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.

Continue reading “Interview: Norman J. Warren”

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”