Interview: Norman J. Warren

A career discussion with the legendary British exploitation film director

The eccentric exploitation films of British filmmaker Norman J. Warren are certainly flawed and nowhere near as angry or socially-minded as his contemporary, Pete Walker, but they have a charm all their own.

Films like INSEMINOID (aka HORROR PLANET), PREY (aka ALIEN PREY), TERROR, SATAN’S SLAVE and of course, his final film to date, BLOODY NEW YEAR, offer nothing save 90 minutes (or less) of pure, down and dirty phantasmagorical escapism; well-crafted genre romps made to distract, shock and titillate.

And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Warren’s roots were in short films and eventually included, as many European genre director’s early credits did, soft core porn comedies; but it is with horror and dark fantasy that we concern ourselves and that put the charming director on the small stretch of the cult film map he now occupies.

So then, in honor Vinegar Syndrome’s delicious recent Blu-ray re-release of his first horror movie, 1976’s SATAN’S SLAVE, we’re happy to present this interview with the one and only Norman J. Warren.

ALEXANDER: After your initial short film experiments in the mid ’60s, your first feature-length picture was 1968’s A PRIVATE HELL, a naughty film, no?

WARREN: Yes, it was! There were of course many films like it around from Germany and Sweden, sexploitation films we called them then and still do, but none really that were made in England. So when Her Private Hell came along, it suddenly became this enormous hit and I think that it was because it was homegrown. It was also one of the first sex films to really tell a coherent story. So while it was still pretty far from being a great film, it was unique and box office wise it was an amazing hit, which did me a world of good, I assure you!

ALEXANDER: The BBFC have always been notorious for their hatred of horror…but what were their views on the sexploitation film? How much could you show without getting your figurative knuckles rapped?

WARREN: If you were to see HER PRIVATE HELL now, it would seem innocent, naïve and really, it was never that bad. But still, the censor was very particular about what you could put on screen. If you had a bare breast you couldn’t show the nipple. And of course the guy still had to keep his pants on in bed or else you had to cover him with a sheet. So it was a very innocent time. My film did run into trouble, however, even though most of my nudity was only shown from the rear. I made only one more sexploitation film called Loving Feeling the following year – in color and in cinemascope – and by that time the censor had relaxed. We could at this point show the nipple and show SOME female frontal nudity. Things were beginning to change.

ALEXANDER: Your first horror film was 1976’s SATAN’S SLAVE with one of my favorite British character actors, Michael Gough. Had you been a fan of the genre before this point?

WARREN: Well yes, but not any more than other movies really. I mean, all little boys are attracted to horror to some extent…probably because horror movies are the first ones to be forbidden by your parents. But I must confess that I just loved movies in general. My mother used to take me to the movies and we would watch everything, all kinds of films, all genres, including all the old Lugosi and Karloff pictures which were then considered quite gentle. When it came to more extreme horror though, I think you had to be either 16 or 17 to get into horror pictures theatrically so I had to wait awhile. The first horror stuff that really hit me was Hammer – CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957 and then DRACULA the following year, both of which hit everybody in the UK in a BIG way.

ALEXANDER: You’ve never been a darling of the critics. Were the British press ever cruel to you because of the pictures you were making?

WARREN: Well, not cruel really, but to be honest it’s always been the same climate in England. You see, horror has always been looked down upon and not deemed to be worth anyone’s attention. So really, the critics just ignored me. There’s a lot of snobbery in the UK about movies and especially the kind of movies I was making….

ALEXANDER: I love INSEMINOID. It’s so gory and weird. I saw it first on home video as HORROR PLANET. That film was released near the early days of the “Video Nasty” witch-hunt in the UK. Did you ever have any problems with the picture getting banned?

WARREN: We never did actually and INSEMINOID, thankfully, never ended up on any “Video Nasty” list, but it WAS banned in Germany and it did get into some trouble in the press, but in ways that just helped the box office, really.

ALEXANDER: How so?

WARREN: It got into hot water with various women’s groups, especially with the graphic birth scenes. I think we really tapped into a very primal fear that pregnant women have – that they’ll give birth to a monster – so we had women writing to the theaters trying to get the film banned! Again, it really helped sell tickets!

ALEXANDER: INSEMINOID was obviously an attempt to ride the coattails of the success of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN…or am I wrong?

WARREN: You’re wrong. We’ve always had this thing where people said we were copying ALIEN but that’s simply just not true. The similarities between the two films were purely coincidental. I first got wind of the connection when 20th Century Fox started asking about INSEMINOID; they wanted to screen it to see if it was a copy. It isn’t at all and I was actually quite surprised when I finally got around to watching ALIEN that there were a few scenes that were similar. But we did not set out to copy Scott’s film at all.

ALEXANDER: Let’s talk about the Sci-Fi horror film you did prior to INSEMINOID, the sexy and eccentric exploitation gem PREY, or ALIEN PREY as it’s known in North America…

WARREN: Well that film has an interesting story. Terry Marcel, the producer wanted to make a movie where an alien comes to earth, encounters lesbians and finds out humans are high in protein and easy prey and I agreed to direct it. But then they told me there was no script and we had to start filming in three weeks time! It was incredibly low budget and we had to shoot in only 10 days. There was just a hurriedly put together script. But it was quite an amazing experience and a lot of fun.

ALEXANDER: Which one of your pictures stands as the one that you’re most proud of?

WARREN: That’s a difficult question, because for various reasons I’m proud of most of my films. However, if I have to make a choice, it would be between TERROR and INSEMINOID. Both films were commercially successful, but for sheer enjoyment I would have to say TERROR is my number one. Making a film can be extremely hard work, but at the same time it can also be fun, and I can honestly say that Terror was the most enjoyable and certainly the happiest film I have ever worked on. The same was felt by the entire cast and crew, and it was just like a group of friends coming together to make a film, and nobody really wanting it to end. We managed to achieve an enormous amount in just four weeks of shooting. Not just with scenes which included action and effects, but also with the number of different sets and locations that were used. We seemed to be constantly on the move and loading and unloading equipment, just like a traveling circus.

ALEXANDER: Why haven’t you made another feature film since BLOODY NEW YEAR?

WARREN: Sigh…BLOODY NEW YEAR was a very terrible experience for me; in fact it turned out to be a bloody nightmare. We had the wrong producers on that film and they didn’t know anything about horror. So the film lacks in every department and by the end of it, my heart just wasn’t in it. And my God, the soundtrack is appalling and there were no sound effects at all in it. They wanted to make the film cheaply and terribly quick. So at the end of that picture, I was disheartened for a while and walked away from things. I’ve tried several times to make another film, even in Hollywood, but they all just kept collapsing. Things changed. Everything has become corporations and committees; terrifying stuff and very much beyond me.

On TATTOO

A look back on the controversial and lurid erotic psycho-thriller

While re-watching Quentin Tarantino’s magnum 65mm, locked-door mystery/giallo/western/morality tale THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I was once more struck by how damn good actor Bruce Dern is in that film. It’s a deceivingly simple performance, mainly because the then 78-year-old performer never leaves the chair in which he sits, from the first time we see him to the point in which he loses his miserable life at the barrel of Sam Jackson’s vengeful Smith & Wesson. But it’s perhaps the most layered turn in the picture; subtle and oddly dignified despite the fact that his character is a coward hiding behind racist, patriotic bravado and by the end, even somewhat sympathetic.

But that’s Dern. He’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors and an artist who rarely gets the credit he’s due. Not a traditionally “good looking” man, Dern has his own thing going on; a pointed look, almost rat-like, and when he opts to play an unsavory character (as in H8, HBO’s BIG LOVE, THE COWBOYS et al) he is a fiend without peer. And when he’s given the task to actually carry a film himself, the results are startling.

Continue reading “On TATTOO”

On THE BAD BATCH

Revisiting Ana Lily Amirpour’s visionary and allegorical horror western

Sophisticated director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s sophomore genre-bender (following the stark, monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The Bad Batch screamed into festivals chased by critical acclaim, received a limited theatrical run, didn’t really find its audience and then was seemingly cast into the literal and figurative contemporary cinematic dump bin. That’s not really a surprise. Pictures like The Bad Batch are so singular in their vision, so pulsing with energy, art and ideas that they generally need a wide berth of time to be re-discovered, discussed, debated and appreciated.  And I’m convinced that history will remember The Bad Batch as a major work of pop-cult art and I say this fully admitting that, after a blistering first half, by contrast, the rest of the film is a bit of a shrug, bleeding out into a wave of exposition and hastily resolved narrative and character arcs.

Continue reading “On THE BAD BATCH”

On THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece

The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.

I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.

Continue reading “On THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA”

On THE GUARDIAN

A look at one of American filmmaker William Friedkin’s most interesting and undervalued films

As every serious horror fan who both lived through it and has studied the period from the distance of time knows, as the 1980’s wound down and leaked into the 90’s, the pulse of the genre was faint. Producers were less interested in edgier supernatural fare than they were in conventional dramatic (and often, in the wake of Fatal Attraction, erotic) thrillers, with most horror product tailored to suit a post-BATMAN need for bloated, FX-rich action. Even Coppola’s much-hyped 1992 horror blockbuster Bram Stoker’s Dracula feels like a mutated Batman with fangs…

But we digress.

The bottom line is that historically, you’d be hard pressed to find a real-deal, bold work of adult dark fantasy during this time-frame. Except for William Friedkin’s 1990 effort The Guardian, that is; a film that was anything but successful during its domestic theatrical run and was unfairly dismissed by critics who deemed its absurdities as beneath its storied director. But, as we now know, even Friedkin “slumming” often offers a superior cinematic experience than most filmmaker’s most notable works do and, in retrospect, The Guardian is no exception to this rule.It’s a truly fascinating misfire that isn’t really a misfire at all. Rather it hits a target that’s not even on the range. It’s bizarre, beautiful, both lavish and cheap, controlled and reckless, erotic and ridiculous, character-driven and awash in tarty special FX.

Continue reading “On THE GUARDIAN”