Remembering the king of low-budget, high-concept straight-to-supermarket British horror.
For as long as I’ve been writing about British horror films, people have talked about ‘bringing back Hammer’ or creating a ‘modern equivalent of Hammer’, as if the totemic studio was the be-all and end-all of the genre. This, of course, ignores the fact that Hammer’s success was founded on a wide range of comedies, dramas, thrillers, war movies, historical swashbucklers etc. It was never a bespoke ‘horror studio’. The Hammer brand did return to cinema screens in the 21st century, and almost no one noticed or cared.
My point is that not only do we not need a new Hammer, but we already have more than one equivalent: dedicated production companies producing commercially viable British genre product. Proportion Productions, Champdog Films, Dark Temple Motion Pictures, Creativ Studios, Mycho Productions and others. Yes, they are mostly one or two-person operations. That’s the nature of low-budget independent film production in today’s digital world. And yes, most of their films are below the radar of the general media and hence the general public. Guess what? Many old ‘Hammer horror’ films were similarly ignored on release. But, like Hammer once did, these companies are providing employment for actors and crew members and creating a product that sells well enough to finance the next production.
And really, this all started with North Bank Entertainment. A company founded and run by Andrew Jones, who passed away last week, after a period of illness, at the shockingly early age of 39.
Andrew was the guy who showed that it was possible to make a living creating horror films in Britain. All you had to do was make a product of a consistent standard so that distributors wanted it because retailers wanted it because people would buy it. Andrew produced, directed and wrote more than 30 feature films over the past decade. These were not amateur larks. Andrew made a living. His cast and crew got paid. People bought and watched the films. North Bank Entertainment was a solid commercial venture, which paved the way for Proportion, Creativ, Dark Temple and the rest.
Andrew Jones started out as a serious filmmaker, exploring social issues. With no film school background or training, he taught himself how to make a motion picture on his first feature, a violent drama, somewhat rough and ready, called Teenage Wasteland. This was shot in 2005 in (like most of Andrew’s pictures) South Wales.
“I think it’s important as a filmmaker to make mistakes on your first production because you become a better director for it,” Andrew told me two years later. “Teenage Wasteland allowed me the perfect opportunity to test-drive some of the things I did in my subsequent films. I learnt so much on that first film that by the time it came to directing The Feral Generation I knew exactly what I wanted and how to get it.”
The Feral Generation was a bleak-yet-romantic drama about a couple of homeless junkies (“I basically just wanted to do a love story in an unconventional setting.”). Andrew approached Brooke Kinsella who liked the script and showed it to her boyfriend Ray Panthaki. With two EastEnders stars attached, Andrew had no problem raising finance. I am one of the very few people to have seen this unreleased feature, which isn’t even on IMDb. Thematically it’s not my cup of tea but it’s brilliant filmmaking.
“The Feral Generation was a satisfying creative experience but after filming it turned into a bit of a nightmare,” Andrew told me. “We had four producers who all had something good to offer, but they all had different ideas for the direction of the project. I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory either, I was clueless about the business side of film-making and I acted like a total prick back then. Now I would have handled that project a lot differently.” One of the producers was Stuart Brennan, another recognisable name to British horror fans as director/producer/actor: Plan Z, The Reverend etc. The special effects, such as were required, were handled by Gareth Evans who subsequently moved from Swansea to Jakarta and made The Raid.
The late noughties were Andrew’s wilderness years, filled with curious odd jobs. He wrote a semi-sequel to The Feral Generation called The Beautiful Outsiders which was set to star Cameron Douglas (son of Michael, grandson of Kirk). When Douglas was busted for dealing in crystal meth, Andrew had to fend off the tabloid press and TMZ, formally distancing himself from the actor and thereby losing Michael Douglas’ attachment as executive producer on the project. An attempt to remount the movie with Corey Feldman as the lead fizzled to nothing.
Teaming with Ray Panthaki’s production company, Andrew worked on a remake of The Driller Killer: “But ultimately it became clear that the two individuals who held the rights to the original (one of whom was Abel Ferrara) were never going to reach an agreement on financial terms.” He was also commissioned by Ovidio Assonitis to write a remake of Beyond the Door.
North Bank Entertainment was born in 2011 when Andrew, acting as producer and co-writer, teamed up with director/co-writer James Plumb to make Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection. It wasn’t great, but it had zombies in it – and zombies sell. Cineworld gave the picture a UK theatrical release and the DVD rights were sold to British, American, German, Mexican and Argentinean labels. Emboldened by success, Plumb and Jones piggybacked another PD franchise the following year with Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming, then parted ways. Andrew now had a viable business model.
“I was powerless on The Feral Generation because I didn’t have my own production company involved and I wasn’t a producer,” he said. “Now on everything I do my company North Bank Entertainment has a controlling interest because I don’t want to be in a situation where the production and sale of my movie is at the mercy of other people.
“Creatively, I’ve also moved away from wanting to make dramas. From a business perspective, gritty dramas have a limited commercial potential. Thinking about the wider UK indie scene, I’m sick of so many British films being kitchen sink dramas or mockney gangster films. I think we should be concentrating on making a wider variety of genre pictures and it’s nice to see that many independent producers in the UK feel the same way. From a personal viewpoint, I feel horror movies are my true calling. I grew up watching little else. I had Freddy Krueger’s image on my birthday cake when I was six years old! Kind of twisted when you think about it because the character is a child killer, but I loved those movies from a very young age. So it feels natural to now be making horror films.”
Andrew’s first effort as sole creative force also used a copyright-free hook: The Amityville Asylum. He wisely cast several actors with experience of low-budget indie horrors including Paul Kelleher, Jared Morgan and grand dame of the subgenre Eileen Daly. The film had a limited theatrical release and did well on DVD in Australia and Germany (where it was marketed, bizarrely, as a 30-years-later sequel to The Nesting!).
For The Midnight Horror Show, Andrew felt confident enough to dispense with any existing ‘mental real estate’ and created his own original story about a fucked-up circus family, and he followed this with Valley of the Witch. To those of us following his career he was getting noticeably better with each release. Distributors were paying attention because they could see North Bank Entertainment was making products on a budget that was low enough for supermarkets to pick up and sell cheaply, with everyone in the chain, including Andrew, making money. Not a lot, but enough to live on and to finance the next film.
Part of this deal was that, if the supermarket product buyers wanted to change the title or sleeve design, that was what happened. Thus The Midnight Horror Show became Theatre of Fear and Valley of the Witch became Conjuring the Dead. These films – and, to be honest, all of Andrew’s subsequent films – found their principal audience among shoppers picking up a cheap, fun-looking horror DVD to watch with their pizza and beer that night. Off to Tesco, grab a trolley, get some beers, get some snacks, get a DVD – sorted. This may not be how many Reprobate readers purchase films, but it is (or at least, was) a significant market. It was a retail niche into which North Bank Entertainment slotted perfectly.
There was a new film every few months: The Last House on Cemetery Lane, Poltergeist Activity, A Haunting at the Rectory, The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund, Werewolves of the Third Reich, Jurassic Predator… It absolutely did not matter that no one had heard of the people in these films. In defiance of accepted industry maxims, no one cared who was in them. In this retail environment, at a price point below ten quid, the films sold because they featured poltergeists or dinosaurs or werewolves or exorcisms. That was enough.
Overseas distribution boosted North Bank Entertainment’s reputation as a reliable provider of genre fare, even if the circumstances seemed sometimes random. The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund played cinemas in Venezuela for example, while Jurassic Predator had a single-screen release in South Korea. The German DVD of A Haunting at the Rectory was rebranded as American Poltergeist 5.
Though Andrew never made mockbusters as such, he was cannily aware of genre trends, as were the supermarket product buyers, so when killer dolls became the subgenre du jour in the mid-teens, North Bank gave the world Robert (aka Robert the Doll). This struck a chord, both domestically and internationally – especially in Germany for some reason, where it was released in 3D! Over the next few years the titular creepy doll, animated by simple off-screen manipulation, returned in The Curse of Robert, The Toymaker, The Revenge of Robert and Robert Returns. Andrew’s inspiration was not Annabelle per se but a mix of Child’s Play and Pinocchio. As the series progressed, with other dolls joining the title character, the stories increasingly demonstrated a clear debt to the Puppet Master series. Not for nothing has Andrew Jones been described as a British Charles Band.
North Bank Entertainment occasionally ventured outside of its winning formula. The 2016 thriller Kill Kane was directed by Adam Stephen Kelly (more usually found credited as a producer on Jonathan Sothcott pictures) and had an actual name star in Vinnie Jones. But it wasn’t what the supermarkets were looking for. Andrew also experimented with a couple of non-horror pictures which were reasonably successful because they employed his standard technique of a self-explanatory title – Alcatraz, D-Day Heroes – and an arresting sleeve design. For some reason, both saw the inside of cinemas in Turkey.
Towards the end of the decade, Andrew found a ready market in the United States for horror films based on true crime stories, hence The Manson Family Massacre, The Utah Cabin Murders, Bundy and the Green River Killer etc. He also made a brace of almost entirely unrelated Halloween Jack killer scarecrow films and The Haunting of Margam Castle which, atypically, collected together a gaggle of venerable name actors including Caroline Munro, Judy Matheson and Garrick Hagon.
By the early 2020s, the times were a-changing. Supermarket DVD sections were shrinking or disappearing altogether. HMV, the lone survivor on the high street, was giving less and less space to films as the company prioritised sales of collectable vinyl, T-shirts and Funko Pop figures. Audiences who would once have bought a disc in Tesco were instead finding something on Netflix. Nevertheless, there was still a demand for Andrew’s work in both physical media and streaming.
In February last year, Andrew’s devoted wife Sharron announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare adrenal condition known, with cruel irony for a horror film-maker, as Cushing’s Syndrome. He was unable to work and became bedridden as his muscles atrophied, which naturally took a terrible toll on his spirit. Sharron became his full-time carer, which left the couple without income beyond limited disability benefits. Andrew’s friends rallied round as best we could to donate funds to help the couple.
On 15th January this year, the news broke that Andrew had passed away. The last eleven months have been an unimaginable strain on both Sharron and Andrew; he is at peace now and she will hopefully become aware of the outpouring of condolence and sympathy from the UK’s independent horror community. So many people knew and/or worked with Andrew. So many filmmakers were in awe of his business model, his work ethic and his consistency of output. On top of all that, he was a wonderfully humble, modest man – yet enthusiastic too and always supportive of others.
I never met Andrew Jones in person, but we had exchanged emails since he sent me that screener of The Feral Generation. You can find two quite extensive interviews with him, from 2007 and 2012, on my old blog.
North Bank Entertainment did not set the world alight (not even in Germany where there was a boxed set of the Robert films!). Outside of DTV horror aficionados, the brand name means little: each film had to sell on its own merits. And sell they did, with later titles regularly making the top 20 of the national DVD sales chart. Of course, none of this ever registered with the industry’s self-appointed guardians. Notoriously, the BFI’s annual survey of ‘the British film industry’ only considers productions with a budget above £500,000. It’s debatable whether Andrew spent that much in his entire career! But he absolutely epitomised the actual British film industry in this century, far more than some comparatively bloated exercise in self-indulgence spending Lottery money on a film no one wants.
In terms of quality, Andrew’s films rarely received rave reviews. Every North Bank Entertainment title has people online declaring it the worst film they’ve ever seen, simply because it’s not some $100 million Hollywood nonsense with A-list stars and a marketing budget the size of Luxembourg. But so does every other low-budget independent genre movie; it’s par for the course. In all honesty, the quality of his films varied: Jurassic Predator doesn’t use its dinosaur anywhere near as much as it should, for example, and A Haunting at the Rectory is too much rectory and not enough haunting. Sometimes, in another parallel with Charles Band, the films only made feature-length by virtue of a glacial credit crawl dragged out to eight minutes or more.
But when the films worked, they really worked, and all of them worked in some way to some extent. Andrew had no pretensions of making high art. His was a commercial operation, providing a product for a market, filling a cinematic niche. His early experiences on Teenage Wasteland, The Feral Generation and the subsequent odd jobs taught him everything about how the business works, and one of the most important things he learned was reliability. Every North Bank Entertainment film came in on budget, on schedule, to a competent standard, with the requisite exploitable elements.
“My school of thought on film producing is very much the same as Roger Corman’s approach,” is how Andrew explained his business model to me. “Find a concept that makes sense creatively and financially, then produce the film economically and utilise new talent. Hopefully, North Bank Entertainment will help shine a light on undiscovered British talent and launch a lot of careers. I’ve no interest in moving to London or LA so we’re trying to create our own little indie film factory here in South Wales.”
It was the little indie film factory that could. Andrew Jones leaves a fine legacy of interesting, entertaining films. He will be sorely missed, and all our thoughts are with Sharron.
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