Sunday, August 16, 2009

“I needed to earn a living” - Kevin Francis, Tyburn and The Ghoul


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?
I needed to earn a living.
.
How easy was it to get off the ground?
Very.

.
Stylistically, what were you trying to achieve with the Tyburn productions?
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?
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?
I rang and asked her.
.
What is your opinion of that film today?
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.

. Veronica Carlson as she appears in The Ghoul: a bad horror film, apparently.

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:

.
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?

.
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?
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.
.

Alexandra Bastedo as she doesn't appear in The Ghoul. I'm afraid I couldn't find a still with her in it. Do the best you can with this.
.
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?
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.
.
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.
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?
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.

6 comments:

Mykal said...

Matthew: You've done it again. I've already scampered off to my source for hard to get DVDs and ordered a copy of The Ghoul. It really sounds great, but how could it not be with one of my favorites, Peter Cushing (who was always the true monster in the Hammer films), playing a guilt ridden, failed clergyman who keeps his flesh-eating offspring in the attic. Oh, you know I'm down with that!

Oh, regarding Alexandra Bastedo - I most certainly will give it the old college try and do my absolute best.

PS: Loved, loved, loved your questionnaire to producer Kevin Francis. Do you reckon he meant to be hysterical? You Brits sure do have the "dry humor" thing down solid. Who would have thought? Give Lana a ring, see if she's busy. -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes - it really makes you want to start making your own movies, doesn't it: write a script, get a camcorder, give Joan Fontaine a ring...

Do let me know what you make of The Ghoul - as I say, it's a pretty unanimous thumbs down overall.

According to Cushing, Kevin Francis was a major wind-up merchant, so I think he knew what he was up to with that questionnaire...

Thanks for your comments!
Matthew

James said...

Hey Matthew - great post! I also recall being scared witless when I watched this as a youngster. I haven't seen it in a long time - but i reckon the time is ripe for a revisit. I'll just stock up on the merlot first. Great interview with Kevin Francis - irascible indeed! Thanks for posting it. Hope all is well with you. ;)

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks for commenting, James. Yes, do take another look at The Ghoul - I'd be fascinated to know whether you think I'm mad for liking it so much.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I am counted among the detractors of "The Ghoul," mostly because nothing about it seemed fresh to me and the overall script just isn't all that good.

Now, it could be that I was in an off mood when I watched it, but I do know that it left absolutely no impression on me. The only reason I know that I at one time watched it is because I wrote a review. (On the other hand, I loved "Masks of Death" and I will be be seeking out a copy of "Legend of the Werewolf."

Matthew Coniam said...

Steve -
Yes, it's as weird, and as fundamental as that: most people just don't dig it, but to me it's a blast. I can't account for it. Of course, disagreements are commonplace among film fans, but I know of few films where there is such a divergence between me and people who like the same sort of stuff I like.
To me, it's just self-evidently a blast.
I doubt you'll get much from Legend of the Werewolf either, as it's much the same; not quite as good. But your praise for Masks of Death reminds me that I must get around to seeing this film that, for no good reason, I have not yet watched.