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Cheap thrills [part 3]
In the third of his reviews from Indicator's Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J. Warren 1976-1987 box set, Gort is plunged headlong into TERROR, a lively, sometimes logic-free but well cast, enjoyable and visually attractive explosion of horror borrowings with an authentically giallo feel.
 

Go in to the unfussily titled Terror with no knowledge of its content and the opening scene will likely catch you out. Not for what it contains, mind you, but because of how it concludes. This may be a little early in the review for such a warning, but if you want to be as surprised as I was by this, I'd skip the rest of this review, as anything I say about the main plot will act as a spoiler for the opening scene. Mind you, anything you read anywhere about the plot will likely do likewise.

The film begins like classic era Hammer. Sometime in the middle ages, a woman named Hannah (Patti Love) has been accused of witchcraft and is fleeing her persecutors but is caught and dragged back to the stake on which she is to be burnt. As a priest reads some holy incantation at her, his Bible is torn from his hands by an unseen force, and when a hooded torch-bearer attempts to light the pyre at Hannah's feet he bursts into flames. In the course of this mayhem the pyre is somehow still lit, but before Hannah burns she calls on Satan to come to her aid. Her principal accuser promptly flees the scene and heads back home, yet no sooner has he stepped through the door than an arm punches through the wall and strangles him. When his daughter arrives after self-righteously watching the witch burn, his bloodied body falls onto her and the spirit of the witch appears, curses the woman's descendants and decapitates her with the family broadsword. Then, unexpectedly, the words "The End" appear on screen in a distinctly Hammer-esque font. What? It is then revealed that this whole opening sequence is the climax of a film made by James Garrick (John Nolan) – a direct descendant of the woman that Hannah cursed – as a recreation of events that are reputed to have occurred 300 years earlier. He's screening it for friends at a party being held in the very same house in which his distant relatives were supposedly killed. Some are enthralled by it, but his mouthy friend Gary (Michael Craze from Prey) dismisses it as tosh. We, of course, watch enough horror movies to know that we'll be hearing more from our Hannah over the course of the next 80 minutes.

To his surprise, Gary successfully hypnotises Ann as Carol watches on

The first taste of things to come occurs when Gary performs his favourite party trick by pretending to hypnotise his in-on-it friend Carol (the lovely Glynis Barber in her feature debut) and is then commanded by James's cousin Ann (Carolyn Courage) to try it on her. This time it works, and in the resulting trance Ann picks up the family broadsword and takes a slightly off-target swing at a distracted James. Once the party ends everyone heads off. Carol elects to walk, as she's probably done any number of times before, but this time is pursued by an unidentified figure waving a big knife. She runs and she hides but eventually is tracked down and stabbed repeatedly before being pinned to a tree. Clearly influenced by Italian giallo thrillers, this is a smartly handled and effectively drawn-out sequence with the expected false ray of hope and grimly stabby close-ups. And we just know that this won't be the only one of James's associates to come to a gruesomely sticky end.

Entertained though I was by the unfolding mayhem, I did have a few issues with the film's internal logic. The first is a big one. At the end of the prologue, Hannah curses the descendants of a woman she then kills, a woman that the film gives no indication has yet produced offspring. So where did these descendants come from? Some medieval form of IVF treatment? Then there's the question of why, after 300 years of dispatching James's ancestors with the family broadsword (except his dad, who for some reason she permitted to die of old age in a state of torment), Hannah decides not just to go after James but anyone he likes or, a little conversely, is irritated by. That said, we're given the impression that the first couple of murders are the work of a murderous human, which suggests that the legend of Witchy Hannah might just be the hogwash that Gary dismisses it as. Yet as the story progresses the killings take a more blatantly supernatural turn. Thus, what starts as a giallo thriller evolves into The Omen and eventually Suspiria, which Warren has openly cited as his main inspiration, primarily because it demonstrated to him that the story doesn't have to make sense for the film to be scary. I get where he's coming from, but the reason that we didn't care too much about the story in Suspiria is that it was such a brain-battering audio-visual experience. Terror...well...not quite so much.

Having said that, the set-pieces are really well handled, even if a couple are rigged as red-herring gags. The punchline of one involving a broken-down car made me simultaneously groan and laugh, then tip my had to Warren and regular screenwriter David McGillivray for having the nerve to stage it, particularly given the effectiveness of the stormy weather build-up. The other, which starts with blood dripping from the ceiling (we can talk later about the mismatch of colour here), employs an oh-ha-ha payoff to fool the audience into relaxing before hitting them with the real punchline. A for-real explosion of supernatural mayhem in which a victim is attacked by film studio equipment and fittings, meanwhile, is far more effective than it has any right to be and the image of the struggling victim wrapped in a huge cocoon of 35mm film would not be out of place in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. That the film stock in question was seven faulty prints of Saturday Night Fever is an absolute gift for those looking for subtextual essay material.

Suzy (Sarah Keller) finds hgerself isolated and threatened

The performances really help here, and a good cast all play their roles with conviction and a pleasing degree of restraint. I'm guessing that James was intended to come across as a bit of a tit, and if so then John Nolan delivers the goods, but some of his associates are more likeable and all feel more developed than the shallow stock characters they could easily have been and that are too often the low-budget genre standard. A personal favourite here is Tricia Walsh as Viv, a strip club barmaid who is the female lead in a softcore porn movie being shot in the studio run by James and his business partner Philip (James Aubrey). The sequence in which she repeatedly bumbles her lines whilst trying to get her co-star naked and into a bath may be the funniest in all of the five films in this set.

In spite of its scattershot plotting and internal logic, I thought Terror was a bit of a blast. While it shifts sub-genres with a cheerful disregard for continuity, it does rather well by each of them and wears its Suspiria influence with confidence and pride. Les Young's cinematography gives it atmosphere and Jim Elderton's editing keeps it moving at a respectable lick and builds some effective tension in set-pieces which Ivor Slaney enhances with an authentically giallo-esque score. Even the supporting cast are good here, and if you keep your eyes peeled during the early party sequence you should spot genre writer and Frightfest kingpin Alan Jones as one of the guests (he has a beard here). And if you're wondering about the identity of the unfeasible tall man who appears in the final seconds of the film's most outrageous red herring sequence, it's none other than Peter Mayhew in one of his very rare non-Chewbacca screen appearances.

sound and vision

There's a sense with this box set that Warren was determined to give every available aspect ratio at least one stab, and for Terror he opts for the widescreen standard of 1.85:1. This is another fine restoration by Vinegar Syndrome that boasts lively reproduction of the largely naturalistic colour palette and punchy but not overly punchy contrast that keeps its blacks solid and adds depth to the image. The picture detail is distinct and the image is very clean. Nice.

James and Philip argue as an in-joke sits on the wall behind them

All of the components of the Linear PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack are clearly rendered, but there is a slight crispness to the trebles that's audible in some of the dialogue and effects. There's no damage and no obvious background hiss or fluff.

Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired can be selected if you need them.

extra features

Audio Commentary with Norman J. Warren and David McGillivray
Warren and MacGillivray are together again for another hugely entertaining look back at the making of a collaboration between them, with Warren's chirpy enthusiasm once again engagingly counterpointed by MacGillivray's sardonic drawl. There's a good deal of ground covered here, all of it enthralling. Warren confirms my suspicion that key scenes were shot in the same house as Satan's Slave, tells a story you'll hear repeated a few times in this set about what happened when Michael Craze had an epileptic fit on set, and it's here that he reveals that he was inspired by the triumph of style over content in Suspiria not to worry about whether the plot made any sense and just focus on delivering memorable set-pieces instead. We learn that the visual effects were all done in-camera, that the film was a huge hit with the public both here and in America, and that every time anyone questioned the film's logic it was blamed on an 'evil force'. Warren is also pleasingly open about his borrowings. "There's a few homages in this film," drawls MacGillivray as a friendly dig at one point, to which an unfazed and upbeat Warren instantly comes back with, "Oh, a hell of a lot." Despite having considerably more money to work with than on the microbudget Satan's Slave, this was still a low-budget film and there are thus some entertaining stories about how money was saved. MacGillivray remembers recruiting BBC office staff to appear in as extras the opening scene, but my absolute favourite is when Warren reveals that the reason a character takes off his hat and looks up just before he is squashed by a falling object is that they couldn't afford to damage the hat. Priceless.

The Early Years (17:17)
In the second part of the interview with Norman J. Warren shot specifically for this release, Warren talks about some of the films he did and didn't direct in the 1960s and how they ultimately led to Satan's Slave. Some of the stories told in the BEHP interview of the Prey disc are repeated here, though we do get more detail on most of them.

Viv (Trisha Walsh) struggles with her lines in 'Bathtime with Brenda'

Bloody Good Fun (41:08)
A retrospective making-of documentary carried over from what looks like an earlier Anchor Bay DVD release. Built around interviews with Norman J. Warren, producer-cinematographer Les Young, screenwriter David MacGillivray, associate producer Moira Young, and actors Carol Courage, Mary Maude, James Aubrey and Elaine Ives-Cameron, this is a useful and engaging grab. The inception, making and release of the film are all covered, with details provided on how a couple of effects were done and entertaining stories from Warren about casting the nightclub stripper and from Courage about shooting two of the more effects-reliant scenes. There's also an eye-opening story from an ever-cheerful Young about being the model for a post-production close-up shot that, shall we say, went a little wrong. Once again, everyone appears to have had a great time making the film.

Tales of Terror (12:45)
Lead actor John Nolan (who plays James Garrick) recalls taking the role because the script was well written and he liked the idea of making an independent film. He confirms and expands on the story told by Warren in his commentary that about the fit suffered by Michael Craze that forced a quite rewrite and the rapid casting of a new character. He also has pleasant memories of making the film.

Norman J. Warren: A Sort of Autobiography (27:22)
A title-tells-all piece produced by Warren for the Anchor Bay DVD featuring himself talking to camera various locations as he recounts his journey from enthusiastic movie watcher to feature director. If you're watching the discs in chronological order (as you should be) and the special features in the order they are listed then you'll already have heard just about everything Warren says here by now. What still makes it of interest is that some of the objects he has repeatedly referenced – including his projector and his first cine camera – are actually shown here. It's also in this extra that I discovered that one of the actors in the test footage for the unrealised Carol was the soon-to-be BBC disc jockey Alan Freeman.

Extended Scenes (5:26)
Slightly extended versions of four sequences, namely Hypnosis #1, Hypnosis #2, Bathtime with Brenda and Nightclub. The last two have brief (and almost identical) spoken intros by Norman J. Warren. There's an option to play the all four scenes individually or consecutively.

The bloody aftermath of one of the killings

Trailers and Promo Spots

Theatrical Trailer (1:41)
Shots of people dying and screaming and fleeing and hiding, all rather well cut together over Trailer Voice Man stealing the famous promo from The Last House on the Left by advising us to "Keep reminding yourself 'It's only a movie…only a movie…only a movie…'"

French Theatrical Trailer(1:41)
The same trailer, but with a French narrator. No Last House thievery here, but the film has been retitled, La terrier des mortes vivants, which apparently translates as Terror of the Living Dead, which makes it sound like a George Romero knock-off.

TV Spot (0:22)
A cut-down version of the theatrical trailer.

Radio Spot (0:22)
As above, but without the imagery, or the music or the sound effects. Which just leaves the narration.

Image Gallery
95 screens of promotional and production stills, press book pages, posters and video covers.

Norman J. Warren Presents Horrorshow Daddy Cross (trailer) (32:46)
A bemusing title for an extra in which Warren plays presenter for a collection of 5 horror shorts compiled for what I'm guessing was a Frightfest screening a few years back. There are a couple of solid ideas in here, but all five films are hampered by naff scripts and flat performances, and none can hold a candle to the better entries in the ABCs of Death films. I'm guessing whatever microbudgets the filmmakers had were spent primarily on their gore effects, which are actually pretty good.

 


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Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren, 1976-1987 Blu-ray cover
Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J. Warren 1976-1987
Terror Blu-ray cover
Terror

UK 1978
84 mins
directed by
Norman J. Warren
produced by
Richard Crafter
Les Young
written by
David McGillivray
story by
Les Young
Moira Young
cinematography
Les Young
editing
Jim Elderton
music
Ivor Slaney
art direction
Hayden Pearce
starring
John Nolan
Carolyn Courage
James Aubrey
Sarah Keller
Tricia Walsh
Glynis Barber
Michael Craze

disc details
region 0
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Audio Commentary with Norman J. Warren and David McGillivray
The Early Years – interview with director Norman J. Warren
Bloody Good Fun – making-of documentary
Tales of Terror – interview tih actor John Nolan
Norman J. Warren: A Sort of Autobiography
Extended scenes
Trailers and promo spots
Image gallery
Norman J. Warren Presents Horrorshow Daddy Cross (trailer)

distributor
Indicator – Powerhouse Films
release date
12 August 2019
review posted
16 August 2019

See all of Gort's reviews