The remarkable career of Britain’s most notorious filmmaker explored.
The recent release on Arrow Blu-ray of two features by Richard Driscoll has conferred a sheen of quasi-respectability on a man who has, for more than a third of a century, been making some of the most extraordinary films ever produced in the UK. If any one person in this country deserves the term ‘cult director’, it’s Richard Driscoll.
He is unique. His films are unique. And his films are terrible.
The world is full of bad films, and we all have our favourites, but few people can make a career of them. Few people can make film after film, all so consistently awful that they cross over into that much-cited but actually rarely achieved category of ‘so bad it’s good’. Let’s be honest, most ‘so bad it’s good’ films are entertaining in small doses but a chore to sit through in their entirety. To be watchable, a bad movie has to be actually entertaining: constantly surprising, incomprehensible, puzzling, fascinating. Above all, it has to be trying to be a good film. It has to be bad by accident.
Few film-makers can manage this once. Fewer still can hit the spot every single time without either getting better or giving up.
Richard Driscoll never gives up. And for that, if not for his actual directorial skill, we should applaud him.
Driscoll once said, without a hint of irony, in a self-taped interview included as an extra on one of his own pictures: “If I knew how to make a good horror film, I’d be making good horror films.” Mind you, he also described the film on that disc as: “Like an opera version of Tosca.”
The man’s early life is unclear. He claims to have trained at RADA and been mentored by his fellow Welshman Richard Burton. He claims to have had background roles in The Empire Strikes Back and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. He claims to have co-produced two Charles Bronson features. Some, none or all of this might be true.
He first came to the attention of film fans when two of his early features were scheduled for an all-day event at the Scala in 1990. First up was The Comic, a near-future dystopian tale of a stand-up comedian murdering his rival, then losing his girlfriend to a local mobster. It made not a shred of sense, the production values were cut-price, and the setting seemed to have no relevance to the ‘plot’.
The well-lubricated audience, who had already enjoyed Rabid Grannies and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, reacted angrily and literally booed the film off-screen, conferring on it a unique honour in the history of British horror cinema. Affronted, Driscoll took the reels of The Comic and his other film, Cold Light of Day, and disappeared into the night. The latter was replaced with Evil Dead II, to everyone’s relief.
These are the two films that Arrow has released. Ironically Cold Light of Day, a fictionalised account of Dennis Nilsen’s crimes, is a passable serial killer drama; but that was only produced by Driscoll (the director was a young arts degree graduate named Fhiona-Louise). The Comic was produced and written and directed by Richard Driscoll. But that wasn’t enough. Like Orson Welles and Ed Wood before him, Mr D wished to be a triple hyphenate: writer-director-producer-actor. (More like Wood than Welles, to be honest.)
There was already a jobbing actor named Richard Driscoll, whose most notable roles were a stint on EastEnders as a milkman and Frank N Furter in a touring Rocky Horror production, so our Richard Driscoll took the screen name ‘Steven Craine’. A few years ago the Inaccurate Movie Database inexplicably decided to combine their filmographies.
The Comic and Cold Light of Day were both 1980s productions, as was Driscoll’s rarely seen Falklands War drama Silent Heroes. What he did throughout the 1990s is a mystery but at the turn of the Millennium, he returned with a new feature, Kannibal.
Where The Comic had been an original tale, Kannibal was a shameless rip-off of both Silence of the Lambs and the roughly contemporaneous Hannibal. In later years it might charitably have been called a mockbuster. But unlike The Asylum’s cheesy, cheeky cash-ins, this was simply a shameless, brain-dead rip-off, right down to the chianti and fava beans. And it was diabolically bad.
‘Steven Craine’ in the lead role was joined by two generations of horror starlet: Linnea Quigley (whose Bio and Chainsaw Book had been published by Driscoll’s short-lived venture into print) and Eileen Daly, who was pretty much mandatory in British horror films of the period. There were notable names in the credits too. The make-up effects were an early gig for Paul Hyett, who would go on to dominate the field before becoming a director of note. And the ‘continuity girl’ was Hammer veteran Renee Glynne.
The odd thing – well, another odd thing – about Kannibal was that, at a time when British genre features were typified by the budget-conscious likes of Razor Blade Smile and The 13th Sign, it actually looked quite expensive. Not that any money could disguise the fact that Driscoll’s acting is on a par with his writing and directing.
Stung by the film’s failure (although it did get released in France), Richard Driscoll again disappeared for several years. Or seems to have done if one only looks at his released films. In fact, he started making several features and had ideas for others, all photocopied from real, successful movies. The one production that got furthest was a Shining-meets-Blair Witch farrago called Alone in the Dark.
Driscoll realised that many ‘name’ actors are available for hire if you pay them enough, so he assembled an eclectic cast that included Rik Mayall, Norman Wisdom, Robin Askwith and Jason Donovan. Eileen Daly was in there too and, of course, ‘Steven Craine’.
Mostly shot near Brighton, Alone in the Dark was augmented with pick-up shots a few years later at ‘House of Fear’, a self-financed ‘studio’ which Driscoll established (without planning permission) on a farm in Cornwall. The film was retitled The Raven: Evil Calls (or possibly Evil Calls: The Raven) and augmented with the voices of Marianne Faithfull and Christopher Walken, because the cast wasn’t quite weird enough.
Driscoll hired (but reputedly didn’t pay) a publicist who got the film and ‘studio’ featured on the BBC news, and he also took full advantage of then-extant UK horror mag GoreZone. (Editor Bryn Hammond’s sole directorial outing, Summer of the Massacre, is as bad as anything Driscoll has ever done but sadly he never followed it up.)
The quality of Evil Calls is best exemplified by two brief moments: a misspelling of nominal source Edgar Allan Poe’s name in the credits, and a caption that implies the day after Monday is Saturday. Also by the fact that these are not stand-out moments, just random examples of ineptitude.
The ‘worldwide theatrical release’ of Evil Calls (in actual fact, a single screening at the Prince Charles) highlighted Driscoll’s problem with reality, as did his discovery of the web. The claims and promises on the House of Fear website regarding what he was doing, what he was going to do and what he had rather obviously not actually done were marvellous to behold. They provide a clue as to how and why Richard Driscoll towers over other bad filmmakers. He is the complete package: unable to write or direct or act (to be fair, he can produce in the sense that some of his films get finished and [self-released]). He is Dunning-Kruger Syndrome personified; supremely confident of his abilities, blithely oblivious to his shortcomings.
One of the basic rules of self-promotion is that you should give at least a cursory glance to what you write before sending it out into the world, so when Driscoll’s website announced that he would ride the booming 3D market with “Britins first £D film” his fans knew they were in for a treat.
The result was Eldorado, a comedy-musical-horror-western starring (brace yourselves): Steve Guttenberg, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Jeff Fahey, Brigitte Nielsen, Peter O’Toole, David Carradine, Rik Mayall, Bill Moseley, Robin Askwith, Robert Llewellyn, Sylvester McCoy, Caroline Munro, Oliver Tobias, Buster Bloodvessel and a professional Johnny Depp lookalike. Plus Steven Craine. Everyone except Hannah (and, as we shall see, Carradine) was flown to England for the film. Madsen may not have been aware of this as he was apparently drunk throughout most of the shooting. The female lead was played by Driscoll’s girlfriend who left him – and the film – halfway through.
Eldorado rips off Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blazing Saddles but mostly it rips off The Blues Brothers, with cast members miming to songs from the John Landis classic, recorded by uncredited Cornish club singers. Just a few months after self-releasing the film, Driscoll re-issued it as Highway to Hell, a substantially shorter cut with new songs. Apparently believing he was cleverly skirting copyright, Driscoll rounded up his club singers to record the same tunes but with new, largely nonsensical lyrics which approximately matched the lip movements of the actors.
O’Toole, looking like death warmed up, was added in post as narrator to ‘explain’ the ‘plot’. Carradine looked slightly healthier but literally was death warmed up as shortly before production started he came to a bizarre end in a Bangkok wardrobe. Undeterred, Driscoll simply lifted footage of the actor from an obscure TV movie. And therein lay the roots of Richard Driscoll’s undoing.
The taxman came sniffing around and discovered that ‘Tricky Dicky Risk-All’ had been a naughty boy. In a nutshell, he had claimed tax relief on a budget considerably larger than what he had actually spent, including a payment to David Carradine dated two weeks after the wardrobe incident. Which is the sort of carelessness one expects from the producer of Britins first £D film.
In the case of HMRC vs Richard Driscoll, the judge found for the claimant, and our hero was sentenced to three years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Frustratingly, most of the media coverage failed to pick up on Driscoll’s notoriety, either in terms of business practices (many, many tales of non-payment, and some of physical assault) or in terms of his, ahem, critical standing. Some papers compared Eldorado to the notorious A Landscape of Lies fraud but that was unfair. That was an attempt by crooks to use fake filmmaking to procure illicit money. Driscoll procured illicit money to make a real (albeit terrible) film. Only Chris Bell at the Telegraph bothered to investigate. His article ‘Eldorado: The Bizarre Story of the Worst Movie Ever Made’ is well worth a read.
Sentenced in 2013, Driscoll kept his nose clean and was released early, whereupon he immediately threw himself back into alleged filmmaking with the announcement of Blade Hunter, a rip-off he had been touting since 2002, now ‘starring’ many of the cast of Eldorado. To get around the judgement against him, which barred him from being a company director (but sadly not from being a film director), he set up his new business in Ireland. His partner was Ronald Sinclair Bassett-Cross, a 70-year-old fraudster he met in prison, whose former companies included something called Megabucks Corporation Ltd.
Stepping firmly into the land of make-believe, Driscoll claimed that he was collaborating with Philip K Dick’s widow on a new novel, Do Androids Dream of Murder. Nevertheless, an attempt to generate the £150,000 Blade Hunter budget through Indiegogo stalled at an impressive 61 quid.
Batman rip-off The Black Knight and Suicide Squad rip-off The Kamikaze Squad were both announced but what eventually surfaced was Grindhouse Nightmares, a Tarantinoesque double bill largely concocted from stock footage featuring Madsen, Nielsen and The Ask, among others. One half was Stripper with a Shotgun, starring a Britney Spears impersonator (and ex-girlfriend of the aforementioned ‘Johnny Depp’) who once auditioned almost naked on Britin’s Got Talent. The other story, Manhunt, was more interesting. A thriller starring The Comic’s lead actor, it incorporated footage from that 30-year-old film as flashbacks in the manner of Harold Lloyd’s The Sin of Harold Dibblebock. Linnea Quigley ‘hosted’ the two films, not – shall we say – looking her best.
Since then, Driscoll has been incredibly busy. Assassin’s Revenge was what The Black Knight/Kamikaze Squad became, a Joker rip-off starring ‘Steven Craine’ as The Comedian, with Madsen, Bai Ling, Patrick Bergin and Eileen Daly as Elizabeth Bathory. Then came Conjuring: The Book of the Dead, built around footage shot in 2006 for the nominal sequel to Evil Calls. All Driscoll’s usual stock (footage) company – including Dudley Sutton and Vass Anderson, both of whom had long since passed on – were present in an approximately Lovecraftian tale. He also made and released a non-horror motor-racing biopic drama, Born2Race, starring Madsen and Tom Sizemore.
And now comes Driscoll’s latest enterprise, something entirely new. He has partnered with Ross Fall, DP on Conjuring: The Book of the Dead, for a new company, MAHA Films. Driscoll is still barred from being a company director so this is Fall’s business and he is credited as director on most of the announced projects (most of which will obviously never happen). But the films will be, supposedly, written (and sometimes produced) by ‘Chris Newman’, who is very, very obviously Richard Driscoll under a new pseudonym.
Titles threatened include Kill Like Hitchcock, Sherlock Holmes and the Murder on the Orient Express, Once Upon a Time in Hollyweird (which Driscoll has been touting for some time), The Book of Nightmares (with artwork featuring Tim Curry in Legend!), Buckle Up (“The Italian Job meets The Fast and the Furious“), Shark Attack, Dinado and Call Me Joker. Plus a 12-part Linnea Quigley-hosted show about the paranormal that was supposed to be distributed online in April…
Whether Ross Fall and the other people involved with this company and its spurious production slate realise they are working with Britins most notorious filmmaker is entirely unclear. But they will find out eventually.
What no one has yet found out is where Richard Driscoll’s money comes from (tax fraud notwithstanding) since he clearly makes a loss on every production – and would make an even bigger loss if he paid all his crew. He is evidently independently wealthy. There are rumours that he inherited the ownership of an off-Broadway theatre. This is probably complete rubbish, but the man did once own an entire herd of llamas so nothing can be dismissed outright.
Wherever he gets his money, he will continue to announce new films and occasionally even make one. No one can ever accurately predict what or when his next movie will be. But we do know it will be terrible, it will make no sense, it will almost certainly star Michael Madsen, and it will be required viewing for his ever-growing army of fans. Or ‘Driscollectors’, as I think we should start calling ourselves.
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