The Vault of Horror
A Dr. Terror Retrospective - Part one
Graham Le Neve Painter reopens The Vault of Horror with the creative team behind BBC horror host Dr Terror; entering the mouldering tomb via a two-part retrospective on the 1992 Hallowe’en special and ensuing Friday night frights...
“There will be no wholesome family entertainment on this channel for the while. No informative wildlife documentaries. No educational programs. No Tony Slattery.”
– Dr. Walpurgis (Guy Henry)
Often overshadowed by BBC1’s Ghostwatch – which aired the same night – The Vault of Horror was just as revolutionary and memorable as the aforementioned Screen One drama.
But due to the controversy caused by the preceding show, The Vault of Horror is a largely unknown affair. Conceived and created by Nick Freand Jones and Mark Deitch, with a script by horror writer and critic Kim Newman, Vault was an ambitious BBC all-night special hosted by an unrecognisable Guy Henry (Holby City) under an extensive makeup job courtesy of Hellraiser’s Geoff Portass. Henry played Dr Walpurgis, a demonically erudite fiend who introduced and presumably curated the night’s entertainment. Consisting of nearly nine hours of programming, it was a night of terror never attempted before, or since. Dr Walpurgis did return under a new name and new format – we’ll get to that in the second part of our retrospective – but for such a momentous event, it has been criminally unreported upon.
On the day of broadcast (31st October 1992), a 47-second promo featuring Walpurgis aired straight after So You Want To Play Golf with Peter Allis, instructing you that “BBC2 will unlock The Vault of Horror, All night, Tonight”. As one can only imagine, very few of the key demographic were watching a golf show Saturday lunchtime. Assumedly, most viewers first glimpse at the venerable horror host for 90’s Britain would be straight after the phenomenon which was Ghostwatch, and by that point, we were already pretty shaken up. After recovering from Television Centre imploding amongst a supernatural tour-de-force, including a possessed Michael Parkinson and a presumably deceased Sarah Greene, the continuity announcer was quick to goad you over to BBC2 where a monolithic numeral was splashed by blood and chain-sawed in half, “This is BBC2. Now, lock the door…”
After a suitably eerie opening, boasting foggy graveyards, ghostly apparitions and monsters peering through dark windows – all of which was shot at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire – a dripping title card and credits transitioned to a creaking bookcase slowly opening to reveal our host for the night, Dr Walpurgis. A suave, pale-faced ghoul in a suit and cravat whose eloquent voice welcomes you to the diabolical festivities,
“Distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the viewing public. I bid you welcome to The Vault of Horror…”
Walpurgis explains that a deal was arranged between the devil and the BBC to allow such an occurrence,
“As a result of a blood pact signed by Lord Reith in 1929, the British Broadcasting Corporation, tonight, is obliged to yield sovereignty over the airwaves until tomorrow’s dawn”
The night consisted of a slew of exceptional horror films, beginning with the premiere of Creepshow, followed by Curse of the Werewolf, The Bride of Frankenstein, Death Line, and finishing in the early hours of the morning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. These classic fright flicks were interspersed with vignettes called “Horror Bites” where directors, writers and actors in the horror industry would talk about what scared them and the genre in general. The list is impressive, featuring such venerable icons as Sam Raimi, George Romero, Sean Cunningham, Clive Barker, Richard Stanley, Mary Lambert, Charles Band, Lloyd Kaufman, Robert Bloch, Tom Savini, John Landis, Bruce Campbell, James Herbert and Wes Craven, elevating the night to an interminable horror spectacle.
But how did Vault come about? The only way to dissect this extraordinary horror-thon was to go straight to the source, and we did just that. Please welcome to the cobwebbed corner of the Horrified premises, Co-Directors and Creators Mark Deitch and Nick Freand Jones, along with Writer Kim Newman and Makeup FX artist Geoff Portass, as we revisit the story behind the most horrifying night of British television… ever! BBC2’s The Vault of Horror.
MARK DEITCH (Director): We were both colleagues at the acquisitions department at the BBC. Nick had been there a couple of years [when] I joined. We shared a similar sensibility and got on immediately.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Mark was a real horror buff, bigger than me. But we both loved horror, we loved ’50s horror movies and Hammer Horror movies. Pretty much the whole genre in all its crazy variety.
MARK DEITCH (Director): The UK had never had an all-night horror [marathon] or a horror host. I forget the exactly how and when and why, but we just thought it would be a great idea, so we pitched it and they said, “Yeah, go ahead”
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): The idea was that the BBC would adhere to Reithian high moral and educational purpose throughout the year but have one night off where the forces of darkness held sway. Actually, that would account for the greenlighting of Ghostwatch – though we didn’t know anything about that at the time.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): There was a bit of a history of doing contextualised film screening at that point because there had been something called The Film Club which was sort of double bills of a movie with a director or somebody talking about the double bill. Then I had done a series called Moviedrome with Alex Cox which was definitely running at that point. So, the department was developing a history of production. Alan Yentob was in charge and there was a lot of goodwill to film amidst the higher-ups at BBC2 because unlike now, they showed a lot of movies in those days.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): Horror hosts didn’t exist as such in the UK; all these years on, there have only been a few more. What I knew of US horror hosts didn’t impress me much – I vaguely agree with Johnny Depp as Ed Wood that the interruptions (as opposed to introductions) ruin the movie. I was aware of Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi and a few others as pop culture monster kid phenomena, but I associated them with Famous Monsters of Filmland as being a way of taming and rendering infantile stuff I took much more seriously. British television has often had the likes of Alex Cox do relatively formal intros to films, but aside from a forerunner series hosted by Richard O’Brien there wasn’t really a UK horror host tradition to draw on.
MARK DEITCH (Director): One of the greatest things of working with the department was we had this enormous library of films to play with. As a film fan, there is no better place to be. So, we had some horror movies and we thought it would be great to get some more. Once we were told we could, we went out specifically and acquired titles for this.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Creepshow was brought specially, I think. Basically, what they loved about these contextualised, curated strands was there was literally thousands of films sitting around waiting to be played. A certain price was paid, and each time they were played a certain amount of money was written off. So eventually, the idea was to get every film down to zero. And the beauty of an idea like this was, some obscure horror movies that might otherwise have just ended up in the schedule in the middle of the night – getting played off – had a kind of added value.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): The films were already selected. As with the later Dr Terror series, the BBC had by that time a quite limited number of movies to draw on.
MARK DEITCH (Director): We went to the States, the three of us, with a US camera team. We shot interviews with everybody and anybody we could. In those days there wasn’t a lot of this about – there was no internet. People like George Romero and Tom Savini hadn’t done that many interviews on this subject apart from in specialist horror mags like Fangoria.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): We had amazing access. Robert Bloch, Sean Cunningham. John Landis was a fantastic interviewee.
MARK DEITCH (Director): We tried to get as many creators as we could on that trip. And as an organisational thing, we started off in New York, we went to Pittsburgh to see George Romero, then we went to Minneapolis [where] Argento was shooting a film with Brad Dourif, that Tom Savini was doing the special effects for. So, we killed two birds with one stone there. Then off to L.A. to mop up everybody else.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): It was probably a two-week schedule. We’d planned it from the UK, so everything was set up before we left. As you did in those days, with letters and phone calls rather than emails. And it was pretty successful. I don’t remember anyone dropping out. One of the highlights for me [was] Robert Bloch because he was so charming and so humble and just everything you wanted him to be. He was literate and extremely welcoming to us. Even [Dario Argento] gave us time on the set of a film. And I think we came back to the UK and did some more interviews.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): I was contacted pretty early on by the BBC but at that point, I was to be a talking head. They were interviewing people from Industry – from all parts of the industry – regarding their participation in horror film in general. I sat on a chair and nattered away for a few hours about Hellraiser, my advent into the industry generally, my childhood love of movies etc. A few months later, probably two months before the Halloween night the films and interviews were to be shown, they called me and apologised but they just had too much interview stuff. With people like Carpenter and other famous horror icons on the list I got shuffled down to the bottom and dropped! However, they did have a few grand going spare, and they thought it might be interesting to have some form of horror host to introduce the movies and the interviews, and for a tiny budget, would I be interested in making something? At the time I had just finished a job and had nothing on for at least the next month so thought why not, better to earn a little than nothing at all.
MARK DEITCH (Director): Once we came up with the host, we needed somebody who was affordable and knew what they were doing. We needed a prosthetic master. We couldn’t have done it without Geoff [Portass] The love and the joy and the passion for the work was extraordinary. And they were great with Guy [Henry] as well. He was in the chair for a long time and they were great at relaxing him because he’d never done anything like this before. They really worked hard at getting him relaxed so he could perform.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): They gave me no notes at all. Of course, they would have final say so I posited the idea of a demon, someone suave and sophisticated. I had already met Guy [Henry] for the lifecast, and no one could fail to be charmed by his beautiful voice, so I knocked up a few designs and presented the best one to them. Done deal! The initial design was based on a couple of things. A demon monster with huge batwing ears from a late 70s/early 80s horror film whose name is long gone from my brain was one source. The brow is inspired by the titular monster from the old movie Night of The Demon. The smile is just pure Jack Nicholson, I used a photo of him to trace over for the final drawing and his smile was perfect.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): [Guy] lent another dimension to the whole thing. We were fascinated by shows like Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and these kinds of American late-night curated movie shows, so we knew we wanted to do something like that. And we knew whoever was going to be that character had to have some heft and a great sense of humour. I went to see a production The Alchemist at The Barbican. [Guy] was a relatively minor character [but] had tremendous stage presence, and I said to Mark the next day, “I think I’ve seen a guy who might be right for this character” and we then went to the Festival Theatre, Chichester to see him in Twelfth Night and that’s where we first met him.
MARK DEITCH (Director): It was his voice and his ability to modulate and to perform through voice, and to find a character through voice. And also, Guy was quite tall and slim, which meant that the prosthetics could be built around him and it wouldn’t look ludicrous. He wasn’t a big star then, this was his first TV, he’d only ever done stage work. So, he was really keen, like most young actors, really excited to do something different. You don’t get the chance to do that kind of thing, normally. You certainly didn’t in those days.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): The project was well-advanced … at my first meeting, Guy Henry was already aboard, and I think the make-up designed. The character had been named – I think by Mark Deitch – and the format of the initial show, the Halloween all-nighter, was roughed out.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): The idea was that the doctor would be a floating severed head blue screened into the action of some interviews, but if [I] recall correctly, that he was always going to be walking around Kentchurch. However, I had ripped into the head to make it look severed, so the cravat was put in there to cover up the gory edge. Suffice to say it was dropped after that for good. Guy had never worn prosthetics before and was very nervous about moving in them, but we said no, go for it, play. Once he realised how they would move with his face he let rip and hence the suave leering Dr was born. Everyone loved it.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): [Dr Walpurgis] was one-part Peter Cushing, one-part Kenneth Williams, and Guy had that slightly menacing actors’ performance, but it seemed to work. Once he’d got the makeup on, it was just astonishing the way he inhabited the character. It was a real lesson to me in what actors do.
MARK DEITCH (Director): He was able to turn on a dime. He was able to be urbane, a little brittle and then scary in the space of 30 seconds. It’s all about technique, that’s where training comes in. Something that a movie star who hadn’t had that training couldn’t really do. And that was another reason we wanted to go with somebody who had that background because we didn’t have the time. A lot of horror hosts in the States were not very interesting. We wanted this to have a real character. Nick and I are fairly iconoclastic and wanted to be a little naughty on occasion, so Dr Terror allowed us to be that. And Kim loved that of course too.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): As usual in TV, it was a tight deadline. I was the prime writer, but others had input – especially in the Dr Terror days. Guy had the idea of Dr Walpurgis as a showbiz demon and came up with a lot of jokes on his own – though he also insisted that factual material be included so the intros weren’t just jokey skits.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): As with all prosthetics the life cast comes first to reproduce Guy’s head in plaster. In my workshop, I then sculpted in an oil-based clay the entire head onto the cast. At this point a large make-up like this becomes hard to reproduce in one piece to get the delicate thin edges to blend into the actor’s face, so we usually cut the clay into pieces and separate them, mold them and make an overlapping jigsaw of prosthetics. I knew I wanted a nice fancy paint job for Dr Walpurgis, as he was named, and I knew that it would be a lot of work to make at least three full heads sets, so I borrowed a concept used many times before but outlined beautifully at the time from the TV show Babylon 5. A full head makeup on a character called G’Kar used a balaclava headpiece that was removed first with alcohol after a day’s shoot, this did not damage the appliance. The Dr Walpurgis balaclava consists of his entire top of head with ears, and like a balaclava goes around his face and under his chin. The heavy brows are also part of it. All of its edges are hidden under the other appliances so I made them thick so they would last three shooting days if necessary. All pieces were pre-painted so all that was required was an airbrush to blend the appliances together, and some make-up application where the appliance blended onto the skin, eyes and top lip.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Bob Cummins was a graphic designer at the BBC who we’d both worked with and Bob had sort of graduated from doing graphics to production design with me on Moviedrome and a few other things. He was also a very, very important part of this, creatively. He had an awful lot to do with the look and the feel of the whole thing, the graphics, the props.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): We shot at Kentchurch house, the home of the wonderful Lady Jan Scudamore, who cooked wonderful food for us all. We shot over two consecutive days. We applied the make-up in the room we had been given to sleep in, it was huge, so Roy [Puddefoot] and I were able to set up at a table the night before. Shooting was relatively easy as we had the house booked to ourselves – Jan opens the house to the public to stay in still now I think, so the BBC just rented it for the weekend. It was a breeze of a weekend. Long hours, but then prosthetics always are. But great fun.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Another colleague had told us about a stately home that he’d stayed in on the borders of Wales and England. It had a snooker room with a hidden panel behind the bookcase. It had been used as a location before, so we scouted that [and] got to know the woman who ran it. Once we could see the location and combine it with the character, it was very easy to see how we could film a title sequence and have an infinite number of setups we could do with some smoke and the right lights. I don’t think we were ever quite forgiven [because] a lot of the smoke we used ended up depositing onto the pictures there. So, I’m not sure they made any money out of the location fee [because of] the cleaning job that had to be done after we left. It wasn’t summer when we shot those links, it was definitely quite chilly, but it wasn’t freezing. We probably shot in September. [We] shot over two nights and then we assembled the whole thing on tape I suppose. Nowadays it would be done entirely differently, but it was essentially constructing one tape – or a series of tapes – that were played through the night. It was after all nearly thirty years ago, so the technology was very different and rather primitive, but I think it pretty much went without a hitch? I don’t know that I stayed up the whole night to watch it, I must say.
MARK DEITCH (Director): My biggest regret was that BBC1 had Ghostwatch [and] it took all the attention.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): And there was a tremendous controversy after it because people thought it was real. We were a little bit sour about that. We put all this effort and it felt like we were upstaged.
MARK DEITCH (Director): But we got to do more seasons. We got to do it again.
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