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A Vault of Horror

Keith Topping

Publisher: Telos Publishing Ltd

Paperback 400 pages (August 19, 2004)

The tradition of the British horror film is very much buried in the country’s literary and gothic heritage, the result of which is the long line of fantastical melodrama epitomised by the success of Hammer studios. In this book Keith Topping takes Hammer’s glory years from The Curse of Frankenstein (1956) to their penultimate theatrical horror The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) as the basis for describing 80 key films that somehow typified the often maligned British film industry at a time when we could still export more than one or two half-baked costume dramas every year. Topping’s choice of films is occasionally bizarre – he freely admits that the Frankenstein films are under-represented – resulting in the absence, for example, of Dr Phibes but room for its (admittedly superior) sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again. While this is not a great issue in itself, it seems that with 400 pages to play with there could have been more scope for a definitive look at the period as tackled by Fenton and Flint’s opinionated but exhaustive study Ten Years of Terror: British Films of the 1970s. Instead we have an infuriating set of reviews that range from the insightful and fascinating to the crass and pretentious. It’s annoying because there is an awful lot of good material but also a sizeable chunk of what feels like padding or lame attempts at laddish humour. While it is always nice to answer the inevitable “where have I seen her before?” questions that accompany any late night viewings, the pages of what are essentially lists of credits are heavy going. However they are enlivened by scattershot collections of miscellanies that explore how and why a particular film was made (including a fascinating insight as to the inclusion of Strange Love – the single most appalling song in the entire history of horror films – onto the soundtrack of Hammer’s cheesecake classic Lust For A Vampire). While the notes about the inevitable “sinister animals” are amusing, the details about 1960’s life that we “don’t see today” are notable more for their obsession with reel-to-reel tape recorders and, in one case, the inclusion of the Daily Mail. Aside from this, the examination of themes covered and critical responses to the films provides a useful context to the proceedings. It’s particularly interesting as recognised classics were sometimes ruthlessly dismissed at the time and, although Topping’s taste is occasionally questionable, he at least qualifies his opinions. Matters are not so well served, however, when the book on one hand castigates a film for misogyny and then later describes with evident relish the merits of a leading actress’s cleavage. Dubious. Overall a mixed bag, at times enlightening, at times irritating, and a book that could easily have been half the length or have included a more definitive range of films. A useful addition to any horror fan’s reference collection though those after a broader view of the British horror film should perhaps look to Andy Boot’s Fragments of Fear.