Dreadful welcome: pubs on film

Old Hollywood was a town overrun with homesick British expats, making films that reflected a particular vision of the old country – nostalgic, parodic and often with a Gothic tint. That was reflected in its portrayal of pubs, too, skewing their image for decades to come.

Con­sid­er 1943’s Sher­lock Holmes Faces Death, one of the bet­ter entries in the run of Sher­lock Holmes films star­ring Basil Rath­bone and Nigel Bruce, which gives us The Rat & Raven.

The film is set in Northum­bria, not that you’d know that from the cast of assort­ed Brits, Antipodeans, Irish­men and Amer­i­cans, all speak­ing stage cock­ney or Transat­lantic Eng­lish.

The pub, which appears 35 min­utes in, is locat­ed in the coun­try town of Hurl­stone – instant­ly recog­nis­able to stu­dents of hor­ror film as the stand­ing ‘Euro­pean vil­lage’ set at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, built c.1920 and reused end­less­ly to stand in for every­where from the West­ern Front to Wales to the fic­tion­al ‘Vis­aria’ where Frankenstein’s mon­ster ram­paged in his lat­er post-Karloff career.

Holmes and Wat­son enter (Wat­son: bot­tle of Bass; Holmes: pint of bit­ter) and are con­front­ed by this scene:

A raven in deep shadow.

Gra­cie, the bar­maid, is friend­ly enough, but every­one else in the crowd is wary and twitchy, and the con­ver­sa­tion is of car­rion and car­cass­es.

In this type of film, the pub is where you go to find the bad guy, or infor­ma­tion on the bad guy, and to see the real guts of a strange town.

Sher­lock Holmes and the Voice of Ter­ror, from 1942, gives us anoth­er exam­ple – a name­less under­ground drink­ing den in Lime­house in London’s East End whose pro­pri­etor warns Holmes, “I’ve got a par­tic­u­lar­ly ugly lot in tonight…”

Holmes and Watson enter the pub.A man stares eerily from the darkness.

In the expres­sion­ist gloom and smoke, amongst glow­er­ing locals, mur­der­ers and pros­ti­tutes, we can hard­ly blame Dr Wat­son when he says, “Holmes – I don’t think I like this place.”

This take on the Eng­lish pub is the worst-case sce­nario fan­ta­sy of upper class Brits and Amer­i­can tourists, stum­bling over the eti­quette. It’s what hap­pens when you fail to Know Your Place and don’t under­stand the rules.

In fact, it’s almost the ‘before’ exam­ple in this instruc­tion­al film for US troops sta­tioned in Eng­land:


In Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wick­er Man, though of course the music stops omi­nous­ly when Sergeant Howie enters, the pub isn’t scary because it’s unfriend­ly – it’s too friend­ly. It wants to seduce him – it wants him to take the landlord’s daugh­ter, and the land­lord is ful­ly onboard.

But the thing is, it’s not real­ly about Eng­lish pubs, or Eng­land in par­tic­u­lar. In The Scar­let Claw, set in Cana­da, Holmes vis­its a cafe-restau­rant with the same vibe, for exam­ple.

And when the UK’s own Ham­mer Films came to unof­fi­cial­ly remake the Uni­ver­sal hor­ror films from the late 1950s, it gave us a series of cen­tral Euro­pean drink­ing dens which felt the same, even if flat caps had been swapped for Alpine hats.

Hell, George Lucas even gave us an exam­ple of the same trope from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: “He doesn’t like you… I don’t like you either.”

That’s a know­ing nod, though, as is per­haps the sin­gle best-known pub in film his­to­ry: The Slaugh­tered Lamb from John Landis’s 1981 hor­ror-com­e­dy An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don.

Set in York­shire with an exte­ri­or filmed in Wales and an inte­ri­or in Sur­rey (an appar­ent Hol­ly­wood rule: nev­er film any­thing where it is sup­posed to be) this is the ulti­mate dis­til­la­tion of more than 50 years of por­tray­als of the Scary Pub:

Although British films rarely por­tray the pub this way – we know them too well to real­ly find them spooky – we sus­pect it was The Slaugh­tered Lamb that begat The Moth­er Black Cap in With­nail & I, anoth­er con­tender for the ulti­mate scary screen booz­er:

Here, though, the source of the hor­ror is class and com­pro­mised mas­culin­i­ty rather than vio­lence.

Per­haps that’s what under­lies this entire trope and gives it its pow­er – a uni­ver­sal­ly recog­nis­able, deeply-wired instinct to pause on the thresh­old of a new place, ready to fly or fight depend­ing on the wel­come.

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