Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Confession time...
The Ghoul (1975) has long been one of my favourite British horror films, if not my favourite of all time. I can't remember when I first saw it from start to finish, but I do remember the first time I attempted to watch it. I got halfway through the first scene. Veronica Carlson is slowly making her way up the stairs of a creepy old house, holding a candle, while on the soundtrack we hear a man's voice whispering her name. After agonising seconds she reaches a door, slowly turns the handle and is confronted by the grotesque spectacle of a man hanging by a spike through his neck, drooling saliva, yet still faintly alive, and whispering her name.I'm ashamed to say I fled in terror from the room. (Had I stayed a second longer I would have seen it revealed as a prank, and watched the man get down unharmed.)

But from then on, The Ghoul remained in my mind the quintessential horror film, everything I imagined horror films to be before I'd seen any: richly coloured, flesh-creepy, with spooky music, blood, thick fog, quicksand, something unspeakable locked upstairs, pretty girls running and screaming. It was only later that I learned that it was critically despised, and invariably dismissed as being of no merit whatsoever. I have never quite understood why.

When I was at university in 1995, Tyburn, the company that made it, still had offices at Pinewood Studios. I wrote to producer Kevin Francis, the man behind the company, with a questionnaire. He replied on Tyburn Film Productions headed paper with brief, occasionally irascible replies to my questions.

What gave you the idea to form Tyburn?
Kevin Francus: I needed to earn a living.

How easy was it to get off the ground?
Kevin Francis: Very

Stylistically, what were you trying to achieve with the Tyburn productions?
KF: To get as much on the screen as possible with the money available.

The story behind The Ghoul, and Tyburn Film Productions, is an interesting one.The company came into existence at the lowest ebb of the traditional British horror film, just moments, really, before its flame was extinguished permanently. Hammer, grappling with international disinterest and seemingly unfathomable changes in fashion, had been trying for the previous five years to freshen, reinvigorate and reinvent their formulae to keep track with emerging trends. All had, to varying degrees, failed at the box office. Then, in the midst of the darkest days of 1974 comes Tyburn, a new company, putting out movies that strive to look as much like Hammer as possible, and furthermore Hammer at its most traditional, re-employing casts, writers, directors and composers closely associated with the ailing company. The idea that Francis (son of director Freddie) ever went into such a venture "to make a living" seems disingenuous in the extreme. This was more like suicidal aesthetic defiance.

When you watch a Tyburn film, you are never quite in danger of mistaking it for Hammer. But the chances are vastly higher than if you're watching The Skull (Amicus) or The Blood Beast Terror (Tigon) or Island of Terror (Planet).  But Tyburn did take care to establish their own identity, with the same graphics used for their title sequences, and the phrase "A Tyburn Tale of Terror" appearing prominently in all the posters and advertising materials.

Did you see The Ghoul more as a tribute to Hammer, or as your own contribution to the genre?
KF:  Both.

Persecution (1974), the company's debut feature, now looks like an unofficial trial run. With Hammer's Ralph Bates supporting Lana Turner in the lead, it was a late addition in the Baby Jane stakes; a garish melodrama with horror trimmings rather than a Gothic.

How did you get Lana Turner to appear in Persecution?
KF: I rang and asked her.

What is your opinion on of that film today?
KF: Much the same as it was when we finished it.

What Persecution lacked most pointedly was the presence of Peter Cushing. More than anybody else before or behind the cameras he was the soul of Tyburn, its reason for existing; indeed it was a childhood love of Cushing's Hammer performances and a desire to make films with him that had inspired Francis to enter the movie business in the first place. "Peter was my dearest friend and a much valued colleague," Francis wrote in his letter to me, "and in both capacities I shall miss him more than I can say."

Appropriately, then, The Ghoul showcases one of Cushing's best and most serious pieces of screen acting. The film is near as dammit a remake of Hammer's The Reptile (by the same writer, John Elder) only with a greater degree of mystery, stronger mise-en-scene and a much less AIP-ish monster. It has often been said that Cushing never gave a piss-about performance and it's certainly true here: as Dr Lawrence, a tormented ex-clergyman in a permanently fog-shrouded (and marsh-encircled) Cornish mansion, who keeps the diseased cannibal son he cannot bring himself to destroy locked in his attic. Playing a sensitive, civilised man forced to procure human food for his inhuman child, he is affecting and entirely credible; vainly mumbling prayers in his private chapel and surrounding himself with relics of better times; we feel his agony.

Thanks to its appropriation of sets and costumes left over at Pinewood from the lumpen 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, the film has a gorgeous twenties atmosphere that is both effective in itself and especially pleasing in context; it's a setting that has rarely been used in horror films. By mixing this with decidedly modern horrors - cannibalism, and a rotting, green-skinned monster that would be more at home in a later Fulci film than at Hammer - the Francises (Producer Kevin and director Freddie) came up with a fascinating hybrid that really should have given the ailing genre a fresh lease of life.

Odd, too, to note the similarities with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which emerged the same year and is usually cited as exactly the kind of horror film that was making the Hammer sort obsolete. The film begins with four young travellers getting lost in the middle of nowhere (a nicely diverse group: Hammer favourite Veronica Carlson, here at her iconic peak, former Champion and Blood-Spattered Bride Alexandra Bastedo, Ian McCulloch before his similar encounter with Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters, and two-time Pete Walker victim Stewart Bevan).

Some look for assistance in a nearby house, while Bastedo's car is forced off the road by Lawrence's gardener (John Hurt), a knicker-sniffing Great War deserter who lives in a shed filled with caged animals, and who leaps about maniacally in the road in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Edwin Neal's hitch-hiker.
Once killed, Lawrence's Indian housemaid lovingly converts the former bright young things into long pig soup. And while Lawrence's well-appointed house and civilised tastes seem leagues away from the homelife of the deranged chainsaw family, Hurt's shed, with its caged animals, general chaos and relics of earlier victims (the underwear in his bed), is not at all dissimilar to their abattoir-like dwelling.

All the film's contributors give of their best. Harry Robinson's score and John Elder's screenplay are both so much recycling, yet in each case the borrowed parts coalesced into a whole that stands as their definitive contribution to the genre. Similarly, Freddie Francis, a horror director rarely comfortable with the genre, was never so confident and in control, his prowling camera seeking out every dark corner of the imposing house and fog-blanketed moors. Especially well-judged is the decision to delay a full sighting of the Ghoul until the end, forcing us in the meantime to build our own picture based solely upon repeated shots of his feet, all green skin, weeping sores and sandals.

Though generally hated by critics and writers, I have never known it fail with new audiences, including the many to whom I have shown it who don't usually like 'that sort of thing'. The opening scene, already mentioned, with the drooling hanged man, the sequences on the moors, and the H G Lewis-worthy finale in which McCulloch tumbles down the stairs with an ornamental dagger jutting from his forehead always work as intended.

So why does nobody like it? Well, I have discovered three potential explanations.

1. Some critics found it derivative of Psycho, and there's no question that the murder of Carlson's character is staged in deliberate emulation of the Janet Leigh death scene, with a mosquito net standing in for a shower curtain and Francis attempting to convey violence through rapid cutting and no actual shots of the knife making contact with her body. But the other similarities - the old house, the nasty family secret, the murder of a man who tumbles down a flight of stairs - are incidental, and to harp on them reveals a lack of awareness of just how much cliche and convention went into Psycho itself.

2. Oddly, among knowledgeable - and ostensibly more sympathetic - genre fans, it tends to enjoy an even worse reputation than among the straights, especially if the writer in question belongs to the smartarse fringe, like the berks from the Aurum Encyclopaedia and others, who like to pretend that the film is 'racist' in its suggestion that Lawrence's son became corrupted by a cannibal cult in India. ("At last!", Elder must have thought when given the commission, "my chance to finally express my contempt for India in a metaphorical context!")

This notion spurred Francis to greater loquacity than he expended upon all my other questions combined:

KF: It is only recently that I have learned of these comments on The Ghoul, which are inordinate rubbish as well as being deeply offensive to all concerned with the making of the film. If those who accuse the film of being "racist" honestly believed such to be the case, why do they not comment similarly on The Reptile?
Frankly, I believe some of these pseudo-intellectuals attempt to read too much into what are, after all, fantasy films. You may be interested to know that my accountant (who is Indian and Hindu) thinks The Ghoul is the best traditional horror/thriller he has ever seen.

So that's two: me, and Kevin Francis's accountant.

3. Weirdest of all, the other reason usually given for dismissing The Ghoul is that it simply isn't any good. They say it's boring. They say it's scareless and sexless and witless and silly.

I can only grope in the dark for an explanation as to how they can have possibly seen the same film that I find so nearly faultless in editing, music, script, acting, visual style, suspense, plot and pace. Part of it I think is because the Tyburn story has to be judged a failure in order to fit the story of British horror, in which it has been assigned the role of irrelevant death bed folly. The whole idea was a disaster, ergo the films themselves must be terrible.

I mean, everyone knows that reviewers at the time hated them, and audiences stayed well away.
Right, Kevin?

KF:  You must have been reading different reviews than me. The Ghoul received rave reviews at the time of its release. Legend of the Werewolf was received quite well, I always thought.

And how did they fare at the box office?
KF:  The Ghoul, fantastically; Legend of the Werewolf, reasonably.

And the strange thing is, he wasn't trying to sell me a crock. He's absolutely right.

Legend of the Werewolf (1975) is not quite up to the standards of The Ghoul, but it is still first class trad-horror, with Cushing giving an equally graceful and untypical performance as an eccentric pathologist given to disconcerting unwelcome visitors to his lab by waving about dripping windpipes and other detached body parts.

Also in the cast is iconic fifties nude model Pamela Green. Did she simply audition or was somebody at Tyburn a secret Pamela Green fan?
KF: Sorry to disappoint you but the answer is 'neither'. Pamela Green is actually Mrs Doug Webb. Doug Webb was Tyburn's stills photographer at the time, who merely mentioned to me that Pamela was not working, so I hired her.

There's more striking visual work from Francis Sr, this time red-tinted werewolf POV shots and effective shock-cuts to closeups of its bloodstained teeth. The film is also notable for ending, as did The Ghoul, on an unexpected note of pathos, with both monsters turning to Cushing and whimpering "help me". (In both cases it's the first time they speak and in both cases highly effective: because we had assumed that the werewolf couldn't speak, so it's a real surprise, and because the Ghoul has a gentle, high-pitched voice.)

Legend was released on a shrewd double-bill with a reissue of one of the best and most compatible later Hammers, Vampire Circus, and the balance sheet in the BFI's improbable but compulsive tie-in book Making Legend of the Werewolf shows that, like its predecessor, it went more than comfortably into the black.

Yet there was little more from the company. As with Hammer, the distribution deal the company signed with Rank excluded the vital territories of America, Canada and Mexico, and in some territories Francis sold straight to television. An adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's The Satanist was announced but dropped, while other suggested titles - including something enticingly called Dracula's Feast of Blood - were probably never more than that. Clearly, television was the future, as Francis had accepted in 1975. The BFI's book quotes him as saying that:

'My business is to make films and sell them... It's not up to me to say that people have to see that film in the cinema. If I decide to sell a film to the cinema or to TV I make that decision on commercial grounds. TV is too important a communications medium and too important a market to ignore.'

And so when the company returned nearly a decade later, it was strictly small-screen. There was a highly regarded Sherlock Holmes production called The Masks of Death (1984) with an elderly Peter Cushing as a post-retirement Holmes, a thriller with Hywel Bennett and Ali McGraw called Murder Elite (1985) and a feature-length interview with Cushing, A One-Way Ticket To Hollywood (1987). In the latter, the frail-looking actor heaps praise on Kevin Francis, and announces that he had turned down a second Holmes production for the company, to have been called The Abbot's Cry: unsurprisingly, the project was soon abandoned.

Is there anything new in the pipeline?

KF: Tyburn has no present plans for further feature film production.

So that was that.
We didn't get a lot from Tyburn, and judging by the critical reaction, what we did get we didn't deserve. But we did get a first-class werewolf movie, and we did get The Ghoul.

As far as the latter is concerned, I will never be convinced that it is not one of the half-dozen greatest British horror films ever made.

Our thanks to Matthew Coniam who granted his premission that we could use his feature here. Our images are from the PCASUK collection and can be found on the UK Peter Cushing Appreciation Society Facebook group Account  

Following this link to Matthew's cracking blog: CARFAX ABBEY
The film is obviously indebted - not least in its near-identical werewolf make up job - to Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf, with which it again shares screenwriter Elder. But sorry, purists, the Tyburn film is better.The script was in fact inspired by a story idea Kevin Francis had offered to Hammer in 1969 under the title Plague of the Werewolves, mixed by Elder with a treatment of his own (called Wolf Boy). The story of a boy raised by wolves and exhibited in a travelling carnival, who becomes a wolf when stirred to anger, jealousy or sexual passion, it is a far more interesting and balanced piece of writing than Elder's Hammer script, which is half finished before the issue of werewolves is even raised.

Friday, 25 November 2011






Thursday, 24 November 2011


You know him, even if you think you don’t.........

If you’ve ever watched a British comedy film or a Hammer horror, chances are you’ll have come across this cherubic king of the two-minute cameo. He is never the star, though he appeared in nearly a hundred films. He leaves all the hard work to Peter Cushing or Peter Sellers and then, usually about half an hour in, he comes on, steals the show, and goes again.

Yet he was much more than a mere eccentric old man who wanders on in the middle of horror films. After abandoning his original plan to become a schoolteacher he achieved a considerable reputation as actor, playwright, screenwriter and translator. He worked for Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Michael Winner and Paul Rotha.

Neither was he the cosy pillar of the establishment that his image – and the generally imperialistic nature of his major screenwriting assignments – would suggest. Despite celebrating British history and values in such scripts as Nell Gwyn (1934), Rhodes of Africa (1936), Victoria the Great (1937) and The First of the Few (1942) he was a prominent member of the anti-conscription movement in the First World War, an outspoken pacifist and part of that band of woolly liberal intellectuals that surrounded Bertrand Russell. He sat on the advisory council of the Masses Stage and Film Guild, established by the Labour party in 1929 to bring great cultural works to the working classes.

He even sent his children to Russell’s appalling experimental school, where discipline was outlawed and children not obliged to attend lessons if they didn’t want to: barbarism and savagery soon held sway as the great sage watched placidly from his tower. Russell also, as was invariably his custom with close male friends, struck up a long-standing affair with Malleson’s first wife, actress Colette O’Neil. (The two had only married under pressure: they were both advocates of co-habitation and sexual freedom.

Yes, this is Miles Malleson I’m talking about.

My favourite Malleson anecdote is the one about him coming out of an early performance of Look Back In Anger, the worst play ever written, ruefully shaking his head and mumbling "But bad manners isn't social criticism..." Quite a few chickens came home that night. All of which surely points to a biography screaming to be written, yet for all of his achievements and the variety of his gifts, this is ultimately his greatest talent: when you’re watching a Hammer film and Miles Malleson comes on, you smile.

Malleson was Hammer’s jolly old man: a beaming, sweet natured, white-haired elf. His inimitable style and perfect timing made him an unlikely but definitive component of the studio's formula, and a bit of their magic died when he made his last appearance in 1962. (He retired from acting, due to failing eyesight, in 1965 and died, aged 80, in 1969.)

Luckily for us, Malleson was around when it was still felt that audiences needed occasional comic relief from the intense terror generated by the sight of Christopher Lee in a long cloak. His job in Hammer films, then, is to come on at half time like the gatekeeper in Macbeth, and lighten the mood. The early Hammer films are forever stopping off at inns to eavesdrop on the rustic chorus, and the studio kept a rotating pool of actors on its books solely to play this assortment of drunks, innkeepers, layabouts and poachers, men like Harold Goodwin, George Woodbridge, Michael Ripper and such occasional guest yokels as John Laurie and Lionel Jeffries. They were all superb but Malleson was king, and his little cameos of good cheer retain their charm even now when, like the songs in a Marx Brothers film, they no longer serve a necessary dramatic function.

Malleson was never to be found in disreputable taverns at Hammer, he is usually cast as a professional man, albeit one of considerable eccentricity. (His last Hammer appearance, as the cabbie in The Phantom of the Opera [1962], is as downmarket as he got.) In Dracula (1958) he is a top-hatted undertaker who does drum-rolls on the coffins and laughs as he tells the story of a mourner who slipped on his steps and died. (“He came to pay his last respects and he remained to share them – oh yes, very amusing it was.”) His face, a gift to any cartoonist, never relaxes its vast, contorted smile. When Malleson laughs his eyes disappear and his mouth outgrows his face.

If you’ve seen Dracula with a live audience you’ll have noticed that while much of the horror receives the de rigeur ignorant laughter now expected of sophisticated audiences, and later comic relief involving a blustering toll-gate keeper is met with impatience, when Malleson comes on the change in reaction is unmistakable. The sophistication of his playing leaps the years, and the laughter is warm and genuine.

His best role for Hammer (and his largest) was the befuddled Bishop Frankland in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). In his first scene (of two) he keeps mentioning sherry until the hint is taken and a glass proffered: he ends up having two. (“Now that you mention sherry, do you know I think I might like a glass.”) The plot would have us believe he is a world authority on spiders and insects, but it is hard to credit the man we see crawling about on a flight of stone steps trying to scoop a spider into his hat with the capacity for scholarly study. Dressed elegantly in a black tail coat and top hat, he audibly creaks when in motion.

His second scene is a beautiful duet; he is matched perfectly with Peter Cushing’s Holmes, the one all business and laser focus, the other dancing pirouettes around him, offering sherry and drifting off on vague tangents.

First mistaking Holmes for the workman come to mend his immobile telescope, he is delighted when Holmes does the job himself and couldn’t be happier when the telescope’s sudden fluidity of movement causes him to swing it too forcefully, smashing a window. Unaware that Holmes has left the room while his attention is fixed on the comings and goings of his neighbours, director Terence Fisher cuts to a beautiful long shot as Malleson does a full 360 degree turn, extends both his arms at right angles from his body, pauses, looks at the camera and says “Well! He’s gone!”

One suspects Fisher had a particular fondness for Malleson, just as James Whale did for Una O’Connor. In Brides of Dracula (1960) he comes close to letting him shuffle off with the film’s proper atmosphere. Again paired delightfully with Cushing (here as arch vampire hunter Van Helsing) he is a hypochondriac doctor in a startling blonde toupee who dismisses vampirism as superstitious nonsense but is happy to immerse his head in a bowl of noxiously steaming quack remedies. Straight man Cushing does the seriousness and grim portent while Malleson makes inane suggestions and attributes the vampire’s bite marks to an over-fond pet dog.

His interplay with Cushing is especially amusing for the manner in which his character treats Van Helsing as his intellectual peer, while the latter is merely indulging an ally he clearly finds buffoonish and tiresome. Only Malleson is blind to the implications of Van Helsing’s attitude toward him, and continues to discuss matters of which he knows nothing in hushed professional tones. (“I might even put your specialist’s fee on my own little account!” he chirps delightedly.) While Cushing talks gravely of vampires to the headmaster of the girls’ school through which one is prowling, Malleson is clearly visible in the background, fumbling about at the headmaster’s desk, stealing our attention simply by picking things up and putting them down again, gazing distractedly at books and looking around the room. It is probably the humblest, most inadvertent bit of scene stealing in film history, but I challenge anyone to recall what Cushing is actually saying.

He pops up in one or two other interesting places, too, such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Here he is the elderly porn enthusiast who enters his local tobacconist’s and asks to see some “views”. The proprietor produces an album of soft core photos from under the counter, Malleson makes approving noises as he leafs through briefly before asking “How much would the lot be?” And he brings just the right blend of eccentricity and eeriness to the role of the ominous hearse driver/bus conductor in Dead of Night (1945).

“Room for one inside, sir…”

Malleson is always exactly the right man for the job; his scenes are funny not because he is given funny lines but because he is a superb interpretive actor who has been given lines that are exactly what his character would say. That’s why it is easy to believe that these parts were written with him in mind, or even were largely improvised. That we no longer actually need him to lighten the mood in horror in films that now seem uniformly charming and innocent only adds to his appeal. Stripped of his actual function, his performances are pure indulgence. And still, when he appears, forty years after he made his last film, we smile.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011



Candid photograph of Peter around the time of making HAMLET in 1948. Ever the keen painter, here we see him with paintbrush between the teeth and palette in hand! Note also that Peter has grown out his hair for the role of OSRIC. Included also a selection of Peter's watercolours.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Friday, 18 November 2011


Milton Subotsky Talks to from The Black Box Club on Vimeo.
Before the Max Rosenberg/Milton Subotsky relationship went belly up, they had a business. A business that worked. That business was a very successful film company. Rosenberg worked from his plush office suite in the U.S. Milton from his portacabin office in the grounds of Shepperton Studios in the UK. The arrangement, which was based on a gentleman's handshake secured the deal and the business was called:                         


Max Rosenberg would often laugh when he called Amicus 'THE STUDIO WITHOUT WALLS' There was no capital structure, so films got made through a combination of private investment, funding from the Eady plan, and extremely low budgets but very effective scripts and casts. Together Subotsky and Rosenberg  produced TALES FROM THE CRYPT, one of the most successful films of 1972.

It was second only to The Godfather at the US box office.

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