necessitating Exorcism seemed to grow particularly strongly because of the early European pre medieval clash of cultures between the Christian religion and older deep deep rooted pagan beliefs. Dunno if this existed in quite the same way in other cultures and other places. The middle eastern imported religion evolved and adapted and along the way it’s daemons and devils were perhaps created from the earlier deities. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings held the middle ground with co- existing beliefs for a long time. Did Buddhism replace an earlier precursor belief or evolve gradually?

    Christianity overthrew a sophisticated belief system maybe that in itself created demons along the way. Interesting when you look at the actions of the Spanish Catholic church in its conquest of South America something very similar must have occurred in Europe in the early common era centuries. Taking over pre- existing sacred spaces, adapting local deities into figures not unlike saints or turning them into demons. Same game different continent.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – the film on the Underground is 1972’s ‘Death Line’. A favourite of mine for ages. The troglodyte cannibals left buried when a section of tunnel collapsed. Interbreeding like Sawney Bean’s disgusting crew, they survived, until presumably, succumbing to the disease only caught by cannibals, Kuru. One lone survivor emerging from the tunnels to ‘forage’. His lonely cry of : “MINDTHEDOOORS!” echoing down the platform of Russell Square station. Blood, gore, and a lovely supercilious cameo from Christopher Lee. What more could you want? And Donald Pleasence is superb, as the hard as nails, seen-it-all-before copper. I love him in ‘The Medal’ segment of ‘From Beyond The Grave’, although I prefer ‘The Door’. That segment did stick in my mind. And not in a good way, either.

  3. Roger says:

    “The big problem is that as the grip of religion recedes, how will we reimagine the supernatural story? Perhaps it has reached the end of its line”

    NOW hollow fires burn out to black,
    And lights are guttering low:
    Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
    And leave your friends and go.

    Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
    Look not left nor right:
    In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night.

    As well as Housman, Kingsley Amis reached a similar conclusion in The Green Man.

    Jan: the Donald Pleasance film you’re thinking of is “Death Line”. I think the original workforce buried underground included women – no health & safety then. I don’t know whether it’s true, but there were WWII rumours of people living permanently in the Underground – especially people who’d been bombed out and had nowhere else to live.

  4. Paul Graham says:

    Deathline or as it was known in the U.S. Raw Meat. Well paired with the ghosts of the underground documentary channel five made a few years ago.

  5. snowy says:

    The Tube employed women in the tunnels underground for years as ‘Fluffers’, [stop sniggering at the back, I can hear you!].

    They are the stars of a short Pathe film segment “A City Sleeps”, which shows them at work, [the best that can be said for the narration is that it is typical of it’s time].

    [On a popular video sharing site or click the name attached to this comment to be directed to it, err.. directly.]

  6. Roger says:

    The other wonderful supernatural film about the underground – or, rather, the Paris Metro – is George Franju’s short “La première nuit”.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I first met the fluffers in Chris’ book and was firmly convinced someone was leading him on, but if Snowy says they existed I’ll have to believe it. You must admit, though, that it sounds pretty unlikely.
    Am beginning to think I’m developing an interest in horror films. Too bad the husband hasn’t. (Congratulations to us! We celebrated 54 years married as of today.)

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, yes, and when Buddhism came into India there were several variants of animism, especially in the mountains, and a well established Hindu faith. There may have been some cross fertilising there.There was also a native Christianity in the south, which claims St. Thomas the Apostle as its founder.

  9. Jan says:

    Happy anniversary Helen.

    No there was definitely opposition to Londoners occupying the underground tube stations not just at Local Authority but at government level. There could have been more to this opposition than the “troglodyte” fear. The Government quietly appropriated disused tube stations for various uses. I think it was “Down street” where Churchill was housed in a bunker. I visited this place once on Open House weekend. So eerie to see tubes trains whipping by whilst you are in this filthy dusty place. Very strange. Also the Plessey aircraft factory occupied that big loop of the. Central line which had at that time only been very recently constructed. Bombers (planes) been assembled there. Up beyond Snaresbrook into the Roding Valley. Incidentally the additional concealed exits built into the underground tube( the Central line) were still open into the 1990s various industrial estates where the odd property was in Government hands had exits from the the Central lines into their basements. Fire exits they were really.

    Think there were very probably plans for the other deep tubes should the war have continued. Certainly the Eisenhower bunker up near Tottenham court road and the Clapham bunker (now a mushroom + micro veg farm) existed during WW2 and there was a plan for the Northern line to become almost like a proto Crossrail. Evidence of the bunker like constructions on the Northern line – above ground structures – are still to be seen in North London.

    Michael Moorcock wrote a book about a London Troglodyte population.

    Yes Helen I have heard before about the Apostle Thomas travelling east to India at roughly the save time as St. Paul headed into Greece and various Mediterranean islands. Not 100% but wasn’t the Apostle Thomas the original Doubting Thomas? When the European Catholics reached India particularly up toward Goa there was allegedly a large number of the population following Thos’ teachings. They had to go. Declared heretical the leaders being put to the flame and European Catholicism inserted in its place.

    When I lived in Harrow- which had a large Asian population – the Catholic churches had a very high number of Goan Catholic members. Evidence of the adopted European Catholicism.

  10. Jo W says:

    Hi Helen, congratulations on your fifty four years of marriage. There’s stamina ! 😉

  11. Brooke says:

    Greetings, Helen. Best wishes to you and spouse…

  12. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler: with regard to other conversations, e.g. scary things of the future, etc. take note:

    Also there is an “internet of caring (?!) things,” digital consumer health care stuff that hackers are busy probing adn learning how to exploit. Arthur would have have a laugh at the caring part.

  13. Jan says:

    Thanks for all the “Death line” info. Course it was! (As I am getting used to muttering.)

    Great snatch of poetry Roger but owes much to Coleridge’s poem inside a poem inside the “Ancient Mariner” I know knob all about poetry but love this:-

    like one who on a lonely road
    Does walk in fear and dread
    And having once turned round,walks on,
    And turns no more his head
    Because he knows a frightful fiend
    Does close behind him tread.

    Walking round some dark, silent backstreet or alley at 0330- 0400 on a winter’s night you don’t wanna remember that bit of poetry I’ll tell you.

  14. Barry Wilson says:

    Hammer horror ! About as scary as Carry on screaming. Just camp overacted guff!

  15. Jan says:

    Yeah Barry you are probably correct generally speaking but as Mr F says it was tackled with real belief and seriousness by its small band of stars. Peter Cushing + Christopher Lee seemed to take it pretty seriously their job. Acting in that sort of genre must be v hard going like being in substandard sci-fi. No one is really taking it seriously and it takes a powerful central performance to make such a film work on any reasonable level.

  16. Roger says:

    …except that Housman’s and Amis’s view is that it’s just as frightening without the frightful fiend.

    It goes along with the dread of absence and nothingness in Larkin’s “Aubade”.

  17. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen, congratulations and happy anniversary. I can confirm that 25 July is a great day to get married on.

    Jan, since it was Plessey, they would have been making electric and possibly hydraulic devices rather than complete aircraft.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Peter and all, thanks for the good wishes.
    Peter, surely the part most needing hiding would be the large plane parts and the final assembling. Electrical work could be done anywhere, likewise the hydraulics (I assume it would be the device for raising and lowering the wheels).
    This whole concept of using the underground for whole industries is mind boggling although I don’t know why since mines have always been that way and basements are undergrounds of a sort. Perhaps we need a “History of the Complete Underground” to broaden our vision. I need a layered version of the Underground map as a proper rather than schematic version so I could see what was above/below what.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – what would have been the deepest station on the London Underground is a curious thing. ‘North End’ station, commonly known as ‘Bull And Bush’ , on the Northern line, and 200 feet down, was closed before a single passenger used it. An early case of NIMBYism, and a strong campaign from.Hampstead locals, led to it being abandoned in 1906 – most underground work done, platforms, etc., but never connected to the surface. In the 1950’s, a small spiral staircase was built, as the site became a Civil Defence site, controlling the LU floodgate system. The site is now an emergency escape, and all that can be seen on the surface is a white concrete blockhouse, hidden behind a garden fence. At a glance, it could be an electricity substation. If you, like me, are fascinated by the ‘Tube’, and it’s secrets, then two books I swear by are: ‘The Little Book Of The London Underground’, by David Long, whose other London books are well worth your time, by the way, and ‘London’s Disused Underground Stations’, by J.E. Connor, an expert on the subject. The website ‘The Londonist’ is worth a look, and there, you will find a guy called Geoff Marshall. What he doesn’t know about the tube – isn’t worth knowing. In 2004, he and a friend took 18 and a half hours to visit (at the time), all 275 stations on the tube. He did it again in 2005, with a load of mates, to raise money to help the victims of the 2005 London bombings. At present, he’s attempting to visit every railway station in the UK., and has put out some fascinating videos on the least used. Two more points: you might find reference to Scorpions being found at the now closed Ongar LU station, and it being a hoax: it wasn’t, as I saw some for myself, the station not being far from where my paternal Grandmother lived. Secondly, along that same bit of line was the least used station on the whole of the Underground network. Blake Hall was sometimes inundated with as many as six passengers a day. It’s now a private residence.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Fascinating Ian, and some good suggestions. I’ll have to put my husband onto the Londonist – him and his train fascination.

  21. Jan says:

    Roger the finer points of the ” nothingness” poem passed me by – sorry It was just something in the cadence + rhythm of the stuff you quoted that put me in mind of the earlier Coleridge work. Wasn’t really considering the” nothingness”part. Didn’t get that at all! Cos I’m not a proper poetry person.

    Peter you might be right but I am pretty sure I have seen pictures of women workers down there assembling plane wings. But I could have dreamt that. Will have to have a look in the library see if I can find any more pictures. Not got the books @ home.

    Ian the whole story of the Northern line is interesting.

    In the same way as the Victoria line was constructed after ww2 with ww3 in mind the Northern line seemed to have been ‘re considered after WW1. Very interesting the whole construction saga. It’s interesting to see how many army barracks are situated around the Northern line. Mill Hill barracks is close by.

    The massive Met police training school and residential accommodations @ Hendon was initially situated there so officers could if need be be flown around the UK @ short notice from RAF Colindale being just across the road. The Northern line runs right by the college. This sort of set up is repeated all along the Northern line. Very weird.

    Think the idea must have been a plan to close the line for the public and to use it for government purposes in times of Civil strife. Maybe a reaction to the General strike which the UK government could well see coming. When there’s been major public disorder in the capital it’s always a surprise to find how many territorial army/ British army accommodations can be found relatively close by to the rioting and utilized as feeding and rest centres for the officers engaged on public order duties.

    Definitely theres a Civil Defence element to the whole construction of the Northern line. It’s such a strange arrangement the whole thing. There were pre WW2 bunkers @ Warren Street and possibly also @ Goodge street. Quite apart from the later Clapham Common construction. But look at the branch serving the City. What’s that about I wonder?

    It’s one of those slightly off the radar subjects you either get into or not. Islington stations N Line platforms a rum old place. Actually it’s not that old it was a reconstruction I think cos the Victoria line went through there. Theres a whole other earlier station buried down by its side. In fact at one time I am sure a very different design of train was used on the N. L.

    Look closely at the plan of the Northern line and all sorts of possibilities crop up.

    Right I best push off b4 I get carried away. Be discussing Paddock and the Naval HQ on the Edgware Road at the top of Cricklewood next.

    Geoff Marshall does know his stuff.

    Went on that last train line on that outlying bit of the Central line Epping and Ongar was full to bursting so it was! Party on wheels. Closed on the same day as the Aldwych which is now used for filming we travelled on that as well. Was all my mate Bernie’s fault. I got swept along.

  22. Ken Mann says:

    The residential accomodations @ Hendon referred to above were recently demolished but have a strange afterlife on film in that they played the part of the fictional country of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron as their last act in this life. Eagle eyed viewers may have wondered about an Eastern European country having a statue of Sir Robert Peel (though I think they did disguise him – a rare example of a statue wearing makeup).

  23. Ken Mann says:

    Getting back to your original question – supernatural fiction has gone through a curious shift in that “cosmic horror” has become more mainstream meaning that oddly the meaninglessness of human endeavour on the scale of the universe has become an overused cliche. I have seen it suggested online that a new strain is overdue where the awesome revelation is one of the presence rather than the absence of meaning. Isn’t it one of the threads of season one of True Detective that part of the horror is that the religious beliefs of the villain might be correct?

  24. Jan says:

    Someone told me about that film shortly before they blew the Hendon training centre up. I thought it was a wind up!

  25. Ken Mann says:

    For those curious to know what a statue wearing a false beard looks like there are pictures here:

  26. Denise Treadwell says:

    I like all the films mentioned especially ‘Beyond The Grave, a quartet of horror. Peter Cushing as an Anitque dealer , who if is gypt; nasty things happen. I think one story I find interesting is not a film ( although a film was made but not as good , and the name escapes me) ‘ The Enfield Haunting ‘ a mini tv series based on a real haunting case. ( I believe it was in the newspapers at the time.. 1980 ? ) It has similar qualities to ‘ The Haunting ‘ , but leaves you asking yourself is it really happening or is it a hoax? I still wonder if it was a real haunting. I think it is a good example of a new horror tale.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Those pictures of Hendon over the years are wonderful, especially those of the author then and now! Thirty years of police work is definitely not slimming.

  28. Denise Treadwell says:

    The thing is what do do believe in? I saw a story about a man in the Amazon who is now totally left alone , as he must not be contacted! But my thought is , it is possible other life on other universes might think that about us!

  29. Ian Luck says:

    The comments about ‘Fluffers’, reminded me that the London Underground had it’s own film unit, rather like the then G.P.O. (General Post Office), and the films were put out by the Central Office of Information (C.O.I.). One of those films was about what happened on the tube at night, and it showed the ‘Fluffers’ hard at work – it was an important job, as the fluff was (and is) a fire risk. I was told that the grey dust on the Underground, is mostly human skin, and dust from brake linings. Lovely.
    Down Street Station was converted into offices for the Railway Executive, and also used as a Cabinet bunker. Churchill is reported to have preferred it to the Cabinet War Rooms (‘The Hole In The Ground’), as he believed it safer. He often stayed there, and his personal bath is still down there, in an alcove.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    I’m not in favour of automation just for reduction of costs but couldn’t a suction unit be run through the system to remove the “lint”? I understand the fire risk. I think it was the name “fluffer” that got me.

  31. Jan says:


    The Post office has turned the Mount Pleasant sorting office entry into the Mail rail into a tourists attraction. Which seems absolutely as crazy as could be now London Traffic Speed is so slow. Visitors can go for a short train ride on the tiny train. Almost like an underground version of a model railway

    Unless as I suspect Cross Rail either the route itself or some air shaft has impinged onto Mail rail territory. Seemed to be awfully close by. Very interesting line the mailway. Treasures salted away down there during WW1. Maybe in WW2 also – can’t quite remember think the King spent few nights down there in WW1. When we tend to forget there was aerial bombing.

    Surely they have not closed mailway down cos of fewer postal items? Internet shopping has produced a parcel boom like no other.

    Mail Rail had a secondary civil defence function as did P. O..tower which it runs underneath or close by. Serves the Tower. Kicks off over at Paddington and makes its way through north of the river central London.

    Yes I saw that Churchill bath – and loo too which shows that rank does have its privileges. Up @ Paddock beneath the old P.Office research station at Dollis Hill they had to nip upstairs or use very makeshift toilet facilities!

  32. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – Churchill detested ‘Paddock’, as he thought it too far from the centre of London. He visited it once with his cabinet on an exercise, and never returned. He much preferred Down Street, or the now sadly vanished ‘Rotundas’, on Horseferry Road. I think, that had he been allowed, he would have remained ‘up top’ during air-raids. I have read somewhere, of him watching a raid on London from the garden of 10 Downing Street. He certainly visited bomb sites – in the brilliant 2010 book, ‘Danger UXB’, by James Owen, it is mentioned that after one raid, the Houses Of Parliament were hit. An MP called Vernon Bartlett, horrified at the damage caused. He wrote: “As I clambered up the hill of rubble, I was suddenly confronted by a figure clambering up from the other side. There stood Winston Churchill, his face covered with dust, through which the tears that ran down his cheeks had made two miniature riverbeds.”

  33. Jan says:

    I typed in a big reply to this comment yesterday. Pressed the wrong button and it disappeared!

    When energy levels higher r will have another go

  34. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – It happens to me all the time; I’ve got big hands, and fingers like sausages – if I’d planned my life better, I could have been one of the world’s least-consulted proctologists…

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