JULY 10 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : SATAN'S SLAVE (1976)
WRITTEN BY ZOMBLEE AT EATMYBRAINS.COM
Plot : Catherine Yorke is looking forward to her 20th birthday. Little does she know that her evil uncle has a very peculiar kind of party arranged for her...
Review: Reviewed as part of The Norman J. Warren Collection boxset.
In the 1970’s Hammer were still desperately clinging onto traditional fare with the occasional pursuit of lesbianism (like The Vampire Lovers) and ill-fated ‘swinging London’ fanged experiments like Dracula A.D 1972. Amicus were continuing to churn out their short-attention-span-friendly and occasionally fun compendium fright flicks, while Pete Walker was constructing low budget horror mayhem with films like The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and House of Whipcord (1974).
Around this time, a young filmmaker called Norman J. Warren, along with production team Les and Moira Young, independently formed Monumental Pictures to get their feet in the door of the British film industry, eventually deciding to focus on the genre most likely to make them enough money in order to budget subsequent nightmare tales. Their first film - Satan’s Slave - may be no Night of the Living Dead in terms of cultural impact, but it has been subject to an unfair amount of negative feedback through the years. But, I suppose it all comes down to personal taste, and how many scenes showing characters talking you can tolerate between diabolic occurrences.
Following the nicely designed opening credits, we see Catherine Yorke and her parents drive out to her uncle’s house in the countryside where they plan to stay for up to a week. Nothing strange about that, you might think. Well, she’s never met her uncle, and her father hasn’t seen him since they were children. Upon arriving at the house, her father has some kind of episode, crashes into a tree, her mum bashes her head then Catherine runs toward the house and straight into the arms of Uncle Alexander, but before you can say “magic spell”, the car explodes with her parents inside. Uncle Alexander, his son Steven and his secretary Frances take poor Catherine into the house, look after her and “prescribe” plenty of rest. The police are informed of the accident and Catherine stays at the house for a few days, despite an increase in the frequency of her weird premonitions.
Catherine’s visions of black masses and human sacrifice are only part of her problem. We soon learn that she is the direct descendant of an evil witch whom Uncle Alexander is attempting to reincarnate, and that only her female blood, spilt on the first day of her 20th year, will suffice. He has also cast a spell that compels her boyfriend John, back in London, jump off a tower block to his death. Unaware of this, Catherine falls in love with her Uncle’s son, the not-entirely-sane Steven. Soon she regrets this, and what follows is a desperate struggle as she attempts to escape the clutches of her diabolical captors before they spill her birthday blood.
The story detailing Catherine’s captivity is quite a talky affair, so if you’re looking for something fast-paced to get your adrenaline pumping, then you might want to save a film like Satan’s Slave for another occasion when you’re feeling less demanding. On the other hand, if you like the sound of a slow building, creepy conspiracy plot involving a witches’ coven with a few tricks up its sleeve, then this might do the trick.
It’s not ALL talk, though, far from it. Satan’s Slave is liberally spiced with nasty, shocking sequences and horrific moments that include John’s demise – he jumps off the tower block roof and ends up as a dead heap of meat, twisted and bloody. If that disappoints, then fear not because the highlight is yet to come when Catherine resorts to stabbing Steven in the eye with a nail file, resulting in bloody squirts emanating from his eye. Schlock moments like this happily pop up every now and again. Just when you think everything’s a bit tame, it slaps you in the face. Satan’s Slave behaves like an evil cat – dark, quiet, sleepy, calm, collected, then in a second it’ll attack and claw your face to bits, so don’t let your guard down.
Michael (Alfred in Batman) Gough is the big name in the cast and he doesn’t disappoint as the head of the coven. He’s a real smoothie; caring, considerate and a gracious host but underneath we sense the evil and cunning. Gough handles the role with great gusto, delivering his ceremonial lines with Satanic-Shakespearian zeal. Martin Potter gives a superbly creepy performance as the unbalanced Stephen; one is never quite sure which direction he’ll turn in the next scene, and MacGillavray’s script gives his character good dimension; he’s twisted, but we can understand why. Barbara Kellerman gives a robust performance as Frances, a woman intrinsically involved in the whole gastly affair who still harbours a perverse longing for Steven. Candace Glendenning, who plays Catherine, sadly didn’t appear in any more films after Satan’s Slave. Stunningly beautiful, there’s no denying Glendenning’s delicate balance of independence and vulnerability, making her perfect for this role.
The estate where the film was shot is a character in itself – a huge house surrounded by acres of land was just what Norman J. Warren needed to give the story a strong sense of atmosphere and location. The nearby woods work perfectly as a place to hold ceremonies, populated by extremely creepy figures dressed in brown cloaks and holding fire torches. All those trees are also convenient if, say, you had the inclination to tie a naked virgin up…
Warren and (cinematographer/producer) Les Young’s widescreen photography on Satan’s Slave really helps bring everything to life, and now that it’s finally available as part of the box set we can see it as intended. The camerawork is assured, capturing the vast landscapes outside while also trapping Catherine between characters on the inside amongst the gorgeous interiors the mansion has to offer. Everything is helped along by John Scott’s magnificently haunting and unsettling musical score, the brilliance of which only becomes apparent for the first time on DVD, and is one of the biggest contributing elements which makes Satan’s Slave look at least twice its budget.
I like conspiracy movies, and I really like films that feel very English. Having always had a great fondness for movies about witches and the occult, in particular if they’re made in the 1970’s, there’s not much for me to dislike about Satan’s Slave. Yes it’s cheap, but the enthusiasm and passion of these young filmmakers shine through, making this a worthwhile entry in the annals of the post-Hammer British horror film, even if it does retain a distinctively Hammer flavour, albeit with added claret. Warren’s next film, Prey, would follow a very different path.
Bonus disc material:
Creating Satan – excellent 30-minute documentary featuring Norman J. Warren, producer / cameraman Les Young, screenwriter David MacGillivray, production designer Hayden Pearce and actor Martin Potter. First rate stuff.
Extras on Satan’s Slave disc:
Feature length commentary
Deleted scenes and out-takes
Devilish Music – featurette with composer John Scott
All you Need is Blood – 1976 BBC on-set documentary – perhaps the highlight ‘extra’ of the entire boxset.
A nastier version is still floating around on European video releases, if you can find it.
JULY 10 INTERVIEW : AN EVENING WITH NORMAN J. WARREN
WRITTEN BY ZOMBLEE AT EATMYBRAINS.COM
On Tuesday 1st November 2005, Zomblee made his way to the home of British film director Norman J. Warren, armed with red wine and a lot of questions. Perhaps because Norman had already purchased some wine, the interview went on for a little longer then initially expected, much to Zomblee's delight. He emerged from Norman's house just in time to catch the last tube home (initially walking off in the wrong direction), excitedly testing the quality of the dictaphone recordings on the tube journey, much to the bemusement of fellow passengers. What follows is Part One of his interview with a man who struggled against the odds to do what he wanted, and he's got the films to prove it...
A HUGE thanks to Norman from all at eatmybrains, and we hope you get another project off the ground soon.
Despite their box-office success in the 1970’s, the horror films of Norman J. Warren have never been adequately reassessed in terms of their status in British Horror. An Anchor Bay ‘Coffin’ Boxset – The Norman J. Warren Collection – was released almost exactly one year ago in November 2004, giving a chance to eager young gore pups like me to discover the highlights of Warren’s horror output, with Satan’s Slave, Prey, Terror and Inseminoid - all featuring together like a long-lost, low-budget horror gem reunion.
Complimenting the films themselves is a bonus disc generously packed with blood-soaked extras, including a documentary on each film, ‘A Sort of’ autobiography from Warren, as well as a chance to see his early short, Fragment.
In case that isn’t enough, Anchor Bay have also included extras on the individual film discs, which vary from featurettes about soundtrack scoring to original 70’s BBC documentaries shot on the film sets. And to top it all off, each film comes with director’s commentary. Pretty impressive, by anyone’s standards.
Having eventually made his way into the film business at the young age of 17, Norman J. Warren worked as a runner for Anatole and Dimitri de Grunwald (who produced films by Anthony Asquith), “delivering cans of film around Wardour Street” before graduating to the cutting rooms, where he really began to learn how films were constructed. As a result of his short film Fragment being seen by producer Bachoo Sen, he landed his first big chance when he got to make Britain’s first sex film, Her Private Hell (1967). The film was a huge success and gave Norman another directing opportunity to make a further sex feature – a further success - entitled Loving Feeling, in 1968.
It wasn’t until 1976 however when Norman would direct his first horror film, Satan’s Slave. With a tone in keeping with the Hammer productions of the time (i.e. updating ancient rites and rituals into the present day), the film looked a lot more expensive than it really was - a credit to Warren and his small, hardworking crew. With the choice of continuing with sexploitation or dipping his toes into the horror genre for the first time, Warren, along with producer Les Young, decided on the latter. “We all fell in love with horror and sci-fi in the early teens, like I think everybody does. Most people grow out of it at a sensible age and go on to do more sensible things in life, but I just stuck with it. When it came to doing Satan’s Slave, Les (Young – producer and cinematographer) and I had been to so many meetings with financers who made so many promises and it went on for three years, that in the end the only way we could do it was to do it ourselves. We then studied box-office takings to make sure horror was the way to go. Suspiria was made for very little money. Evil Dead was made for nothing virtually. All those early ones were made with the same love and affection in a way.”
Like his 60’s sex films, Satan’s Slave features a fair amount of sex and nudity – a cinematic element that meets with most horror fans’ approval, and is also present in the other films included in the new Collection. Norman continues, “Oh yeah, I’ve got nothing against that. I think there’s nothing nicer to see a nice looking girl and appreciate her beauty, I’m all in favour of that! (laughs) I would say the sex scenes in the few horror films I’d done are certainly much stronger than anything you’ll see in the 2 sex films I did. We (the British) just don’t really know how to make an erotic movie; it’s not in our nature. We’re very much postcard humour. The Carry On films are a prime example of what our humour is like when it comes to sex.”
Satan’s Slave may be a little dialogue-driven for some of today’s audiences, but it still packs a punch. Even though there is a decent helping of eye-stabbingly shocking violence throughout, Warren was still requested to add some more shock value to the film for overseas sales. A scene involving the psychopathic character of Steven sexually threatening a girl with a pair of scissors was added for these shock-hungry audiences, something Warren wasn’t overly enthused about. “I don’t like it at all. But we had to shoot it to sell it to the Far East and so on. You can get that on all foreign releases. It didn’t fit, seemed like it belonged to another sort of film. It’s very unpleasant. They demanded gore, which in England and America they didn’t want at that time. Now of course it would be accepted everywhere. The attitude to violence in the Far East was so different to ours, because they would have violence on TV at breakfast time. I know a few Japanese people and their attitude to violence is totally different to ours. They’re not upset by certain things.” This scene is still in the some European versions of the film, but from what Norman showed me of it tonight, I’d be inclined to agree with him.
The small production of Satan’s Slave was graced with the presence of acting legend Michael Gough, who at that time was doing quite a lot of similar films. Any why not? His vocal command and wispy, weathered features made him perfect for such roles. Playing his niece in the film was Candace Glendenning, an incredibly beautiful actress who Warren was compelled to cast in his first horror picture. Unfortunately however, Glendenning has dropped out of view for many years and hence was unable to partake in the Bonus Disc retrospective documentary. “She’s the one we’d love to find. She vanished completely. She’s gorgeous. A lovely girl. Not just a lovely girl, but stunningly beautiful and such a lovely person, you would adore her. Everyone just fell in love with her. She was quiet, like a little doll, perfect in every way with those stunning eyes, gosh! I’d seen her in Tower of Evil and Flesh and Blood Show, the Peter Walker film, and I was taken by her then. But she just vanished. Hazel Malone (casting) tried to find her; we had friends of Candace trying to find her. No one knew where she had gone. I just hope that there’s nothing sinister there. It was around the time when she was doing some television work when she was in her late 20’s that she vanished. Very weird.”
Satan’s Slave proved successful in the end, a deserving triumph for all involved. It’s blend of conspiracy-driven horror and flesh went down a treat with the young audiences of 1976, giving the youthful team of horror filmmakers an opportunity to further their skills in the production of low budget horror mayhem. Warren’s next project – Prey - would come about via a man called Terry Marcel (assistant director on Straw Dogs) who approached the young director with an intriguing film idea concerning an alien scout and two lesbians in an isolated house. So, was there a script at this stage? “It was an expanded treatment. In other words, ten pages of the idea. He did it with a writer – Max Cuff – and developed it into the full story. But when Terry first asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, he just had this expanded treatment, no script, and that was when he said to me “We would have to start in 3 weeks time”, so it was just a completely mad rush, that film. It was wonderful. When I think about it, it was absolutely amazing that we did it. Poor old Max Cuff was working around the clock trying to write the script. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Max, reading what he was writing and we discussed things and made little changes, but in the end we had to start filming, and there still wasn’t a complete script.
“It was like working on a newspaper in a way, like “Hold the front page because here’s the latest story just come in” and we’d all frantically reached for these pages and I’d quickly have to work out how we were going to shoot it. Actually, it was a really wonderful way to shoot, although I wouldn’t want to do it too often, to have that sort of pressure put on you, because you really did have to think on the move. Not just me, everybody. We literally were running all the time to the next set up, and everybody only had a few minutes to think about it, “Right we gotta do it this way, right. That’s it, right, here we go. Action!” (laughs).
This on-set spontaneity must have had a positive impact on the way the film was made, i.e. not having enough time to think about whether it’s right or not, just doing it instead. ”I think it did. When I see this film now I see lots of things I do remember that weren’t 100% planned and it just sort of happened. Some of the dialogue – they just said it. It wasn’t scripted at all. But it was good. It was good to be under that sort of pressure - real pressure, from everybody’s point of view, because the cast had to come up with the goods very quickly.”
As Prey was produced by Terry Marcel, who had just completed work on The Pink Panther Strikes Again, he brought with him an entire crew who, as they had nothing else to do at the time, were willing to work on total deferment. That was 1977. Would a film crew do that in 2005? “No, they won’t actually, not in quite in the same way. The only people you could get to do that would be beginners of course because they would just want the experience. When it came to the crew, they were the best in the country, so that was quite amazing for me. All the credit goes to Terry Marcel who got it all together.”
Is this the same Terry Marcel who directed the legendary Hawk The Slayer? “That’s right, yes. (laughs). Well he was working on all the Pink Panther films, and they’d just finished one. We shot Prey in the summer of ‘77 when they had nothing to do for a while. That was shoot in ten days, you know, we just went hell for leather on that. It was an experience. Bloody hard work, I can remember that.”
Prey contains a memorable sequence where Anders is drowning in a nearby filthy river. Anyone who has seen the film will remember it, perhaps for the wrong reason. Jessica and Josephine (the lesbian couple) hear Anders’ screams and run to his rescue. The images depicting their rescuing Anders in the muddy water are slowed down in the final film, accompanied by an unrelenting soundtrack. A significant component of what makes this scene so extraordinary is its unbelievable length, so why does it go on for so long? “Because of Terry Marcel. Alan Jones was a brilliant editor and as he was putting it together, we were going along to see the daily rushes, but then he’d also assembled that sequence. So he screened that, and put some music on it and it looked damn good. Terry fell in love with it, and what we said was “Great, Terry but we’re going to have to cut it down a bit” and he said “No, no, no, don’t touch a frame”, so we were never allowed to cut it! We’d be saying, “It’s too long Terry, it goes too far”. So there you go, we’ve got every inch of it in there! But I really adored working with Terry and I’d love to work with him again. Terry is of course also a creative person as well; he’s a director in his own right. He will make suggestions. It’s part of the creative process in a way.
Part of what makes Prey work is its sense of location – ONE location – an isolated farmhouse, and only three principal actors. So where was it shot? “It was the whole back lot at Shepperton Studios that doesn’t exist really now sadly, but we had acres of land with all those woods and so on. We had unbelievable weather. We were so lucky, with beautiful sunshine every day, which is very unusual in this country as you know. It was sunny every single day for 10 days shooting. Shepperton said, “You can use the backlot, you can use the old house and you can use whatever props are around.” So Hayden (Pearce) dressed the sets with whatever was available. But the film if you analyse it is quite weird where they live, because every room is slightly different. But I think it works, and you were talking about the small cast; I don’t think we could have done it with a bigger cast. The fact that there was only three was wonderful for me because it was all done so quickly and we only had three weeks before we starting shooting. It was really nice for me to have just three people to deal with. From a director’s point of view I can actually spend a little bit of time with each one between shots, even though we were working very fast. But had it been a cast of seven or eight people that wouldn’t have been possible because there wouldn’t have been time.”
Being able to work with the small group of actors was also beneficial when it came to the lesbian sex scene in Prey. Warren had built up a great relationship with leads Sally Faulkner and Gloria Annan, helping to make them feel relaxed enough to shoot something a sequence of this sort – a scene which still retains a sense of eroticism today. “Both Gloria and Sally have to take the credit for that. They were just making that up and it was a totally ad-libbed scene. For obvious reasons, I had no idea what lesbians really did (laughs), and neither of them were lesbians so they didn’t really have first hand knowledge. So they really just went for it! I’ve often done other scenes like that where that is the best way to approach it. If you say to actors and actresses, “Now you kiss, now you kiss the breast, now you do this”, it’s trying to do it by numbers and it doesn’t work.”
Perhaps the most potent moment in Prey is the shocking finale where we witness Anders having Jessica as a main course. Upon witnessing this ghastly sight, Josephine throws up then runs for her life through the woods, to the accompaniment of Ivor Slaney’s haunting music, when all of a sudden, everything goes silent. This is, for my money, the most chilling moment in Warren’s entire oeuvre. “There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Well I’m glad you liked that, because I had quite a lot of resistance to that idea. I thought it would be effective because to actually have total silence – there’s not even any bird sounds, there’s just nothing, no crackling underfoot when she’s running – its just silence, and in a way that’s very disturbing for the brain because in life we don’t have silence, unless you’re deaf, there’s always something going on. Suddenly it goes dead. I’m glad you liked that. I think you’re the first person who’s ever mentioned that. The nice thing about having made films like that is all the comments that come up years later, and little things that people like, that no one else has mentioned.”
Despite having stood the test of time perhaps better than other films in this collection, Prey had a pretty disastrous release back in 1978. “The thing about Prey is, at the time, nothing really happened with it. I’m really pleased that the film got made because it’s being appreciated now. It wasn’t at the time. The distributors didn’t like it because it was too slow. They didn’t know what to do with it. The film really got messed up on its release as a result. It kept going from one distributor to another, and it opened in London at the Odeon Swiss Cottage without any announcement, double billed with a film called Charlie One Eye, which was a Western, and it was a weird programme, and of course it did no business at all because anybody going to see it probably couldn’t really work out what it was all about. The western fans would have been completely confused by Prey (laughs)! They didn’t know what to do with it, and it was stuck on a shelf for ages.”
And has Prey ever been broadcast on British television? “No, and it never will be. It’s the cannibalistic thing; TV has always shied away from it. They’re very nervous about the end sequence when he eats her. You couldn’t have the film without that because that pay-off has got to be there.” It certainly does, Norman. So folks, if you want to see Prey, don’t wait for it on BBC1 - buy the box set instead.
More on Norman J. Warren in the coming weeks in Part Two, featuring Terror and Inseminoid.