Exclusive interview with Norman J Warren
Within the hallowed halls of the classic British horror film, there are few names as iconic as Norman J Warren.
Norman was arguably one of the more important of the directors working on British horror films in the 1970s. At a time when old stagers Hammer and Amicus were in decline and most histories of horror will tell you that the British horror film was in the doldrums because it couldn’t cope with the vicious new breed of movies pouring in from over the pond, his films were doing remarkably well.
Indeed one, Terror, hit number one in the UK and broke box office records in America. Sadly, this astonishing titbit tends to be glossed over when many chroniclers of celluloid start broad-brushing history to fit in with their simplistic view (which usually go along the lines of “Hello, The Exorcist, goodbye the British horror film industry”).
This wasn’t luck on the part of Norman. His most successful films are not the lame cash-ins or ridiculous, badly-plotted nonsense the casual viewer might associate with low budget horror. Yes, they do have the occasional moment of unintentional hilarity, or sub-standard acting, but they are also remarkable for a real no-holds-barred approach to the subject of scaring the shit out of people, which when combined with some astonishing creative flourishes, makes for interesting viewing, even three decades on.
His films remain classics of genre because they transcended their low budgets. With their modern settings, taboo-busting “let’s see what can we get away with this time” approach, radical storytelling and bleak downbeat endings, it was Warren’s films which set the template for much of what was to come. Hammer they weren’t.
His four signpost films took in Satanism (Satan’s Slave), alien invasion (Prey), hauntings (Terror) and alien impregnation (Inseminoid), and although none is perfect, they’re packed with invention and are never less than entertaining. He hasn’t made a film since the early 80s, but remains a hugely influential figure for the genre, and is also a stalwart supporter of British horror as well as a fan.
Which is why when we at British Horror Films saw Norman across a crowded bar at a now not-exactly-recent horror films convention, we had to go and say something. And when I say “we”, I mean “me”, cos there’s no-one else here. It’s a mark of just how astonishingly nice Mr Warren (“No, please, call me Norman”) is that he sat and chatted for a while, even though he was busy and I didn’t even buy him a pint because I didn’t have any cash on me. But perhaps even more remarkably, after being called away to introduce a film screening, he then sought me out to continue our chat. We were even joined by a bona fide 70s babe in the still-sexy form of Francoise Pascale of Mind Your Language (“Thees man gave me my first break in films”) and the conversation continued, in between some saucy memories courtesy of Ms Pascale. And when it became apparent that the interview was becoming a bit of a monster, he suggested we continue it on the phone at a later date - and actually did it! They don’t make ‘em like that any more, I can tell you (having tried to talk to a couple of modern day film makers recently, without a great deal of success).
Anyhoo, here’s the interview, pretty much verbatim, thanks to my still-not-rusty Teeline shorthand…
We started our discussion with my usual opening gambit of “do you like British horror films?”, which, when you‘re speaking to a bloke responsible for a few, may seem a bit of a pointless ask. However, on this occasion that was far from the case.
“I didn’t like Shaun Of The Dead, I found it amusing for the first five minutes then I got bored. I just thought ‘there’s nothing original in this’, they were just making easy gags out of Dawn Of The Dead. I can see why they do it, to appeal to a mass audience, but then you have something like The Descent come along which made a lot of money, showing that if a horror film is a good film it can still be successful.”
Of course anyone who has seen a Warren film – particularly Terror – knows that.
“I don’t mind comedy within a horror film, I just mean don’t make them an out-and-out comedy. You need comic scenes within a horror movie, that is a good mix. You can’t sustain horror and fear because that is self defeating.
“I don’t like those ‘total gore’ movies, I grew bored of the Saw films very quickly. There is no let-up, no silence in modern films. And all that noise is self-defeating, too. It’s much better to go quieter every so often for shock value.
“Young directors always seem to be saying that they want to make a 70s film, but as far as I’m concerned a 70s movie is not really different from a 60s movie or an 80s movie. What they should be doing is making a 2011 movie.
“Terror was always my favourite of my own films. Everyone connected with it said it was the happiest film they had ever worked on. It took four weeks to shoot, there was no money and we treated it like one big party.
“That fun wore off on the film, and of course it became amazingly successful.”
And Terror does have comedy in it – there’s a whole scene about shooting a sex comedy within the film, called ‘Bathtime With Brenda’.
“We let Tricia Walsh, who played Brenda, do what she wanted. She had great comic timing, and it added a bit of light relief in amongst all the horror. There was also a wonderful stripper involved at another point!”
(Can I just add at this point that you may well know who we’re talking about here, if you’ve ever watched Pineapple Dance Studios on Sky. Yes, that’s her - the crackers, and seemingly somewhat deluded, blonde woman desperately funding her own failed music career. Norman is still in touch with her, too: “I had lunch with her at the Ivy club recently and she’s very much in control with what she is doing.”)
Terror nods towards Norman’s earlier career working on sexploitation films like Her Private Hell (known as the first British sex film to actually bother with a story, but that, as they say, is another story) and Loving Feeling, but there is another, more international influence, which has been commented on more than once in the past.
“We never wanted to copy Susperia but it was an enormous influence. We had got enough money back of Satan’s Slave to say let’s make another one, but didn’t know what to do, because horror was getting quite tired at the time. I went to see Susperia at the cinema by accident, and it blew my mind. I saw a new take on horror – none of it made any sense, and the lighting and sound was all crazy. So we said let’s make a film that doesn’t have a story – we just wrote down everything we liked about horror films, and from that list David McGillivray wrote a script. We actually inserted the Bathtime With Brenda thing to add more running time.
“The only cuts made by the BBFC was in the stabbing of Tricia Walsh on the stairs. They removed three shots of the knife going through her foot. I can only think that the examiner at the censors that day had a foot fetish! The idea of the knife going through the foot was to get a good reaction from the audience. We found that certain parts of the body affect people more than others. We did a similar thing with the nail file in the eye in Satan’s Slave - it always got a big reaction from a cinema audience.”
The most Susperia-like scene sees a studio manager (played by James Aubrey) meet his end as his entire studio goes crackers around him, including an attack by rolls and rolls of film stock.
“I was very pleased with the studio scene. It was a combination of ideas. People worked hard, and it gave the entire crew the chance to let off steam. Anyone not doing something important at that time had the chance to throw cans of film around! We did such mad things on that day, like setting fire to the bath. The little studio we hired thought we were a pop group doing a promo, not a film crew.”
Another thing that marks Norman’s films out from others being made at the time is that they still work. There’s a power to them, and a no-holds-barred feel, that means they can still shock, and are still finding new fans.
“The one thing I have found about the horror genre is that they have an unbelievable life. The films just go on and on. There is always a new batch of people coming along who discover the old films for themselves. I still get people asking me to sign things for them and it’s not just for old times’ sake – it is because they have discovered these films now and they like them.
“The DVD boxed set came out in 2005 and it was a vast improvement on the releases that had gone before – they never got the VHS releases right. In a lot of cases there are times when you can’t even see what is happening on screen!”
Norman is a fan, and always was - perhaps surprisingly he was only on nodding terms with fellow 70s shock-sploitator (is that a phrase?) Pete Walker, but because of his love of the genre, Norman was one of the first to see Walker’s most famous films.
“I used to see an enormous amount of films, every free moment was spent watching them. I saw House Of Whipcord and Frightmare because I got invited to previews. I knew Pete Walker but I was never really what I would call friends with him- the link was writer David McGillivray, who worked with both of us.”
Despite their lack of contact, Warren’s and Walker’s films do have similarities - particularly their bleak outlook on life.
“Most of my own films end in a down way. Either no-one survives, or if they do they are not the same. I hate those films where they have obviously made a big change at the end to make them end on a happy note. The most horrendous things have just happened, but now it’s all okay!”
Everyone knows about Norman’s “big four”, but there have been a number of other experiments and even the occasional misfire.
Bloody New Year and other gems
An all-out horror film that didn’t make it into the box set, is 1987’s Barry Island-set Bloody New Year. An all-but forgotten film, it appears, for a reason.
“The script was very good, but I got tied up with a producer who was the wrong person for the project (not, Norman is quick to explain, his friend Hayden Pearce, who is credited as such). The whole thing became a nightmare. It wasn’t a good experience at all. A lot of effort went into it, but it could have been a lot better. Everyone became disheartened towards the end.
“It is okay but doesn’t really work. Anchor Bay decided to miss it off the DVD boxed set, and to be honest I was in agreement.”
And in between Terror and Inseminoid Norman directed another sci fi epic – Spaced or The Outer Touch. “It is like Carry On Space Women – it is very British and mostly takes place on a space ship. It’s a very broad comedy – but at the right time of day with a few drinks inside you, it does work!”
Then there was Gunpowder, a Macclesfield-set thriller which Norman embarked on with the same producer as Bloody New Year. “She told me she had all these arrangements to make a film in Macclesfield,” he said. “But when we got there, there was nothing. We had to start from scratch. We all wondered why we were doing it there – it was filmed in November and December, in the freezing cold, and we were using boats and helicopters as it was a spoof James Bond film. It was murder. The two main agents were called Gun and Powder. After I while I got so fed up of trying to sort everything out that I decided to make a joke out of it. The budget was so tiny that the producer kept sending hired props back before we had finished with them! One scene required an atomic submarine to arrive. I asked how we were supposed to achieve that and the producer suggested we use a drainpipe to look like a periscope.
That sounds remarkably entertaining, and on reading it back it’s a film I must seek out. But we need to get back on the horror track here. So, I ask him, why horror?
“When I first got into the industry I started as a runner. I worked as assistant director on various films and commercials for a time and started working in the editing room. It was eight years later, after making a short film which I managed to get shown in a few cinemas, I got my chance to direct my first feature film, Her Private Hell.
“I was interested in tackling any sort of film but I had always enjoyed horror stuff, and it was a genre that attracted me. Before Satan’s Slave there was two other horror film projects I was set to direct, but they both collapsed. I still like horror because it gives your imagination so much freedom. You can basically do what you like. The moment you get into the realms of horror it becomes total fantasy.
“Pete Walker always wanted to do the social comments, where I wasn’t interested in going down that route. I just wanted to entertain people. All my films are different, I didn’t want to get locked into doing one particular type of film. A lot of directors make films that are very similar to each other. I always thought it was nice to take the opportunity to go down a different road with my next film – more of a challenge.
Satan’s Slave, Norman’s first bona fide horror film, is now rightly regarded as a classic, and on viewing it’s not hard to see why. An all-star cast (including Brit horror stalwart Michael Gough and Nicholas and Alexandra’s Candace Glendenning), some gorgeous locations, an unhealthy amount of nudity and nasty gore (including the aforementioned “nail file in the eye” extravaganza) and a frankly barking mad script all add up to something rather special.
“As I always believe in getting the best cast you can (the actors are the ones who tell the story to the audience for you) I’d like to say how pleased I was we the cast we managed to get for Satan’s Slave. Michael Gough was the gem. He was a joy to work with and never complained about anything. And we did work him very long hours. Martin Potter was perfect. A really great actor and I just don’t understand why he doesn’t get more work now. I was really pleased Candace Glendenning agreed to play Catherine. She was just perfect for the part. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but she is also a very good actress and a very lovely person. I felt really lucky to have such a cast for my first horror movie.”
Next was grisly Lesbos-n-alien romp Prey.
“Everything about Prey was hectic, but that was an advantage, we all had to think on our feet. Everyone on the film was making do with what they had. The production designer, Hayden Pearce, used an old house at Shepperton, and they also said we could also have any of the props in the prop house. We had to decorate with what was around.
“All the rooms were quite different, almost as if they were not in the same house. It was a crazy mixture, which matched with the two girls’ lives.
“The dining room was really grand, but the bedroom was a tiny room in the loft. The kitchen looks very ordinary but it had an amazing conservatory.
“Filming it was certainly a challenge! They told me an outline of the story – ‘it’s about an alien that comes to earth in search of a food source and encounters a lesbian couple, and discovers humans are high in protein and easy prey’. Then they said ‘you have got to start in three weeks time and it has to be finished in 10 days. Also, we don’t have a script at the moment’. And we all still said yes!
“Despite this there is some brilliant dialogue in the film, and they really come across as a couple with an established life. I think his idea of making them lesbians was a good touch. Had they not been lesbians it wouldn’t have worked so well. Having a man in the relationship would have led to a different kind of confrontation with the male alien. It all works very well. The casting was done very quickly, they all came from one agent and there wasn’t enough money to have anyone else.
“All this made it a big challenge – but the sparse script did give me an advantage to work with the actors and get the characters together. For the whole 10 days everyone was working flat out – there wasn’t any sitting around waiting. It was a great experience but I don’t know if I’d want to do it again.
“Luckily the weather was beautiful, so we could do a lot of shots of them enjoying the sun – and without them the film would have been even shorter than it turned out!”
Prey also features a now infamous love scene – not so much for its content but for Norman’s frank admission of how it came about. “I admitted to the two actresses that I was not 100 per cent sure what to suggest they did. I genuinely didn’t know! I think they did very well. The scene is quite strong and it’s really down to them. I didn’t give them much direction. I think my main job as a director is to make people comfortable and relaxed so they are happy doing things on camera. And I have been on sets where the director gets it wrong.”
One of the big differences between the film industry then and now is that although Norman was battling against non-existent budgets, ridiculously short timeframes and written-on-the-hoof scripts, most of his films received a proper big screen release. In these days of straight-to-DVD, or even (horror of horrors) straight-to-satellite releases, such luxury is only afforded to a select few of indie film makers.
“All the other films got full theatrical releases throughout the world. What doesn’t happen now that happened in those films is that we were all professionals. There was no-one involved that hadn’t done it before. I know that everyone has to start somewhere, but it took a long time for me to get anywhere near directing.
“A lot of films these days are staffed by people – including the director – who are practically making their first film. I couldn’t have made Prey if that had been the case. The crew were the best in the business – they had just come off a Pink Panther movie. It was a case of asking them if they could help out with my film and them saying yes. It meant that we could work fast, because whatever they were doing, they got it right first time. On all my films I always had professional crews.
“You need the right number of people. In film making, if you’re doing two jobs both of those jobs will be compromised, and it is self defeating in the end. I never had anyone on the team who wasn’t needed, but at the same time I knew it was silly to cut corners.
“The two most important things in films are the script and the actors, because they are telling the story. The viewer should believe their situation and their dialogue.”
Making the viewer believe the situation in Norman’s alien-on-the-rampage epic Inseminoid, with its chainsaw-wielding astronauts, pregnant cannibal Judy Geeson and astonishing alien rape scene, would be an uphill struggle even with a large budget. But Norman did, at least, have some quality actors to help him. Well, mostly.
“Judy Geeson was a dream to work with, she gave 100 per cent every single day. Once again she put total trust in me and did everything I asked for, which is the way it has to be. She is a wonderful, lovely person.
“Stephanie Beacham is a real comedian, she made us laugh all the time. It was her who rechristened the film ‘Insecticide’!
“All the cast were great – apart from the two American leads we had, who were a nightmare because they were forced on us by the financiers, and they couldn’t act. Robin Clerk wasn’t great, but Jennifer Ashley was worse. She was sweet but she just couldn’t act. Actors rely on people playing against them, but with her it was like acting with a plank. All she was doing was waiting for her next line.
“It was shot very quickly in just three weeks to shoot all the cave based scenes, it was a hell of a place to have to work. After that we had one week of luxury in the studios. Stephanie tells one story of how we had a scene to shoot but the scenery had already been removed, so we hade to shoot the actors from high up to disguise the fact that they had no walls around them! Because I have always worked on low budget films I’ve had to learn these tricks.
“When we were shooting in the caves we had to send people to get the cast, because we were shooting about a mile in from the cave entrance. It was pitch black down there so we had to string a rope along the path to stop people getting lost. There are 22 miles of caves down there and they all look identical. Every so often the generator would stop and we would be plunged into total blackness.
“But it was worth it – everyone agreed that it looked good. The actors suffered more because they hadn’t got much clothes on.
“The bit where Judy gives birth to the monster – the corner where it happened really was that dirty. It wasn’t rehearsed very much – we just had a quick discussion about it, when Judy explained that she had never experienced childbirth. We decided to do what we had seen in other films – lots of yelling and huffing and puffing. She really went over the top. I said make it as unpleasant as possible, and I think she achieved that – it did upset a few people in the cinemas. She did it all in one take as well. It was all down to Judy – she is such a gentle person but can do the nasty things very well.
“Also I really couldn’t fault the crew and the team. Stephen Grives had been in a successful period television show and was very good at the physical stuff. When Judy shoots his character that’s really him flying backwards on the “yank wire”, which literally pulls the actor off his feet. I have a great admiration for actors because they have to do some very unpleasant things.”
The pivotal scene is when Geeson appears to be rodgered senseless on a 70s disco dancefloor by an enormous alien. But, according to Norman, all may not be what it seems.
And in case you were wondering, that’s swarfega and raw egg you can see travelling up the tube.
The scene is another that has become infamous – and not just because of its questionable content. In a filmed interview on the 2005 DVD, Geeson appears to say that she never did a nude scene, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary presented on the same disc.
“Judy had no problem with the nudity, despite it putting her in a very vulnerable position! It was filmed in the middle of a studio with lots of people around. It comes back to the actor having to put their trust in you as a director. The only condition she set was there was to be no photographers around.”
That interview has proved to be a sore point for Norman himself. “Judy agreed to an interview at her home in LA, and I was organising it when she phoned me to say they had already turned up and done the interview. They had arrived with a list of questions which were mainly about nudity and other films. She had only agreed to talk about Inseminoid. She got very angry at questions which she thought were very childish, very public schoolboy, and eventually asked them to leave.”
And so, after several hours of chatting, I finally let Norman go and have a cup of tea. The man is an absolute star - a genuine legend, a fan, and a thoroughly nice person to boot. And as such we fans of British horror films should treasure him, and hope that his mooted projects come to something and we get that very special mixture of comedy, gore and blunt nihilism back on the cinema screens sometime soon.
Updated: July 11, 2011
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