The Vault Of Horror
A Dr. Terror Retrospective
Graham Le Neve Painter once again draws back the curtain on the BBC’s The Vault of Horror with the creative team behind Dr Terror…
“I’m going to frighten you. I’m going to send chills down your spine. I’m going to frighten you out of your tiny mind.”
– Dr Terror’s banned TV
BBC2’s horror double-bills began life in the summer of 1975, with weekly late-night showings of horror and science fiction films that ran into the early hours of the morning. Mostly Hammer Horror favourites and Universal monster movies, the double-bills were loved by night owls and horror fans alike until the final series in 1983.
So, what better way to revive the much-loved presentation than with the BBC’s first and only horror, host Dr. Walpurgis, who had successfully ushered the country into the early hours of 1992’s Hallowe’en broadcast with his grinning visage and library of chilling motion pictures. After a quick name change to Dr. Terror, the late-night horror double bill was exhumed from the BBC vault and revived to appeal to lovers of its original run, and today’s (well, the nineties) generation. Modern films including Cat’s Eye, The Gate and April Fool’s Day were accompanied each week by a classic comparable title like Crucible of Terror, The Curse of Frankenstein and The House on Haunted Hill to name a few.
Although now moved to BBC1 – who were still reeling from the Ghostwatch disputation – Dr. Terror wouldn’t avoid his own minor controversy when an advert for the late-night show was shown following the 6 o’clock news and attracted more complaints than the BBC had ever received for a trailer. The ad, which featured Dr. Terror and a rotten mummy holed-up in a dark BBC cupboard, led to all further broadcasts of the promo being cancelled.
Dr Terror’s first season – shot at the spooky Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue – was a great success with double-bills including The Lost Boys and I Was A Teenage Werewolf and coupled with The Mask of Satan (Black Sunday). Dr Terror’s Vault of Horror returned the following year for an even longer thirteen episode run – although the double-bill aspect was dropped in favour of a single fright flick each week – kicking off with The Fog and concluding with The Serpent and the Rainbow.
The second series (broadcast from September to December 1994) is most fondly remembered for being shot in and around Blackpool’s famous Ghost Train. The sight of Dr. Terror riding through the famous spook house was enough to elicit fearful memories of visits to creepy seaside attractions even before the main feature began.
Dr. Terror and friends returned for one more series after taking a break for a year and the finished up his residency at the BBC in December 1996 after another 10-episode run. Rebranding once more as Dr. Terror Presents, the Dr.’s swansong began with a showing of 1974’s The House of Seven Corpses and included such entries as The Beast in The Cellar, Ghost Story and Dr. Giggles, ending on somewhat of a high note with the Wes Craven shocker, The People Under the Stairs. Shot for the first time in a studio at Television Centre, this series was geared far more towards ghoulish sketches and parodies. Many of the links hosted by Dr. Terror often subverted the content currently peddled by the BBC, including The National Lottery (The National Slaughtery) and This Is Your Life (This Was Your Career).
Sadly, many of the filmed sketches never even made it to screen – including parodies of Mastermind (Masterfiend), and Noel’s House Party (Dr. Terror’s Hearse Party) to name a couple. And then it was over. The lid was closed on the prominent purveyor of late-night shocks. Although a CD-ROM game called Dr. Terror’s Nightmare Gameshow was planned, it never materialised.
Dr. Terror’s Vault of Horror prevailed as a staple for bloodthirsty viewers’ Friday nights for three enjoyable years. Whether you were a young teen staying up to experience your first taste of late-night shocks, or seasoned genre fans stumbling back from the pub to pass out in front of the TV, no one can forget the exquisite period when the BBC had it very own horror host.
With that in mind, I once again dusted down the coffins and put leashes on the bats for another graveside chat with Co-Directors and co-creators Mark Deitch and Nick Freand Jones, along with Writer Kim Newman and Special Makeup FX maestro, Geoff Portass.
Welcome back to The Vault of Horror!
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): I certainly was of the generation that saw those Saturday night double-bills – often with annoying chunks of cricket highlights between the films. I came to be a horror fan a little earlier – c. 1970 – when the Universal and Hammer horrors were mostly screened by ITV late night on Fridays under umbrella titles like ‘Appointment With Fear’ (a bit cheeky, since that was a BBC radio show). The BBC must have picked up those rights in the mid-70s and made a thing out of their summer horror seasons.
MARK DEITCH (Director): I don’t think we were ever asked [to return]. I think we said, “We’d like to do it again” and they said, “Ok”.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): It’s partly about, there were all these films, and how do you give them a sense of anything other than, we’re just putting a lot of films out really. So, they were keen on that. It was relatively cheap. They definitely liked the splash they got from Vault of Horror. It was very fan-ish but it was also funny and quite stylish, I think and it was a bit of a first. Nothing like that had ever been done before, really.
MARK DEITCH (Director): It did get a lot of positive calls. In those days there was an actual BBC phone log. When you rang in to comment, you actually did speak to a human being. All the calls – pretty much, maybe 95% – were positive, and we were reaching fans, doing that thing that the BBC should do. Reach out to specific groups of people and inform and entertain in a way that nobody else did. So, the powers that be liked that. I’m not sure they ever watched it, but they liked the reaction.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Anything that could distinguish that late-night schedule in any way, and give it a bit of shape, a bit of colour. Some of these films were pretty marginal…
MARK DEITCH (Director): I loved programming the late-night slots, it’s one of the areas I asked to program because it meant you could delve through those thousands of movies and try and arrange them in a way that made some sense, and also when you were out at film markets, pick up the odd cheap [film]. I remember picking up Carnival of Souls one year, for a couple of thousand dollars, and having the UK premiere of that – which was a huge deal for me as a horror fan. But it was all about putting it in some kind of context, making it look fresh, and engaging with people, rather than just dropping it out there and people had to find it. What Dr. Terror did was bring those fans in. People that liked horror made a point of watching. That was what it was about.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): This was a time before YouTube, before this whole internet culture that exists now, of video essays and snippets of film here and there. You can find so much stuff now. Then, it was still basically VHS, and what you got on telly. So, it was definitely tapping into something.
MARK DEITCH (Director): There wasn’t anything else on any channel that acknowledged that fans were important – that was made for fans – I don’t think (there has been) since either. I felt there was a real sense of wholeness. Because Nick and I were big horror fans anyway we knew the language and we knew what resonated. So, it wasn’t made by committee – which is the other thing that happens now – we didn’t have to refer anything to anybody.
NICK FREAND JONES (Writer): Kim Newman is literally a world authority. I still work with him. I worked with him on a series called Secrets of Cinema which he basically is the head writer on, and he is amazing – not just about horror. Exotic cinema is his speciality, but he’s an extraordinary mind and he’s a very clever writer. He imbued this stuff. Not only with humour and sharpness but also intelligence. as well as what we brought to it.
MARK DEITCH (Director): Kim was able to find something interesting and new to say about the most uninteresting horror movies. And we also liked the idea of sticking the knife into the BBC a little, which we somehow managed to do. The Noel Edmunds show was on the air at that time with Mr. Blobby, and we had Mr. Bloody – played by me! Running around shouting “Bloody, Bloody, Bloody!” with a huge hatchet in his hand. We put Dr. Terror in a Bruce Forsyth wig in one episode. So, we were able to do stuff like that which nobody else was doing really.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): My favourite season was the last one because we had that huge set and got to do spoofs of other shows. Blinded Date was my all-time favourite because we got Guy in a miniskirt and a silly wig.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): The third series (download the scripts for series three – Ed) had the highest concept and was probably my most enjoyable experience – mostly because I was there for the shoot. I still have some of the props on my walls – for Puke Box Jury and What’s My Slime? Doing parodies of long-gone TV shows like Juke Box Jury and What’s My Line? might have confused many of our younger viewers – but we thought it was funny.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): Walpurgis was a kind of for that Halloween night thing. It was a little bit of a clever in-joke, but we wanted something broader and it did become broader as we went into these different seasons. And I think we thought Dr. Terror had more of a ring to it on a weekly basis.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): I always preferred him as Dr. Walpurgis, because of the confusion with the Amicus anthology.
MARK DEITCH (Director): And there was the Amicus movie that it referenced, which we were never able to buy, so it was never included in the season. But it was just a little gag. I always assumed he called himself Dr. Terror, but his real name was Walpurgis. That was my justification for it.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): I didn’t go to the Kentchurch shoot – though I did work there later, appearing on that weird Jane Austen-themed reality show The Regency House Party – or the Apollo, but I was able to get to Blackpool and the studio where we shot the third series (which is why I’m in a few of the intros). That allowed for a bit more improvisation to suit the props and settings that came to hand.
MARK DEITCH (Director): I think we decided on a theme or a location [first], so the haunted theatre, the haunted funfair, gameshow was the theme and then we turned Kim loose on that. I’m from Blackpool. I worked on the Pleasure Beach every year through my teenage years so I knew that we would be able to get in there because they’re always up for good publicity, and they were great. They absolutely loved it, and they opened the park for us out of hours and we had the run of it.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): We did have a go on the rides for free before work, but the big new Pepsi Max Rollercoaster was closed after its infamous breakdown and accident a few weeks beforehand. These later shoots were actually much more fun because we had the budget to go places and play around.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): I come from Southend in Essex so we both have a kind of seaside/funfair background, and I think there’s something creepy about funfairs – especially at night – it was just perfect. And because Mark had actually worked there and knew all the rides, as soon as we went up there to recce, it was like, “Yeah, this is gonna be great”. So, it was definitely films first, then location, then Kim would do his thing. And Kim was certainly present at the Blackpool shoot, all the way through.
GEOFF PORTASS (Makeup FX): Everything was identical [with the makeup] apart from two small things. I sculpted the chin and added a bottom lip. This meant I could pre-paint the [bottom] lip with all the other appliances, and the make-up required less work on set. The other accessory was a set of in-ear headphones incorporated into the main balaclava appliance. Although the earholes of the sculpt were near Guy’s own, he found it difficult to hear director instructions etc. on the first shoot. I hollowed out the ears slightly and stuck in a small pair of earphones that could be plugged into a box he wore on his waist that were attached to the sound man’s control box, so he could hear all instructions.
MARK DEITCH (Director): Guy was very good at bringing ad-libs in and making the lines work for him as an actor, but also particularly with gags. He was great at dropping in gags and that kind of stuff, which we loved – so we kept lots of those in.
KIM NEWMAN (Writer): We were just given lists of films – I know I was also given VHS copies of the movies I didn’t have to hand so I could refresh my memory. One or two of the films got dropped, so the intros we shot didn’t air. I think the Noel’s House Party/Poltergeist segment was one – which is a shame since it featured Mark Deitch as Mr Bloody.
MARK DEITCH (Director): The way it kind of worked was, we had the movies in the library and throughout the year Nick and I would talk. There [are] film markets throughout the year – Cannes being the most famous – and we would be there and be keeping our eyes open for interesting horror movies that weren’t sitting in packages from Warner Bros or Universal. We’d try and include things of interest that nobody else had seen for a long time as premieres or particular cult favourites. So, it would be a mix of Universal horror, some Hammer, and then some independent stuff that you could pick up on their own. It would have been easy to program it with stuff just from the major studios because we had all that sitting in our library, but that would have been boring and everyone would have seen the movies fifty times. This was the days of VHS, but even then there wasn’t that much around to buy or rent.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): That one night had a specific kind of identity, and they became just more playful and more silly, and broader.
MARK DEITCH (Director): It was about that very British humour. A lot of double-entendres, a lot of asides. An acknowledgement that the audience was in on it as well. Very British, almost pantomime feel on occasion. In fact, pantomime was one of the things I was thinking about doing for a subsequent season if we ever did it, and that would have fit in beautifully with the tone of the piece. To have Dr. Terror coming on as a dame one week, all of the things that you see in pantomime. He’s behind you! All of that would lend itself beautifully to it, but we never got a chance to do that one.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): It was just different. We shot it at TV Centre from memory. You’ve got the history of all those game shows, and shiny floor shows that were done there over the years. Now it’s Soho House – it’s a hotel basically. But it was differently done. It was done much more like a studio programme, and I think the scripts were – as ever – central to it really. We had a lot of fun as well, just playing around once we were in there. I can’t express how disrespectful the whole thing was.
MARK DEITCH (Director): Let’s not forget the Butler, and how the Butler ever even got to air. The Butler was called “Feltch”. I think that gives you a sense of the stuff we got away with.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): I think there was a feeling it had run its course. I think we just felt our work was done in some ways. I did a similar thing with Richard O’ Brien called Mystery Train and that was also themed late-night host-led thing without the little mini-documentaries, but more like links. We shot that down in the underground at the Aldwych. And I was still doing Moviedrome, and also making other bigger, full-length documentaries at that time. And I think Guy by that time was becoming quite eminent.
MARK DEITCH (Director): I left in ’96. I went to run a TV station called Bravo, where I took quite a lot of Dr. Terror’s sensibilities. One of the reasons why I left was because the BBC was changing. It wasn’t the organisation that I joined. That was the time of John Birt, and there was a lot more control and oversight, and the BBC was becoming more conservative and more concerned about its future. I think all of those things fed into the decision of not to go forward with another one. Birt had created a different animal, and it just wasn’t as much fun anymore.
NICK FREAND JONES (Director): It was the most fantastic time in our careers in some ways. They trusted you, and as long as you didn’t really drop the ball, you got to do amazing things. I think the worst thing is doing something for too long and it losing its uniqueness and singularity, and probably three series and a night was perfect really. That’s one more series than Faulty Towers!
Read part one
Download the scripts for series three