Looking back at the much-loved British horror film director and his remarkable body of work.
The entertainment industry is a notoriously bitchy place, and everyone will have fallen out with someone over the years. Well, everyone except Norman J. Warren. The film director, whose death has just been confirmed, seems to have been universally loved, and with good reason. Norman was the nicest person that you could ever hope to meet.
Norman Warren wasn’t just a filmmaker – he was an enthusiastic fan. Since the early 1990s, he was a regular fixture at movie events, from film fairs and all-day events to Manchester’s Festival of Fantastic Films, a convention that he was a guest of honour at during the first event, and then came back every year because he loved it. Norman genuinely seemed to be delighted to meet his fans, and would enthusiastically greet you when you met again, even if a couple of decades had passed since the last time. “A lovely bloke, Norman” was pretty much the default comment that you would get if you mentioned him to anyone.
Warren was a film fan who managed to live the dream for a brief period – starting his career as a runner, he made an experimental short film called Fragments in 1965, and this brought him to the attention of Bachoo Sen, an Indian-born, London-based film producer. Sen was not remotely interested in art but saw in Warren someone who knew how to make a film and, more importantly, would work for peanuts. Sen produced Warren’s first two feature films – the impressively grim Her Private Hell (1968) and the less regarded Loving Feeling (1969). Racy stuff by British film standards of the time, tame by anybody else’s, these two films might have set Warren on a career of increasingly anonymous sexploitation movies during the 1970s, but his ambitions lay elsewhere. He was a fan of horror films and spent several years trying to make his first one. The Naked Eye, written by David McGillivray and due to star Vincent Price, fizzled out during pre-production, but the project eventually evolved into Satan’s Slave, which was released in 1976.
Satan’s Slave was a classic example of the new wave of British horror that McGillivray and Pete Walker had helped pioneer a few years earlier – unlike the polite and gothic Hammer and Amicus films, these low-budget affairs were inherently sleazy, heavy on nudity, violence and nastiness, and so reflecting the grim world of mid-Seventies Britain all too well. Satan’s Slave – ironically – has more bare flesh than was seen in Warren’s sex films, graphic gore and (at least in the ‘export’ version) one of the most outrageous moments in the history of British horror cinema; we’ll leave you to discover that one for yourself.
Satan’s Slave was the start of a rather prolific period for Warren; as the careers of his contemporaries like Walker began to slow down, his sped up. In 1977, he made the intense and claustrophobic Prey, which mixed a flesh-eating alien with two bickering lesbians in the English countryside; in 1978, he reteamed with McGillivray for Terror, a Dario Argento-inspired supernatural shocker that was a huge hit and still seems to be his best film; in 1979, he moved away from horror briefly to shoot the sci-fi sex comedy Outer Touch (aka Spaced Out); in 1981, he made the gloriously tasteless Alien knock-off Inseminoid, which again proved to be a hit at both the box office and home video.
Warren seemed to be bucking the trend for the British film industry, which was in a state of collapse at the end of the 1970s. The market for low-budget exploitation films was drying up in the face of cheaper imports, and even the British sex comedy – a mainstay of the decade – was on its last legs. Warren – who had struggled to make films while the industry was still booming – seemed to have beaten the odds, but despite the popularity of Inseminoid, work began to dry up. While the BFI and other funding bodies would throw money at the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, more populist filmmakers like Warren were left to scramble around trying to finance projects any way they could. He made the action film Gunpowder and a final horror movie Bloody New Year in the mid-1980s, but neither was a success, hampered by low budgets and poor distribution.
Warren never gave up on his plans – in the early 1990s, he was working on both a sequel to Terror and a remake of the classic Fiend Without A Face, but a heart attack would be the final nail in the coffin of both projects; Warren became an insurance risk for producers. Although he would later make a few short films and produced the 2018 movie Susu, Bloody New Year in 1987 proved to be his final feature film as director.
But just as his career seemed to be coming to an end, so a new generation of fans was discovering his work on VHS. Horror critics in the 1970s had been rather sniffy about his lurid movies, but the Video Nasty generation lapped them up. As the film festival and collector event circuit began to form in the UK at the start of the 1990s, Warren found himself much in demand as a guest. But he was never someone who just turned up to sell autographs or make paid appearances – this seemed to be a world where he felt truly happy, and often he was at events simply to enjoy them.
For someone whose work was so roundly dismissed for years, this affirmation of his career must have felt good. He was in poor health for many years, but we can be glad that he lived to see not just the adoration of the fans, but also some sort of critical reassessment of his work and its value. The BFI released Her Private Hell on blu-ray; Indicator issued a thorough box-set edition of his horror films. It seems long-overdue confirmation of the value of these films and their place in British cinema history, and of their director – a lovely man who probably deserved a more extensive career than the one he had, but who left a positive impression on everyone he met.
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