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:
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…”
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.