January 26, 2014

British horror stars at the Westminster Film Convention, November 2013

A festival of horror opposite the Houses of Parliament...

I never used to miss the London Film Memorabilia fairs at the Methodist Central Hall of Westminster, for their variety of stalls from around Britain and even Europe. A day of rifling through posters, publicity photos, memorabilia, rare magazines, new and old... But with the advent of eBay, I haven't been for a few years.

But tipped off (by a friend in New York), the increasing number of guest appearances is now as interesting as the biggest conventions in London, particularly for fans of older British films. In November 2013, there were over two dozen guests, and many I'd never met. 

Actors and directors whose names in credits are reason enough to watch the movies. In person, I'm awestruck. It's been a big deal to try and say anything intelligible. But spurred on by the icons I'd been too afraid to talk to in the past (like David Lynch, doh!), I now barrel in, but politely! 

Buoyed by my high esteem for these life-long heroes of the horrors, it can also be deflating to see an absence of queues forming to see them. Also means it's easy to meet everyone you want, and allows time for a short, precious chat.

At the big conventions, there's rarely time for anything more than grabbing a signature. But this was more like a series of little interviews, plus I took a few photos, so I think it's worth writing up here. Hey. My blog, my rules.

I'd missed the gracious Barbara Shelley at a previous convention and couldn't miss her again. I had a brief chat with her and was thrilled to get a personalised autograph on a photo. Lovely to hear her say Quatermass and the Pit was the favourite of her films, as it's mine as well.

I'm not sure why she appeared in so many horror films in the 1960s, but she was excellent at conveying outlandish scenarios convincingly. While her character as a scientific assistant is already detailed and believable, she had to channel the Martian insect intelligence.

This ability to project being 'possessed' makes her spectacular change of character in Dracula Prince of Darkness another highlight of the genre. 

She also starred as many more heroes and villains, which explained why she was seated next to one of the children from the Village of the Damned...

Martin Stephens was there with two other actors who'd been children in the Village of the Damned. But Martin had several other horror hits, even though his film career was quite short. His last screen role was as a teenager in Hammer's The Witches (1966), which has just been released on blu-ray. 

Martin Stephens and Ingrid Boulting in The Witches (1966)

Martin's face has been on some of the new posters for the The Innocents, revived as part of the extended BFI Gothic season. This 1961 film is also out on blu-ray, and there's a Christopher Frayling book out about it (Sir Frayling was also there that day, hosting Q&A sessions). Coincidentally, we'd recently visited Sheffield Park Gardens where most of the exteriors for the film had been shot.

Our visit to the exterior location of The Innocents.

Looking at the house, I was trying to spot the terrace where so much of the action in The Innocents take place. I assumed it would be at the back, facing the lake, but there wasn't one. I asked Martin to settle this and he confirmed that the 'exterior' terrace was an interior set, the end of which was a painted perspective 'extension' to make it look as long and grand as the house.

I also asked about his working with Deborah Kerr and he not only sang her praises, but added that she was even easier to work with because they'd already made a film together (Count Your Blessings, two years earlier).

His role in Village of the Damned, as the leader of the unearthly children, occasionally sounds like the voice is too loud, as if he's been post-synched. The diction is also very precise, so I wondered if his lines had been replaced, maybe by an actress who specialised in child voices. He denied this completely - it's his voice that was used.

I also mentioned that the UK version is still missing from DVD (it didn't have the 'glowing eye' effects). Martin talked about doing a radio interview with the director Wolf Rilla, shortly before he passed away, and how the glowing eyes were never intended in the original film. 

The 'eyes' effect was later added optically to the US version, and highlighted in the US posters. For continuity, the effect was then continued in the sequel, Children of the Damned.

Screengrab comparisons of the glowing eyes and a further look at the two Damned films.

Martin now works and lives in Portugal, so I'm very glad he'd made the trip for us all to meet him.

Janina Faye and Michael Gwynne 
in Never Take Sweets From A Stranger

I then looked over at where Janina Faye was sitting (there are signs over each table) and for a moment thought that the years had barely aged her... only to discover I was looking at her daughter sat next to her.

Janina was another child star of horror films, about the same time as Martin, but one who had a much longer acting career. In Hammer's Dracula (1958), she has a memorable scene with Peter Cushing who not only rescues her from a vampire, but reassures her and protects her from the cold with his overcoat. What a lovely Van Helsing he was.

In Never Take Sweets From a Stranger (1960), she was chased by a very modern monster, a child molester. Hammer were accused of making a ghastly exploitation film and it disappeared for many years - I've never seen it play on TV. The first official release was in the Icons of Suspense DVD set in 2010. Today, the story still plays out realistically while showing nothing at all distasteful. It's a tough drama and even an apt flipside of the story of the recent Mads Mikkelsen film, The Hunt

Soon after that, she was in danger again, this time from Triffid stings, while Howard Keel dragged her halfway across Europe. I've seen very little research published about the making of The Day of the Triffids (1962), so I was keen to hear her memories. 

The film had a troubled production. Some of the visual effects scenes were regarded as unusable and the lighthouse subplot had to be added to bring it back up to feature-length duration. So I was interested if any of the scenes she'd performed were missing from the finished film. Janina thought not, but added that after her scenes were filmed, there was an eighteen-month delay before the film was released. 

With the later addition of Janette Scott and Kieron Moore to the cast, she was miffed that she'd been knocked further down the cast list! She added that all her scenes were shot around London. Any location shots of her character in France and Spain used a double. She'd also been miffed that she didn't get to go to Spain. 

It's always rewarding when actors are still actively interested in their older films, especially the stigmatised horror genre. Even better that Janina's daughter shared her enthusiasm, watching her mum's films, (when she was old enough, of course). 

I told her that I thought I'd spotted her, an uncredited part, in The Headless Ghost. She's still piecing together a list of all of her early appearances. We also talked a little about what work was missing from DVD - she's particularly keen to see A Dance of Death on DVD, as it stars her opposite Lawrence Olivier! This is pay-per-view on YouTube, but if anyone knows of a DVD release anywhere in the world, please let us know.

More info and plenty of photos on Janina Faye's website.

David Warner as Sark in Tron (1982)

I'd happily have interviewed everyone for hours. David Warner has a ridiculously long and interesting filmography. We talked a little about his role as Evil in Time Bandits (1981) and I asked if he'd actually worked with Ralph Richardson. He confirmed that they'd met, but most of their scenes were shot separately.

Mr. Warner had impressed me in The Omen, along with the whole cast convincing us of the unseen forces working against them. His character's demise is a regular talking point, but I wondered if he tired of the focus on that. The photos laid out in front of him, available to sign, were all supplied by the event. But it seemed rude to get him to sign a photo of a dummy of him being killed. And he mentioned he also felt uncomfortable about signing those.

Inspiration struck as I asked if he'd actually witnessed his spectacular death scene in The Omen. After a pause he replied, possibly a moment of realisation of a resurfaced memory, that he'd missed it! He was down the pub!

In Amicus' From Beyond The Grave, he dominates a segment where he's possessed by a creepy character living in a huge mirror. There was a good photo of him in this, so that's what I got him to sign. I mused that 'the mirror man' might have been the eternal spirit of Jack The Ripper, a pet theory I'd been nurturing, but he strongly denied that!

David Warner's website

Julian Barnes, Jill Haworth and director Michael Armstrong on the set of The Haunted House of Horror

Then had a long chat with Michael Armstrong, mostly about one of the earliest slasher films The Haunted House of Horror. I congratulated him on writing and directing such a bloody slasher as early as 1969. I was interested that, despite a group of young men and women going into the 'haunted house', it was the men who were attacked. 

He replied that at the time he was very much against linking sex and violence, to buck the trend that women should always be the ones being threatened. He also wanted to avoid the sexualisation of the violence, and therefore made the victims men.

It was a great opportunity to hear about working with the late Jill Haworth. It was sad to hear that he thought she was quite troubled and was often fazed on set, with dulled reactions, possibly because of pills, prescribed or otherwise. I complimented him on directing her scene of sheer terror, and was alarmed to hear that the trick he used to motivate her fears wasn't the elegant motivating pep talk that I'd imagined. He simply found out what frightened her (mice) and dangled one in front of her to get a reaction!

Michael Armstrong's website.

My look at Jill Haworth's horror films.

Onto director John Hough. Would have liked to talk about The Legend of Hell House (1973), but I've already seen a few interviews about that. I got him to sign my Japanese programme, and wanted to know a little more about Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and how he went from British horror films to filming a spectacular high speed car chase movie in the USA. 

He denied that the stunts were done by a second unit (another of my assumptions), he was personally involved in filming it all. There was also no undercranking to cheat the appearance of high speed. They had to close off miles of roads to allow the cars to get up to high speed and maintain it, while keeping the public held up and out of sight. To make it look fast, they simply drove along at a hundred miles an hour!

He told me how he heard that he must watch the end of Death Proof, where he found a huge onscreen dedication from Quentin Tarantino. He later heard that they'd reused his precise original locations from the climax of Dirty Mary

I asked about the shock ending of the film, and John said that the film was such a success that they could have had a sequel with those characters... but he'd changed the scripted ending without the studio knowing! He wanted the message of the film to be "speed kills". 

John Carson, Brian Clemens and Caroline Munro were all there too, linked by Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter. I was delighted that John Carson remembered working on The Night Caller, adding that it led to his working on Plague of the Zombies - both were directed by John Gilling. Zombies was a good role for him, as he was the lead baddie.

You ever noticed that it's John Carson who often gets onto the front cover... of the paperback, the VHS and DVD. Nobody thought to watch the film and find that he wasn't Captain Kronos!

Brian Clemens, director of Captain Kronos (and also the creator of The Avengers TV series!) was one of the many interviewed for a new book about actor Ian Hendry. The author, Gabriel Hershman, was sat on the next table, and signing a copy for me. I've read it already - Hendry had again been in many cult films, including Captain Kronos, Get Carter, and the first series of The Avengers. But his battle with alcoholism was soon at odds with his career. It's a dense and fascinating story about the British film industry in the 60s and 70s.

My review of Gabriel's Ian Hendry biography here.

A huge thank you to all the organisers who made the day possible and arranging such wonderful guests. And especially my other half for taking the photos of me with Barbara Shelley and Janina Faye. 

Click here for details of upcoming London Film Memorabilia Conventions at Central Hall, Westminster, London.


  1. teddy crescendo28 January, 2014 03:39

    Mark, thats not Michele Dotrice its the truly stunning Ingrid Boulting, what an incredibly pretty face she had back in 1965 when she was 18.

  2. Thank you, Teddy. I was unsure about that.

    1. Corrected. Thank you. As you can tell, I haven't seen it for a few years. Am looking forward to seeing the blu-ray.

  3. Half expected to see you there last Saturday, but not surprised that you might have given up the fairs...most attendees these days appear to be pensioners who don't have internet access.

    Never realised the Ingrid Boulting of THE LAST TYCOON was the Ingrid Brett of THE WITCHES etc. nor until just checking the IMDb that she was director John Boulting' daughter. Fascinating.

    1. I'll start going more. The eBay prices are all 'top dollar' now, bidding against everyone else in the country!