Scottish Horror Films: Seven Caledonian chillers
The fog-covered moors of the Highlands, the ancient cobbled streets of Edinburgh, and Glasgow's harsh tower blocks have all provided inspiration for scary movies over the years. With Halloween on the horizon, we select seven Scottish horrors to check out
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
(Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not set in Scotland (this tale of duality takes place in a mist-tangled Victorian London), but it was forged here on the twisted cobble streets and Escherian stairways of Auld Reekie, so we’re claiming it. There have been many cinematic takes on this gothic novella, including a Jerry Lewis screwball farce (The Nutty Professor), but this 1931 version from Rouben Mamoulian is still the best. The film’s trump card is its innovative use of subjective camerawork. By presenting the world from Jekyll’s direct point of view it thrillingly suggests that we, the audience, are the conflicted doctor; we become the ones repressing our own inner desires. With this dizzying horror we get to let our inner Hyde out to play, vicariously at least.
The Body Snatcher
(Robert Wise, 1945)
Another film based on one of Louis Stevenson’s heady antisyzygy brews. This 1945 classic, directed by Robert Wise (who would go on to direct the horrific-for-different-reasons West Side Story) and produced by horror master Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie), takes the shadow of the Burke and Hare murders as inspiration (sprinkled incongruously with a wee dash of Greyfriars Bobby) to create a grisly tale of dead body trafficking in the name of medical science. Henry Daniell is great as the MD turning a blind eye to Boris Karloff’s handsome cabby’s methods of corpse procurement after his favourite Edinburgh graveyards go into lockdown. A fiendish Faustian tale that turns out to be as much about Edinburgh’s class divide as it is about the city’s ghoulish history.
The Wicker Man
(Robin Hardy, 1973)
Another tale of repression (what is it with us Scots?) sees prudish copper Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) investigate a young girl’s disappearance on a remote Hebridean island, whose residents are fans of folk music, dancing in the buff and pagan sacrifice. First-time director Robin Hardy creates one of the maddest horror films of all time, imbuing his dreamy labyrinth of red herrings and sexual temptations with ribald musical numbers and bawdy comedy. The late Christopher Lee, who helped conceive the film as an antidote to his usual gothic roles in Hammer movies, was never better than as the sun worshiping head of the island's batshit community.
Urban Ghost Story
(Genevieve Jolliffe, 1998)
Like seminal ghost movie Carnival of Souls, this Glasgow-set chiller begins with a young woman surviving a car crash. But that’s where the similarities end in this realist horror that was dubbed Ken Loach meets The Exorcist on its release. When shell-shocked teen Lizzie comes home to her crummy tower block after her accident, she seems to have brought a poltergeist with her. There’s a pleasing seam of social commentary running along with the chills (poor people can’t just up sticks when their council flat becomes haunted), and a great use of sound and suggestion makes up for the shoestring budget.
(Neil Marshall, 2002)
Like James Cameron’s Aliens or John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Neil Marshall’s debut is a great action film first, horror film second. Or, as the director put it himself: “It's a soldier movie with werewolves, not a werewolf movie with soldiers.” That being said, the film’s gangly lycanthropes don’t half put the bejesus up you. The plot is simplicity itself: a group of soldiers stumble upon a pack of werewolves while training in the Scottish Highlands and have to hole up in a rickety cottage until daybreak. The film is full of great macho movie dialogue (“I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp,” a plucky squaddie says to one of the monsters before it chows down on him) but, like all great siege movies, the best scenes are the moments of quiet before the storm.
(Colm McCarthy, 2010)
Outcast, a poetic tale of Celtic myths, fairies and curses, takes place on a grim Edinburgh housing estate. We follow a teenage boy (Niall Bruton) who’s destined to take the same bestial form as his father (a hirsute James Nesbitt) who left him at birth. Kate Dickie plays the boy’s mother, who seems to be trying to encourage an Oedipal complex in the poor lad. It’s all rather bonkers, and with the endless masturbation and violent growth spurts we suspect it’s all part of the proud lineage of monster-transformation-as-puberty-analogy.
Under the Skin
(Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Part killer alien movie, part existential art film, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature might not seem an obvious candidate for this list, but if we class horror movies as films that terrify, then it fits the bill. Glazer makes great use of a blank Scarlett Johansson as the extraterrestrial using her sexuality to prey on men on the mean streets of Glasgow, but it’s Mica Levi’s bewitching music that really brings the creeps. Managing somehow to be both shrill and seductive, macabre and moving, her score breathes life into Glazer’s icy visuals and allows Under the Skin to get under our skin.