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?
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)
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”.
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”.
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”.
“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”.
“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”.
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.
“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?
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.
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!”
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!”
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”.
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”.
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”.
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”.
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”.
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)
“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”.
Keeping 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”.
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!”
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!”