by Ian Taylor
Terror. I well remember the very first time that I saw this film. I loved it so much. I had heard nothing at all about it and I sat, late at night, on my own, lights down low, sound up loud. Terror was exactly right! I was stunned, transfixed, and more than a little unnerved. There just seemed to be such an aura to it. Not all the acting is good, I admit, but what an atmosphere! And such stunning effects on a low budget! Brilliant work, Norman J. Warren! On that night you became my favourite independent horror film director and that will likely never change.
Following on from the fun-filled devil-worshippers and debauchery of Warren’s 1976 movie Satan’s Slave, and pared back three-hander Prey (1977) the director was on a bit of a roll and this next project was surely his most ambitious yet. David McGillivray was back to script Terror and had learned his lessons from years of Pete Walker films and on the afore-mentioned Satan’s Slave. By his own admission, his writing had been too verbose but not this time. In providing the story for Warren’s surreal tribute to Hammer and the likes of Dario Argento, McGillivray cut out much of the detailed waffle and exposition of his previous scripts. Terror was intended as a relentless shock machine with little in the way of continuous dialogue. The results are formidable – scene after scene designed for shock impact, expertly realised by Warren on a shoestring budget! If you have never seen this film then you need to put that right – if you need convincing that it’s time to revisit… well, just step this way!
Even the opening credits are exciting in their experimental imagery, made up of various colour washed stills from the movie; disturbing pictures of horror and pain over which plays a moody, ominous score courtesy of Ivor Slaney. It is clear that this is to be a modern movie in every sense – which makes for such jarring dislocation when the opening scene (and it is quite, quite brilliant) is clearly of period setting. Through darkened woods we see torch-bearing villagers. A young woman (Patti Love of the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company no less) runs breathless and terrified through the shadowy woodland. Suddenly a steel man trap crunches cruelly upon her ankle. Chased and persecuted as a witch, this is Hannah and she is screaming in pain, wild eyed and feral. This is old-fashioned stuff of course but with a very modern feel, courtesy of violence and gore. Considering the film was completed on just a four-week shoot, it looks fantastic. Even within this opening scene there are recognisable faces galore: Roy Evans, bit player extraordinaire of Hammer, Amicus and Doctor Who amongst others, plays a villager whilst the Lord and Lady Garrick are none other than William Russell (Doctor Who’s first male companion from 1963 to 1965) and Mary Maude of The House that Screamed and Crucible of Terror fame. They watch on in concern as Hannah is tied to a stake. There is intentionally no storyline to any of this – it is just pure foreboding, an uneasy watch. The pace is brisk and the blue hue of the scene adds an unworldly quality. Lightning strikes – cure more blue – and, as Hannah’s time draws near, Warren uses every trick in the traditional horror book as a deliberate nod to Hammer films. There is the witch at the stake, the priest trying to exorcise demons as an unnatural wind tugs at the pages of his Bible. Yes, we’ve seen these tropes before but this feels raw and exciting. With just one piercing look Hannah seems to ignite a villager and he staggers about, engulfed in flames. The witch laughs, a deep, unnerving cackle. Lord Garrick runs for the safety of his family home, only for arms to burst through the wall and grasp for him. William Russell really hams it up but the tone is so delirious that it matters not one jot. Lady Garrick follows close behind, Mary Maude playing the scene more calmly. She had gained blood freezing eye contact with Hannah the Witch before making a bolt for it. Now, as she enters the sanctity of her own home, seeking refuge from the wild winds and lightning, she finds her husband dead, suspended upside down from above her, dripping blood. His body, a dead weight, falls upon her and as she lies pinned to the floor she sees the floating apparition of the burning witch appear before her. Hannah takes hold of a huge sword, a Garrick family heirloom, and neatly beheads the Lady of the house. A stunning effect made all the more shocking by its suddenness. And suddenly, ‘The End’ appears on the screen and the camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching a film. What a stunning set-piece and a brilliant bit of sleight of hand that immediately wrong foots the viewer and keeps us on the edge of our seats. It is a master-stoke.
A crowd of filmmakers, both cast and crew, have been watching the Garrick-made picture, filmed in the Garrick mansion, from within the Garrick mansion. What a wonderful notion, playing with perceptions. A film within a film and a supernatural threat that pervades the atmosphere and reality of both! And what a cast list has been gathered here too! John Nolan of Doomwatch, Michael Craze of 1960s Doctor Who, Glynis Barber in her first role and soon to be a star of first Blake’s 7 and then Dempsey and Makepeace, James Aubrey, former child star of Lord of the Flies and even an early bit part for Cleo Miss Whiplash Rocos of Kenney Everett Show fame. Talk about lightning in a bottle! They are all gathered in the Garrick mansion, a wonderful location that Warren had previously used in Satan’s Slave and the real life home of the Baron and Baroness De Veauce who were happy to loan out there house just to be part of the business, the Baron even getting a brief cameo in the film.
The longest piece of continuous dialogue in the film now occurs as Craze (playing Gary) and Barber (playing Carol) set up a gag hypnotism routine. Gary pretends to put Carol into a trance and he gets her to hold her hand over a naked flame without any reaction. The trick is to hold a patch of asbestos in the palm, which both Barber and her character do. People aren’t falling for it though and soon Anne Garrick (as played by Carolyn Courage) has been roped in as the new guinea pig. Soon she is in the zone and wandering over to the family sword as seen in the film. She takes it from the wall and, apparently possessed, she approaches the two fraudsters. Passing them, she reaches her brother, who is trying to solve the puzzle of mysteriously broken windows, and raises the sword to strike. A spectral gust of wind blows, causing her to flinch and her sword stroke merely slashes his arm. He also seems entranced but he steps forward and slaps his sister. The wind dies and all come to their senses. And there you have it in a nutshell. Within this first contemporary set scene it is established that James and Anne are the sibling owners of the family home that has a sinister legend associated with it. As if that wasn’t concerning enough, James has used the idea in a film! Clearly, something has been awakened and is unhappy… Hannah the Witch, anyone? End of plot! The rest is pure shock machine, lighting-wise and in the surreal nature of ongoing scenes reminiscent of Mario Bava or Dario Argento’s work. It’s just a bit of a shame that some of the acting talent is dispersed with rather quickly, either because new talent tends to get killed off first or, in Michael Craze’s case, has to drop out because of an epileptic fit.
Luckily, the visual and almost elemental approach to the film means that the acting is not necessarily so important – it’s about the relentless approach of evil – the worst kind – an evil that follows no logic. It can be invisible, it can be anywhere, at any time, it controls objects, it possesses people. Once it’s your turn, it’s game over!
Having said which, it must be admitted that both John Nolan and Carolyn Courage play convincingly as the siblings and there is a nice gathering of performers who are either nice to look at, fun to listen to or (if we’re lucky) both. Michael Craze’s brother Peter turns up as a porn director who sees the light (just too late to help him,) Milton Reid (Dr Phibes Rises Again, Captain Clegg) as a club bouncer (and do all the breakages come out of his wages?) and there is a lovely collection of varied young ladies, all wannabe actresses playing wannabe actresses! Tricia Walsh (as Viv) reminds me of any number of girls from Confessions style sex comedies or a provider of comic vocals on one of Judge Dread’s infamous comedy skinhead reggae records that always made the charts but never got played by the BBC because they were too rude. Viv is the character in the comic relief porn shoot and Tricia plays the part well, as a loveable bimbo. Tricia herself went on to become a playwright and well known socialite due to marrying a big bucks businessman! As a contrast, there is also Sarah Keller as the well spoken Suzy and Rosie Collins as pretty blonde Diane. Even though Rosie was born in Yorkshire, she plays a mean cockney! There is also a creepy, spaced-out performance from Elaine Ives-Cameron as the has-been landlady of a Boarding House for Actresses. A fun and varied supporting cast who know that joining in the fun is important.
The bulk of the story occurs at either the Garrick house, the Garrick film studios (craftily showing off a Satan’s Slave poster), the boarding house or the general area of a seedy drinking den, these scenes adding a nicely seedy element. So, there is nothing left for me to do other than highlight eight key scenes that make this a must-see movie:
- Brilliantly tense and clearly achieved on a budget, Carol (Barber) is chased through the wooded grounds of the mansion by an unseen entity and threatened with the sword. There is a moment here that seems inspired by The Last House on the Left when someone approaches a busy road, thinking that they are going to be saved by the sight of civilization and that yonder lies freedom…only to have it snatched away at the last second.
- The brilliant scene when Suzy travels in her car through rain drenched woods. Look out for lots more blue-hued lightning effects. The yellow Ford stalls to the sound of music more reminiscent of Euro-Horror. The wind is blowing a gale and Suzy is stuck on a country road in the middle of thick, dark trees.. There is just the spotlight of her torch in blackness for a while, the glow picking her out starkly amongst the shadowy darkness. She finds a furnished yet uninhabited house. There is no answer to her calls but she finds a way in around the back, and all the staples are here: creaking door hinges, electrics blown, thunder. Finally, Suzy finds a working telephone line and calls breakdown services but even the receptionist on call is sinister: “Yes, we’ll come and get you. You’re alone?” There is no need logical need at all for the voice to sound like that but, my word, it sends shivers down the spine. Tension builds and pure terror sets in as a strange, gangling figure casts shadows around the outside of the house. Who is it? Only Peter Mayhew of Star Wars’ Chewbacca fame! He’s moonlighting as a breakdown man and it doesn’t matter one iota that he arrives far too early for it to make sense…this is a terrifying scene!
- The Punk stripper. Yes, you heard. Tanya Ferova, with bleached blond hair cut short and scary black lipstick. Very ’78! She is completely different to the usual strippers that appear in such films, very striking but also incredibly alarming. Is she arousing or terrifying? I’m still not quite sure but the pretend hanging routine probably seems quite a distraction and the routine with the whip is…well, it is certainly engaging. Full frontal and fierce, Tanya’s strip is inter cut with scenes of Ann being hassled by Phil the Greek, a regular drunken customer who ends up suffering from particularly pointed karma and gets dumped. You’ll see!
- There is a suspected bloodstain sequence that is the most literal red herring you will ever see but still manages to build the tension high before turning the tables again and catching the viewer unawares. The logic might be a bit flaky here…all right, it makes little sense, but the shock of blood, violence and death is effective.
- Ooh, watch out for the tremendously surreal scene as James Aubrey finds the film studio developing a mind of its own. Camera dollies zoom about, unravelled film of Saturday Night Fever (yes, really Trivia fans) coiled insanely and more of those Italian shock master moments are lit in greens and reds. Scripts billow within an unnatural, interior whirlwind and there is danger everywhere…stairs, windows, it’s a Health and Safety nightmare. Don’t forget to shout ‘Cut!’ Amazing effects!
- The scene with a couple of policemen and their car reminds me very much of a Tharg’s Future Shock story from the 2000AD comic – if you know, you know! Again, it is very ambitious but Norman J Warren reaches for the stars…and splatters them with blood!
- Ann appears to end up on the same country road that Suzy did earlier, but there’s no shaved Chewbacca to save her now! The weather is of the same horrible variety but this time it’s a blue Rover. This scene is absolutely stunning – and I mean stunning!!! Dark, windy, raining but with cleverly lit tress to place everything in stark focus. The effect of the car being lifted into the air and spun around is nothing short of genius as a female voice eerily echoes on the soundtrack. Brilliantly realised and one of the standout moments that makes this film awesome.
And so to the final scenes – with no more logic than the rest – which offer no respite from the doom-laden atmosphere. This one ends as it begun, the film within a film needing its closure. It is bold, in your face horror that takes traditional ideas such as witches and family curses and makes them modern with a vicious twist. It is cynical, brutal and, yes, it provides a textbook definition of Terror, with a capital T!
You will not forget Hannah the Witch’s giggly cackle as she floats through dry ice and blue, flashing light. You will remember the ululating wooden doors, the flying crockery, the crumbling walls and the floating sword. Oh yes, you’ll get the point.
Terror is British independent horror at its finest, deservedly holding top spot in the British Cinema rankings during its release. This is the missing link between the heyday of Hammer Horror and the bold new dawning of the likes of An American Werewolf. Cheap, cheerful and making its own rules as it goes along. Norman J Warren’s Terror is an absolute benchmark and you need to see it.