Autumn is the time to scare yourself witless — and whether it’s the proliferation of Ripper tours or the inexplicable success of pseudo-dungeon tourist attractions, it’s clear Londoners have a taste for the macabre. And what the closing screenings of the BFI’s London on Film season show is that malevolent filmmakers have exploited our greatest fears for decades.
London may sometimes feel like a city of strangers, but its inhabitants do take unfamiliarity in their stride. That’s why, in spite of its comedic tendencies, An American Werewolf in London still has a real bite. A werewolf ambush on the desolate Yorkshire Moors is par for the horror-movie course — but then the action is transplanted to recognisable locations like Piccadilly Circus. Get stuck into John Landis’s 1981 flick at BFI Southbank tonight, Saturday 19 September.
We sometimes get goosebumps in the spooky depths of the tube. Whether it’s the hot air, the disorientating speed of it all, or the claustrophobia, this unnatural environment is a strange daily thrill. 1973’s Death Line — a film also known by the equally subtle moniker Raw Meat — makes a horror of going underground, imagining cannibals running amok. It’s going down at BFI Southbank on 20 and 25 September.
It’s a perennial urban truth that edginess and criminality go hand in hand. In Derek Jarman’s peculiar 1978 film Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth I is teleported to an alternate-reality 1970s London, run by marauding gangs. Although his film features punk idols like Sioxsie & The Banshees, Jarman was pilloried by Vivienne Westwood and others over hostility towards youth counterculture. Jubilee plays at BFI Southbank on 28 and 29 September, and 1 October.
Other, sick people
A second, ancient urban truth holds that disease loves cities — and London has had its share. The power of Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie-revivalist film 28 Days Later is in reminding us that an epidemic remains terrifyingly feasible in the modern city, too — prefiguring millennial anxieties over SARS, bird flu and Ebola. It’ll lurch into the BFI Southbank on 30 September and 6 October.
The ‘wrong neighbourhood’
London has come a long way since the 1880s. Then, Jack the Ripper’s terrorising of the East End bolstered polite society’s anxiety about what Salvation Army founder William Booth would term the “vicious” areas of London. In the 1965 film A Study in Terror, a pre-Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes tracks the Ripper through the city’s shadowy streets. An original story, it delves less into the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle than the potboiler tradition. You can stalk it out at BFI Southbank on 29 September.
If eerie Christmas mornings in Trafalgar Square are anything to go by, what disquiets Londoners as much as anything else is an empty London. It’s quite an irony. Complain all you want about the busy mania of the place, but first see a little-known classic from the Atomic Age, 1950’s Seven Days to Noon. A wayward scientist causes a mass evacuation by threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb in the city. The drama explodes into life at the BFI Southbank, 20 September.