The 1970s are often viewed as the golden age of horror cinema. Nevertheless, it was during this decade when the two drivers of British horror – Hammer and Amicus studios – went into commercial decline. Both production companies had continued to produce Gothic horror that seemed maladroit and anachronistic when viewed against American imports such as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). When Hammer did try to update its Dracula myth, the results were camp and disconnected from the youth market to which they had once appealed. From such a context arose two young British filmmakers: Norman J. Warren and Pete Walker. Although Walker is better known because of The House of Whipcord (1974), Warren’s œuvre is finally getting the attention it deserves. Anchor Bay Entertainment has released both directors’ films in separate feature-filled box sets. In addition, the National Film Theatre London devoted a night to Warren’s work in December 2008.
Born and raised in London (1942), Norman J. Warren first gained notoriety by directing the very first British sex film, Her Private Hell (1967), shortly followed by Loving Feeling (1968). He quickly became bored with the sexploitation genre and decided to switch to horror. His first horror feature was Satan’s Slave (1976), part of a ‘New Wave’ of grittier and gorier British horror made during the 1970s. Making a respectable profit for such a small-budgeted movie, Warren went on to make Prey (1977), Terror (1978) – topping the British box office for one week – and Inseminoid (1980). Warren had a less successful film experience with Gunpowder (1986) and Bloody New Year (1897). These troubled productions pointed to a general crisis for independent filmmakers from the 1980s onwards.
Today, Norman J. Warren is best known for the four horrors he made between 1976 and 1980. These films reflect a period of permissiveness and playfulness that was far removed from Hammer. And whereas Pete Walker’s movies had a strong political subtext that explains the violence, Warren’s pictures made no such excuses. This was horror that was designed to shock for shock’s sake, exemplified by the penultimate scene in Satan’s Slave where Stephen Yorke (Martin Potter) is stabbed in the eye with a nail file. However, this isn’t to negate how his films from this period are beautifully shot and richly atmospheric echoing the work of the equally artistic Peter Sykes (The Devil a Daughter, 1976, and also numerous episodes of The Avengers). Warren also managed to provide a much higher quality story than either the budget or time limit should have allowed. In addition, Warren not only directed but also edited his early films, and was heavily involved with the sound effects.
Adam Locks recently met the director at his London home to discuss Satan’s Slave, Prey, Terror and future projects.
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You’ve always been very positive about your experiences in sexploitation cinema with Her Private Hell and Loving Feeling. It would seem that numerous players in the film industry learnt their trade in the sex film genre. I’m thinking here of your contemporary Pete Walker, but also John Glen and Martin Campbell, both of whom went into the Bond movies. What did you learn from the experience?
The biggest learning curve for me was working with a low budget; having to work fast and keep to a tight schedule. The film had to be shot in two weeks. Her Private Hell was the first feature film I got the chance to direct and it was a wonderful opportunity. At first, I didn’t know what the film was going to be because the producer didn’t have a script when he first approached me. To be honest I would have said yes to whatever the film was, and jumped at the chance to direct a feature film. It turned out to be what was termed a sexploitation film.
What was the budget?
£18,000, but that was in 1967. It’s hard to say what that would actually be now. Nevertheless, it still wouldn’t have been a great deal of money. They were paying me virtually nothing as director. The crew – many of whom were being moved up a grade – were also happy to accept a lower fee. If you put those two factors together, that’s why the budget was very low.
I also presume it taught you how to work under enormous pressure.
Yes, the pressure was in having to make sure you got the right shots, things like eye lines and crossing the line, which I sometimes got slightly wrong. I also edited the film. It was in the cutting room that I discovered that shots wouldn’t always go together the right way. So, another learning curve.
Did you edit the film by yourself?
Yes. Because they couldn’t afford an assistant for me, I did everything. I also did all the sound effects, but I love all that.
You have always been passionate about sound effects, haven’t you?
Yes, I really enjoy doing the soundtrack, both the sound effects and working with the music composer. Mind you, by the time I had finished Satan’s Slave, I didn’t want to be the director and editor again, for two reasons. (a) Doing both jobs, there is always the danger you become too close to the film, and you can’t see the wood for the trees. Its nice to work with an editor who can bring something else to the film, because they are able to stand back and take a fresh look at the footage. (b) There’s the physical side of it.
Because it’s an exhausting process?
Yes, absolutely. By the time I’d finished Satan’s Slave, I was on the verge of becoming very ill. To keep costs down, I edited the film at home, and, because we had a tight schedule, I tended to work very long hours every day. The danger of working at home is that you never stop to sleep, and very often I wouldn’t even get dressed in the morning.
Editing in your dressing gown …
Going back to Her Private Hell, what other lessons did you learn?
Well, I’d been in the industry for quite some time working in editing and as an assistant director and all those things, but this was the first time that a lot of that knowledge was being put to the test. I was so lucky in having this exploitation film to start with. When the film came out, it was unbelievably successful. I don’t think it would have mattered if I’d shot the whole thing upside down.
Because it was a nudie?
Yes. There were other sex films around of course, coming from Sweden, France and Germany, but there were no homegrown sex dramas. The British sex films tended to be made at holiday camps with naked young ladies playing volleyball, etc. So, that’s why Her Private Hell is written about as being the first British sex film. It was the first sex drama to be made in the UK.
After the success of Her Private Hell, did you become quite well known in the industry?
Yes, within the industry I did. Outside, though, no one had ever heard of me. There was one funny occasion that I remember. The distributors were very kind to me because, if you’ve seen the film poster, it says “Norman J. Warren’s Her Private Hell”. You don’t normally get your name above the title at that stage of your career. Anyway, I went to a cinema – at the time it was running five times a day in the West End – and I went into the gents’ toilet and there were two guys who came in at the same time. One said, “Who is this Norman J. Warren?”, to which he other guy said, “’I’ve seen all his work.” God, there are some bullshitters out there.
But the film’s success and such anecdotes must have meant it was an amazing moment for you.
Oh, yes. It was a dream come true.
How did your family react to the film’s popularity?
Naturally, my family was very proud of me. However, when my mother went to see the film, she was surprised to discover she was the only woman in her row. The cinema was full of men.
Did you get a percentage of the film’s return?
No. I signed a contract to do two films. When it came to trying to get any money out of them, it really became a nightmare. They actually gave me a settlement in the end and it worked out that I’d actually been working for about £20 a week and round the clock. I’d never had a day off in two years.
Where were you living at the time?
I was living at home – not that I was at home very much.
Before you came to direct your first horror, Satan’s Slave, you nearly got to direct for both Amicus and AIP (American International Pictures).
The AIP film came by accident really. A writer by the name of Anthony Craze presented me with a script called “The Naked Eye”. I liked it very much and was keen to make it. But first, let me backtrack slightly.
If we go back to Her Private Hell and Loving Feeling, both of those films had become successful, so I became known in the industry in connection with the sex films. Hence, I was approached to do another one. It was a film that I’m sure you’ve heard of called The Wife Swappers [Derek Ford, 1970]. Obviously, I appreciated having done those first two films – they gave me a great learning curve and I didn’t even mind working for no money – but, quite honestly, I did find them quite boring. There really was nothing in them. There was hardly any story.
You weren’t being given any challenge.
No, not at all. The only requirement of the films was to get people to take their clothes off. There’s a sequence in Loving Feeling – which is a film about a DJ and his various girlfriends – where he meets up with his secretary for lunch. The producer of the film said to me that we could put in another sex scene at this point of the movie. I asked how, because all they were doing was meeting for lunch. He said, “The DJ picks her up from the office, he takes her back to his apartment, he then says he’s going to take a quick shower – so that gets him to take his clothes off. Now, she’s left in his room and she notices that he hasn’t tidied up his old wine glasses and coffee cups, so she collects things up to do the washing-up, presumably. But, because she’s got her work clothes on, she can’t afford to make them dirty, so she takes her clothes off at which point, he comes out of the shower – and the rest is history.” It sounds wonderful, but the scene isn’t. My point is, as the producers were paying. I couldn’t really argue with that, but that’s what you’re up against all the time.
With regard to the generic nature of these British sex films, it’s intriguing how they weren’t very funny or sexy.
They were never sexy because they were British. I have to be honest: I just don’t think the British are capable of making a sexy film. It’s just not in our nature.
And that kind of rather prudish and juvenile mentality has filtered into men’s magazines, such as Loaded and Nuts.
Yes, we still have that Victorian repressive thing about sex. Anyway, I’m glad I turned down The Wife Swappers. All the directors who continued to do them – and anyway it all came to an end a few years later – became labelled and there was nowhere else for them to go. I actually moved out of sex films just in time.
Pete Walker who you mentioned earlier, was in a slightly different position from the others because he was able, more or less, to do financially what he wanted. He got out of those types of films as well and moved into the field of horror.
How well did you know Pete Walker at the time?
We never became close buddies, but we knew each other very well because we were often on each other’s territory.
You were the two young Turks of British 70s horror.
The funny thing was – if we’ve now moved on to the horror stuff – that there was a lovely agent called Hazel Malone. If she liked you, she’d sort of take you under her wing and became a kind of mum. She really liked me. She had all the young actors and actresses of those days – the Susan Georges, Richard O’Sullivans, etc. – so you always went to her to get your actors and actresses. Pete and I were often trying to get the same actress.
Did you get the actresses in question?
Most of the time I did.
Shall we return back to The Naked Eye?
Yes. Anthony Craze gave me the script and I liked it.
Since Loving Feeling, I’d been working on documentaries and commercials as an editor, and I was keen to direct another feature film. So, I started taking the script around various production companies. I knew a man called Jacques de Lane Lea, who ran the sound studios, De Lane Lea, and I’d worked there as an editor. I had got to know Jacques very well. He liked the script and said he’d like to produce it. He had produced a few films in the past before he went into the sound side. He met up with someone from AIP and they were looking for a film for Vincent Price. They had him under contract and they needed to do one more feature with him. Hence, Vincent Price was onboard to play the lead and it was all looking wonderful, I must say. The cast was coming together nicely. We were going to use a young Lesley Anne-Down, who had just played a woman in a horror whose husband buys a door in the movie …
From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Conner, 1973).
Yes, that’s it. AIP said they wanted some changes, so they brought in some top American writers. I was, again, on a steep learning curve because, boy, did they really pull the script apart. They made it so much better, but they really were brutal with it. Yet with all these changes and all the cast they were adding to, the film was getting more and more expensive. By the end, this low-budget film had got too expensive, and AIP decided to pay Vincent Price off. We were actually involved with that project for a year.
You must have been devastated.
Oh, yes, I was.
Can you tell me about your involvement with Milton Subotsky and Amicus?
Well, that didn’t go as far as The Naked Eye. I had a script called “The Book of Seven Seals”. It was very much in line with the sort of films Amicus made.
Yes, because, as the title suggests, it had seven little stories. Milton Subotsky liked it very much. Once again, the meetings started, but then they fizzled out. Mind you, the meetings were very strange because Milton had no interest in directors whatsoever. He was more into the writer, the story and, after that, his big love was editing. I think he was a frustrated editor.
He wrote some of the stories for Amicus, didn’t he?
Yes. He was very big on writing. He loved spending time with the writer.
One thing to add: you might imagine Amicus as being very grand, but they literally had a portacabin at Shepperton Studios. It was like two rooms: one was where Milton had his desk, and the other room was for the secretary. She was surrounded by comics. I’d never seen so many comics. Milton was obviously a big collector.
From now on, I’ll always think of Amicus as a portacabin at Shepperton! Can we move onto the genesis of Satan’s Slave?
Yes. Satan’s Slave was born out of the frustration caused by the previous films having fallen through. I was talking with Les Young, who was the camera operator on both Her Private Hell and Loving Feeling, and was now a director of photography. We said, more or less, “Why don’t we have a go at making a film ourselves.” At first, we did try and raise finance, but we really didn’t get anywhere. We just wasted a year.
So Les ended up financing it?
Well, Les financed the bulk of it, yes. That at least gave us freedom to do what we wanted. Anyone who is putting money into a film keep wanting to make alterations and that just drives you nuts.
And that freedom is evident in the way that Satan’s Slave is much more brutal than, let’s say, what Hammer or Amicus were doing.
Oh yeah, but we didn’t do that intentionally, I don’t think. Growing up, I was a huge Hammer fan, but I was also aware in the ’70s that Hammer was dying. It just wasn’t doing it anymore. Seeing any Hammer film at that time was such a disappointment. Amicus films were also becoming a bit tired. I remember seeing a double feature where Amicus was the main film and Death Line [Gary Sherman, 1972] was the B movie with it and, of course, we all loved Death Line much more than the Amicus picture. I think what one was getting tired of was all that period setting with middle-class people who didn’t seem to work with endless amounts of money and amazing houses.
And that’s what I like about your films, the way you take those gothic conventions and invert them. Anyway, please continue with Satan’s Slave.
Les had an equipment hire company, Crystal Films. He mortgaged the company, he mortgaged his home and he sold the lovely old Bentley he had. Another friend and cameraman, Richard Crafter, then said he’d like to invest in the project. He had bought shares in Mother Care, which was doing very well in those early days. So he sold the shares and got quite a good price. I didn’t have any money to invest. I was pretty broke by that time.
How wonderful that a horror film was partly funded by Mother Care!
How did you bring in scriptwriter David McGillivray?
I first met David when I was editing Her Private Hell. I was working in a small cutting room in Soho and David always seemed to be there. He wasn’t working there, but he knew one of the owners of the cutting rooms. David would often come and watch me editing, and, because he shared my passion for films, we would have long conversations about movies in general. Later, he wrote the scripts for what I believe to be Pete Walker’s best films, House of Whipcord (and Frightmare ). When we decided to do Satan’s Slave, I suggested we ask David to write the script.
I presume he was keen?
Oh, yes, very keen. David was so excited and enthusiastic in those days. He wrote the script in an incredibly short time. He’s said nine days, but I think he’s exaggerating slightly. Probably ten! David in those days was amazing. He used to write so fast.
So, that’s how the film was born. It was initially called Evil Heritage.
Who came up with the title Satan’s Slave?
It was the distributor, Brent Walker. They didn’t like “Evil Heritage” because they thought people would not understand what it meant. Satan’s Slave is more self-explanatory. It gets straight to the point.
There is something much more Euro-horror about Satan’s Slave.
Yes, it is odd how you do have to think about things like that.
Can you tell me about the location used for Satan’s Slave, because the house and forest help provide a very gothic atmosphere.
The house was near Guildford in Pirbright. It is now owned by a Dutch family. When we used it, the Baron and Baroness who owned it were on hard times. That’s why I think they were renting it out for films. They were a wonderful couple. They’d moved over from France from a chateau and that was why the house was full of all these wonderful objects.
Watching the film, it looks like you have very expensive sets.
Oh, our production designer Hayden Pearce was into all that. He couldn’t get over the paintings and the furniture.
Some critics have compared Satan’s Slave to an episode of Hammer House of Horror. It’s quite interesting comparison in that Hammer often used the one house in Great Hampden, Buckinghamshire, in many of their stories in the same way you use the house in Pirbright for this film and, later, Terror.
When people saw Terror, no one really knew that it was the same house. The house was huge and could be used in so many different ways. It was just a perfect location. Not only was it a lovely house with loads of room in it, it was also in its own grounds. It was hard to find, so it was away from everything, and it also had its own sub-station that gave you all the electricity you wanted. Hence, you didn’t have to have generators. You just had to put a cable on it, which is nice because you’re also not running up the bill for the people who own the house; you have a completely separate feed.
The house had so many benefits.
How old was it?
It’s fake Tudor. It’s not genuine. It’s not as old as it looks. Saying that, it’s not young, either.
There’s an interesting cast of characters in Satan’s Slave. As you’ve commented, no one seems to have a job in these narratives; it’s a world of leisure and pleasure. Could you say more about that because, in Prey as well, you have a set of characters that don’t seem to do anything.
In Satan’s Slave, I thought we had got over that slightly because we are saying that the young girl, Catherine Yorke, played by Candace Glendenning, actually works. She’s due to start a new job. We didn’t suggest her mum and dad were wealthy, so they probably worked, too. But the Uncle Alexander character (Michael Gough): he obviously did have some money, hence that grand house. They obviously had a past where they did have more money. Yet now – they are like the Baron and Baroness – they’re on hard times and just happen to have the house still. Martin Potter’s character, Stephen Yorke, actually says that a few times. When Catherine asks, “Where do you get the money from?”, he says that his dad gets it from here and there. And, of course, he’s got his covens; you have to think about all those membership fees! There’s this lovely line that David wrote, which I thought so typical of that generation, which tells you that they were rich. Martin’s on the veranda walking along and says, “And when we were in Africa …” There seems to be a period of time when all wealthy people lived in Africa. Lovely line.
Going back to your question, I do know what you mean. The house was a bit grand and the whole film still had a Hammer influence. The Michael Gough character is straight out of Hammer. Plus, you have the house decorated with all these heavy red curtains, which is very Hammer.
The rich in decline …
Yes, it is. It’s a film that keeps coming back to the real Baron and Baroness. There was one evening that none of us have ever forgotten when we were working late, as we very often were, and the sitting-room area and dinning room joined together. When we entered the rooms, the Baron and Baroness were sitting at that wonderful dinning table which you see in the movie with chandeliers above them. They were sitting at one end having their dinner, which consisted of a coupe of fish fingers and a bottle of Dubonet. All that opulence and eating fish fingers!
Satan’s Slave has a very dreamlike narrative, particularly as we approach the end of the film with Catherine bumping into her father, who was supposedly dead. Were you at all influenced by French surrealist cinema?
I might have been without realising. Yes, it’s very possible. In my early years, I’d always been nuts about going to the movies and so I’d see films from all different nationalities. I was also a big fan of silent movies. As well, my parents bought me my very first projector when I was nine. It had no sound, so at the weekends I’d use my pocket money to hire films from a local film library. That way I got to see all the classic silent films, like Metropolis [Fritz Land, 1927] and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [Rouben Mamoulian, 1931].
Not to try and sound too pretentious, but it’s almost a Luis Buñuel moment when she bumps into her father.
I’d never thought about it that way. It was just a good story plot that David had come up with. I’ve always hated movies where you find out that it was all a dream – it’s such a cop out. But our twist was that we actually cheated the audience at that time, because it’s not a bad dream. The big twist is that it’s her father who is the real villain. Michael Gough is not the leader of the coven.
It’s her dad.
Wearing this big crystal on his chest.
Which he wasn’t wearing earlier in the car …
No, he had that in the boot! Actually, the jewellery he’s seen wearing at the end of the film is a glass doorknob.
Wonderful lo-fi filmmaking. But to go back to Hammer House of Horror again, what I like about your films is that you often have a very black conclusion that goes against the Hollywood classical narrative ending.
Yeah. I’ve nothing against happy endings, but it just never seems to work out that way. To say something else, it’s always amazed me what you can get away with in films. For some unknown reason, Michael Gough’s character keeps a telephone behind the red curtain. The whole reason for that was that we needed the bit where Catherine finds Stephen’s body. That was the primary reason why the phone had to be kept behind the curtain.
Perhaps it also has another function. You almost don’t know what period they’re in. All technology seems to be hidden. There’s no visible television or radio.
I’d never thought about that.
Tell me about the old Rover which we see blown up early in the story. Since the film was so low budget, how did you go about driving it into a tree and then blowing it up?
Les drove it into the tree. He didn’t drive very fast, about 5mph, but it’s amazing what impact you get even at that speed.
Crikey, you wouldn’t allow a producer to also stand in as a stuntman now. Did he hurt himself?
No, because we put loads of cushions on the steering wheel. The explosion was done by special-effects people, because it was very dangerous. We did that explosion on army training ground nearby.
Your next film was the excellent Prey. Did you always set out to make that film so bleak?
It’s very hard to answer that because, like you, I like Prey. It’s never been a successful film. A lot of people didn’t like it because they felt it was too slow.
I think in retrospect the slow pace works for it.
Yes, I do like it for that. Also, it was nice that the film only had a handful of characters – just the three of them – which meant that there was plenty of time to work on the characters. That was the only thing there was time for because the film came together so fast. It was made so quickly – 10 days – so you just did things rather than having much time to think over this or that.
Actually, the slow pace of the film was because there wasn’t that much script. Dear old Max Cuff was trying to keep up with us. He was writing like mad. The script was being written as we went along. In fact, there were times when I had to shoot and there wasn’t a script for it. You just made it up as you went along, but it worked. What Max was writing was so good and his dialogue was very clever.
There’s a wonderfully nonsensical logic to the film. For example, the reason Josephine (Sally Faulkner) lets Anders/Kator (Barry Stokes) stay for dinner is to find out if he’s mad or not. That’s hardly a reason for inviting someone over to your house.
That was in the writing. The whole premise of the thing was bizarre anyway. Forgetting that he was an alien, the two girls’ relationship was also a strange one. Josephine seems to be the one in charge, whereas Jessica [Glory Annen] comes from a wealthy family who’s been left in this amazing house while her parents have gone off to where ever they’ve gone – maybe Africa! Anyway, that strangeness came out of these women’s situation.
Again, can you tell me about the house used in the film because it’s another interesting location.
We were given the free reign of the old house on the Shepperton Studios backlot, and we were also told we could use any prop that was in the prop store at that time. Our designer, Hayden Pear, had to work with whatever he could find. He really didn’t have any choice. But somehow, with Hayden’s own magic, he managed to give a strange mix to the sets that certainly helped create the right atmosphere. I’d also challenge anyone to make a floor plan of the house, because none of it really makes any sense, but then it does, if you see what I mean.
Yes, I agree. There’s that scene where Anders is walking round the house while the two female leads are having sex. It’s impossible to work out where any of them are.
In that scene, we used the loft because it looked nice.
All those elements give it a disconnection from reality. And, again, you have characters with no professions. There is a very surreal take on country life.
I suppose so, yes.
Josephine and Jessica keep themselves separate from the rest of the village, don’t they? Josephine is clearly sociopathic.
I think that comes over in a nice way. I do like the way we manage to do the bit where Jessica discovers the knife and bloody shirt.
And what a knife! It’s enormous and looks incredibly dangerous.
Vicious thing that was.
It was real?
Oh, yes. We had a choice. The others were really deadly. I think the producer got them. All were highly illegal. We’d have been arrested if we’d gone outside the studio with them. They were all Sicilian flick knives.
I know this sequence is endlessly talked about, but can you tell me about the scene where Anders nearly drowns in the pond. It’s a wonderfully shot and edited scene, but why does it go on for so long? It’s a rather indulgent scene.
That is the very first cut from the first assembly that Alan Jones did, and yet the producer, Terry Marcel, fell in love with it and would never let us change it. He had that power. The editor and myself wanted to cut it down, but we couldn’t. I agree it’s too long, but there are people who say to me that they like it because it is so long.
Was the pond quite shallow, because the actors’ legs keep popping up from under the water?
It was deep enough to drown. Glory couldn’t swim, which we didn’t know at the time. We did put a board down under the water, but that soon got very mucky. That pond was revolting, it really was. You know how black it was because you can see it in the film. As soon as you disturbed it, the smell was horrendous. You know what stagnant water is like. Goodness knows what had been thrown in there over the years by different film crews. And that scene was the very first day’s work for the actors.
Didn’t The Who take over that house after you’d finished shooting?
Yes, they did.
You’ve always had memorable scores for your films and particularly so with Prey. Did you ask Ivor Slaney to specifically use synthesisers?
No, it was budget again. There was just no money.
The music sounds very reminiscent of early ’70s Radiophonic workshop.
Yes, I suppose it was in a way. It all worked. As well as electronic, he did bring in some live instruments that he played himself – for example, the piano. And I do like the song, “Accept the Arms of a Stranger”, in the scene where Anders is drinking without getting drunk – he is an alien, after all – and watching the two girls dancing.
Anders’ penchant for drinking reminds me very much of David Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976).
Yes, yes. But I think it’s not so much about getting drunk, as about being one of the first things he’s found which he actually likes.
Are you still in contact with any of these actors?
Not Barry Stokes. He now lives in Canada. He gave up acting altogether and is now into commercial kitchens for hotels, etc. I’m still in touch with Sally Faulkner, and she was pleased to be interviewed about Prey for the Anchor Bay boxset.
Let’s move on to Terror. Elsewhere you’ve spoken of how influential Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) was for your approach to this film. Can you explain how?
Horror films up until that date took a more conventional approach. Although horror films often didn’t have to make a great deal of sense, they still did have some logic. Suspiria doesn’t make sense at all, yet it doesn’t bother you. It was also just so great to look at. It had lots of energy. As I was interested in sound, I also loved all the weird sound effects that often have nothing to do with what is going on screen. And the lighting used wild colours. Normally in films you can see where the light is coming from; therefore you justify what the colour it is. Suddenly, to have green light coming through the window, or red or blue, was so unusual, but it just worked for me.
Did you ever get to meet Argento?
No, I’d love to. It was always a bit unfair when people used to say that Terror was a copy of Suspiria, because Terror was never intended to be a copy. It was just liberating in that you could suddenly get away with doing whatever you liked.
For this film, we had money from Satan’s Slave, so there were no finance problems; it was just a case of what were we going to do. After seeing Suspiria, we thought that we could really do whatever we wanted to. We all came up with ideas and David tied it all together. It was a very loose story idea. A lot of it doesn’t make sense, because many of the people who get killed have nothing to do with the cursed family.
One of the strangest sequences is where the heroine gets off the London tube, and then she’s running through the woods. It’s a classic Argento moment.
Having said that, don’t forget that the house is out in the country and that station, believe it or not, is genuine. It’s Barnes Underground Station and, when you come out, you’re in part of Barnes Common. You cross the road and you’re in the woods. So, that sequence is genuine.
Using that station made it nice and easy; she’d come out of there and then we’re in the woods; then, in the next shot, we’re in Perbright near the house.
Yet still, in terms of narrative, it doesn’t make much sense.
No, it doesn’t, but it was great fun to do. Also, what doesn’t make sense is the sequence where the girl breaks down in her car in a storm, which is a big red herring and lasts about ten minutes. It has to be the classic thing: a girl breaks down in the rain. We have the worst storm ever and then she comes to a house where all the doors are open.
And a power cut.
Yes, but the phones still work.
What was Peter Mayhew like to work with because, of course, he appears in that scene?
Peter is a lovely guy. A gigantic man, but with the most gentle voice. We all used to smoke at that time and always offering cigarettes to each other. It was very weird if Peter offered you a cigarette while he was standing behind you, because the cigarette would come down from above, as if coming from the sky, and then a light would follow.
I wanted to ask about the character of James Garrick played by John Nolan. He has some of the oddest reactions to nearly being killed. Why is he so detached and nonchalant from the frightening events around him?
Don’t forget that his character is the one who does believe in the family curse, so he’s half-expecting to die, I suppose. I do know what you mean, though. Mind you, the nice thing about that is that it gives a nice contrast to everybody else. I also like the James Aubrey character, who was a last-minute addition to the script, and the fact that he doesn’t believe in any of it until he’s attacked in the studio. He was a good contrast too.
You’ve been excused of sexism in Terror and the other films, but you also offer up some very powerful female types. I’m thinking here of the witch and that stripper and also Dolores. It’s a cast that offers up some very strong women.
Yes, along with more fluffy ones. All these things may have happened subconsciously, I don’t know. Both the stripper, Tanya Ferova, and Dolores, Elain Ives-Cameron, were accidental finds, but great ones. I did the casting for Terror with Les Young’s wife, Moira, who was also the associate producer. When it came to finding the stripper, I was becoming really fed up and frustrated, because it was so boring going to endless clubs and watching the same old routine. I had nothing against the women doing it, but it definitely a case of thinking each time. “Oh, no, not the same thing again.” It was almost the same music each time. We contacted various agents and one day Tanya walked into the office. I didn’t ask her to show us her act, because her whole appearance and attitude told me she was the right one.
With Tanya Ferova, it was Cabaret mixed with S&M.
She had this close-cut dyed blonde hair that wasn’t fashionable at that time and she was completely in leather. Her attitude was so in-your-face.
She has quite a scary manner in the film.
I didn’t find her scary, just weird. We’d done some shots of Tanya stripping and, while we were changing angle, she sat at the side of the set and started talking to the stills photographer, Frazer Wood. Then, suddenly, Tanya took a razor from her bag and started shaving her pubic hair. Frazer said that she didn’t know where to look.
Why do you think audiences, particularly male audiences, get so much pleasure from seeing young women killed in gruesome ways?
I’ve no idea. I was on a panel at DeMontford University a few years ago and one question was also related to the exploitation of young women in horror films. I said I’m in full favour of it – we need more of it! People there were trying to suggest that we filmmakers captured a young girl and got her into the film, and tortured and killed her for the sake of the film, that we were exploiting them in that way. I tried to explain that the girl read the script like everybody else in the casting session. The actress knew exactly what was going to happen to her because she’s read the script. You can’t force people to do anything they don’t want to. But let’s face it, young girls are commercial anyway for horror films. The biggest audience is young men and Argento was quite right when he said you want to watch attractive-looking people being killed. But, also, you have good-looking guys for the girls. You want men for the women to say, “Cor, I like him.”
What you’re saying reminds me of some comments made by director Eli Roth. Do you watch much contemporary horror?
I must confess that I’m not so keen on that new stuff.
The so-called ‘Torture porn’ sub-genre?
The gore and the nasty stuff is all that it is now. It’s just become a torture show – for example, Saw [James Wan, 2004]. We talked earlier about having no story in horror, but in many of these films the stories don’t exist at all. It doesn’t make sense.
It’s interesting how these current horror directors are often obsessed with the horror movies from the 1970s. It has become their blueprint.
Yes, I know. But the ’70s wasn’t only gore; there was something in-between. If you have too much of something, it actually defeats itself in the end. It’s a bit like the way modern films – and not just horror – have everything on the soundtrack very loud. If you start loud, which they often do right from the opening titles, there is nowhere else to go. They don’t actually have any silence in the soundtrack anymore. They fill up every gap with a noise and, in the end, you can hardly hear the dialogue because everything is fighting: the dialogue, the music and the sound effects.
Yes, for the most part, subtlety seems to have gone.
Absolutely, which means you have nowhere to go. That’s what I meant. If you can ease off for a bit, you can have more of an effect on an audience. The same with gore. If you have gore right from the start, people become anesthetised to it. They’re watching the gore without any reaction.
Have you seen anything in recent months that you do think is good?
Oh, yes, and I haven’t seen anything to top it yet. A year ago I saw a film at Frightfest called The Orphanage [El Orfanato, Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007].
I haven’t seen it yet.
It has very little gore in it. It just works on atmosphere and building up the situation.
Which takes horror back to films such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).
What happened after Inseminoid, because there only seemed to be a couple of films made in the 1980s?
Well, the last film I made in the 1980’s was Bloody New Year, which was a great disappointment to me and others involved with the project.
It had a lot of potential but the producer, sadly, just wasn’t interested. I did learn one lesson on that which was you should never work with a producer who has no interest or understanding of horror. It’s self-defeating. I found out afterwards, when it was all too late, because I also knew some of the finances involved, that the studio was pleased with what they saw to begin with. They were waiting to hear from us to say that we could do with some more money. But whenever they spoke to the producer, she’d say, “Oh no, we’re doing fine. We don’t need anymore money.” Her whole ambition was to get the film made as quickly as possible and bring it under budget because she wanted to impress the financers, but that was to the detriment of the film. She was cutting back on so many things.
I was not involved with the editing, so, when we went into the dubbing theatre to do the final sound mix, I was horrified to discover there were really no sound effects. Remember how much importance I put on the soundtrack, especially when it comes to a horror film. When I pointed out that we needed a sound for a particular item, she’d say, “Well that doesn’t make any sound in reality”, to which I said, “No it doesn’t, but in a horror film it does!” She also did a terrible music deal. In order to get a few songs for a low price, she agreed to a young guy to do the music score. It wasn’t his fault, he just had no experience of film music and had no idea how to write to picture. The music in the film just doesn’t work. On the second day of dubbing, I must confess I gave up on the film. I’d run out of fight, and just sat there and let them go through the motions.
After that unpleasant experience, did you think about getting back with David for another film?
Oh, yes. But I was so disappointed with Bloody New Year, I decided to set about writing a script myself, something I’d never done before – well, not from page one. It was a sort of sequel to Terror, a fast-moving film that, along with the horror, also involves music and dancers. I sent the script to Richard Gordon in New York.
I should explain that I was to have been making a film with Richard, but it had fallen through, so I knew he was interested in looking at new scripts. He liked the script and agreed to finance half the budget. Jacques de Lane Lea also liked the script and agreed to come in on the deal. Anyhow, for various reasons, part of the finance fell away and after two years of trying to raise the balance of the finance, we just had to let it go.
What sort of budget had you in mind?
It was around five to eight hundred thousand pounds. Not a vast amount for a film, but its still a lot of money to find. The film has almost been made three times, the last being in 2005, but for various reasons it has collapsed again.
So what happened after that?
Then I got involved with another production with Richard Gordon, a new version of his 1958 film, Fiend Without A Face. I wrote the script and then brought in a writer to work on the dialogue. I was involved with the project for three years, and I was in America for quite a long time meeting with various production companies, but unfortunately it never happened in the end.
After that, was it documentaries that you went into?
Yes, I did. And, of course, by that time the film industry had started to change quite a lot. Not only were the independent cinemas fading, but the thing that was hardest was that the small production companies that were run by one guy or woman very often – they made all the decisions, whether they were right or not – were also gone. It was all becoming dominated by big organisations, committees. That’s what happened with Fiend without a Face. People would like it, but it had to go to the Board, as it were. A lot of these Hollywood companies get thousands of scripts and they have a monthly meet and they’ve all read the scripts and, so, they just have a vote. As they explained to Richard and myself, if you don’t get the full set of hands, the project’s out. In the ’60s and ’70s, you’d take a script to a small company, and they’d say this is too expensive or this is fine or this is a load of crap. You knew where you stood. And if they decided to go with it, you didn’t even bother about the contract because they really meant it. They were old showmen. These guys in these committees: I’m not sure if they’d know how to judge a script anyway.
Another reason why the ’70s are viewed as the golden age of horror cinema …
I think so, yes. You still obviously had a job to find the money and, of course, you had to find a subject that was commercial, otherwise you still wouldn’t have got distribution in those days. Distributors were quite tough. They knew what they were doing and they knew what would sell.
One thing I haven’t yet asked you about is censorship and how you got on with the censors during your career.
John Travelyan was a wonderful censor to work with. He was the only censor who you could actually go and talk with before you made the film. He loved film. He would read the script and come to the cutting room and look at any sequences we thought could be a problem. He would say, “I think there might be a problem with the way you’ve got it there”, and you could keep cutting the scene until it was right. With the new censors, you had to show them the completed film. They wouldn’t look at the script or ever come to a cutting room.
Didn’t some of your work later fall under the label of ‘video nasty’?
Yes, but that was nothing to do with the censor. None of my films actually got banned.
Finally, do you wish you’d been given a chance to work on a big feature film?
No. This may sound strange, but the reason is because it wouldn’t be fun. I have many friends in the industry who have worked on big movies, and over the years I have visited them on films like Superman [Richard Donner, 1978]. The moment you walk on the set, you can feel the tension. It’s alarming. The tension is because the film is costing so much money. There are always groups of men in grey suits, checking their watches and looking worried. Everyone is afraid to say anything because it’s not their place to do so. I don’t like that at all. I could never work in that atmosphere.
If you came on to the set of one of my films, you’d think there was a party going on. Even though we worked hard for long hours each day and got the job done, there was always the belief that you should also be able to have a laugh and enjoy what you were doing. I also like having everyone feel free to make suggestions. On the big films, you’d never have an electrician say, “Why don’t you try so and so?”, whereas I would welcome that. Very often, they’d have a much better idea than you because they’re standing back and looking at it from a different viewpoint.
So would you still like to make another horror?
Yes, very much so, and I have been trying for a while now, working with people like Hayden Pearce. I have considered quite a few scripts in the last two years. Sadly, the one thing we are very short of in the UK is good screenwriters. It’s not easy to find good scripts. It really isn’t.
Do you look at horror cinema and still see any gaps in the market?
It’s impossible to do that. Also, remember that making a film takes quite a while, so, by the time you finish it, that gap would have been filled by somebody else. You just have to like what you’re doing. That’s all you can do. You never know what the trends are because you can’t see two years ahead. Even if you make it quickly, it’s going to be nearly two years before it gets seen. Our plan is to make a film the same way we did Terror, as a co-operative where everyone gets involved. Why I’ve been encouraged to keep trying is because all the technicians I know – many of whom are now very established people – are keen to make another film together because they find the industry rather dull now. Making any film is very hard work and very long hours, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t also be an enjoyable experience.