British Horror, After the Hammer Fell



The United Kingdom was better known for banning horror movies than producing them until the late 1950s, when hitherto minor studio Hammer Film Productions gambled on color remakes of Frankenstein and Dracula—surprise smashes that spawned numerous sequels (and imitations) while making stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

By the early 1970s, however, Hammer had boxed itself into a corner, repeating itself to diminishing returns and failing to find success with non-horror films. After 1974 it basically closed shop, only recently returning to feature production with movies like The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe. If Hammer’s films had begun to seem old-fashioned, however, there was still demand for British horror movies—and a slew of independent directors and producers sprang up to fill the gap.

Probably the most enterprising, prolific and notorious among them were Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren, two Englishmen who departed from Hammer’s penchant for period Gothic terror in favor of modern-day settings with ramped-up doses of sex and violence. Their efforts were largely dismissed as cheap, tawdry exploitation at the time. But audiences enjoyed them, and today they’ve acquired a cult following that extends well beyond the U.K.

Both men started out peddling cinematic “smut”—the kind of smirking gents’-night-out entertainment that seems quaint now but for a while had Britain’s guardians of traditional morality in a state of mortified shock. Walker catered to the raincoat crowd with such telling titles as The Big Switch (1968), the same year’s Hot Girls for Men Only, School for Sex (1969), The Dirtiest Girl I Ever Met aka Cool It Carol (1972), and the 3-D hippie lovefest Four Dimensions of Greta.

These were profitable enterprises, but Walker hungered for at least a tad more respectability. He got it with 1971’s Die Screaming, Marianne, a slow-moving thriller with popular English starlet Susan George playing an imperiled free-loving heiress—just months before she’d again find herself in danger with Sam Peckinpah’s far better-known Straw Dogs. It boasts one of the grooviest go-go-dancing opening credits sequences ever:

Walker’s real immersion in horror, however, didn’t begin until the next year, following his last couple pure-sexploitation features. Billed as “An Appalling Amalgam of Carnage and Carnality…Gruesomely Stained in Color,” The Flesh and Blood Show laid bloody waste to a group of horny, clothing-allergic actors (including what the trailer described as “Carol, the Wanton” and “John, the Weirdo”) at an abandoned waterfront theater.

It was a hit, but Walker was pilloried by some for debasing audiences and the U.K. film industry. His response was 1974’s House of Whipcord, a bleak, grim and relentless story of puritanical morality run amuck—set in a onetime rural jail that unbeknownst to locals has been turned into a kind of concentration camp for young women who’ve made the mistake of being free, young and sexy. Those “beyond redemption” are executed by the insane prudes in charge. It was his most serious feature, not to mention the seriously disturbing.

That same year’s Cover Up a.k.a. Frightmare aka The Confessional aka House of Mortal Sin (this one an assault on hypocritical church moralizing) and Schizo (both from 1976) were more conventional if florid psycho chillers. 1978’s The Comeback was more of the same, albeit edging into colorful camp—beyond its William Castle-worthy cornball scares, there’s the opportunity to see David Doyle (“Bosley” on the original Charlie’s Angels) in drag, and hear terrorized pop-idol hero Jack Jones accused of making “music that drives innocent young people to act like beasts in a farmyard!” (On and offscreen, Jones was an old-school crooner best known for such songs as “Lollipops and Roses” and “The Love Boat Theme.”) Despite that appraisal, large sharp implements wielded by maniacs were considerably more dangerous here than Top 40 ballads, as Jones ex-wife finds out near The Comeback‘s start:

After the commercial failure of a straight drama, Home Before Midnight, Walker made one last horror—albeit a spoof, 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, which assembled a clutch of aging genre greats (Vincent Price, John Carradine, Lee and Cushing) but didn’t give them the first-rate satire they deserved.  He then decided to retire from filmmaking, turning his entrepreneurial attention instead to buying and restoring old movie houses.

It was a career arc not at all dissimilar to that of native Londoner Norman J. Warren. After getting some professional experience working grunt jobs on some major-studio films, he struck out on his own with two 1968 censor-defying titillaters—Her Private Hell and Loving Feeling, the former considered the U.K’s very first softcore porn feature. (Acknowledging that historical importance, it was recently released to home formats by no less than the British Film Institute.) He didn’t want to get trapped in that genre, however, preferring to wait until he could transition toward more mainstream projects.

That took some years, and no doubt didn’t turn out quite as he’d hoped—all Warren’s later features were visibly low-budget, even more so than Walker’s. But they’re also a bit wilder than his leading local indie-horror competitor’s, with a resourceful zest that feels more personal than purely commercial.

The first, Satan’s Slave aka Evil Heritage (1976), is a hot mess whose heroine drives with her parents to meet a previously unknown uncle at his posh country estate—but what greets her is possible ritual sacrifice to a devil cult. Fairly gory and quite entertaining, it finds Warren scarcely loosening his grip on sexploitative elements even while shifting the focus to murder and the supernatural. 1978’s Terror again involves a wealthy family’s ties to centuries-old diabolism, with many a sexy young thing falling victim.

In between, Warren made Prey aka Alien Prey (1977) under such budgetary and time restrictions that the script was more or less written during the ten-day shoot. An ingenious if unlikely means was found to deal with that pressure: The movie “borrows” without acknowledgement the plot of literary giant D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, which had been adapted as a high-profile film a decade earlier, and required only three main actors in a modest country setting. Only this time the intruder who disrupts a lesbian couple’s solitude isn’t a virile man, but a space alien masquerading as such. Here a snogging couple are unlucky enough to be the first to greet him/it on Earth:

Sometimes Prey‘s cost-cutting gets a bit ridiculous, as when the principals writhe through a long, slow-motion “drowning” sequence in muddy water that they can clearly stand up in. But how can you not love a movie that encapsulates humanity as “high in protein and easy prey”?

After a jaunty sci-fi sex comedy (1979’s Spaced Out) that actually got a pretty good New York Times review, Warren made his most infamous film: Inseminoid aka Horror Planet, a 1981 Alien-esque saga of inter-species murder and pregnancy in outer space. A commercial if not critical success, it nonetheless failed to secure Warren solid standing in an industry that was rapidly changing due to the home-video revolution. Following a little-noticed straight action movie (Gunpowder), he returned to horror with 1987’s Bloody New Year, but that supernatural slasher didn’t make much of an imprint, either. Like Walker, he decided to throw in the towel—though both have since enjoyed a revival of interest in their work, with Warren in particular turning up at fan conventions and genre festivals.

Both men are just in their early seventies today. It’s not impossible that the increasing attention their movies get now might prompt a belated cinematic second act, as it did for cult-beloved American exploitation directors Doris Wishman, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikels—each of whom ended decades of inactivity to get back behind the director’s chair after the turn of the millennium.

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