- “Almost Psychopathic”: British Working-Class Realism and the Horror Film in the Late 1950s and Early 1960s
room at the top (1959) was released in the United Kingdom only two years after Curse of Frankenstein (1957) from the British production company Hammer. The former was the first film in a “‘new wave’ of working class realism” (J. Hill, Sex 2), which is often seen as one of the major aesthetic achievements of British cinema, and the latter enjoyed phenomenal commercial success and established a new British horror cinema. Given the virtual coincidence between these two cinematic events, it seems strange that these events are rarely discussed in relationship to one another in histories of British cinema.
For example, John Hill’s Sex, Class and Realism makes only two references to the Hammer horror films or horror more generally, and neither David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror nor Chibnell and Petley’s British Horror Cinema engages with this relationship, even though the latter features an article on The Innocents (1961), a horror film that was directed by Jack Clayton immediately after Room at the Top. Much the same is also true of Rigby’s account of the British horror film, which makes repeated references to isolated moments of interconnection but does not bring these together in a larger argument. Murphy’s Sixties British Cinema is even structured as if to isolate these events from one another, so that working-class realism is contained within chapter 1, the popular horror films of Hammer and others are dealt with in chapter 8, and chapter 4 is given over to “the possibility of constructing a tradition of ‘art cinema’ from among British films” (5), a discussion that includes many of the films that could demonstrate overt crossover or traffic between realism and horror, films such as The Innocents, The Servant (1963), Night Must Fall (1964), and Repulsion (1965).
It seems the absence of any detailed consideration of the relationship between working-class realism and horror is due to the ways in which they are compartmentalized and discussed in terms of “traditions” of British film-making, in which realism and fantasy are imagined as parallel tracks that are fundamentally at odds with one another. For example, Pirie’s defining study explicitly sets out to identify a “heritage of horror” within which to locate the horror films of the late 1950s and the 1960s, and Petley’s now classic essay on “the lost continent” of British films takes this strategy one stage further and presents the horror film as an alternative to the critically celebrated tradition of British realism that challenges, subverts, and “perhaps even works to deconstruct, a critically privileged realist aesthetic” (Hutchings 13).
Certainly, Petley’s article has been crucial in bringing whole areas of British cinema to academic attention and in challenging the perceived superiority of realism, but Hutchings has rightly identified severe problems with this model. First, although the “realism/fantasy [End Page 3] dichotomy upon which this metaphor [of the lost continent] depends is a central one in much critical writing on British cinema” (Hutchings, Hammer 13), Hutchings stresses that working-class realism and horror both shared established cinema conventions, conventions that were not exclusive to them but were central to classical Hollywood cinema too. As Hutchings puts it, both “invariably come in the form of 80–120 minute fictional narratives peopled by psychologically individuated characters” (Hutchings, Hammer 14). For Hutchings, then, Petley actually reproduces and reinforces the dichotomy between realism and fantasy and so obscures elements that they both shared. Second, as Hutchings points out, despite critical judgments of value, the British horror films of the late 1950s and 1960s were commercially more successful than the realist films of the period, so that rather than being a “lost continent” of British cinema, they can be seen as precisely the inverse. They may have been ignored or denigrated by critics, but for the cinema-going public, these horror films were probably the most visible examples of British cinema at the time.
Again, however, this is the limit of Hutchings’s discussion of the relationship between working-class realism and horror, a relationship that this article will demonstrate...