Everything exploits us: an interview with Norman J. Warren

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norman j warren

Everything exploits us:

in conversation with Norman J. Warren

Horror fans are united in their mourning of Norman J Warren, who had a long career in cinema, from  60s comedies via softcore sex films and more recently producing Yixi Sun’s Susu, but he remains best known for his horror films of the 1970s and ’80s. Martin Parsons spoke to Norman about the 70s horror industry, dog-faced aliens and women in peril…


Martin: You and Pete Walker get placed as the ‘new wave’ of British horror. Did you have any strong feelings about British horror as it was at the time?

Norman J. Warren: Obviously, I was a big fan of horror. Not so much Amicus, I really enjoyed some but not every one. I started enjoying the support movies. I remember going to see an Amicus one – and to this day I can’t remember the title – but the film with it was Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972). That was the B-Movie! Of course, I fell in love with that! With Amicus, I was losing interest because a lot of their films were very similar, and that was also the problem with Hammer after a while. It was all middle-class people, and it was all period as well, which used to get annoying. They all seemed to have endless money, but nobody seemed to do any work!

The big thing that changed things for people like myself and Pete Walker was in 1969, the Americans pulled out of England big time, and took all the financing. The industry collapsed in this country. The studios closed, everybody was out of work.

M: On to Satan’s Slave (1976)…

NJW: We actually did it out of frustration at not being able to get a film off the ground. We tried to get finance for it. We spent about a year or so going round and it was the old classic story – we’d get 50% of the money from somewhere, but by the time you got the second 50%, for one reason or another, the first one had dropped out. There was also the problem of people giving us money – people not connected with the industry – and wanting changes to the script, and coming up with stupid ideas where you had to be very diplomatic and talk them out of it without saying ‘that is absolutely ridiculous’.

In the end, Les Young, who had worked, again, on Her Private Hell (1968), and we’d become friends, said ‘why don’t we just try and do it ourselves? Go for broke and do it?’ We just put in everything we had, and obviously worked on it completely free.

Everybody being out of work, you could, at that time, put a crew together and people were happy to work for a lesser rate because it was better than nothing! So we were able to say to the guys ‘we will pay you a set amount per week’, which everybody got, and it was enough to pay your rent and all the rest of it and defer the balance of the money on the understanding that if we sold the film, you could do very well. Everybody was happy to go along with that, so we were able to make it for very little actual money and a lot of favours.

We definitely wanted Michael Gough if we could get him because we really liked Michael Gough! We worked out that we could afford £300 for Michael Gough. We needed him for the three weeks. I rang his agent who was very grand, very of the old school, smoking jacket and a very grand office, and he fell about laughing when I said about the money. He said the classic line of ‘I wouldn’t even get out of bed for £300!’. But he said, which they did in those days, ‘I’ll give the script to Michael and it’s down to him, not me’. So he passed it on, and Michael asked if I could go and see him. I can’t remember what we said, I was probably quite nervous. Anyway, presumably I said the right things because the next day his agent rang and said Michael had said he would do it, as long as we could fit it into the period he had free. We said ‘fine, we’ll go with whatever dates he wants!’.

I’d always liked the idea of getting Candice Glendenning because I’d seen her in Tower of Evil (Jim O’Connelly, 1972) and The Flesh and Blood Show (Pete Walker, 1972), and I thought not only is she an incredibly beautiful girl, but I could see that she had the ability to do a good performance. I’m pleased to say that Candice actually regards it as her most enjoyable film, the one she’s most proud of. She was very competent, very convincing, very natural. One of the nicest people you could ever meet.

M: You edited the film as well. Was this purely a financial thing?

NJW: Yes. I mean, I’m quite happy to do it. I was cutting it in my bedroom. You just had to hire the equipment, so we hired it and set it up in my bedroom. I wouldn’t want to do it again, because the great danger of it is – once again I was young and had the energy, but I must confess I almost killed myself on it, really, because when you’ve got it right there, especially in your bedroom, you tend to not stop. I was getting up in the mornings and sometimes I wouldn’t get dressed, I’d be working. I’d forget to eat. Boy, oh boy, it’s not good for you.

M: Prey (1977) came next and crosses over into science fiction. Do you have a preference for specific genres, is there something you are most comfortable in?

NJW: No, I like both horror and science fiction. What attracted me to horror and science fiction is the fact you are very free in terms of what you do, the dramatic content, because it’s not reality, you’re working with an invented world. In straight drama, you are tied by reality.

I never wanted to get into a habit of making a revamp of the film you’ve done before. I know people fall into that trap because they feel comfortable with what they’ve done, but I’ve always preferred to have a new challenge and try a different way of doing film, and different sorts of story.

M: Where did the design for the alien come from, the sort of dog?

NJW: That may not have been the perfect make-up, but it was done by a top make-up man, Harry Frampton. He didn’t really have a chance to experiment because everything was done so fast. It was really, do that first make-up, then more or less go with it. It was a bit sort of werewolf-ish for me. I don’t find it that worrying when I see it now. Of course, you don’t see it too often, and you don’t really see it for long periods apart from at the end.

There are some interesting gender dynamics in Prey, particularly when they dress the alien up. Were you looking to interrogate any kind of stereotype here?

No, not really. I mean, the character of Josephine, which is the Sally Faulkner character, is constantly trying to challenge him, to find out really what he’s all about. I think she comes up with the idea of putting him in a dress for that reason. What I liked about it is that neither of them realises that he’s an alien, so the whole thing about wearing a woman’s outfit has no meaning to him! It doesn’t bother him one bit, he’s just a bit confused by it all, why they’re doing all this. To be honest, when the film was made, and the script was done, there wasn’t a lot of time to really analyse all this.

A young writer, Max Cuff, did the script, and I think he did a brilliant job. It’s actually a very clever little script, it really is.

M: The narrative has been compared to DH Lawrence’s The Fox (1922). Was this a conscious decision?

NJW: It’s very flattering, but I don’t know how. No! When you’re directing a film, they’re the last thoughts you have, in a way. You might do it without realising, but I don’t think you make a conscious effort to say, ‘it’s going to be like this.’ In most filmmaking, you end up doing things because you’re running out of time, and that’s all there is available. You can’t have what you thought you were going to have. It’s endless compromises, all day long.

M: The next film you made was Terror. You have said that it wasn’t so much direct homage to Dario Argento, rather that Argento made it acceptable to do things differently.

NJW: Oh yes. He threw all the rules out the window! You had complete freedom. Terror (1978)never tried to be a copy of Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), it was the style, and I will admit that it was 100% influenced by that. There was a lot of independent horror; a hell of a lot. At the cinema then you could go and see three or four new horror films every month. I was always going to see new films and I was fascinated by the title of Suspiria because it didn’t mean anything! I thought I’d give it a whirl and go and see it, and of course…wow. I couldn’t believe it. As I said, all the rules had gone. The story didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but the colour and the sound, they were the two things. Colour was everywhere, without explaining where it was coming from, but it works. The sound effects made no sense whatsoever, but they were very effective. That gave us the confidence to more or less do anything. That made it acceptable.

M: Your next film was Spaced Out (1979). Again, this is something of a meeting of worlds, science fiction meets softcore meets comedy. What brought this film about?

NJW: They approached me near the end of Terror. I went to see them and they gave me the script. It was called S.E.C.K. – Sexual Encounters of the Close Kind, which you can see what they were aiming at! It was basically another softcore, going back to Her Private Hell and Loving Feeling (1968). I thought ‘I don’t really want to do this, it’s going backwards for me’, so I actually turned it down. Peter Schlesinger, who was the main financial producer, said ‘I really want you to do it, you can do what you like with the script, change it as much as you like.’ So I said ‘okay, I’ll meet with the writer, Andrew Payne, and talk to him.’ We decided to go more on the comedy side, and not bother about the sex. There are a couple of sex bits in it, but it was more on the comedy thing. It was quite a fun little film to do. It’s totally silly!

M: Two years after this was Inseminoid (1981).

NJW: Nick Maley, the make-up guy – who became a top special effects guy – on Satan’s Slave (1976), and Gloria Lorca, one of the actresses on it, fell in love and got married sometimes afterwards. They invited me to their first wedding anniversary party, and during the party I mentioned what I was doing and said I was looking for a script. They didn’t say anything but two weeks later I got a script from them, which was called Doomseed and which was to become Inseminoid. It needed a lot of work but I liked the idea.

M: Filming locations for Inseminoid – you went to Gozo for some of the shots?

NJW: Yes, that was purely for the fact that in England, you can’t guarantee the weather. It had to be an alien planet, so we wanted to make sure that we had a cloudless sky, and we wanted to use filters to give the planet another look. To be able to do that, you need guaranteed light – it needs to be even – and a clear sky. The production office – nothing to do with me – they did their sums and worked out that it was economic to send a small crew, just a few of us, to Gozo, to do that scene. We were only shooting one day there, then back again.

It was shot in an old quarry, and the people in spacesuits are just Maltese extras. They were cast on whoever could fit in the spacesuits because all the spacesuits were custom-made for the actors. They were beautifully made, and each actor had their own because they had to fit you perfectly. You can’t have a loose spacesuit, that’d look ridiculous.

When you’re shooting science fiction planets, you need to go into a studio, and unfortunately to build caves, that sort of set, is the most expensive, simply because it goes over the head, and all that plaster has to have very very strong supports so it doesn’t collapse on you. Therefore it costs a lot of money to build, unlike a flat roof or a room. It was the production manager, Ray Corbett, who suggested Chislehurst Caves because he’d visited them. We went and looked and they were perfect! Not great to work in…horrible.

It’s cold and damp, that was the problem, it’s cold and damp all the time. And you’re constantly standing on uneven ground, so every one of us started suffering from night cramps, because of the damp and the fact you were never standing on a flat surface. But it looked good! Haydn was actually able to build sets down there, he found areas where he could fit in what we needed. Apart from a few things that we did at the studio later, all the sets you see are down in the caves.

Visually, we couldn’t have done better. We couldn’t have afforded to build all that. As I said, there were miles of it, which was tremendous. We could even build a little train. Haydn built that and found that nice little tunnel it could go through. Obviously, it’s not mechanical, it’s pushed and pulled, but it looks good.

M: I’ve said Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) homage. Were you careful about…?

NJW: Do you know, we genuinely weren’t aware of Alien! I know we get accused of that, but we genuinely weren’t copying Alien. It was close, we just hadn’t actually got to see it. We were too busy with the film. The script was written before Alien was seen. I didn’t see Alien until I’d finished Inseminoid, and I was amazed by the similarities at times, but I still never thought it was a copy. It was only other people who said that. They’re totally different, but it got quite serious. Twentieth Century Fox actually got quite nasty about it, because they had the power to block our film. So we agreed with Fox that they could see the film. When it was finished, we sent them a print and they sent a very nice letter back saying they enjoyed it and they wished us well with it. We weren’t trying to copy Alien. What nobody admitted at the time is that Alien is itself a rip-off of a 1950s film science fiction film, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) – it is the same thing.

M: It’s a great cast.

NJW: Wonderful cast! Fortunately, Richard Gordon knew a lady called Rose Tobias Shore, who at that time was the queen of casting. She got that wonderful cast together, but we hadn’t actually found anybody for Sandy. Rose said, ‘how about Judy Geeson?’ I’d seen her a lot, but somehow it didn’t click straight away that she would be right for that part. She came and we met at the office and chatted for an hour or so, and she was saying really what the character was. I started forgetting what I’d seen her in before and started seeing her in a different light.

I didn’t realise until we started filming just how much she would throw herself into the part. Going back to Michael Gough and people, James Aubrey on Terror, Judy was another one of those who just goes for it. She doesn’t worry about how she looks, or whether it’s going to be comfortable, she just does it and gives you 100%. She’s quite amazing. I couldn’t say enough about Judy, she’s one of the nicest actresses I’ve ever worked with, and hard-working.

When it came to doing the birth bit, and she does all that screaming, that was amazing. It was quite harrowing at the time. Where she’s lying really was a vile corner – it was cold, it was damp, the water was dripping, but she was game to do it. We just did the one take – I think she was exhausted afterwards!

M: Bloody New Year, in 1987, was your last horror film.

NJW: I agreed to do it, but it was a nightmare. It started with the casting. We’d found wonderful locations, everything that I wanted. We got a fairground, the ballroom we needed, a wonderful house on an island which we could turn into a hotel. The weather was perfect. Then [producer Maxine Julius] did the casting, and the kids were very nice but they just couldn’t act! Two of them were acceptable, but she got me in a Catch-22. She took Hayden and me to dinner and she said to me ‘you’ve got to say yes to this cast; if you say no we’re not doing the film.’ I had people building sets and working, so I couldn’t stop them earning their money, so I had no choice but to say yes. It was like that all the time.

It was an enormous disappointment to me. Part of the reason I didn’t do another horror film was that I thought ‘I can’t go through this again.’ It’s such hard work. It’s just not worth it, really, the stress, if you’re not allowed to get something decent in the end. Everybody working on it put in so much effort. We got some nice little effects, there are some good shots. Everybody was putting their heart and soul into it. We had a working fairground we were so lucky to get – they just gave us the keys to the place! We could do what we liked. You don’t get those opportunities very often.

M: Did you consciously then stay away from horror?

NJW: We wanted to do more. Richard Gordon contacted me and said he liked the idea of doing a remake of his Fifties film Fiend Without A Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958). I was a big fan of that, so I said I’d like to do that. I eventually managed to get a script together. It wasn’t easy, because when I looked at the film again, I found that there isn’t really anything in the film apart from the end bit where the brains are attacking! Otherwise, there’s really no story! I had to come up with a new concept for it and to bring it up to date. Sadly, Richard wasn’t too keen, because he still wanted it as it was. I had to convince him that you couldn’t have professors with bubbling test tubes any more – the kids won’t buy it. I set it all in a pharmaceutical company in South America, where they can do things and people don’t ask questions.

M: How quickly did you get involved with conventions?

NJW: It was about the beginning of the 90s and it was at the Hampstead Everyman, it was called EuroFest or something. They rang me and asked if I wanted to be a guest, and they were going to show Satan’s Slave, Prey and Terror. I was actually taken aback by the whole thing. I didn’t know about this fandom world. It was absolutely packed solid! They caught me out because I hadn’t actually thought about Satan’s Slave for years, and they started talking about certain scenes in the film and I had to fluff a bit. After that, I actually watched the films again and started memorising them. You can’t really catch me out now!

M: With Blu-ray releases, your films are available to a new generation. Will the sexploitation aspect of your films pose problems for people nowadays?

NJW: It might for some. There’s no answer to it, really. You can’t change things. Last year at an event I went to they screened Satan’s Slave, and there was one guy in the audience afterwards at the Q&A who said the film was just there to exploit girls. I personally don’t agree with that, I don’t think we are exploiting them. I really didn’t know what to answer. I said ‘sorry if you’re upset by it, but there’s nothing really that I can do!’ I wasn’t going to apologise for it. It didn’t seem to bother anybody else. You have to remember things were different then, and I don’t think it’s that exploitatative. At a university, they did accuse not just me but all horror films of exploiting young girls, and I tried to explain to them that all the actresses that do it read the script, they know what they’re doing, we don’t actually grab a girl off the street and chase her with a knife. They do it quite willingly. They can say no. 

Also ‘exploitation’, that word, we misuse it because we’re exploited in everything. Everything exploits us because it’s making money, isn’t it? Newspaper, television, everything exploits us. Commercials exploit us. Somebody did say to me ‘the exploitation of young women in horror films, what are your thoughts about it?’ and I said ‘I’m in full agreement, I think we need more!’ I didn’t know what else to say!

Martin Parsons

Martin Parsons

I love talking to people. Slackademic. Tutor. Freelance writer. Sheffield soul.

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