Every Witch Way But Loose:
Foreign Influence and Cinematic Reality in
Norman J. Warren’s Terror
Andy Roberts enters the world of Norman J. Warren once again, this time exploring his 1978 descent into Terror...
The late ‘70s was a formative year for the horror genre. With the rise of the grindhouse and film-making becoming more accessible to budding creatives, the era saw notable entries that began to shape the future of the genre into something that went just a little further than previous classics.
Amongst low budget shockers like Squirm (Jeff Lieberman, 1976) and Savage Weekend (David Paulsen, 1979), suspense masterpieces like Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) were raking it in at the box office, paving the way for other modern classics like The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977). This fruitful period of creativity and stylistic flourish was also felt elsewhere in the world, with Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) emerging from David Cronenberg in Canada, Satan’s Slave (1976) and Prey (1977) from Norman J. Warren in the UK and the gialli Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) and The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976) released in Italy. Arguably one of the most influential however was that of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, released in 1977.
Boasting a purposefully phantasmagorical approach to narrative cohesion, logic, set design and cinematography, Argento’s film weaved a spellbinding story of young Suzy, an American ballet student who accepts a placement at a prestigious dance academy in Germany. When one of her fellow dancers meets a grisly end at her home in the nearby town, Suzy and newfound friend Sara begin to suspect the school staff, who become ever-increasingly controlling, unstable and suspicious. Uncovering the unspeakable reality that the teachers are part of an ancient coven of witches, Suzy tries to escape her situation with all the odds stacked against her. Upon its release, Suspiria was actually subject to mixed reviews, praising the gorgeous approach to art direction and use of colour, but criticising the priority of style over substance and lack of narrative sense. To audiences, however, the film was a cult hit and has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece of Italian horror in recent years.
The effect on the horror community at the time can’t really be understated; horror could now be almost entirely non-linear and enigmatic in terms of story lucidity, special effects could be aggrandised to operatic levels of intensity, the cinematography and art direction could palpably enrich a film’s nightmarish quality and finally, soundtracks could drive sequences of terror to be embedded permanently in the minds of the audience. The film continues to shape horror movies to this day in neo-gialli films like Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzalez, 2019) and Crystal Eyes (Ezequiel Endelman, 2017) or experimental experiences like Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018) and The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). Back in the ‘70s however, a new project inspired by the bloodstained ballet was about to be given form in good old Blighty…
After the success of his first two forays into the horror scene, eager creative Norman J. Warren was beginning to garner a national reputation for ushering in a new wave of British horror, distinguished from its Hammer years with a dedicated focus on more on-screen carnage and explicit sexuality. After watching Dario Argento’s film, Warren felt enthused by the film’s approach to the use of colour, the suspension of logical plot development and grandiose set pieces of violence. He felt that up until that point, horror films had a sense of logic even if they were nonsensical, but he believed Suspiria paved the way to have illogical films that still worked as effective horror experiences. As a result of this newfound sense of direction, Warren devised Terror, to be self-funded using the proceeds of their lucrative venture in Satan’s Slave (1976).
Warren and his producer Les Young decided to kickstart the project by initially listing which set-pieces and imagery they wanted to feature in the film, leaving the connective tissue to screenwriter David McGillivray who would string these sequences in some fashion. Utilising the same mock Tudor house depicted in Satan’s Slave, the film opens with an extended sequence showing the execution of Mad Dolly, a purported witch in medieval England who is caught by villagers and burned at the stake, much to the delight of rich landowners Lord and Lady Garrick. After the aristocrats are supernaturally slain by the spectral witch they’ve just immolated, the camera pans away to reveal the whole thing is a movie, based on the Garrick’s supposed family history of irking the historical sorceress. When Ann Garrick, the cousin of the house’s current owner James seemingly becomes hypnotised at a party, attacking James with the family’s heirloom broadsword, it kicks off a whole chain of bizarre supernatural occurrences and deaths, signalling to James that the family curse is indeed alive and murdering.
It’s not an uncontroversial idea to suggest that Terror isn’t quite on the same wavelength as Suspiria, namely because of the latter’s near-mythic status amongst European horror circles and its radical new approach to portraying fear on the screen. Much like the cinematic nightmare that Argento depicted, however, Terror does have a pervasive air of weirdness to it, mostly attributed to the numerous oddities within the film’s world, the characters that inhabit it and the paranormal happenings that unfold. For audiences in the UK, this effect is greatly buttressed by the version of Britain being portrayed on-screen seeming almost alien and unfamiliar to the one we’re accustomed to in our everyday reality.
For modern British viewers, we’re also separated from the film by time, with 1970’s Britain being vastly distant from our modern United Kingdom in the 2020s. The characters too have a wildly disjointed relationship to us, seeming at times to be quite relatable (if a little stereotyped) while at other times, they are mystifyingly abstruse in their behaviours and reactions. The nature of the film’s antagonist and motivation for the violence that befalls the cast are also, for the most part, opaquely unfathomable. A great deal of these quirks and features in Terror can be dismissed as mere byproducts of a low budget, quick production turnaround and a cast and crew in their professional infancy, but that would do a huge disservice to the film’s successes in portraying a startling alternative perspective at the United Kingdom and the high stakes world of show business and cinema. To get a bit of background, however, we’d have to start at the beginning of the 1970s.
By the turn of the ‘70s, the UK’s horror scene was in relative decline compared to its almost unbeatable success of the past. Hammer films in particular were almost universally distributed across the world, which had started focusing on Gothic horror from the mid-50s onwards after a very successful adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955). Following up with masterful adaptations of the works of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer Film Productions seemed unstoppable, pumping out works over the remainder of the ‘50s and the ‘60s and bolstered by distribution deals and funding from enterprising American companies. Another British company, Amicus Productions, was also making strides in the horror market with its various anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971) and Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973). As the dusk of the ‘60s neared, however, both Hammer and Amicus had lost their winning formulae within the horror world, trumped by the higher levels of sex and violence that were expected in the aftermath of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s gore films and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). American investment, in general, began to wane as the ‘70s arrived, leading most horror production companies to venture into previously unknown territory and themes, leading to examples like The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971), The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1973).
The comparatively lesser instances of bloodshed and nudity in Hammer’s films led to their turn toward TV sitcom adaptations such as On The Buses (Harry Booth, 1971) and Man About the House (John Robins, 1974), to recover some of their previously guaranteed income. Britain’s entry into the European Union in 1973 also had its own effect, leading to notable influences from outside the island in films such as Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973) and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and opening up the market to horror films produced in other countries. Having to forge ahead in an unfamiliar environment and distinguish yourself from the competition was precisely the reason why Norman J. Warren was praised for his approach to direction, incorporating a good dose of sex and violence to at least vying for attention amongst the growing flood of exploitation and splatter films coming in from around the world during this unstable period.
Before it was even scripted, Terror already had its work cut out for it, having to wrestle for attention amongst an ocean of similar material. Thankfully even today, the film is successful at remaining memorable for a variety of reasons, but we’d have to return to Warren’s original idea for the film in the form of Suspiria. The similarities are there to see in the production’s focus on unnatural lighting and cinematography, with a heavy emphasis on blues, greens and reds. The antagonist of this film is also a witch, leading to a majority of deaths inflicted via supernaturally-invoked means with a lingering focus on bodily mutilation and destruction. The majority of the film’s cast portray actresses living in a hostel owned by an ageing starlet; reminiscent of Suspiria’s setup. The dotty landlady in question (Dolores) looks like a combination of Madame Blanc, Miss Tanner and Helena Markos, with a British touch of Leslie Joseph. The character Suzy (named after Jessica Harper’s character in Suspiria) is clearly based on a myriad of tropes from Argento’s example, with her long flowing loungewear a reference to Sonia from the film’s opening double killing, as well as the heavy floral patterns of her curtains and fabrics, in intense greens, reds and purples. Her later car journey in the rain is also a love letter to Suspiria’s opening rain montage, rendered this time in intense blues and yellows.
Certain sequences of violence and horror also emulate the style of the grandiose set-pieces of Argento’s film, including the finale in which a woman is pierced painfully through the heart in glossy fashion and Viv’s makeup routine being interrupted by red paint coming through the ceiling, a clear reference to Suzy’s nighttime routine being interrupted by the maggots falling from the attic in Suspiria. Terror likewise dispenses with any concrete notion of logic or narrative cohesion, leading to some strange dead ends such as the aforementioned sequence of Suzy’s car breaking down and her search for help which goes nowhere (Suzy even survives the film’s events!) or continuity problems in the fact that Mad Dolly’s curse seems to be wrought on everyone but the Garricks themselves.
For those of us who are eagle-eyed and fans of European and American horror, it seems that Norman J. Warren took inspiration from all sorts of other films from both Italy and the States. To that end, Terror perfectly emulates the British horror scene of the 1970s, still trying to find its newfound path amongst a torrent of ideas from around the world, incorporating popular ideas in order to ape the competition. The opening credits are somewhat inspired by the trailer of Mario Bava’s giallo film A Bay of Blood (1971), with over-saturated slow-motion snippets, overly polarised with primary colours of red and yellow. The capture of Mad Dolly and the noblewoman’s insistence on seeing the execution is very similar to the opening of Jess Franco’s The Demons, while the hypnotism of Ann seems thematically similar to the deliberately theatrical opening of Deep Red. The shot of Carol being stalked through the grounds is stylistically similar to the opening kill in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) with bright purple flowers in the background, while the moment where she almost reaches the safety of a busy road only to be suddenly stabbed has a vibe of the unlucky Phyllis from Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972).
Suzy’s subsequent fleeing from her broken-down car and entry into an abandoned house for aid also feels a little bit like Barbara’s escape in the opening of Night of the Living Dead, replete with attempting to call for help via telephone and being frightened by noises of a possible intruder. Phil the Greek’s death is very giallo-like, strangled by a cord which could be from almost any Italian example, but it does seem to hearken to Argento’s Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), especially with the resultant fall leading to a violent death, referencing both the film’s train set-piece and the elevator finale. The gruesomeness of the garrotte cutting into his neck also brings to mind the closing set piece of Deep Red involving a necklace. Viv’s stabbing is influenced heavily by Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976), where a similar attack on the stairs involves painful-looking stabbings of the feet and extremities, while the attack of Phil in the film studio is very grandiose and dynamic in its energy, similar to the supernatural attacks in Gus Trikonis’ haunted house film The Evil from 1977.
The culminating decapitation by glass seems to be inspired by The Omen, but with a hint of Alfred Hitchcock in the camera panning out from Phil’s dead eyes, a la Psycho (1960). The policeman’s death via car is stylistically similar to the death of the shopkeeper in Sergio Martino’s Torso (1973), where he is rammed continuously by the killer’s car, and in a little throwaway moment, a poster for the Swedish rape-and-revenge film Thriller – A Cruel Picture (Alex Fridolinski, 1973) is displayed lovingly alongside one for Warren’s own Satan’s Slave.
With a universe seemingly created of countless inspirations from both European and American horrors, Warren has created quite a rich world for the characters of Terror to dwell in. In sync with the film’s influences, The characters also seem to represent an accurate portrayal of the horror film industry in Britain at the time of the production. The whole comedic subplot of the softcore ‘Bathtime with Brenda‘ is quite indicative of our British attitudes at the time, cheekily referencing our successes in the British sex comedy or the raunchy sitcom but behind the scenes, the actress Viv is massively fed up with what’s required and James wants them thrown out because of how it will look to the police. It’s almost a sad reflection on those times which are now gone, and a veiled premonition of the video nasty scandal which would soon be at the doors of distributors in the country. Ironically, Terror was in fact one of the so-called Section 3 video nasties liable for seizure by police forces, so this remark from James is a happy accident. The character of Dolores is also quite telling in the same way; she’s an ageing actress who lives in a fantasy world of showbiz, anticipating a telephone call any day to beckon her back to the world of Hollywood, still flouncing about in feathers and furs and dramatically declaring her words. Surrounding herself with young actresses maintains this illusion that she is still relevant, almost like the horror film that she is within, trying hard to create a sense of identity in an ever-changing landscape of cultural influence.
Considering how close the film’s release is to the (now defunct) entry of the UK into the European Union, this theme of reflecting on the past also carries a hint of rose-tinted glasses for Britain’s history, once the conqueror of almost the entire world at one point, but now engaging in much friendlier diplomacy with its neighbours, toning down the harsh rhetoric and colonialist attitudes of its ancestors. The friendlier Britain is depicted in Warren’s generous cherry-picking of contemporary horror, borrowing success from the rest of the globe to make his own mark, as well as the distinctly European flavour of some of the film’s settings. The stripper in the decidedly un-British bar is one such example, much more akin to something you would expect to see in a European city, something like Berlin or Amsterdam. Whipping your privates, mimicking a blowjob on the whip hilt and then sexually strangling yourself in a British pub aren’t exactly what you expect to see in any portrayal of the UK. What this means now that the modern UK is no longer part of the European Union is another essay entirely, but there is certainly a feeling of nostalgia present in Terror’s premise, characters and situations.
While the plot of the film is fairly basic, concerning an evil presence from the past returning to kill people in the present, the exact nature of how Mad Dolly operates is kept purposely enigmatic. While it does seem erroneous that her spirit ends up murdering loads of people who are at best tangentially related to the Garricks, one of the most revealing shots of the film is when Ann returns to the Garrick mansion and sees the figure of Mad Dolly approaching her after the death of James. Hardly anyone seems to note that she looks exactly the same as Mad Dolly from the opening, which was revealed to be James’ latest produced film about the Garrick family curse. Confused? Mad Dolly was portrayed by an actress in James’ film, so why would the real Mad Dolly look indistinguishable from the thespian portraying her? Unless there’s a case to be argued that it is in fact the unstable filmic nature of Terror’s own universe that is to blame… From the very get-go reality is blurred by showing us the capture of Mad Dolly and the deaths of Lord and Lady Garrick at her evil behest, only to pan away and reveal that what we’ve just seen is in fact, James Garrick’s film, showing it off to his bemused houseguests. There’s then some conversation about the movie’s basis in reality, with James elaborating on the supposed Garrick family curse with the houseguests reacting in various ways. The fact that the family sword mounted on the wall is a genuine antique from the Garrick lineage as well as used as a prop in James’ adaptation of the legend is more blurring of the lines between fiction and the real world, as is the humorous shot of Daz washing powder in Suzy’s bedroom, suggesting that the whole film’s events are a film being broken up by soap adverts.
The characters themselves also lend heavily to this feeling that the film is in fact a purely cinematic world. Carol for instance is mentioned as a TV actress, but her style of dress is much closer to a fashion model, dressed in a glamorous white ensemble with gold chains and a belt. The ‘Bathtime with Brenda’ director Les also appears like a giant stereotype, wearing wooden beaded necklaces, a cowboy hat and draped in denim. Known film critic Alan Jones even appears in the film as one of the party guests in the opening, further suggesting a dubious reality. Suzy’s bedroom at the hostel is covered in empty bottles of champagne, pop culture icons like Winnie the Pooh and a gloriously over the top colourful wallpaper, sort of suggesting a stylised image of the private quarters of an aspiring actress.
The nonsensical actions of each character also hint that they are within a fictional situation, such as Suzy brazenly entering a stranger’s home to use the phone, Ann inexplicably washing her hands of blood with no resolution of why and most notably, James’ unperturbed reactions as he is almost killed with the family sword and as he witnesses Les perish in front of him. The fact that he doesn’t seem too fazed is either attributed to his acceptance of his unpreventable demise… or that he actually wants it and desires it. There’s a strong case to be made that it may be in fact the characters’ expectations of death and destruction that ultimately cause the bad things to happen. This would certainly explain that when Mad Dolly does turn up, she resembles her fictional portrayal rather than anything else because James has utterly convinced himself that the curse is real through the film he has made. The stunning set-piece of Phil being literally attacked by possessed film reels (in a human shape no less) and Les’ demise via a falling stage light also heavily implies that it is film itself that is the root of the problem, only bolstered by the fact that most of the victims in the story are players within the film business. To that end, Terror is a much more complex beast than it initially seems with a self-aware ‘meta’ environment that allows the oddities and supernatural violence to occur with gay abandon.
As befitting its Section 3 history within the video nasty scandal, Terror does deliver some punchy moments of violence that are both enjoyably bloody and uniquely visceral in their own way. Ardent gore fans can look forward to decapitations with a sword, frequent stabbings, including a particularly frenzied flurry aimed at the feet, a man being garrotted and forced onto a fence trellis, a man being repeatedly run over by a car (the windscreen wiper forced into his mouth), a man being crushed by a light fixture, a man being partially decapitated by a pane of glass and in a stunning finale, a woman being pinned to the wall with a sword thrust through her heart. While such scenes have the potential to be mean-spirited, the death sequences instead have a snappy feeling of fun and infused with humorous aplomb, in keeping with the film’s overall sense of light comedy, enjoyable silliness and celebratory inclusion of elements from other horror films.
It’s pretty hard to dislike Terror and there are countless times when the action on the screen elicits more than a few smiles for its sheer gutsiness and self-awareness. An entire treatise could be dedicated to the film’s inspirations from other films, but it’s also a fact that Terror appears to be quite influential in its own way; Phil’s death scene would be used by Argento in his 1980 Suspiria sequel, Inferno, while the telekinetic deaths and generous amount of collateral damage unrelated to the actual targets of supernatural ire were utilised in Ulli Lommel’s Boogeyman in 1980. The plot was revived almost wholesale for the American supernatural splatter film Superstition (James W. Roberson) in 1982 albeit with a more pronounced religious presentation, while the sword decapitation by a possessed murderer was referenced in the infernal finale of Eric Weston’s Evilspeak (1981).
For a project birthed from foreign influence and set in a delusory interpretation of ‘70s Britain, Terror actually reinforces the countless reasons why Norman J. Warren will continue to be a household name here for generations to come. His passion to forge a path ahead in one of the UK’s most tumultuous cinematic periods is an inspiration to all of us.
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