Posts Tagged With: British Horror

“Chainsaws In Outer Space… Why Not?” The NORMAN J. WARREN Interview.

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Although I’ve enjoyed his company on several subsequent occasions, my interrogation of Norman J. Warren took place at and around the second Black Sunday film festival in Ashton-under-Lyne in February 1990, when the Freudstein interviewing technique was even less polished than it is now. The complete (ish) transcript appeared in A Major Horror Magazine but another rag commissioned me to adapt our conversation into the following profile, which they never actually used or paid me for… which was nice of them. Nearly (ouch!) 30 years later, their loss is hopefully your gain, dear readers. Beyond Terror and Norman’s Fiend Without A Face reboot remain tantalisingly unrealised projects but maybe one day? Like chainsaws in outer space, why the hell not?

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In the mid-60s, the young Norman J. Warren had begun his career assisting Anatole and Dimitri De Grunewald on the likes of Rod The Mod, a documentary look at the trendy life and times of the equally youthful Mr Stewart. “Like a lot of other people in their late teens / early twenties, I was desperate to direct, and couldn’t understand why the establishment wouldn’t give me the chance to do so”, Norman laughs: “It’s only later on when you realise why they didn’t! So out of sheer frustration I made a short film called Fragment in 1965. I’d already made other amateur efforts, but I decided to do Fragment properly, on 35mm and so on and I managed to talk several independent cinemas into screening it. It was just pure luck that one of those cinema managers, Bachoo Sen and a guy called Richard Shulman had just gone into film production. They’d decided to start with sex films because it was an obvious way to make a quick buck and because it was low budget. They were new to production, they wanted a director who was not too experienced, thus couldn’t give them a hard time, and of course somebody who was enthusiastic enough to do it for very little money. They gave me a call, made me an offer and I said yes immediately, without knowing what it was!” (Laughs)

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What it was, was Her Private Hell… “a black and white film made in 1967, and I dread to think what it would look like now. The whole thing was so naive, but I was grateful for the chance to actually direct a feature film and make all the mistakes that you inevitably do, which is how you learn your trade. The second one, Loving Feeling (1968) – which is about a disc jockey who destroys his marriage because he takes advantage of all these girls who are throwing themselves at him – looks a lot more polished, though I was still making mistakes in that one”.

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One of the biggest mistakes Norman made was not scrutinising the small print closely enough. “Bachoo never spent an awful lot of money on his productions, but he spent a hell of a lot on his contracts! Eventually I tried to challenge him for money, after working seven days a week, virtually 24 hours a day for two years on two films… I did the story for Loving Feeling, edited Her Private Hell, did all the sound… and I hadn’t been paid anything, apart from the odd fiver here or there for something to eat. Whenever I said I needed some money to get a taxi home, he’d would drive me home in his own car – I never seemed to get any cash! When it came to the crunch, a solicitor told me the contracts had been so beautifully written, that I really had no claim on anything! We ended up reaching a settlement, and it worked out that I’d been working for £20 a week, which – depending on what your job was – mightn’t have been bad money for that time, but if you think what I’d been doing, the responsibility and the hours I was working… also, how much money Bachoo made on these pictures! Her Private Hell, for instance, cost something like £18,000 to make and in one cinema alone in the Charring Cross Road, where it played for 14 months, it was taking £5,000 a week! Then of course it went around the entire country, and was sold to foreign territories. I dread to think how much it must have made, the profit must have been absolutely enormous, but I didn’t see any of it. Bachoo later relocated to The States and called me asking if I wanted to direct this terrible picture, Nightmare Weekend, for him. I didn’t take him up on his offer, even though I really wanted to get back into directing, and having seen the finished result, I think I made the right decision! Once again, it was a sex film disguised as a horror movie. Of course in a way I’m terribly grateful to him because he gave me the chance to direct my first feature film, to get through that enormous barrier you have to surmount to be accepted as someone who can actually direct a feature-length film… but I don’t want to go through all that again! I learned my lesson the hard way”.

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Loving Feeling was the debut movie for Euro-sex bomb Francoise Pascal, who claimed in the documentary version of David McGillivray’s book Doing Rude Things that she needed twenty brandies before she could bring herself to take her clothes off… a version of events that Norman disputes: “She was very young, and she wasn’t shy at all. She didn’t have a very big part, but she was a very attractive girl in those days. I wasn’t aware of any brandies or embarrassment…. in fact the problem, as I recall it, was trying to get Francoise to keep her clothes on!”Another of Norman’s leading ladies displayed no such willingness to drop her drawers in the cause of Art: “Georgina Ward was a very grand lady, actually, came from a very wealthy background. I don’t know what happened to her. She was in another sex film made by the producer Hazel Adair, who used to write that soap opera Crossroads. She was very coy, didn’t want to do any nudity, so we brought in a body double for the sex films. David McGillivray mentions something like this in his book, though he might have been referring to Lucia Modugno, the Italian actress in Her Private Hell. We received some very beautiful photos of her aged about 17, but they turned out to be very old photos, because when we met her at the airport, I actually thought she’d brought her mother with her! I was very sorry for Lucia, because once we started filming she realised she was to old for the part, and didn’t really have the figure… of course she was surrounded by all these young girls. It was very sad”.

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“After a while, you run out of things to do with a bed…”

“David was right when he said that sex films weren’t a genre I enjoyed working in, though this wasn’t out of any sense of prudery. I actually found the genre very restricting… the story lines just revolved around people taking their clothes off and going to bed, and after a while you run out of things to do with a bed, you know, camera angles and so on. A lot of people got labelled and never did anything else, and when the British sex films came to an end, they just faded out with them! So after the second one, although I was offered the chance of doing The Wife Swappers, which was eventually done by Derek Ford, I refused, and more or less put myself out of work, as far as directing was concerned, for several years, until the opportunity to direct Satan’s Slave came along. After that one I knew that this was what I really wanted to do, which was nothing to do with money, just because it was a much more satisfying experience all round”.

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“I think some of the younger fans are not only amazed that there was a British industry in those days, but that these sort of films, with such graphic content, were being made here… reflects Norman: “Those who’ve managed to see an un-cut foreign print of Satan’s Slave, for instance, are quite shocked that a movie like that could have been made in this country and that it could have been seen commercially in cinemas… they all were, that’s something I’m very proud of, that they were all shown theatrically”.

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After the disappointment of The Naked Eye (a project on which Norman was to have directed Cushing and Price for AIP) falling through, Satan’s Slave (1976) was conceived in a rush of frustrated enthusiasm and tackled by all concerned in a spirit of D.I.Y. gusto. In it, aristocratic Michael Gough presides over a cult dedicated to the revival of an ancestral witch via human sacrifice, a batty plot culminating in one of those trusty “So, it was all a dream… hang on, no it wasn’t!” moments. Terror (1978) commences in similar fashion before the witch-hunting action is revealed to be a film-within-a-film but (you guessed) the cast and crew are soon being bumped off in gruesome fashion. With Norman and writer David McGillivray (who’d already written several of Pete Walker’s “terror pictures”) both under the recent spell of Argento’s Suspiria, Terror places even less emphasis on narrative cohesion than its predecessor, concentrating instead on a succession of spectacular designer deaths.

terror-1978-film-04553e9b-38be-4b3d-add3-97849bd1d85-resize-750.jpg“David was very good indeed to work with”, remembers Norman: “because he never got offended when I wanted to make changes. A lot of writers feel that their work is set in marble and they don’t want any changes, but David (laughs)… maybe he’s just been very lenient with me, but he’s never had any complaints when I’ve thrown out lines or changed scenes around completely. David appears in Satan’s Slave and he has a smaller role in Terror, he’s the TV reporter in that one. I know those films contain some violent scenes and they get a bit gory at times, but there’s no viciousness about them. My sole intention was to entertain, and to me they’re sort of light-hearted films, in a way…”Something of that playful spirit is captured in the title of All You Need Is Blood, the “making of…” documentary, which David Wyatt shot on the set of Satan’s Slave. “It was shot in the hope that the BBC would broadcast it as a programme about the making of his low budget film, but all they did was take out shots from it’s opening, in which Michael Gough is conducting a black mass, and use it in a religious programme about the growing menace of Satanism – as though it was the real thing!” Ain’t it reassuring to know that your license money gets spent so responsibly?

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Always the first to acknowledge his films’ weaknesses, Norman states that with the plots of these gory little epics “we fell into the trap of making things incredibly complicated, which gave us problems half-way through when we realised it was so complex that it was actually quite difficult to work out what was going on”. This is one reason why Beyond Terror, one of the projects Norman is working hard to develop (along with properties entitled Darkland and Skinner), is an expansion of his 1978 smash-hit.

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I remind him (as if he needed any reminding) that Terror was the top-grossing film in Britain on its release in 1978: “Yes it was! This tiny film, which cost scarcely more than £80,000, was Number One for a week, and when it opened all over America, in towns like Chicago and Oklahoma, it actually broke box office records! In Chicago it packed them in all the cinemas for a week!”

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In between Satan’s Slave and Terror, Norman took a stab at science fiction with Prey 77 (featuring the ever saucy Glory Annen, above), a virtual three-hander in which a lesbian couple’s rural idyll is rudely interrupted by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be the vanguard of an alien invasion force. When I suggested that the film had been influenced by Jose Ramon Larraz’s Vampyres (1974), which shares its country setting, small cast and indeed one of its actresses, Sally Faulkner, Warren demurred: “No, I haven’t seen the Larraz film unfortunately, in fact I don’t think I was influenced by anything for Prey, outside of its tiny budget… plus I had literally three weeks preparation, including writing the script. In some ways the small scale of everything was actually a positive thing, because despite the brief schedule I was able to spend time with all the principle actors, building the characters and so on, and I think you can see that in the finished film. Sally is particularly good, the way you suddenly start realising, she’s the crazy one!”

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Norman’s career continued in a sci-fi vein (featuring additional Glory Annen) with 1979’s Outer Touch: “That one was quite successful in America, where it played as Spaced Out, but it didn’t do very well in Britain. Basically, it’s a science-fiction comedy, and making it taught me just how difficult comedy is – the most difficult, I think, of all the genres. It’s totally about getting the timing right”. Norman’s next picture, Inseminoid (1981), was straight SF with no comic trimmings. 20th Century Fox certainly weren’t laughing when they got the idea that it was an attempt to cash in on Alien. “Nick Maley and his wife Gloria came up with the idea for Inseminoid as a showcase for his special effects expertise, which really is quite amazing. This was before they or anyone else had seen the Ridley Scott film and we were genuinely very surprised, when we saw Alien, that there was this similarity to the script we were about to shoot. Anyway, Fox wrote to us, not quite demanding – but ‘requesting’ – to see Inseminoid when it was finished, so we let them screen it and they themselves decided that it wasn’t a rip-off. They sent us a very nice letter, which the producer Richard Gordon has still got, in which they said they were happy for us to go ahead, wished us luck and said they thought our film was very good, considering its budget. Indeed, in a way it’s rather flattering when these comparisons are made between Alien and Inseminoid, because they had a budget of $20-30 million and we made ours for $2 million. This was possible because we shot it in Chiselhurst Caves in Surrey rather than on a set, which was cold, damp and claustrophobic, but gave us stuff that we could never have afforded to build”.

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Norman also recalls the extent to which this picture benefited from the trojan efforts of his players, particularly two well-known actresses: “Stephanie Beacham was a joy to work with, and Judy Geeson (above) was an absolute dream – she was just so enthusiastic, involved in the whole production. I don’t think she had more than two or three days off in the entire schedule and even on those days she insisted on turning up, simply because she didn’t want to miss anything that was happening. I caught up with Judy recently in Hollywood, and happily she’s now over some of the personal problems she’s been suffering… she told me it’s amazing how many people she meets bring up the subject of Inseminoid, even today”.

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Several contemporary and subsequent reviews of Inseminoid questioned why there was a need for quite so many chainsaws in pursuance of interplanetary exploration, to which Norman smilingly responds: “Why wouldn’t there be?” There’s really no answer to that, so I changed the subject to the film’s VHS re-release by the revived Vipco label, which was hyped along the ridiculous lines of being “The greatest ever bunk-up in outer space” (or some such nonsense) shortly before the company went belly-side up again in the wake of such disastrous releases as The Nostril Picker. “It wasn’t just that they were putting out rubbish, they was putting out too much, too soon”, opines Norman: “You only had to do a few sums to see that it was quite crazy, because putting out a video is not that cheap, and there weren’t enough people buying those things to offset that sort of cost. It’s very disappointing when these things blow up, but when it does happen, it’s usually their own fault. Richard Gordon is now desperately trying to find out where the master has gone…” (we heard that Vipco mastered some of their stuff from VHS!) “… and who is making money on the copies that are still floating around”.

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As for the promised “bunk-up” that never actually transpires… “That’s down to the way some people misunderstood the insemination sequence, where there’s a sort of plastic tube that’s going into Judy, and people got the mistaken impression that it’s the alien’s penis but we never intended that, because if he’s an alien, why would he have a penis that’s compatible with a human being?” “Or made out of plastic?” I add, helpfully. “Yes, that was supposed to be some kind of artificial insemination equipment, and we shot that sequence very impressionistically, to be like a dream, because I know that if we had shot it straight, it would have played like a rape scene and been cut out. So it has this sort of abstract quality to it that the censors didn’t mind”.

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In the mid-80s Norman found himself making a brace of pictures for producer Maxine Julian, whose penny pinching ways made for a couple of dispiriting experiences: “We had to fight to stop Bloody New Year (below) going out as ‘Time Warp Terror’, not that this improved the film very much! It was a terrible disappointment to me – there were just so many problems with the production, and Maxine didn’t even like horror films, she was only interested in saving money and making it in as short a space of time as possible. It was a wasted opportunity, because the script was pretty good”.

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The other fruit of Norman’s Maxine Julian period, that classic of camp espionage cinema Gunpowder, used to turns up regularly on UK TV in the early hours of the morning. “That’s exactly where it belongs!”, he laughs: “Maxine had made some strange arrangement by which we were shooting in Macclesfield, not an easy place to do things, and she was only casting people who lived within driving distance of Macclesfield (because she wouldn’t pay for hotels) and yet didn’t have a Cheshire accent. For some reason she had us shooting in November / December, so doing scenes on the river with a boat and a helicopter, the biggest problem was to stop the actors going completely blue, you know? All the time, the budget was shrinking before our very eyes. She was sending back important props that we hadn’t finished with, then she went and bought stock footage, so there’s a wonderful scene in where you get this giant army helicopter landing and all these men pouring out of it, then cut back to our footage and there five men coming through the trees… if you look carefully at the battle scene, you’ll find that the same people are on both sides! There was one scene, I’m not joking, where she wanted to indicate a submarine by having somebody walk around in this pond, holding a bit of drainpipe above the surface, looking like a periscope! I said we’ll never get away with this, I point-blank refused to shoot it!” (Laughs)

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“Those two knocked my enthusiasm a bit” admits Norman: “I enjoy working in the low budget field, but even I have my limits. The one lesson I did learn is that you’ve got to have a producer who loves what you’re doing as much as you do, who’s not just an accountant. I decided that I’m never going to work like that again – even if it put me out of directing again for a long time, I just couldn’t stand to do another Gunpowder or Bloody New Year”.

fiend_without_face_poster_02.jpgKeeping himself going with commercials, rock videos and educational films for the BBC (precisely none of which concerned the menace of Satanism!), Norman has been preparing his long-mooted remake of / sequel to seminal 50’s alien invasion stop-motion fest Fiend Without A Face: “It’s now in what will hopefully be the final re-write stage, just a matter of tidying up and working on the characters, taking on some comments that Richard Gordon has been making and hopefully when that’s concluded, within the next month or so, we’ll be ready to take it to the next stage. The alarming thing is what a painfully slow process it is. When I sat down and realised how long I’d been tinkering around with Fiend, it scared the life out of me, but then the likes of Shallow Grave, Jacob’s Ladder and even Forest Gump were knocking around for years as scripts before they were finally shot. Funnily enough, Bob Keen’s movie Proteus is now going through, and Bob just reminded me that he was originally contacted about that movie when I was supposed to be directing it. I’d forgotten because it was called Shaper or something in those days. We couldn’t get it off the ground then because the shape-shifting effects proved too alarming, cost-wise, for possible backers”.

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Undeterred, Norman won’t be sparing the special effects in his new version of Fiends: “It’ll employ a combination of stop-motion, animation, some computerised effects and, on top of that, probably some straight forward old-fashioned physical effects, where it’s all done right there in front of the camera. The monster brains will be recognisably like the old ones, but we’re writing them to be much more nasty, they’re really vicious little things this time out. They’ll also be much harder to kill… remember in the first film, they were stopped by blowing up a nuclear power station? That shows you how naive people were, back in the ‘50s!”

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Meanwhile, the quest to secure financing continues: “When I was trying to set up Beyond Terror I encountered a lot of resistance to the idea of making a genre film. The moment you mention horror or science fiction you could almost feel this barrier coming down, they really didn’t want to be associated with it. Undoubtedly, recent increases in censorship have contributed to this attitude, but I find it such a perverse one because horror has always been the most successful genre, it’s just gone on for ever. If you talk to any video distributor or supplier, and people who have film libraries, they say the most profitable things for them are the horror pictures – they never seem to date. People will rent a horror picture when it’s donkey’s years old, whereas they won’t necessarily be doing that with one of the current big releases in ten years, or even a couple of years time. This a genre that I enjoy very much and, although I’m always looking for opportunities in The States, I’d really prefer, if possible, to do it in Britain, because everyone acknowledges that we’re capable of producing very high quality work over here. Despite everything, the horror film hasn’t gone under. It keeps fighting back… I think it’s going to be with us forever!”

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Norman, photo-bombed by fanboy git. Yesterday.

 

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Loads More Mister Nice Guy… NORMAN J. WARREN Celebrated On Indicator’s BLOODY TERROR Box Set.

maxresdefault.jpg“I’m very pleasantly surprised by this ongoing interest in my work, not just for me but because it’s bringing attention to all the films that were being made during that period. I think some of the younger fans are not only amazed that there was a British industry in those days, but that these sort of films, with such graphic content, were being made here. Those who’ve managed to see an un-cut foreign print of Satan’s Slave, for instance, are quite shocked that a movie like that could have been made in this country and that it could have been seen commercially in cinemas… they all were, that’s something I’m very proud of, that they were all shown theatrically”. Norman J. Warren, in an interview from the Freudstein archives…

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BD. Indicator. Region Free. 18.

Nice guys, proverbially, finish last. The career of Norman J Warren (by general assent, just about the nicest guy you’re likely to meet) never quite took him into the Premier League of genre directors. Then again, neither did that of his contemporary and peer Pete Walker… and Walker was definitely not the nicest guy I’ve ever encountered during my three decades-plus as a hack journo. The release of this limited edition (6,000 units) Indicator BD box comes as an opportunity to praise Norman, not to bury him… to fondly salute a body of work in which enthusiastic cinephilia, rugged resourcefulness and sheer bloody minded determination  trumped slender resources in a manner that’s both redolent of its era and eminently watchable today.

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The Terror mounts. In Terror.

Like Walker (albeit with markedly less enthusiasm), Warren lost his directorial cherry making soft core sex films before graduating to the chillers with which he really felt comfortable. This long overdue HD upgrade of Norman’s Horror / Sci-fi output (give or take 1979’s Outer Touch / Spaced Out ) disregards his skin-flick phase though there are smutty traces of it in e.g. Terror (1983), one of whose two films-within-a-film, “Bath Time With Brenda”, plays like a more or less affectionate memoir of his, Walker’s and indeed their shared screen writer David McGillivray’s experiences in the skin trade… you’ll notice that at no point in her ablutions does sexy Brenda (the larger than life Tricia Walsh) actually remove her bra.

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Main features wise, Bloody Terror emulates Anchor Bay’s DVD set from 15 years ago… alongside Terror you get Satan’s Slave (1976), Prey (1977) and Inseminoid (1981), all looking significantly better for their HD upgrades. Indicator have also thrown in a badly conserved and frankly ropey-looking print of 1987’s Bloody New Year (the original elements of which were accidentally destroyed!) for NJW Horror completists. If you’re already familiar with this label’s Night Of The Demon and William Castle box sets, you won’t be surprised to learn that they’ve also packed the thing with a bewildering amount of extras… on which, more later.

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Satan’s Slave is your basic “reincarnation of the ancestral witch via human sacrifice” effort, the best example of which remains (and probably always will) Mario Bava’s Mask Of Satan / Black Sunday (1960). The presence of Michael Gough as its presiding cultist Alexander Yorke probably makes Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar (1968, above) a more pertinent comparator, though here Gough’s got nothing like the cast of Horror A-listers (Karloff, Lee, Steele) he had to play off in Sewell’s picture… would’ve been a different story altogether had female lead Candace Glendenning (who plays his niece Catherine) not (reportedly) turned down the Linda Blair role in The Exorcist (d’oh!) As it is, she’s now best known for this one, Pete Walker’s The Flesh And Blood Show and Jim O’Connolly’s ‘s Tower Of Evil (both 1972)… not a bad little legacy from our obviously warped Freudsteinian perspective. Catherine doesn’t let a little thing like her Mum and Dad being immolated in a car crash, en route, spoil her enjoyment of the hospitality at Uncle Alexander’s place, where she’s romanced by creepy cousin Stephen (Martin Potter), whom we earlier saw sexually assaulting a previous guest before slamming her head in a door. Satan’s Slave was predictably butchered by the BBFC back in the day but here restored in not one but two distinct variants (compared and contrasted in a companion featurette). The “export version” features a more protracted and delirious rendition of the sexual assault described above, while Norman’s preferred “director’s cut” soft pedals that scene but has all the BBFC cuts restored. Both versions feature sleazy Steve (deservedly) getting a nail file jammed into his lecherous eye before the distinctly guessable twist ending. Spoiler, you say? It made a right bloody mess of his face, I can tell you…

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“Ooh, that’s gotta hurt…”

If Satan’s Slave scours the ’70s for some scrap of Gothic sensibility, Warren’s subsequent films played out in increasingly contemporary and even futuristic milieus. Sure, Terror kicks off with further witch hunting shenanigans but these turn out to be scenes from a film being screened for its cast and crew… you might even recognise the odd film journalist in there. Rest assured, several of the assembled subsequently suffer a series of grisly demises. Norman has freely admitted that he had recently seen and was under the spell of Suspiria when he conceived this one, as is evident in the film’s occasional stabs of saturated primary colours but more obviously in its abandonment of narrative logic as the designer deaths pile, thick and fast, upon each other. Terror’s no Suspiria but it’s great fun.

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“If you pick them, they’ll never get better…” Prey.

Between Satan’s Slave and Terror, Norman’s gory predelictions took a turn for the Sci-fi  in Prey. Released in 1976, the same year as a certain Nic Roeg / David Bowie collaboration, this one could be neatly summarised as “the man (Barry Stokes) who fell To Earth, dabbled in cross dressing then started eating his way through the human race, starting with a lesbian couple (Sally Faulkner and Glory Annen) who are trying to get away from it all in the country”. Beset with familiar pacing problems, Prey packs enough non-sequitur splatter and scuzzy sex to win the coveted HOF seal of approval.

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Norman’s knack for anticipating big budget Sci-Fi efforts continued with Inseminoid (“Horrorplanet” in The States), a film which caused the bods at 20th Century Fox serious consternation on account of its perceived similarity to Alien. Warren insists that it was arrived at independently of the Ridley Scott blockbuster and I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt a) because he is, as I keep saying, such a nice guy and b) because of the characteristically lengthy and bumpy gestation endured by Inseminoid… nowhere near as traumatic a confinement, of course, as that suffered by Sally Geeson when impregnated by some alien booger while she and fellow astronauts are excavating the remains of a dead civilisation on a planet very, very far away. Norman got maximum space location bang for his buck by shooting in Chislehurst caves and Inseminoid looks mighty fine in scope dimensions. Nice electronic score by John Scott, too…

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Bloody New Year (1987) has, for reasons mentioned above, been sourced from a 35mm print that looks like it was soaked in alien jizz on that faraway planet. By this point Norman was still trying to get his Fiend Without A Face reboot off the ground while working as a hired gun (in this instance for producer Maxine Julius). At the time of writing the FWAF clips and allusions with which Bloody New Year is peppered remain the closest he has come to realising that particular dream project. The film itself concerns a bunch of yooves in horrible ’80s apparel who, fleeing a funfair rumble, find themselves on a remote island where sinister secret Ministry of Defence experiments have put a serious dent in the space / time continuum. Plenty of potential in this scenario and BNY has it moments but ultimately not even the ever enthusiastic NJW could do much with the resources made available to him here.

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Never saying die, NJW continues to seeking that elusive next feature break while busying himself with small projects, many of them represented among the extras on this collection. Norman J Warren Presents Horrorshow (2008) can be neatly summarised as Tales From The Crypt meets Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell, with Norman presiding as horror host over the linking sections. He trades once again on his elder statesman status in the “Norman J. Warren & The Ghost” edition of the “Turn Your Bloody Phone Off” audience advisory series and narrates the trailer to somebody else’s still unrealised (as far as I can work out) House Of Mortal Sin update Daddy Cross.

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Just about anybody who’s ever collaborated with Norman is represented here in an interview, director profile or commentary track. The ever-enchanting Stephanie Beacham is as good VFM as ever, remeniscing about her time on “Insecticide” and as for the perma-jolly Trevor Thomas… I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s on, please! Tasters of unrealised projects, extended scenes, “making of”s … and so many interviews! After absorbing the contents of this box, you might well decide that you never want to see another interview with Norman J. Warren as long as you live! (*)

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You even get one of the lucrative TV commercials that Norman regularly churned out for board games in the run ups to Christmas (in this instance Whipper Snappers from 1977). Still no Rod The Mod, though… the 1965 short Fragment, present on previous releases, has been lost in the shuffle this time out…. and when, oh when are we going to see the full length Bath Time With Brenda?

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Keep your eye on Norman J. Warren, one nice guy who hopefully isn’t finished just yet.

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(*) So obviously our next posting, arriving imminently, will be… The Norman J. Warren Interview!!!

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The Asylum That Dripped Blood… Two AMICUS Horror Portmanteaus Arrive On UK Blu-Ray In Limited Editions.

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The House That Dripped Blood. BD. Second Sight Films. Region B. 15
Asylum. BD. Second Sight Films. Region B. 15
Released 29/07/19

Having put their own stamp on the Portmanteau Horror format with the Freddie Francis brace Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), Amicus honchos Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg attempted to diversify their portfolio with, among others, juvenile Sci-Fi epics (They Came From Beyond Space and The Terrornauts, both 1967) and dramas that were psychologically (The Mind Of Mr. Soames, 1969) or socially (A Touch Of Love, the same year) significant… before returning to tried-and-tested multi-story chills with The House That Dripped Blood (1970), on which Subotsberg saved money by shooting in an around a lodge on the Shepperton Studio grounds and by entrusting the project to moderately talented TV director Peter Duffell. Previous collections having been MCd by Death himself (Dr. Terror) and Old Nick (Torture Garden), writer Robert Bloch came up with an embodiment of real evil to link the vignettes in this one… an estate agent!!! Actually John Bryans (as “A.J. Stoker”… geddit?) isn’t particularly scary and his role in the narrative wraparound is further weakened by the intrusions of a clueless cop (John Bennett) investigating four cases of foul play and mysterious disappearance at the titular abode. 

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In Bloch’s first tale Joanna Dunham plots to send horror author husband Denholm Elliott insane by disguising her toy-boy paramour as one of the writer’s own murderous creations… unfortunately this guy turns out to be a bit of a method actor; romantic rivals Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland develop a mutual obsession with a wax work of Salome… to the extent that they both end up losing their heads over her; Christopher Lee plays a widower whose tyrannical treatment of his cute daughter turns out to be justified, albeit ineffective (at this point Lee was meditating a retirement from horror roles and the plentiful sight and script digs at him throughout THTDB might well have influenced his decision); and in the final, comedic episode, Jon Pertwee essays the role of a lovey darling horror actor (desperately trying to out-ham Ingrid Pitt) who buys a vampire’s cloak which turns out to be all-too authentic.

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The House That Dripped Blood cleaned up at the box office for Amicus, largely no doubt to a lurid marketing campaign based on that title (Duffle had wanted the film to be called “Death And The Maiden”!) The Peertwee section is right up there with Michael Armstrong’s Eskimo Nell as a humorous critique of low budget genre filmmaking but the varying tones of the episodes never really cohere and the all-important wraparound story plods before petering out in anticlimactic fashion. Subotsberg unceremoniously shuffled Duffle (with a minimum of kerfuffle) back to (in Pertwee’s phrase) “the dreary confines of television” TV land, while future entries in the cycle were entrusted to safer directorial hands…

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… e.g. Roy Ward Baker (above left, with Subotsky) on Asylum (1972). Here young psychiatrist Robert Powell auditions for a job at an isolated funny farm by attempting to work out which of the inmates is his predecessor Dr Starr (my money’s on the big-nosed, mop-topped dude with the drumsticks), who’s taken an unfortunate turn for the hopelessly insane. Orderly Geoffrey (“Crowman”) Bayldon treats him to a guided tour of the loony bin, where he meets the inmates and Bloch’s terrifying tales unfold. Barbara Parkins (that’s Parkins, poster guys!) tells of how she egged her lover Richard Todd on to the axe murder of his wife Sylvia Sims, whose dismembered body parts he wraps in brown paper and deposits in the freezer. Having ganged up on and disposed of Todd (a ludicrous but highly entertaining spectacle), the wrapped up remains turn their vengeful attentions on Barbara, who manages to chop half her face off while putting down the unruly limbs. The evidence for this is disappointingly rendered by Hammer make-up nabob Roy Ashton through the simple expedient of drawing some lines on her face with red marker pen!

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Next up, financially strapped tailor Barry Morse attempts to bring back Peter Cushing’s dead son by making up a black magic suit which, when carelessly placed on a mannequin, brings on the stiffest acting since Fluff Freeman in Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors; Then (allegedly) recovering basket case Charlotte Rampling has an evil friend (Britt Eland) who turns out to be a figment of her imagination; finally, Herbert Lom builds murderous homunculi to get his retaliation in first against Patrick Magee, the psychiatrist who intends to lobotomise him. Powell drastically misses his guess re the ID of the mad medic and is strangled by the real Dr Starr, amid an outbreak of spectacular overacting. Another candidate for the job arrives as the credits roll, another cyclical suggestion of the seminal Dead Of Night (1945).

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Rampling’s episode is the only real weak link in Asylum… viewers can see the “twist” coming a mile off but, compounding the insult, never get to sees Ms Ekland dancing around in the buff (as in The Wicker Man) or masturbating on the telephone (a la Get Carter). Baker was probably too much of an “Old School” director for that, nevertheless piling on the gore and grue with great gusto and the grand guignol is perfectly complimented by selections from the most bombastic orchestral works of Modest Mussorgsky.

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Asylum is just one of those films that’s always going to look rather grainy on blu-ray (there’s little to choose between this transfer and the one on Severin’s recent Amicus box set)… House That Dripped Blood fares a bit better, grain-wise, on this showing. In terms of extras, the Asylum disc carries an audio commentary with Baker and Camera Operator Neil Binney, the Inside The Fear Factory featurette, the BBC’s on-set report Two’s A Company, David J. Schow’s appreciation of Robert Bloch, the reminiscences of Subotsky’s widow Fiona and a theatrical trailer… all of these familiar from other recent editions. There’s a reversible poster and reversible sleeve options, with the choice of vintage or new Graham Humphreys artwork. The booklet, which I haven’t seen, will feature essays by Allan Bryce, Kat Ellinger and Jon Towlson.

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Purchasers of THTDB are marginally better provided for vis-a-vis supplementary materials. A new commentary by Troy Howarth joins the previously heard one from director Duffell and Jonathan Rigby. Second AD Mike Higgins gets to have his say in another fresh featurette. Then there’s the familiar ‘A’ Rated Horror Film short, comprising interviews with Duffell and cast members, also the trailers, radio spots, reversible poster and sleeve options you’d be expecting and another booklet with the assessments of Brycie, Kat and Mr Towlson.

BTW, did anybody out there not guess who Dr Starr was? C’mon guys, get a grip…

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2 Ripping BD Yarns From Severin… Monty Berman’s JACK THE RIPPER and Ivan Nagy’s SKINNER, Reviewed.

SAUCY JACK, YOU’RE A NAUGHTY ONE…

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Jack The Ripper (1959). BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

For readers of a certain vintage, the name of producer Monty Berman will evoke such ’60s / early ’70s gimmicky TV action staples as The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and the camp escapades of Jason King, both in and out of Department S. All of these seemed to boast iconic title sequences / music and as an added bonus, The Champions arrived just in time to stimulate our developing libidos with the spectacle of the icily beautiful Alexandra Bastedo, the erstwhile Bond girl who would subsequently appear in such Euro Horror epics as Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride.

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It’s my blog so we’re having a gratuitous pic of the glorious Alexandra Bastedo here, OK?

Less well documented (even within the recent slew of books about British Horror flicks) are Berman’s attempts (in cahoots with Robert S. Baker) to ride Hammer’s coat tails with the likes of Henry Cass’s Blood Of The Vampire (1958), John Gilling’s Burke and Hare biopic The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), The Hellfire Club (1961) and the item under consideration here, which (like The Hellfire Club) was directed as well as produced by Baker and Berman (the latter, interestingly enough, born in Whitechapel, a quarter of a Century after Saucy Jack littered its streets with his prostitute victims).

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In furtherance of those Hammeresque aspirations, Jimmy Sangster was poached to script the film and came up with a thoughtful effort taking in the iniquities of social deprivation, gender and disability discrimination, rough street justice, et al, while adroitly shifting suspicion between various characters. John Le Mesurier’s snotty surgeon is looking like the likeliest candidate until another posh doc is revealed, at the eleventh hour, to be the killer, motivated (in a persistent pet theory of Ripperologists) by his son’s death from syphilis, contracted from a Whitechapel working girl. Pursued by Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) and his men, “Jack” unwisely attempts to conceal himself in a hospital lift shaft and is promptly squashed to a pulp.

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Although an interesting historical footnote, Berman and Baker’s variation on the Ripper saga failed to elevate its makers, as intended, into the Premier League alongside Hammer. Crucially, that company’s lurid use of colour seems to have been completely lost on them. I suppose the b/w cinematography (which again, they divided between them) made it easier to convey a pea soupy East End on their threadbare studio sets, but this film is one of those which you suspect already looked dated when it came out. There is a sore thumb colour insert at the climax of the American release version (which also adds a portentous voice over intro and replaces Stanley Black’s score with one by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, among other bits of fiddling) as JTR’s blood bubbles through the floorboards of the lift, this scene and several others excised from UK prints by the BBFC. Both versions are included here and you also get an audio commentary from Baker, Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated by Marcus Hearn, plus a selection of alternative “Continental takes”, shot for markets with a greater toleration of female nudity. On top of the expected poster and still gallery and (scuzzy looking) trailer, you get interviews with the ubiquitous Denis Meikle and Whitechapel murder tour guide Richard Jones, allowing you to evaluate their conflicting theories about who the Ripper or possibly even Rippers might or might not have been… an argument that isn’t going to be settled by this release or by anybody, any time soon.

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B&B possibly figured (wrongly) that despite the absence of colour, they could sell this one in The States on the strength of second string yankee hunk Lee Patterson in the role of holidaying New York cop Sam Lowry. Why, you may well ask, would a NYC cop want to spend his vacation helping out Scotland Yard? Well, as Lowry tells Inspector O’Neill: “We don’t have Rippers in New York!” Watch this space, pal… quack, quack, quack!

THE SHAPE OF WATER…

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Skinner (1993) BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“He wants a vest with tits on it”.

My first encounter with Carl Daft and David Gregory was in 1991 (so obviously pre-Severin, pre-Blue Underground… this was even pre-Exploited) when I found myself sitting adjacent to them at a midnight movie preview screening of Silence Of The Lambs and we exchanged off the cuff critiques. Nearly thirty (yikes!) years later, Severin have released a film that could all too easily be dismissed as a poor man’s take on the Jonathan Demme hit, though as we’ll see, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye…

Dennis Skinner (the name a gag that might have been lost on non-British viewers, though presumably American audiences got the “Bob and Earl” reference), played by Ted Raimi, is a nerdishly likeable misfit who rents a room in what looks suspiciously like Norman Bates’ house (shades of Ed Gein, already). His landlady Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) is having a hard time with her often absent husband Geoff (David Warshofsky) and romance begins to blossom between her and Dennis. He longs to show her his “real self”, but there’s a clue as to what exactly that might be in the mutilated shape of Heidi, a former flame who’s tracking him down with vengeance in mind…

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Suits you, Sir…

When he’s not romancing Kerry or working as a janitor, Dennis likes to kill prostitutes and skin them to construct lady suits for himself. Not the most endearing of hobbies but skilful scripting and direction from (respectively) Paul Hart-Wilden and Ivan Nagy (e.g. in the revelation of the childhood trauma that drove Dennis off the rails) keep us rooting for him and hoping that he can find redemption in the arms of Kerry… but Heidi has other plans for him…

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An obvious STV job, Skinner transcends its evident low-budget by dint of such deft touches as its ant-hero’s obsession with water and it’s ability to fill any vessel into which it is poured. The film’s casting could hardly have been bettered in this regard, with Lake having undergone a massive physical transformation in real life and Lords effecting a no less startling metamorphosis into the cinematic mainstream. Director Nagy was quite the Protean figure himself and it’s clear, from David Gregory’s fascinating bonus interview with him here and from other extras on this disc, that before his involvement in “other business” defined him forever in the public eye, Nagy was a film maker intent on making good films. With Skinner, he succeeded (even if that ambitiously quirky ending does come off as something of a misfire).

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Other bonus materials (apart from the obvious trailer) include interviews with Raimi, writer Paul Hart-Wilden and editor (actually the last in a long line of editors) Jeremy Kasten, plus the unexpurgated depiction of Skinner’s gruesome tailoring. All the surviving contributors agree that this would be far less problematic today than the ill-advised scene (Hart-Wilden insists that he didn’t write it) in which Skinner wraps himself in the skin of a black co-worker and goes into a cringe-inducing Amos’n’Andy routine. Hart-Wilden is wryly amusing on the troubled pre-production history of a film he was hawking around for several years before Silence Of The Lambs. Hammer rejected it on the grounds that it was too horrific (!), British Screen because he wasn’t Peter Greenaway. The success of Silence Of The Lambs finally got Skinner green lit in The States, only for it to be shelved when funds dried up. Nagy’s involvement in the Heidi Fleiss scandal having reignited interest in the property, Hart-Wilden and Kasten offer their respective insights on the struggle to get it finished and released. Skinner’s no Magnificent Ambersons but its behind-the-scenes saga is as compelling and salutary a tale as any of the perils and pitfalls that lurk behind Tinsel Town’s glittering facade.

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“Black Magic From Deep Space”… XTRO Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Second Sight. 15. 

Not all Extra Terrestrials were as friendly as E.T. … nor were any of them remotely as financially successful. Back in 1982, Stephen Spielberg’s touchy-feely encounter of the mawkish kind wiped the box office floor with such superior downbeat contenders as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing, so what chance did a low-budget, Anglo-American Alien wannabe directed (and scored) by the obscure Harry Bromley Davenport (whose only previous feature was Whispers Of Fear from 1976) stand?

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Precious little, probably, when its own director dismisses “the dreaded Xtro” (his own words) as “an extraordinary mess”.  Cooked up between HBD, producer Mark Forstater and New Line honcho Bob Shaye as some kind of UK answer to the surreal non sequitur horrors of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), hyped on its eventual release as the dark mirror image of Spielberg’s box office champ (with heavy Alien overtones), Xtro is indeed a mess, albeit a very, very enjoyable one. Davenport has also described his little opus as “pointless… completely ludicrous… rubbish…. awful and reprehensible” but I’d characterise it rather as a Poundland restaging of The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)… and I mean that as a compliment! In fact if I may be so bold, Xtro’s queasy quasi-Oedipal undercurrents and sci-fi slant on dysfunctional family life ultimately place it considerably closer to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) than Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

The film’s opening sequence  goes right back to the source of all that touchy-feely alien hugging nonsense, Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and reinvents its famous “flying-bone-into-spacecraft” segue for the abduction of protagonist Sam (Phil Sayer), whose subsequent return to Earth kicks off a series of highly improbable and improbably grisly events (“The idea was to do the most disgusting things that we could possibly get away with… we just wanted to shock people” admits Harry somewhere during the supplementary materials). Having boned up on alien obstetrics according to Ridley Scott, HBD presents us with the rape of “woman in cottage” (the ever lovely Susie Silvey) by slithery, sub-Gigeresque genitalia after which, in a wince inducing scene, she gives birth to a full-grown Sam.

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His wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has very mixed feelings about Sam’s reappearance, as during his absence she has set up home with photographer Joe (Danny Brainin). Scrumptious au pair Analise (Maryam D’Abo) is also sceptical, but at least Sam’s son Tony (Simon Nash) is glad to have him back. Sam cements Tony’s loyalty by passing on some alien powers (in another icky scene that involves neck-sucking and Cronenbergesque bladder eruptions) and soon the lad is bringing his toy clown and action man to life, to kill the interfering old biddy from downstairs (Anna Wing, who must have been particularly grateful when East Enders came along) and conniving in the transformation of Analise into a mummified alien egg breeder. Apropos of nothing (aside from Shaye’s insistence), a black panther prowls the house at random moments…

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Finally, after various other folks have been messily dispatched, Sam reverts to a monstrous metallic insect man and whisks Tony off in his space ship for a new life, God knows where.

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Davenport, as he freely admits, was blessed with a fine cast who never so much as hint in their performances that they consider this outré material beneath them. Admittedly Maryam D’Abo, for whom Xtro represents her feature debut and who suffers from a bit of a wobbly accent, later wrote it out of her filmography. Indeed, on becoming a Bond girl (The Living Daylights, 1987) she declared to the press that she had never done and would never do full frontal nude scenes. Xtro provides conclusive and rather delicious evidence to the contrary.

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Phil Sayer (now the late Phil Sayer, sadly) generates genuine pathos in his role as the dislocated dad. Bernice Stegers, whose CV also boasts Fellini’s City Of Women and her husband’s Four Weddings And A Funeral, brings credence and therefore credibility to anything in which she appears, witness her compelling turn in Lamberto Bava’s magnificently overwrought 1980 effort Macabro (below) and here. Regrettably, on the night when Mrs F and I once found ourselves sitting at the next table to Stegers in the now defunct Old Orleans restaurant on the bridge in York, my better half dissuaded me from approaching her on the grounds that I’d spoil the poor woman’s dinner if I reminded her of “all the terrible films she’s been in”. Speaking of spoiled dinners, I later threw up my chowder… bit of a washout all round, that evening was. It’s especially galling to learn from Stegers’ appearances in the bonus materials on this set that she’s rather tickled when people engage her in conversation about Xtro…

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“… just don’t ask me about that bloody Macabro thing!”

Once liable for confiscation under Section 3 of The Obscene Publications Act back in those dark draconian days of the early ’80s, Xtro’s BD debut comes with a ’15’ certificate and laden with extras, mostly courtesy of them Nucleus boys, that are almost as entertaining as the feature itself. “There was this awful period of the ‘video nasties’…” reflects Davenport in the archive feature Xtro Exposed: “ … an awful British phrase, it has a lot English pettiness about it”. Too true, Harry… though the twitchy director can’t resist enthusing about the news report on a psycho killer which featured close-ups of Xtro prominently displayed in his voluminous  video collection (“You can’t do better than that, really… sales went through the roof!”)

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In the more up-to-date Xploring Xtro, Jake and Mark have assembled most of the surviving participants and various interested parties, including Tik & Tok, reminiscing about their robotic and alien contortions and Robert Pereno reprising his immortal “Stay in the car”! line. Maryam D’Abo continues to maintain her distance from the project and although I know Jake and Marc tried hard to identify the current whereabouts of Simon Nash, their efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. In his absence, other participants comment cattily on his crap acting and how much weight he put on during the shoot (more on that later).

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In The World Of Xtro we are introduced to Mr Dennis “Xtro” Atherton (just for a second there I thought we were going to get Andrew “Xtro” Featherstone), an über-obsessive fan of the film who views it as a Bergmanesque family drama with added space aliens and has more cock-eyed theories about it than any of the Shining devotees showcased in Rodney Ascher’s Room 327 could ever muster regarding Kubrick’s film. My favourite among Dennis’s many obsessive observations is the one concerning the magical confluence of Xtro’s length (83 minutes) and year of release (1983)… actually it was released in 1982 and seems to last 84 minutes, but I can’t bring myself to hold this against the likeable Mr Xtro Atherton.

What’s at the root of this singular obsession? Our man reveals that D’Abo’s nude scenes made a big impression on him as a pubertal youth… I bet they did, in fact they remain in my all time top three of female nude scenes in mainstream movies (Elizabeth McGovern in Ragtime, 1981 and Annette O’Toole in Cat People, 1982… thanks for asking). Wonder how good Maryam, who must be nearly 60 now, looks nekkid these days… way better than I do (below), no doubt.

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Xtro’s two existing (semi) sequels are glossed over, but the really big news is that HBD and Mark Forstater are reuniting for Xtro – The Big One (I kid you not), wherein a fourth Xtro incursion will coincide with a massive LA earthquake. We get to see some CGI-heavy test footage from that. There’s also a video tribute to Phil Sayer (incorporating the song Brian May wrote about him)…

… and of course the disc contains four (count ’em) different versions of the original feature, including two distinct endings, the British video release and Harry’s 2018 re-polish which, he freely admits, might have made the film look worse rather than improved it in any way. In fact the high contrast look of Xtro redux gives it more of  a comic book look than anything else, which I guess is quite appropriate for its subject matter. Intriguingly, Harry has also digitally thinned out the face of the much maligned Simon Nash but regrettably, we never get to hear Dennis Atherton’s pronouncements on the profound significance of this particular tweaking.

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Me Me Lai Vs The Satanic Majesty Of Wonderful Radio 1 … CRUCIBLE OF TERROR Reviewed, Pop-Pickers!

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DVD. Region 0. Severin. Unrated.

James Bolam is John Davies, a struggling art dealer… struggling with a terrible ’70s moustache as much as anything. His commercial fortunes, if not his grooming regime, seem set to improve when several punters take an interest in a beautifully fashioned bronze of a naked woman. But John’s alcoholic friend Michael Clare (Ronald Lacey) explains that the sculptor, his father Victor (Mike Raven), will never part with the piece… and with good reason. Before the titles we saw Victor using the body of Chi-San (Me Me Lai or Me Me Lay, as she’s identified here) as the armature for this piece. John’s not so easily put off though, even after one of his backers, while trying to half-inch the bronze, is suffocated with a plastic bag.

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“By ‘eck, lad!”

John bugs Michael into taking him and his girlfriend Millie (Mary Maude, last seen on this blog lustily administering corporal punishment to boarding school girls in Serrador’s The House That Screamed) out to Victor’s West Country retreat and it doesn’t take long too long to work out why Michael is such a booze hound. Victor is a loopy, domineering psychopath who uses his “artistic temperament” as an excuse to bully his family, flaunting his female conquests in the face of his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge) who’s senile, dresses like a little girl and carries a doll around with her. The whole set up plays like an indigestible mash-up of Mystery Of The Wax Museum, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (*),  and The Old Dark House. I haven’t quite worked out exactly who Derek Guyler-lookalike Bill (John Arnatt) is or what he’s doing there (does Victor swing both ways?), suffice to say that this is one of the most badly miscast films I’ve ever seen.

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Anyway, various cast members who come too close to discovering the secret of that bronze are variously butchered, bludgeoned and drowned, then Vincent pursues Millie around some Cornish caves prior to preparing her to serve as the centrepiece of another sculpture. At this point the malevolent spirit of Chi-San manifests itself and Raven, over acting even more preposterously than in the rest of the picture, meets a suitably ironic and infernal fate. “She was very high up in a sinister religious sect…” Bill tells the traumatised John, while wrapping things up with an unlikely tale of reincarnation and possession “… and Evil is always more powerful than Good” (neatly reversing the more familiar Hammer formula there.)

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I originally intended to entitle this piece “Raven Bonkers” but soon-to-be Italo Cannibal Queen Me Me got the nod after a quick look at this site’s stats proved that  Ms Lai is its bronze medallist in terms of attracting hits, trailing only Irene Miracle and David Warbeck and yes, beating Lucio Fulci off into fourth place. One day some pervert sitting somewhere in his lonely room and cultivating his dubious niche fantasies will google “Me Me Lai beating off Lucio Fulci” and find himself reading these very words…

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Her brief but pivotal appearance in one-shot director Ted Hooker’s Mystery Of The Wax Museum variant Crucible Of A Terror (1971) is one of the minor points of interest of this engaging little oddity and erstwhile staple of late night regional ITV programing, but the flick’s primary appeal to students of Schlock Cinema – and indeed, of larger than life eccentrics – is the presence in it of Mike Raven.

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“All the world’s a stage…” as Shakespeare once pointed out, “… and one man in his time plays many parts.” Austin Churton Fairman worked as a photographer, conjuror, interior decorator, travel writer, flamenco guitarist, ballet dancer and presenter of religious TV programs and Woman’s Hour before emerging as “Mike Raven”, a Pirate DJ specialising authoritatively in blues, soul and RnB (that’s real, Booker T-type RnB, junior… as opposed to the tripe that gets passed off under that description these days.) Such was his expertise in this field that when Tony Benn closed down the pirates, at Raven’s door the newly minted and totally wonderful Radio 1 came rapping (cue Flowers In The Rain…) That’s him below in the Colonel Sanders outfit, front row, two places to the left of Peel.

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Perhaps it was due to the preponderance of black cat bones and John The Conqueror roots in all those old blues standards that Raven developed a growing interest in the occult (how unlike a Radio 1 DJ to have scandalous skeletons in his closet), started dressing entirely in black and adopted suitably sinister facial fuzz… or perhaps that stuff wasn’t entirely unconnected with an attempt to rebrand himself, yet again, as a horror film icon. His impressive physical stature secured him the role of Count Karnstein in Jimmy Sangster’s Hammer effort Lust For A Vampire (1971) after Christopher Lee had turned up his nose at it. Unfortunately Raven’s voice was dubbed and after you’ve seen Crucible Of Terror that won’t come as too much of a surprise, his stab at Boris Karloff coming across more like Bobby Picket of The Crypt Kickers.

In the same year he actually starred opposite Lee to tolerable effect in Stephen Weeks’ Amicus offering I, Monster, a film often cited as the most faithful cinematic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mister Hyde… why all the characters’ names were changed remains a major mystery. It was all downhill after DJ Horrible’s Crucible Of Terrible though…  Raven pseudonymously wrote and produced, as well as starring in, Disciple Of Death (1972) which at least managed the mean feat of making Crucible look like a vaguely coherent film.

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Mike Raven never manage to claim that place on the Horror pantheon which he clearly coveted but his wayward mini-career in the genre constitutes a brief byway with which any self-respecting trash film fiend should be familiar, suitably commemorated in this spanky Severin release, “transferred in startling HD from the only known uncut 35mm print in existence, loaned to Severin by a Bodmin Moor coven!”

So… whatever happened to Mike Raven? In a spooky case of life imitating Art (or at least, imitating schlocky horror flicks) he did indeed relocate to Bodmin Moor to successfully pursue parallel careers in Art and sheep farming, completely unperturbed by the announcement of his death during Radio 1’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in 1992. Before his actual passing, five years later, Raven declared that his perpetual personal reinventions were an ongoing attempt to come to terms with his sexuality and his spiritual beliefs. He was buried on his beloved Bodmin Moor in a plot he had dug himself, something I’m sure all his Radio 1 peers really dug.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore…”

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A good cast is worth repeating…

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(*) Bolam, of course, went on to star in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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