Undermining British Cinema: Gothic Horror in the 1930s and 1940s and Censorship

  • Barry Forshaw
Part of the The Palgrave Gothic Series book series (PAGO)


Macaulay’s pithy observation that ‘We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality’ is a phase that might have been coined for the prissy British reaction to the first wave of horror films in the 1930s and 1940s; even the now-camp, pantomimic Grand Guignol sequence of Tod Slaughter films (notably Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)) provoked outrage. No ice was cut in the wave of general disapproval for early examples of respectable English theatrical actors prepared to appear in horror films, such as Ralph Richardson in The Ghoul (1933) or Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House. Such tongue-clucking reactions are, inevitably, cyclical: the same phenomenon was to be replicated two decades later when Hammer Films began to make its mark with singularly non-respectable fare. The common factor might be seen in horrified contemporary discussions of what was perceived as a new cinema of ‘cruelty as diversion’, and the films were identified as indexes of depravity; Gothic horror elements incorporated into non-genre or other film products of the day were less vilified, as public disapprobation had already found its target. And who could defend such films?


Film Industry Juvenile Crime Horror Film General Disapproval Film Censorship 
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© Barry Forshaw 2013

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  • Barry Forshaw

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