Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tony Tenser: Quite a bit cheaper, quite a lot more fun


The death of producer Tony Tenser on December 5th this year robbed British cinema of one of the last, certainly one of the most important, living links with the sixties heyday of the British horror film.
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Success to him meant commercial success. He once said he would rather feel ashamed of a movie that was making money than proud of one that was losing it, and when he explained "My films were in a similar vein to Hammer and Amicus but I made them quite a bit cheaper" he did so not matter of factly but with pride.
But as well as cheaper, they were also in many cases a lot more enjoyable.
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In an odd little book called Skin Deep in Soho, writer Richard Wortley recalls approaching a film producer who "was actually puffing at a large cigar and greying neatly at the temples" with an idea to shoot a documentary on strip clubs.
He does not name him, but it is clearly Tenser:
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He explained a method of beating the censor by using a rapid succession of nude stills, then scribbled a couple of selling titles on a piece of paper which he slipped across the table... We were in the presence of the master publicist who first described Brigitte Bardot as the Sex Kitten, who advertised a Lassie film at Cambridge by importing some animals for a sheep-dog trial, who renamed Love Between Friends as Love-Play Between Friends, and Plucking the Marguerittes as Mam'zelle Striptease...
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A manual labourer before the war and an RAF technician during it, on demob Tenser exploited a family connection to get a job as a trainee cinema manager.
From that he worked his way up to head of publicity for Miracle Films (where he helped Bardot into posterity). Needing some strippers for a publicity stunt, he visited the Nell Gwynn strip club in Soho and met the manager, a man who - to quote Wortley again - had "seen a punter spend £30000 in eight months, nightly crawling on the floor in a hunting coat to pick up fruit that a singer was shaking off her body during her number."
The man was Michael Klinger - the manager, I mean, not the chap picking up fruit - and the two struck up a rapport that led to the formation first of the Compton cinema club (which circumnavigated censorship by catering only to members by private subscription) then to the production company Compton Films.
The earliest Compton products were mild sexploitation, coy nudist romps like Naked As Nature Intended and My Bare Lady and the likes of Saturday Night Out (1964), a quickie about a group of randy merchant seamen on shore leave that pulsated to the beat of The Searchers because Klinger and Tenser refused to pay the Beatles' train fare from Liverpool.
They also imported and distributed foreign titles, usually tame erotica but occasionally more prestigious fare, which they sold in exactly the same way. For instance, hiding among the smut in the advert reproduced on the left is an infuriating art-house classic. Can you spot it?

The move into horror production came with Black Torment (1964), a minor but pleasant supernatural melodrama, and a collaboration with Herman Cohen in the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper pastiche A Study in Terror (1965). But their big break came that same year, when they decided to bankroll a frankly unpromising script called Lovelihead by a cocky young Pole with little grasp of conversational English called Roman Polanski. Retitled Repulsion, this story of a woman going slowly mad in her London flat became a major critical success, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and worldwide distribution from Columbia.
Not that the production went smoothly; Polanski's resentment of Klinger and Tenser's close attention to schedule and budget still simmers in his autobiography, where he calls them "figures on the fringe of the film industry" for whom he devised a film carefully punctuated with horrific moments because "anything too sophisticated would have scared them off". (This is the man who made Pirates.) As such he deliberately wasted time and money with fussy displays of perfectionism and fits of artistic temperament; when he took 27 takes of a cut-away showing a hand picking up a bottle of nail varnish (on a Sunday, with the crew on triple pay) Klinger had all 27 printed, invited Polanski to dinner, then furiously instructed him to identify which three he had okayed and why.
The acclaim that the film, and to a lesser degree Polanski's follow-up Cul De Sac (1966), achieved left Klinger disenchanted with the tawdry world of strippers and 'orror movies; he left in 1967 to form Michael Klinger Productions, going on to make Get Carter and the Confessions series. (He died in 1989.)
For Tenser it was back to business as usual, first as Tony Tenser Productions and then as Tigon.
He hired British veteran Vernon Sewell for my two favourite Tigon movies, the ludicrous The Blood Beast Terror (1967) and the absurd Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). The first - and there's really no getting around this - is cinema's only weremoth movie, in which Wanda Ventham periodically transforms into a giant death's head moth that flaps about the English countryside drinking people's blood. Policeman Peter Cushing, with impeccable logic, lights a bonfire and poor Wanda is drawn to it like... well, you know what like. If that hadn't worked he would have presumably tried a ten-foot rolled newspaper.
Altar bags Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele as, respectively, surprise villain, wheelchair-bound red herring and green-skinned witch revealed at the end to be... no, that would be telling. (But it's good.) Gorgeously photographed in velvet-thick purples, reds and greens it is actually a rather beautiful film, shot entirely in Grimsdyke House, one-time home of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It could easily pass for Hammer, in fact, if not for the crazed plot and typical Tenser touches like having Virginia Wetherell likening the house to something from a horror film, to which Mark Eden adds that he keeps expecting Boris Karloff to pop up.

Tenser was generous in his employment of young, untested talent. (You never knew when they were going to give you a masterpiece - plus they came cheap.) Michael Armstrong had only made a 21-minute short called The Image when Tenser hired him to shoot a film called The Dark in 1969. Armstrong's snappy description of The Image as "a study of the illusionary reality within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity" was not perhaps best calculated to endear him to the one-time head of publicity at Miracle Films, but his script was good, and perhaps even at this stage Tenser knew that he'd change the title come release time.
The film, planned as "a cynical attack on the swinging sixties" emerged, after much re-editing and some reshoots overseen by Gerry O'Hara, as not much of a cynical attack on anything, other than audiences who like to know what's going on (and see it - it wasn't called The Dark for nothing.)
With Karloff in the cast as planned it would have been even weirder, especially when it was mooted that he be revealed as the knife-wielding killer in his wheelchair, but he sadly died and the grafted-on-irrelevant-character duties ended up shared between George Sewell and Dennis Price.
What finally appeared under the Tensertitle The Haunted House of Horror is a jolly, not entirely worthless anticipation of the American slashers of the late seventies, but it could have been a great film: listen to Armstrong's fascinating commentary on the DVD. Still what we have is great fun, with a lovely score by Reg Tilsley and that well-known Swinging London teenager Frankie Avalon heading what could be the greatest cast ever assembled: ex-Preminger protégée Jill Haworth, now British horror's most beautiful and underused screamer, Richard O'Sullivan with short hair and Robin Stewart from Bless This House (who according to Robin Askwith had once tried to excuse his lateness at a rehearsal by claiming that he had hit and killed an escaped camel).
But Tenser certainly got his money back on Michael Reeves, a rather pompous director in his early twenties who made the studio's biggest hit, Witchfinder General (1968) and the silly Karloff film The Sorcerers (1967).
There is plenty to admire in Witchfinder so long as you don't fall into the trap of seeing greatness in it, but both films are maddeningly overpraised. Reeves's naive, petulant response to a bad review by Alan Bennett - in which he claimed that his film was an attempt to show that "violence is horrible" and opined, hilariously, that the more lighthearted kind of horror film that "Mr Bennett... so strangely advocates is surely immoral to the extent of criminality"- is endlessly and approvingly quoted by genre writers.
Tenser responded to this brush with broadsheet respectability by continuing to green-light oddities like The Beast in the Cellar (1971) in which the mysterious beast tearing soldiers to pieces - that experts examining the bodies speculate may be an escaped leopard - is revealed to be a puny man with a beard and long fingernails that his sisters Beryl Reid and Flora Robson had locked in their cellar in 1939 so he wouldn't have to go to war
Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972) is, if nothing else, Britain's only seaside zombie love story written by a newsreader (Gordon Honeycombe). Susan Hampshire goes on holiday and falls for a Russian in a chunky sweater who dies and returns as a green-skinned zombie to pick up where he left off; at the end they walk hand in hand into the sea.
What's Good For the Goose (1969) was a sex comedy with Norman Wisdom as a bank manager who falls for free-loving Sally Geeson at a conference in Southport: the theme song is great but the waiters with bare chests and neck-ties must have looked horrible even at the time.
Blood On Satan's Claw (1971), a genuinely chilling tale of 17th century diabolism, is surely the best of Tigon's output in a legitimate sense, but connoisseurs of British cinema's by-ways and cul-de-sacs may well warm to Zeta One (1970), a soft-core sci-fi spoof notable for the number of respected British character actors who walked off before it was finished.
Tenser claimed to have grown weary of the violence in his films, and disbanded Tigon in 1973; after serving as executive producer on Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) he left the business entirely to sell cane furniture.
But he lived long enough to find himself hailed as a maverick hero by a new generation of horror fans. For all his carny-barker bravado, he was basically a modest man, and this belated reverence and acclaim must have surprised and delighted him.
But it was not un-earned.
In films good, bad and indifferent, there is more diversity, madness, originality and occasional greatness in Tigon's five or so years of horror film production than in the output of any of its rivals in the same period - including Hammer. Tigon's films are wackier in concept - blood-drinking moth women, OAP mind-controllers, rotting but romantic zombies - and boast brazenly and wonderfully crass exploitation titles. At a time when Hammer and their ad campaigns were routinely criticised on the grounds of sensationalism Tenser sent one film into different territories with the following titles: The Blood Beast Terror, The Deaths Head Vampire, The Vampire Beast Craves Blood and Blood Beast From Hell.
This tasteless zest, and the shrewd knowledge of the market that informed it, were what kept Tenser head and shoulders above his competitors. It is also what makes his films, to this day, so much fun.
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Tony Tenser, 1920 - 2007

1 comment:

kochillt said...

I wasn't familiar with Tenser's name at the time, but his work was frequently shown on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER, the most popular being, not surprisingly, THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Tigon made an unsuccessful bid to acquire Hammer in the early 70's before Michael Carreras successfully kept it in the family, and that spelled the demise of Britain's third most important genre outfit of its day(they just didn't look like Hammer or Amicus films). DOOMWATCH was another particular favorite, with Ian Bannen and George Sanders.