A feature in the current issue (#185) of Dark Side magazine celebrates Severin’s first decade of digital debauchery by interviewing that label’s enterprising, taboo-busting, trash-obsessed honchos David Gregory and Carl Daft. The following archive interview (recently rediscovered wedged behind a toilet cistern during the demolition of a 42nd Street grindhouse cinema) catches them just a couple of years or so after the label’s launch. These interviews should be read in conjunction to get the whole picture… or (to paraphrase Mr Gregory) if you want to be tickled by the whole chicken…
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, as Isaac Newton so sagely pointed out in his Third Law Of Motion (familiar to all of our readers, no doubt, from their GCSEs). Isaac’s axiom holds just as true in the realm of censorship as it does in the sphere of physics, so it was inevitable that the savage suppression of horror and exploitation video from the early ’80s onwards would provoke a commensurate outbreak of fan activity dedicated to keeping the flame alive until the dawning of less censorious times such as those that, give or take, we currently enjoy. Some of us hacks have managed to turn a modest living from our endless journalistic musings on the hysterical history of “video nasties” and similarly contentious titles but other, even more twisted individuals, have taken things several sinister steps further.
Consider David Gregory and Carl Daft, two eminently agreeable, middle class boys growing up in the more respectable parts of Nottingham, whose quest for forbidden filmic fruit would, in time, blaze a legendary trail across the annals of DVD (and subsequently BD and download) distribution. “By the age of 10, Carl and I had seen many of the nasties before the police started snatching them up” avows Gregory, in a truly blood chilling confession. “But it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which I think made the biggest impression on me. Even at the early age I was able to tell there was something about the stench in the atmosphere of that film which made it quite special, despite the lack of gore. Anyway, after The Video Recordings Act devastated the industry we became avid collectors of pre-cert video tape, scouring the shops of Nottingham for hidden gems.”
“There was always that exciting possibility that you would find a video shop and he’d bring out this big box of nasties and be selling them for a few quid a piece” agrees Daft, smacking his lips like a true connoisseur of cinematic Evil. The boys’ delvings in the dark hinterland of video brought them into contact with a distributor for whom Gregory shot the local interest documentaries Nottingham At War and Nottingham At The Cinema… the latter is particularly nifty and both sold well in Robin Hood’s native city.
Dave’s main focus, though, remained on cinematic sleaze (he had already made Scathed, as short starring Warhol “superstar” Holly Woodlawn in 1995) and, together with Carl, he put together the Exploited label to distribute their kind of movies on VHS. This soon had them butting heads with the BBFC. Deranged, Axe and the G.G. Allin doc Hated all got cut, Deadbeat At Dawn and Maniac were rejected outright… hassles that would become, as we shall see, a recurring motif in this narrative.
At the dawn of the digital age the boys collaborated on the seminal doc Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and would raise the bar for DVD bonus features with their contributions to exploitation releases on various labels… their two-part Ban The Sadist Videos! retrospective on “nasty”-bashing hysteria, spread over Anchor Bay UK’s Box Of The Banned sets, was a particularly commendable effort and clearly came straight from their heart.
Carl and Dave were also very active in the heroically failed (in 2002) legal attempt to overturn the BBFC’s ban on an uncut ABUK edition of Last House On The Left and their affiliations with Anchor Bay in The States ultimately spawned a close working relationship with Maniac director turned DVD distributor Bill Lustig, with whom they absconded to form the legendary Blue Underground label.
Their milestone US releases would include unexpurgated versions of Joe D’Amato’s notorious Emanuelle In America, Night Train Murders (which at the time was still a taboo title here in Blighty), Mark Of The Devil et al, alongside epic box sets dedicated to Amando De Ossorio’s Blind Dead series and the collected works of Mondo godfathers Jacopetti and Prosperi. During this period Dave and Carl also took on the completion of Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family, which turned into a hair raising experience for all concerned.
In Summer 2006 Dave, Carl and partner John Cregan split to start releasing films under the Severin banner. Initially concentrating on sexploitation efforts, their release slate subsequently widened to take on every aspect of exploitation cinema. When we spoke, Daft and Gregory were bringing the sleaze home with the inauguration of Severin UK…
You must have been proud of what you achieved at Blue Underground… can you tell us something about your reasons for splitting?
DG) I think BU had reached a stage where we could no longer carry on as we had for the previous few years. Not only were titles that Bill was interested in pursuing getting scarcer and more costly to produce, but also the market had steadily been getting smaller and more packed with competition. Having said that John, Carl and I wanted to broaden our horizons a bit, gain some independence and pursue production and saw potential for a variety of films that were not being exploited by the other boutique cult labels. Initially this was soft core erotic films from France, Italy, Germany, Australia, etc. We figured these films could still find an audience and they did. We committed to do some featurette work for Bill after we split, most notably on The Stendhal Syndrome and Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, but that definitively dried up some time ago.
Tell us about Severin’s UK launch. Why now? does the (yawn) “credit crunch” make this a particularly difficult time to undertake such a venture?
CD) We are launching in the UK with Polanski’s What? An amazing new transfer of The Master’s rarest film, complete with a slew of extras. It’ll be a terrific special edition. We’ll follow up with Felicity, Vanessa, Bloody Moon and Devil Hunter. Although erotica and horror will always be on our radar we are broadening our output and will be releasing everything from war epics like Enzo Castellari’s Eagles Over London to Ozploitation biker classic Stone.
There is a school of thought that the distribution business is recession-proof, that in tough times people would rather stay in and watch a DVD than go out to a restaurant or the pub. I think there’s some truth in that but it seems that cash is tight everywhere at the moment and consumers are being extremely cautious as, indeed, are the retailers, so it is bound to have a knock-on effect on sales. We have been toying with the idea of launching in the UK for a while but given our previous headaches with the BBFC and the Video Appeals Committee , had never quite mustered the enthusiasm to do so. When we found out that What? was available for UK distribution, we thought this was a strong enough title with which to launch in the UK and as the BBFC had lightened up considerably in the last couple of years we felt that we wouldn’t be spending half our time arguing with them like before so decided the time was right.
Do you think / fear, given your track record, that your stuff will be marked out for special scrutiny at the BBFC? And do you retain the same appetite as of yore for litigation in these matters?
CD) The BBFC views every title on its own merit, surely? No, I don’t think we will be singled out for attention in that respect. Where our name will be noted, as this also answers the second part of your question, is that The Board will consider its position very carefully before issuing us a cuts list, as I have made it clear that I won’t tolerate any cuts whatsoever and I will tak any such decision to appeal. Just after the Last House appeal, , Robin Duval issued a cuts list for the Jim Van Bebber short My Sweet Satan. I wrote him back saying I didn’t agree with his decision and that unless he waived these unnecessary cuts there would be no option but to reconvene the Video Appeals Committee. Knowing that I was deadly serious and probably still scarred by the experience of Last House On The Left he backed down and passed the film uncut. As it happened I never even released the title, but I had made my point.
Presumably it will be a badge of honour for you to get former “nasties” like Bloody Moon and Devil Hunter released uncut in the UK…
CD) Most of those titles are now passing uncut due to the abolition of the 10 year rule after the Last House hearing. Bloody Moon is a nice one for us to do as it was one of our favourite “nasties” back when we were kids. It’s funny to think that here we are, 25 years later, mastering it in Hi-Def and putting it out on DVD for the first time ever with the enthusiastic involvement of its legendary director Jess Franco.
Any amusing anecdotes about your encounters with the legendary Jess?
DG) I can safely say that I am a big admirer of Jess Franco these days and that wasn’t always the case. Here’s a man who has always done things his way no matter what the criticism levelled at him. Not too many film makers can say that. The more you see of his work, the more you realise that this guy is an auteur. Of course some of his works are more palatable than others but that’s the joy of being a Jess fan, you have to see as much as possible to discover and admire the true gems… plus he’s funny as shit and great company, as long as you don’t mind passively inhaling about twenty cigarettes in the course of a few hours!
I believe you’re going to be releasing stuff over here in NTSC rather than Pal. Kindly talk us through some of the technical and commercial issues involved in this decision.
CD) Yes, unless we are contractually obliged to release in Pal we will be releasing everything in NTSC here in the UK in the exact same versions as we do in the U.S. Most of our titles are appearing on legitimate DVD for the first time in the world and it’s a very expensive process to go back to the original film and audio elements to create a new master, more so now that we are mastering in hi-def, so if we can split that cost across two territories instead of one then that makes sound commercial sense. Virtually all UK DVD players can play NTSC and as most of our releases are Region O then it shouldn’t create any problems for the consumer.
As Severin, has sexual material caused you more or less censorship hassles than horror / violence previously did in your principal markets?
DG) The censorship in the US is different from the bollocks that we had to put up with in the UK. It still exists though, even if not in the form of a state censorship board. Certain bigger stores and online retailers won’t touch certain products for fear of upsetting any puritan customers they might have and as a result some of our products can only be stocked in the more liberal outlets.
Tell us about the problems you had with the Immoral Women sleeve in some US outlets and the people who refused to subtitle Emanuelle Around The World…
CD) One of the bigger retail stores ordered Immoral Women but it seems that the box copy on the back and its suggestion of bunny love were too much for one employee somewhere in the Mid-west and an official complaint was filed by this poor soul. It then became an HR issue for the company which, under American law, can become very onerous. To them it was far easier to send all copies of the film back rather than risk a law suit. With Emanuelle Around The World there is a uniquely D’Amato-esque scene in the XXX version which involves some dubious sexual activity. When the subtitle house got to this point in the movie they immediately had the tapes couriered back to our office for fear that the Republican decency police would have then sent to Death Row for the good of the community.
As veterans of all those scrapes with the BBFC, it must be a bittersweet experience for you to see Last House On The Left finally released uncut in the UK on another label… were you also as amazed as I was to see some of your Franco titles… I’m thinking particularly of The Sexual Story Of O… released unexpurgated over here?
CD) The BBFC has certainly lightened up compared to what it was even five years ago. There are still problems but if you compare it to how things were under Ferman’s reign, it’s nothing. It’s also annoying when you consider that we went to all that effort and expense to challenge the BBFC over Last House On The Left, only for the Video Appeals Committee to over-rule us and demand further cuts, then five years later the offending footage is no longer considered dangerous to the UK public… but another company gets to benefit! I mean, what could possibly have changed so much in British society that footage which was unacceptable five years ago is now OK?
The sexualised violence in Sexual Story Of O would also have caused problems even under Duval but now we are seeing the likes of the hardcore version of Caligula being passed at ’18’ so that is definitely a good sign. Next stop has to be hard core at 18 that one might struggle to be “exceptionally justified by context” (the Board’s guideline) I’m thinking Malabimba and Beast In Space XXX at 18!
Well, if Caligula is now OK uncut at 18, what about some of the more out-there Black Emanuelle titles? I mean, what’s the difference?
CD) The two titles that would cause most controversy, Emanuelle In America and Emanuelle Around The world are both owned by Studio Canal / Optimum in the UK so unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to chance our arm with The Board even if we wanted to. I heard that Optimum submitted the full version of World without realising everything that it contained. The BBFC politely informed them that some of the contents were unacceptable in the UK and they promptly withdrew it. I would like to challenge the Board’s acceptance of hard core at 18 with some of our other titles though, under the test of “exceptionally justified by context.”I think the hard core elements of Beast In Space and Malabimba are most certainly exceptionally justified by their context. I am not sure that the BBFC would agree, maybe we’ll see what the Video Appeals Committee thinks.
Joe D’Amato once told me that he much preferred soft core to hard core, personally… where do your own inclinations lie?
DG) John is our connoisseur of the world of soft core whereas Carl and I are more horror guys… John certainly agrees with maestro D’Amato. Polanski said to Peter Coyote when they were prepping Bitter Moon that the difference between erotica and pornography is that erotica is teasing with a feather whereas in pornography you use the whole chicken. I think that’s a fair assessment.
After years of watching bootleg videos that turned out to be cut, where you as surprised as the rest of us were to see just how explicit some of the sex stuff was in Malabimba? And are you satisfied that the mythical “hard core out takes” from its remake / sequel Satan’s Baby Doll are indeed a myth?
DG) Actually, after we completed our Satan’s Baby Doll disc we discovered that the hard core version had been unearthed in Germany so it does exist, despite the director’s claims to the contrary. We procured a copy of the footage and it was it was in such bad condition we’re not sure that it’s even releasable. Malabimba, well that’s got to be the sleaziest film in our catalogue… until The Sinful Dwarf comes out next year, that is! I’d never seen it before we started Severin. Wow… we had to have this movie!
Is there any juicy stuff you could tell us about spaghetti sleaze Hall-Of-Famer Mariangela Giordano?
DG) It would have to be off the record!
Kudos to you for the two Black Emanuelle boxes… was Laura Gemser approached to contribute to those?
CD) She certainly was but she’s retired from public life. She’s not embarrassed about it at all, in fact she requested copies of the box but she’d just rather not spend the rest f her days reminiscing about those years and she now lives happily just outside of Rome, where she breeds Llama apparently!
None of them named Pedro, hopefully… it’s clear that you boys conceived youthful affections for such actresses as Olivia Pascal (below), Glory Annen and the scandalously underused Joni Flynn, Is there any sign that these DVD releases are gaining any of them an unexpected cult afterlife on the convention circuit? No such option for Sirpa Lane, unfortunately…
DG) I don’t think any of them are aware of it but it’s nice their work is being introduced to a whole new generation of admirers.
CD) Glory was happy to participate in the release of Felicity. We approached Olivia Pascal for Vanessa but she took the Laura Gemser route, preferring not to talk about the past (she’s a big name on German TV now). We tried to locate Joni Flynn but alas without success.
Are there any particularly underrated / directors stars whose work you’re planning to push?
DG) Looking forward to reintroducing some great Patrice Leconte movies into the US market. Not very Severin, you might think, but then we never wanted to limit ourselves to one genre. Leconte makes great films and we’re proud to represent them over here. We’ll also be doing more Castellari because there are still some masterpieces that remain unreleased on video… and there’s always more Franco.
CD) Rino Di Silvestro!
What were the problems with the Lucio Fulci bonus interviews that were withdrawn?
CD) Antonella Fulci didn’t think they portrayed her father in the right light. Although she really had no legal basis to demand that we pulled the interviews, we decided that it just wouldn’t be right to have Fulci’s family upset with any of the releases of his films. We intend to do more Fulci titles in the future so we figured it would be best to keep her on side.
Well done for releasing Fulci’s Sette Note In Nero. Was it always the plan to extend your remit beyond sex films to the likes of that, The Inglorious Bastards, Stone et al or was it just that you couldn’t restrain yourselves when these great exploitation titles came up?
DG) I think if we’d continued with our main concentration as soft core that our output would become stale and diminishing returns would set in. When films like Inglorious Bastards and The Hairdresser’s Husband et al came along we saw it as the perfect opportunity to expand our horizons. There’ll be plenty of horror, action, in Severin’s future and plenty of sleaze too so we certainly won’t be abandoning our roots. More D’Amato, Borowczyk, etc… all great film makers in their own right and as a fan of Film I see no reason why they shouldn’t be represented alongside Leconte or Fulci. Ironically, our release of Sette Note In Nero (as The Psychic) was one of our biggest failures, commercially… very few people bought it.
That’s scandalous! It’s a fabulous picture… from your various hob-nobbings with Quentin Tarantino, did you manage to glean whether his long mooted remake of Fulci’s film is still a goer?
CD) Much was discussed during the interview but no mention fo The Psychic. We flew Enzo Castellari out to meet with Castellari for our recent release of Inglorious Bastards. Quentin had organised “Enzo Castellari Night” at The Silent Movie Theatre where Joe Dante and Eli Roth were among the guests as two of Enzo’s films had rare theatrical screenings in LA. The following day we were treated to a three hour sit-down conversation between the two great directors covering everything from their respective cinematic influences to Quentin’s ideas for his remake of Bastards, which is now in production. The first part of this interview appeared on our release of the original IB and we will be splitting the remainder across future Castellari releases.
You’ve revealed the true identity of Emmanuelle’s author, exposed what Hanna Barbera animators get up to in their spare time and demonstrated conclusively that unsolicited Borowczyk sequels and zero-budgeted Star Wars knock-offs are not comfortable bed-mates… are there any more scoops that you’re waiting to slap us around the face with?
DG)… that even a sleazy film like Christianne F can be made sleazier in the hands of an Italian exploitation master like Rino Di Silvestro (Hanna D is a jaw-droppingly tasteless exercise in “don’t do drugs, kids!” propaganda)… that you will at the very least need to take a shower after watching The Sinful Dwarf, but more likely need psychiatric help to banish some of the imagery from your mind… that Polanski was a bit loopy when he made What?
Last time we spoke, Dave, you announced that you were “on the verge of grabbing a camera and running out to shot a feature.” Now you’ve done that, with Plague Town… what’s the lowdown?
DG) Plague Town was an exhilarating experience and I’m very happy with it. I set out to make a horror film initially following a generic formula but them pushing it into a stylistic direction that is not so formulaic. So essentially we start on a note of familiarity before moving into territory which is unexpected. For example I think the main victim, Rosemary, is genuinely unique. She came out exactly as I had imagined her, a beautifully elegant but exceedingly creepy and extremely violent young lady. And we tried hard to create some memorable death scenes, the kind of thing you really haven’t seen before and in this I think we succeeded. We’ve just had a couple of private preview screenings and the response has been very positive. We’re working with Dark Sky Films (the producers) on a release schedule for the film in the U.S. It will be on DVD in the first half of 2009.