Tony Tenser, the only British producer to work with all five of the era’s titans of terror-Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Steele-Tenser bankrolled such memorable ventures as Roman Polanski’s classic thriller Repulsion, James Hill’s Sherlock Holmes- vs. Jack the Ripper gripper A Study in Terror, Vernon Sewell’s preposterous pair The Blood Beast Terror and Curse of the Crimson Altar, Piers Haggard’s demonic chiller Blood on Satan’s Claw and Peter Sasdy’s ecological nightmare Doomwatch. Tenser also sponsored the short-lived career of England’s most promising genre filmmaker-the late Michael Reeves-by backing both The Sorcerers and The Conqueror Worm (a.k.a. Witchfinder General). Along the way, his prolific output also ranged from crude nudist documentaries and softcore porn to wholesome family fare.
He was described with some justification by the writer David McGillivray as “the Irving Thalberg of the exploitation movie”, but he also produced two films regarded as classics, Roman Polanski’s chilling psychological thriller Repulsion and Michael Reeves’s stylish horror movie Witchfinder General.
In an era when strict censorship was slowly being eroded the Lord Chamberlain’s authority to censor or completely ban plays was challenged by the formation of club theatres to stage such works as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Children’s Hour, and the book Lady Chatterley’s Lover survived a notorious court case Tenser was the first to open a private club cinema to show uncensored films.
Joining the small but respected distribution company, Miracle Films, Tenser worked on La lumiere d’en face (The Light Across the Street, 1955), starring Brigitte Bardot, and capitalized on the star’s considerable appeal with his phrase “sex kitten” and such publicity stunts as having a huge cardboard cut-out of the star outside the cinema. Et Dieu créa la femme (1956) was an even bigger Bardot hit, with Tenser modifying the title to And Woman Was Created (“You can upset people using ‘God’ in a title”). Miracle’s next Bardot film, En Effeuillant la Marguerite (1956) translates as “while stripping the petals off a daisy”, which Tenser cannily rendered as Mam’selle Striptease, devising a stunt in which Soho strippers picketed the film. He told his biographer, John Hamilton,
I was introduced to Michael Klinger, who owned the Gargoyle, a strip club. I said, “I want to borrow half a dozen of your girls to do a demonstration, going through the West End on Friday lunchtime and finish up picketing outside the cinema.” It was a very good stunt, all the press were there and it worked very well receipts went up.
When Klinger told Tenser that he wanted to get into the film business, Tenser suggested the idea of a cinema club, and the pair acquired a basement in an office block in Old Compton Street, which they opened as the Compton Cinema Club. “To make it more legitimate, we had a number of well-known founder members, including the censor John Trevelyan, Bryan Forbes, people like that.” Klinger and Tenser then moved into distribution, their prime showcase being the prestigious Cameo Poly in Regent Street and, in partnership with Cameo’s directors, they produced their own first feature film.
Films about nudist colonies were discreet enough to survive censorship but still attracted audiences, and Compton-Cameo’s first production was Naked as Nature Intended (1961), directed by a leading photographer of nudes, Harrison Marks, and starring his wife, a noted pin-up of the time, Pamela Green. It was followed by That Kind of Girl (1963), which dealt with the subject of venereal disease, and The Yellow Teddybears (1963), about the activities of pupils at a girls’ school.
In 1964 Compton-Cameo made their first horror film, The Black Torment (1964), an effectively eerie period thriller (“Like sex/nudie films, there is always a good audience for horror movies”), and the following year they were asked by the director Roman Polanski and his regular producer Gene Gutowski to finance their next film, then called Lovelihead. Tenser persuaded Polanski to cut his budget from 90,000 to 60,000 before agreeing that he and Klinger would be executive producers. “In the end it came to more than 90,000, but it was such a brilliant film.” Titled Repulsion (1965) and starring Catherine Deneuve as a psychotic young woman whose ambivalent reactions to sex slowly unhinge her mind and make her homicidal, it is an exceptionally disturbing and frightening film that has been favorably compared with Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Tenser was also a producer of Polanski’s next movie, Cul-de-Sac (1966), a bleakly black, comic gangster film which proved perplexing for audiences but won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Tenser had greater success with a Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Terror (1965). He adapted the title from Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and asked his writers to come up with a story in which Holmes would discover the identity of Jack the Ripper. Critics pointed out that the result was a lot gorier than the average Holmes yarn, but praised James Hill’s fluent direction and the British cast headed by John Neville and Donald Houston, with Judi Dench, Robert Morley and Barbara Windsor also featured.
In 1966 Tenser and Klinger, hearing that Sheila Van Damme was selling the Windmill Theatre, famous for its tableaux vivants nudes and for having kept open throughout the Blitz, succeeded in purchasing it, and they opened it as a cinema with their production Secrets of a Windmill Girl (1966), starring Pauline Collins as a performer who becomes corrupted by success. Intended as an homage to the theatre’s bygone past, it ended with a song that stated, “The Windmill girls, they were so gay, but now it’s over, they’ve gone away”, but it was a fairly shoddy production that found only limited release.
Although their fortunes continued to prosper, Tenser and Klinger made a most incongruous team. “In personalities and stature, we were complete opposites,” Tenser contends. “I was more of a ‘hatchet man.’ Michael was a very sweet chap, and was always happy and laughing and joking. People would gather around him and flatter him. When somebody wanted to talk us into a deal, they would go to Michael. He wasn’t a fool, but when he would half-agree to a deal, he would say, ‘You had better talk to Tony.’ I would look at it, and if it wasn’t right I would chop it. Michael cared what people thought of him, but I didn’t mind if they disliked me.”
“We had reached the stage where Michael felt that he could do better without a partner,” Tenser says. “I wasn’t too keen on splitting up. I thought we had a good arrangement, and didn’t want to throw it away. But Michael wanted us to part, so I agreed and started up on my own. He continued running Compton for the next couple of years, then sold it out and went on his own. Each of us proved to the world that we could make films individually, and didn’t necessarily have to work as a team.”
Tigon came out of the ashes of the Compton Group, a rather grand name that disguised the activities of two East End opportunists named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser. Films with titles like That Kind of Girl (1963), Saturday Night Out (1964) and The Pleasure Girls (1965) traded on sex, or at least the promise of it, since the activity was something that was only practiced by foreigners, at least as far as the British censor was concerned.
“I was going nicely on my way when I received an offer from a well-known film business family, who asked if they could become my financial partners,” Tenser reveals. “They put a certain amount of money into the company, and we became equal partners. I needed a new company name, and I wanted to keep the letter ‘T’ in it. I knew that MGM had their lion, and there was also a firm called British Lion. So I decided on ‘Tigon,’ which is a mythical creature with a lion’s head on a tiger’s body. That became our company’s logo.”
By sailing about as close to the wind as was possible, Klinger and Tenser made a small fortune but their reputation was about on a par with the newsagents who sold smutty pictures from under the counter (see Peeping Tom) and both Klinger and Tenser craved better things. Klinger retained the Compton Group as his own vehicle for film production while Tenser established Tony Tenser Films Ltd, and with £10,000 in his bank account he went bargain hunting. Tenser was shrewd enough not to over-commit, and while Compton were promising 12-16 features a year, Tony Tenser Films bought the rights to older films such as Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and Twice Told Tales (1962) and re-packaged them as ‘new’ double bills which made just enough money to keep the company name alive while he pulled together his first production deal. That cautious first step was to be Mini Weekend (1967), which aimed to be a low-rent version of Billy Liar (1963) but actually amounted to not much more than some loosely connected fetish fantasies. Despite being ripped apart by the critics Mini Weekend found an appreciative audience in the more ‘select’ cinemas, and in common with most of Tenser’s films it more than covered its costs with a sale to the US, where it played in grindhouses under the title of The Tomcat (1968). The profits were such that Tenser may well have dallied in sexploitation territory for longer had his interest not been piqued by an American producer called Patrick Curtis, who brought with him a young English director named Michael Reeves. Curtis was one half of a company called Curtwel. The other half was his fiancée Raquel Welch. They had previously tried to interest Compton in a number of projects written by Reeves, including Blood Moon and The Devil’s Discord, the latter intended as a vehicle for Peter Cushing.
The Sorcerers (1967)
Dr. Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) is an elderly practitioner of medical hypnosis. He lives with his wife Estelle Monserrat (Catherine Lacey). He has invented a device which would allow him to control and feel another person’s experience using the power of hypnosis. They decide any youngster will do as their test subject. Dr. Marcus Monserrat selects and invites Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy) to his house, with an offer of a ‘new experience’. He uses the device on Mike and the procedure is successful: He and Estelle can feel everything Mike feels, and can also control him.
After the procedure, they decide to send Mike away to conduct the experiment over distance. Mike returns to the club where his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy) is waiting for him. Mike takes Nicole to his apartment, and they swim in the pool. Marcus and Estelle are able to experience everything Mike feels. While Marcus wants to publish his work, Estelle wants to make up for lost time and to experience new things. She convinces a reluctant Marcus to continue with their arrangement with Mike.
Next day, Estelle sees a fur jacket in a store and convinces Marcus to use Mike to steal the jacket. Marcus reluctantly agrees on the condition that they will not do it again. While Mike is at Nicole’s apartment, Estelle and Marcus make Mike steal the jacket. Mike leaves without informing Nicole, who decides to go a night club with Alan (Victor Henry). Despite a cop getting involved, Mike successfully steals the jacket.
Estelle realizes that they could do anything they want without any consequences. Estelle wants to experience the thrill of speed. So Estelle and Marcus make Mike borrow Alan’s bike and ride very fast with Nicole on the pillion seat. When Alan confronts Mike, Estelle makes Mike assault him and his boss, Ron (Alf Joint). Estelle enjoys the experience but Marcus is shocked. He tries to prevent the fight but Estelle’s mind turns out to be stronger. When Marcus confronts Estelle, Estelle assaults Marcus and destroys the experimental device, thereby preventing Marcus from reversing the experiment.
Mike blanks out every time Estelle and Marcus control him. A confused Mike visits his friend Audrey (Susan George), but Estelle makes Mike kill her. Mike then goes to the night club and hooks up with pop singer Laura (Sally Sheridan). Alan and Nicole see Mike taking Laura out of the night club. The couple are dropped by a taxi in a deserted street where Mike orders Laura to sing. When she fails to follow his instructions, he kills her too.
The following day, Alan tells Nicole he believes Mike might have killed the girls. Alan wants to inform the police but Nicole convinces him to talk to Mike first. The police track Mike with help of the taxi driver. Alan and Nicole confront Mike about Laura but Mike does not remember anything. Under the influence of Estelle, Mike attacks Alan again and escapes in a car. Police investigators track down Mike, and in the ensuing chase, Marcus interferes with Estelle’s control. Mike’s car crashes and catches fire. Back at the apartment, Estelle and Marcus are both dead due to burn injuries.
Although they meet Reeves, Tenser and Klinger were not impressed with the scripts and declined to commit, which sent Reeves back to the drawing board on an earlier project he had acquired called Terror for Kicks, soon to be re-titled The Sorcerers. The script, by John Burke, centered on a former stage hypnotist who invents a mind-control machine enabling him to not only control the minds of his subjects but experience all their sensations and emotions.
The voyeuristic possibilities played to Tenser’s market, as did the fast paced action and plentiful gore, and had just enough naughtiness to put a bit of pep into the trailers.
Apart from its cheapness – Curtis estimated a budget of around £30,000 – the project had one a huge selling point for Tenser: it was to star Boris Karloff. Reeves had flown to Madrid where the horror icon was shooting an episode of the television show I Spy and won him over with a mixture of youthful enthusiasm and the sheer breadth of his cinema knowledge.
“Pat had a budget, and he asked me to put up half the money, help produce the film and distribute it in England and worldwide,” he continues. “The budget was low enough for me to afford. Boris Karloff was one of the idols of my youth. I had followed his career ever since I saw Frankenstein, and had always been in awe of him. I had heard of Michael, and I knew that he had directed an earlier low-budget horror film (The She Beast) which was successful. From the way he spoke, he seemed to have great talent. After I met with Pat a couple more times, I knew I could trust him.”
Karloff’s requirements were relatively modest, he wanted £11,000 and he wanted his character, an out and out villain called Marcus Mesmer, re-written, so he was redeemed at the end. Curtwel put up half the money and asked Tenser to come on board for the remaining 50%, in exchange for the distribution rights and of course a veto over the script, cast and crew. Tenser met Reeves and, like Karloff, was taken with younger man’s energy. But he was less convinced about Curtis’ abilities as a producer and invited former Compton colleagues Arnold Miller and Stanley Long to join the consortium. Miller would oversee the production while Long, a gifted cameraman who perfected his art in 8mm porno shorts, took on the cinematography. John Burke was unavailable for re-writes, so while Reeves rushed off to scout locations and hire his cast, the task of accommodating Karloff’s revisions was handed to Tom Baker. It was Baker who, working from Reeves’ notes, redrew Karloff as Professor Monserrat, a dedicated do-gooder whose honorable intentions are usurped by his conniving wife, Estelle, a desiccated crone who decides, after a lifetime of deprivation, her time for pleasure has arrived.
“I can’t say enough good things about Boris Karloff,” Tener says. “He was a wonderful man, and a brilliant actor. He was nearly 80 then, but he remembered his lines and spoke them clearly. He interpreted his part absolutely correctly and uniquely, as only he could. He was the most unassuming man you could wish to meet. He couldn’t even understand why people would want his autograph.”
The remainder of the supporting cast were made up of professional but relatively unknown (i.e. cheap) actors including Victor Henry, something of a rising star on the West End stage, and 17-year old Susan George who had a small role as one of Mike’s former girlfriends, Audrey. Playing Roscoe’s current squeeze was imported starlet Elizabeth Ercy, provided by Tony Tenser, who reasoned French actresses always attracted press attention.
Reeves’ concept from the outset was one of guerrilla film-making; setting up quickly on chosen locations, shooting the scene and moving to the next location before anyone even realized they were there. The fact that the script was still being reworked as the film started production fitted neatly into this approach, but the director, whose experience was limited to a single low budget Italian horror movie, vastly underestimated the complexities of shooting a film in the centre of London.
Stanley Long saw the flaws developing from the first week of shooting, “Mike didn’t know how to plan, there were too many set ups, in too many locations; he didn’t have the experience to manage all this, and it showed.”
The cast and crew were constantly unpacking and then repacking their gear, jumping into vans and rushing off to the next location without regard for such niceties as film permits. The authorities finally caught up with them when Reeves staged a spectacular explosion on an abandoned building site and someone called the police. Although the film-makers made good their escape, the unfortunate Arnold Miller was summoned to the local police station to explain what was going on.
Reeves’ relative inexperience also showed in his treatment of the cast, who were for the most part left to their own devices while the director worked on his next set-up. With Karloff, Reeves was deferential to a man coming to the end of a long and justly celebrated life. The actor was in poor health at the time and looked every one of his 79 years; he had acute emphysema, arthritis in his back and a metal brace on his leg which squeaked when he walked.
Tenser was a frequent visitor to the set and noted that the veteran horror star was never less than a complete professional who never complained, but Stanley Long remembered that even Karloff struggled with Reeves on at least one occasion. “Mike didn’t know how to talk to actors so he usually left them alone,” the cameraman said, “which was usually fine and Karloff never fluffed a line, neither did Catherine Lacey for that matter. I did see Karloff angry though, in the scene where he was pushed to the floor and had to crawl towards the door. He was in such pain with his back and couldn’t hit his mark and basically he snapped, “I can’t do this! Where’s the fucking doorway?” That was a shock to hear him say that but it shows just how much he was suffering.” Long also witnessed the darker side of Reeves’ character when they came to film the scene where Roscoe kills Audrey. “He went right over the top,” Long revealed, “it was supposed to be a violent scene anyway, with Susan screaming and Ogilvy stabbing her, but Mike was throwing blood everywhere, up the walls, over the crew— gallons of the stuff. It was an obsession with him. Susan was literally drenched red.”
Before the film started, the British censor John Trevelyan sent a letter to Tenser reminding him that “Our general policy with regard to horror films is that there are two areas which from time to time cause us concern. These are horror laced with sex, and horror which goes over the edge into disgust.” The message could not have been clearer and, much to Tenser’s annoyance, most of Audrey’s murder would be left on the cutting room floor.
The mythology that has grown up around Reeves positions him as an natural born director with an inherent understanding of the art of cinema. At the time of The Sorcerers, however, there was a real concern that he would not be able to finish the film. Difficulties over the erratic scheduling and the delays shooting some of the more complex scenes meant the film was behind schedule by the third week.
A summit meeting was called between the producers where they discussed removing him completely. After much discussion and a few terse words, some extra money was found and a chastened director sent off to trim the remaining scenes and wrap the film as soon as possible. The result of all this is a worthy effort, not an exceptional one, but certainly very entertaining, with a remarkable performance from Boris Karloff, who overcomes both infirmity and age to imbue Monserrat with a quiet dignity. Catherine Lacey and Ian Ogilvy both offer fine performances and Reeves imbues the film with a grim and realistic quality, as well as a raw energy that was completely at odds with contemporary fantasy cinema.
So inspired was Tenser by Reeves’ creative potential on The Sorcerers that, for the only time in his career, the cautious producer offered a director a long-term commitment. “We discussed my giving Michael a five year contract, with a minimum of one film a year,” he recalls. “That was something which I never thought I would want to do, with my tiny little company of only seven employees. Unfortunately, we never got around to the paperwork.”
They could all feel a little smug with themselves when Tenser announced the film would enjoy a West End premiere, something of a rarity for low budget horror movies. When the film opened at the Carlton, Haymarket in May 1967 on a double bill with Tower of London (1962), the critics, for the most part, were less impressed.
The Sun called it a “….utterly silly horror yarn. It is a remarkably bad film,” while The New Statesman thought it, “Silly even by contemporary standards.” The public were much more responsive, though, and The Sorcerers picked up the Grand Prix International at the Sixth Trieste Film Festival; Catherine Lacy was awarded Best Actress and Karloff given a special Gold Medal for services to fantasy films. Tenser was on hand to pick up the prizes and hosted a celebratory dinner when he returned to London for key members of the cast and crew.
Boris Karloff, who had no interest in such ‘baubles’ as he called them, got first sight of his medal when Tenser delivered it personally some months later in Hollywood. The producer recalls Boris and his wife Evie being thrilled when they learned it was for his body of work. There was a moment during shooting which was worth no more than a paragraph in the trade magazines at the time, but it was a notable step in the history of the British horror genre. “I never intended to call the company Tony Tenser Films,” Tenser explained, “it was just for convenience while I came up with something better. I wanted to keep the ‘T’ and I wanted to have a mythical figure in it. The cross between a lion and a tiger is normally called a ‘ligon’ or a ‘liger’; I called it a Tigon and our motif was a lion with strips.” Tigon, or Tigon British Productions Ltd as it was more correctly known, had arrived.
The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
I wasn’t making films for posterity, I was making them for today. I made films that people would go to see. Otherwise, nobody would buy them, and I would have been out of business.
“I did well with these films, but I didn’t waste a lot of money making them. It wasn’t a matter of pinching pennies, but of saving money to spend where it was most efficient on the screen. By keeping the costs down, I didn’t have to earn a fortune to make the films pay.”
The Death’s Head Vampire which would ultimately become The Blood Beast Terror was about as conventional a horror film as it’s possible to imagine, complete with mad scientists and dogged Victorian detectives on the trail of a vampiristic serial killer – who turns out to be an artificially created giant moth. Favoring horror subjects as a handy way to turn a profit, Tenser turned from youth to experience, tapping veteran director Vernon Sewell to helm a pair of Tigon terror tales. First up in 1967 was The Blood Beast Terror, a period thriller starring Peter Cushing as a police inspector pursuing a giant. bloodthirsty death’s-head moth. To play the requisite mad scientist. Tenser originally approached Basil Rathbone, but when the suave actor unexpectedly died before production began, the role went to Robert Flemyng.
A meticulous actor who always tried to improve his material. Cushing added a tongue-in-cheek touch to the film’s fiery finale. “That was typical of Peter.” Tenser says. “When the giant moth is lured to the flames and dies, and then reverts to the beautiful girl, the police sergeant tells Peter’s character. They’ll never believe this at the Yard. Using his own words, Peter shakes his head and responds. “They’ll never believe it anywhere. I liked that line, but had it been in the script. I might not have approved.”
In 19th century Britain, a series of grisly murders are taking place in the countryside near London. The victims are good-looking young men, between the ages of twenty and thirty, and all have had their throats torn open and their blood drained. The witness of the latest murder, a coachman named Joe Trigger (Leslie Anderson), is driven insane when he catches a glimpse of the mysterious killer.
Investigating the deaths are Detective Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) of Scotland Yard and his assistant, Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards). Because Joe keeps ranting about a horrible winged creature with huge eyes, Quennell hatches a theory that perhaps a homicidal eagle is on the loose. At the scene of the latest killing, several shiny scales are discovered.
The two latest victims were students of the renowned entomology professor Dr. Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemying), who lives nearby with his beautiful daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) and their scar-faced butler, Granger (Kevin Stoney). When Quennell brings the scales to Mallinger for identification, Mallinger behaves suspiciously and tries to take all of them. Quennell describes his theory about a killer eagle, but Mallinger dismisses it outright. Quennell is unaware that the entomologist has a pet eagle, which is tormented by the sadistic Granger.
Explorer and naturalist Frederick Britewell (William Wilde) returns from Africa with some moth chrysalids for Dr. Mallinger and the handsome young adventurer soon becomes a victim of Clare, who is the real murderer; Clare is a “were-moth” and transforms at night to drink the blood of young men. Britewell becomes her latest victim after watching her in an amateur horror play performed by some of her father’s students (which seems to be a spoof of the Hammer Frankenstein genre), but lives long enough to exclaim, “Death’s head!”, to Quennell before he dies. Both Mallinger and Clare claim not to have known Britewell when questioned by Quennell.
Quennell’s superior suggests he takes a holiday and delegate the case to Sgt. Allan, but the Detective Inspector refuses. He reveals his intention to send his daughter Meg to stay with some relatives in Sussex until the investigation is over. As they leave for the railway station, Allan informs Quennell that Dr. Mallinger did in fact know Frederick Britewell, prompting Quennell to perform an immediate search of Mallinger’s home. He finds that the scientist and his daughter have left for Upper Higham. He also discovers a cellar filled with human bones and Granger’s corpse.
Quennell informs his superior he will be taking leave after all: he and Meg go to Upper Highham incognito as a vacationing banker named Thompson and his daughter. There they meet a young bug collector who shows him the proudest exhibit in his collection, a Deathshead moth, and Quennell discovers that Mallinger is also incognito as a “Dr. Miles” staying at a nearby estate. Can he stop Mallinger who is attempting to create a male were-moth to be a mate for his increasingly bloodthirsty daughter?
The script was by Peter Bryan, whose work included some of Hammer’s superior efforts The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966) but who was also responsible for Compton’s lame-brained science fiction shocker The Projected Man (1966). Though Tenser strenuously denied it, The Blood Beast Terror was a blatant attempt by Tigon to elbow their way into the lucrative Hammer horror market, right down to the casting of Peter Cushing in the leading role, a sweetie-chewing pragmatist from Scotland Yard who is called in to investigate the spate of blood-drained corpses cluttering up the Home Counties. The director Vernon Sewell was certainly in no doubt: “Hammer were the masters at this sort of stuff,” he explained, “so yes, if you were going to make it work you had to crib from them.”
Sewell was new to the world of horror movies, although he had made a number of impressive ‘B’ pictures including The Man in the Back Seat (1961) and Strongroom (1962) and he had no reservations.
“I liked the script,” he insisted, “it was by a good friend of mine, Peter Bryan and I thought it was very clever. I thought it would be good fun. I said to Tony, if Peter Cushing is in it, I’ll do it.” Messrs Miller and Long were recruited to help with the production chores and cinematography respectively and also provide a much needed injection of cash. Further lustre was added to the cast list when Tigon announced that Basil Rathbone, the screen’s best known Sherlock Holmes would essay the villainous Dr Malinger, an celebrated entomologist who, we learn later, has managed to create a half-human/half moth that feasts on human blood whenever it’s passions are aroused- which, given it is an exploitation movie, is a frequent occurrence.
Rathbone was due in London on the 4th of August for his costume fitting before reporting the set at Goldhawk Studios the following Monday. Tragically, the actor suffered a massive heart attack on a stopover in New York and died on 21st of July, leaving Tigon short of a protagonist with only days to go before shooting began.
Stage and screen actor Robert Flemying whose previous encounters with the genre consisted of the lead in L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962) aka The Terror of Dr Hichcock, an early Compton release, stepped in at the last minute to play Malinger. It was hardly the most auspicious of starts for Flemying, and it would certainly colour his view of the film as shooting commenced. The title role, or at least the human half, was played by Wanda Ventham, who belied her 32 years of age by playing Claire Mallinger with coquettish charm and just a hint of predatory sexuality. The less than human half of the title character was played by an uncredited stunt man in a tatty fancy dress costume.
The photography by Stanley Long was suitably atmospheric, Cushing’s performance and in particular the interplay with his long-suffering sergeant (Glynn Edwards) added to the fun, but the film fell apart whenever the moth appeared.
If the costume was bad then the climatic ‘moth to flames’ scenes was laughable. With no money to speak of, the effects expert Roger Dicken fashioned a crude model that hung lifelessly from a fishing line, dangling in front of the camera. The effects looked so awful in the rushes that Tenser ordered them scrapped and Sewell and Long had to construct an ending using bits of footage left over from earlier shots. The filmmakers were plagued with further difficulties when a fire destroyed one of the sets at Goldhawk studios and they were forced to decamp to Grim’s Dyke House for an impromptu staging of the scenes.
Despite all the difficulties, Sewell remained constantly upbeat, as Long testifies, “it was a real pleasure working with Vernon. He was a lovely man, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was very, very experienced and we had a great rapport. He thought through the camera, he knew what you saw was what was in the frame and it didn’t matter what was going on outside.”
Inevitably the threadbare script and the equally shabby production values had an impact on the cast, and Robert Flemying was particularly downbeat. “He would tell everyone who would listen,” Stanley Long reveals, “this film is a piece of shit.” Even the normally sanguine Peter Cushing could not disguise his reservations. “Peter and I hadn’t discussed the script at all,” Sewell remembered, “which I hadn’t thought was unusual, he was a very professional actor. Then after a day Peter came up to me and he obviously wasn’t happy. He said, “I think this is perhaps the worst film I have ever made.” Well, I felt quite flattered really! There wasn’t much else one could say!”
In fairness to Cushing, the actor was at a particular low point both professionally and personally. He had just completed the notorious gorefest Corruption (1968), where he played a demented plastic surgeon much prone to slicing open young women and removing their pituitary glands. At one point the first gentleman of fantasy was required to stab a naked prostitute to death and then wipe his bloody hands on her naked breasts. Cushing’s mental wellbeing was put under further pressure by the declining health of his wife, and soon after completing shooting on Blood Beast he took an extended leave of absence to care for her.
Whatever he thought about the picture, Cushing was nothing but professional on set; he made refinements to his characterization and dialogue to make the part more interesting and even re-wrote the lines for Roy Hudd, who had a cameo as a morgue-keeper, to inject some badly needed intentional humour into the film. Cushing’s contribution included the closing lines when Sgt Allen and Inspector Quennell watch in disbelief as their quarry is burned to crisp. “They’ll never believe this at the Yard,” offers Allen, “They’ll never believe it anywhere!” Quennell deadpans.
The film opened initially on a bill with Castle of the Living Dead (1964) which featured some second unit footage by Michael Reeves, but the response was distinctly underwhelming. Ever the pragmatist, Tenser pulled the film and held it back with the intention of using it as a support feature to another film he had in production at the same time, an altogether more ambitious effort from Mike Reeves.
Tigon was about to embark on what Tenser thought was just another modestly budgeted horror film, it proved to be one of the most controversial films Tigon ever made, it almost ended the career of its director before it really began and it finished any hope Tenser had of a long-term relationship with AIP.
Tenser had won the undying respect of independent distributors in the UK by making money out of the lamest of Norman Wisdom comedies, What’s Good for the Goose (1969), which presented the diminutive funny man’s mid-life crisis with perky Sally Geeson. Tigon was luckier with Love in Our Time (1968), a ‘sex-mockumentary’ which cost next to nothing and made its money back in its London release alone. They finally struck box-office gold again with Monique (1970), a domestic drama masquerading as a sex film that boasted the first ménage a trios seen in a British film. That titbit alone was enough to secure the film an extended run in the West End of London where it proved popular with the ‘specialist’ market.