After the success of Witchfinder General, Tigon and AIP had wasted no time in getting their next project together, a loose adaptation of H P Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House, which would ultimately hit the screens as Curse of the Crimson Altar. AIP already had a script by science fiction writer Jerry Sohl which they had announced at various points over the years, but the decision to shoot in England meant a major re-vamp at the hands of Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, best known as Dr Who writers.
Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Eden) searches for his brother, who was last known to have visited the remote house of Craxted Lodge at Greymarsh, their family’s ancestral town. Arriving at night, he finds a party is in progress, and he is invited to stay by Eve (Wetherell), the niece of the owner of the house. His sleep is restless and strange dreams of ritual sacrifice disturb him. Enquiring about his brother, he is assured by the house owner, Morley (Lee), that the man is not there. Manning’s suspicions are aroused by nightmarish hallucinations. Occult expert Professor Marsh (Karloff) informs Manning about a witchcraft cult led by Morley’s ancestor, Lavinia (Steele). The cult is discovered to still be active. Craxted Lodge is burned to the ground, and the head of the cult is consumed in the flames.
Vernon Sewell, who had proved such a safe pair of hands with The Blood Beast Terror, was brought in to direct, and much to his delight he was allocated John Cocquillon as cinematographer.
“I’d known Johnny for years,” Sewell said, “a very good young man and he wasn’t afraid to try new things, clipping lights on walls and so on. I used to go for that a lot; I don’t like floods of lights and all that nonsense.”
Cocquillon, who would become the cameraman of choice for Sam Peckinpah, found his ingenuity tested by Tigon’s decision to shoot the film at Grim’s Dyke House, but he managed to make the 19th century mansion seem a labyrinth of dark recesses and secret passages. Cocquillon’s efforts prompted a line of dialogue where one character says, “It’s like a house from one of those old horror films”. “It’s like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment,” comes the retort.
That deathless exchange was a late inclusion to the screenplay by Tigon’s resident script doctor Gerry Levy, and was a rather chunky introduction to the star of the proceedings — Boris Karloff himself, who despite being largely confined to a wheelchair and dependent on oxygen from a cylinder kept permanently at his side, took pride of place at the top of the cast list. Predictably Tenser could not get insurance for the 80-year old actor so, setting aside the implications of the billing and the subsequent promotional material, Karloff’s contribution was kept peripheral to the main action and his role of occult expert Professor Marsh is primarily a red herring to distract the audience from a more obvious villain in the shape of Christopher Lee. Karloff’s heir apparent was cast as Morley a morose figure much given to skulking around in his library while his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherall), throws lively parties for the local “kids”.
The role was hardly a stretch for the star and he later explained, “Boris was already a sick man but his courage, sheer guts and superb professionalism were literally boundless. I made this film simply to be with him before he left us.” The story has an antique dealer called Robert Manning investigating the mysterious disappearance of his brother whose last known location was the Morley house. Mixed up in the intrigue somehow are the mentally challenged butler, Elder, and a green-tinged witch, Lavinia, who only appears whenever Manning falls asleep.
Karloff’s ill health gave producers fears that he may not be able to finish filming. Before production began, the aging actor was dropped from the role and the search was on for an equally recognizable name. Attempts to sign Vincent Price would have meant delaying the start of the project, so Christopher Lee was contracted. It was just a week before the cameras were due to roll that Tigon changed their minds on Karloff, rather callously figuring that they’d have paid him whether he lived or died anyway. A smaller part was hastily written by associate producer Gerry Levy.
Determined to create an all star jamboree, Tenser hired Michael Gough as Elder and persuaded cult favourite Barbara Steele to don the body paint as the long dead Lavina, burned at the stake several hundred years earlier. None of this makes much sense but it is gamely played by the principles, particularly Karloff who proved himself a trooper in what would be his last appearance in a British picture.
Boris were shot first. It was by no means an easy shoot for the legend, however. Frail, ill, and confined to a wheelchair, the filming took place during several cold December nights. No matter how sad the image of the frail and actor is, he gave 100 percent and is as memorable and engaging as he ever was.
Crimson subjected the frail actor to extensive night shooting, which accelerated the illness that later took his life. “Boris had trouble with his breathing, and had to go into hospital at one point.” Tenser recounts. “We had to shoot around him with a double for some exterior shots. I went to see him at the private hospital where he was staying. I called at the front desk, and asked for Mr. Boris Karloff. The receptionist told me, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have anyone here by that name.’
“I knew it was the right hospital. I thought for a moment, and then asked, “Do you have a Mr. William Pratt [Karloffs real name] registered?’ The receptionist replied, ‘Oh yes, we have Mr. Pratt. I was shown up to his room, and in walked Boris. He had been out for a stroll along the corridor. He was so modest that nobody at the hospital realized that William Pratt was Boris Karloff.”
So taken was Tenser with the incomparable genre icon that he even served as chauffeur for the kindly Karloff. “I called for Boris one day at his flat in the West End of London, and his wife, Evie, answered the door,” he remembers. “I told her, ‘I’m a few minutes early, because I wanted to give Boris a chance to get his things together. She said, ‘Come in and have a cup of tea, because he’s busy recording.’ Does he have a crew with him?’ I asked. ‘Oh no,’ she replied. ‘He’s in his room alone, recording children’s stories for the Reader’s Digest.’
Even opposite Christopher Lee, the star shone brightly, delivering his lines with his trademark beautiful lisping voice. A brilliant gag has his character raving about a vintage brandy, only for Mark Eden’s Robert Manning to down it as if it were water; leaving the academic scoffing at his young guest.
Price was originally meant to play the villain. However, by the time the script was rewritten (by associate producer Gerry Levy) at Karloffs insistence, Price had been assigned by AIP to Harry Alan Towers’ lurid House of 1.000 Dolls—and was replaced by Karloffs then-London neighbor Lee.
Equally respectful of his other major horror star. Tenser established a pleasant working relationship with the occasionally overbearing Lee. “We got along fine,” he says. “Chris will talk a lot, but what he says is usually interesting. I was considering producing a television series based on Dennis Wheatley’s supernatural stories, and I wanted Chris to star. I met with him and Wheatley, and we virtually agreed on the deal. Unfortunately, Wheatley was contracted out more than he had realized, and couldn’t proceed with it.
“I felt for him very much,” Sewell later remembered: “He said to me, ‘Look here Vernon, do you think I could walk from here to there. I don’t want the audience to see me in a wheelchair?’ I said, ‘I suppose so’ and he staggered across and when he got there he almost passed out with the effort.” The narrative plods along at a gentle pace, briefly livened with some mild S&M sequences, which featured prominently in the film’s advertising, and a flash of nudity, care of Virginia Wetherell’s body double. But, despite the distractions, one is left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the film’s most vaunted teaming of the “King, the Crown Prince and Queen of Horror.”
The Haunted House of Horror (1969)
In swinging London, a group of twenty-something friends are attending a rather dull party, and they decide to gather for kicks at an old, supposedly haunted mansion where one of their number used to play as a child. Among the group is American ringleader Chris, his bored girlfriend Sheila, promiscuous Sylvia (who has her eye on handsome two-timing Gary) and his “good girl” date, Dorothy. Also tagging along are nervous, heavy-set Madge her sarcastic, hot-tempered boyfriend Peter, sweet-faced Richard and his friend Henry. They are all followed by Paul Kellet, Sylvia’s older, jealous and married ex-boyfriend.
They have fun exploring the mansion, even holding a séance before separating one by one by candlelight on the moonlit night. Sylvia, frightened by the mansion, leaves and hitchhikes toward home, but Kellet hangs behind at the mansion. While all the partiers are alone, Gary is brutally knifed and his body is discovered by the panic-stricken Dorothy and the others. Because some of them have a criminal record, Chris convinces the group to leave Gary’s body far from the home and to pretend that Gary left and that no one knows where he went. They are all shaken by Chris’ assertion that one of them must be the murderer.
During the next few weeks, the survivors are possessed by tension and guilt, and after Gary is reported missing, they are further shaken by questioning from the police. Kellet confronts Sylvia, learning that she may have lost a lighter that could link them to the mansion. He returns there but is also killed.
Dorothy calls the survivors together to ask to confess. However, Chris convinces them to return to the house to discover who among them is the killer before they all succumb to a gruesome death. Meanwhile, Sylvia is visited by the police again, and she discloses the location of the house after learning of Kellet’s disappearance. At the mansion, Dorothy becomes hysterical, prompting several of the group to depart, leaving just Chris, Sheila and Richard. While Sheila is out of the room, Richard recounts how he was locked in a basement for three days as a child and tells that he has a paralyzing fear of the dark. Despite Chris’ efforts, he is also knifed and Sheila is frantically chased around the mansion. Just as Richard is about to strike, the moon goes behind a cloud, bringing about his reversion to childhood and fear of the dark, thus saving Sheila as the police arrive.
After all my frustrations with the censor I dug up an old script I’d written when I was sixteen called THE DARK and I found a small commercials company who said they’d sort out the distribution if I could raise the finance… so, I went back to my original INITIATE investor who agreed to put up the money, but then the distributor went under leaving me wandering around wondering how to get distribution. I then went to John Trevelyan and told him about my situation and he said there was a company just starting up called Tigon. So, John phoned Tony Tenser and I went to see him on the following day. I went along and a few days later I was handed a contract and got paid £300. Little did I realise that the minimum was way above that! My backer then withdrew but Tony said he would collect the bill. Then there was about a six month gap, by which time I had spent the £300 and was virtually living on the streets, when I was suddenly called back and was told that the film was going into co-production with AIP… and because it was in the contract that I was going to direct it they were stuck with me.
Made on a budget of £80,000 and shot principally on location at the 100-year-old Birkdale Palace Hotel at Southport which had been turned into a film studio by art director Hayden Pearce, The Haunted House of Horror concerned a group of bored youngsters who decide to continue a party in an old dark, supposedly haunted, house and the reverberations when one of their number is viciously and for the time, gorily–hacked to death. “Frankie Avalon had to be the star as he had been under contract to AIP and owed them some days work. It was for this reason also that I nearly had to have Boris Karloff in a cameo role. David Bowie was going to be the killer but the part eventually went to Julian Barnes, and I had originally approached singer Scott Walker for the part played by another singing star, Mark Wynter”. After four weeks of shooting, Armstrong watched as another director, Gerry Levy (a Tigon in-house producer/director) who had made the appalling The Body Stealers, reshot and added scenes that distorted his original concept of the film. “My film was a cynical attack on the swinging ’60s and they changed that perspective.
With his script in tatters, a miscast of actors and the start date looming, Armstrong looked to Tony Tenser for
some guidance on where to begin. “He assured me it would be all right,” Armstrong says, “He had a plan. We
would shoot two versions — one with the original script and one with Deke’s revised version. I was told this was done all the time!”
Incredibly this led to Dennis Price’s scenes being shot twice, with and sans wheelchair! Taking over the Palace Hotel in Southport, Armstrong found some refuge from Heyward’s interference but even with Tony Tenser on location throughout, the film fell behind schedule.
“The script changed so many times,” Armstrong confesses, “it was hard to keep track of what was going on. One day we had a four week shoot the next day Tony told me to wrap it up in three.” It was hardly a surprise that when Arkoff and Nicholson arrived in London to view their investment they watched the rough cut in stunned silence. After the screening, Armstrong was asked to leave the room while they made their feelings known in no uncertain terms. In an attempt to retrieve the picture, an additional week of filming was agreed, with a new subplot and a new character involved in an extra-marital affair with one of the girls.
Armstrong was removed and Gerry Levy, the man Tenser referred to as, “my general fixer” was brought in to oversee the shooting and a new edit. George Sewell, the veteran television actor, was hired to play the new character and remembers the whole situation being a little odd.
“I got a call from Gerry Levy and we agreed to meet up and discuss a part,” the actor recalls. “He didn’t say it outright but I got the impression that the original version was too strong. I don’t know if that means too violent or too explicit.” Levy’s intervention included two additional murders filmed at Grims Dyke house, and various inserts and pick-up shots designed to pad out the running time.
Tony Tenser decided to play safe and give it a commercial title. I was editing THE IMAGE at the time in offices opposite Tigon and I remember looking out of the window and seeing the poster for THE DARK being removed and THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR one being put in (laughs). Tony loved titles… like THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR and all that sort of thing.
The director would achieve catharsis of sorts by channeling his frustrations into a semi-fictionalized send up of filmmaking called Eskimo Nell, with Armstrong playing himself and confronting thinly disguised versions of all the leading characters, including Tony Tenser and Deke Heyward.
On the 2nd of February 1969 the curtain finally came down on the venerable Boris Karloff. While ill-health had spared him the indignity of a substantial role in The Dark, Gerry Levy had constructed a prologue in the hope that he would recover enough to make a more modest contribution to the film. That wasn’t to be, but Tenser remained genuinely moved by the old man’s determination to continue until the very end.
They also changed the explorations into the psychological motivations of the killer, which were that he was gay and had a sort of closet-queen murderous mentality”. The final indignation came when Armstrong was cutting a picture for Border Films called The Hunt. The cutting rooms overlooked Tigon’s offices, “And I watched as a poster was put in the window for The Dark on the Tuesday and replaced on Thursday with one for The Haunted House of Horror. I stormed round to Tony Tenser and was told that I had to think commercial”. The Haunted House of Horror was released in the UK with a lack-lustre thriller called Clegg. In America it fared better as simply Horror House on its first release with Tigon’s Curse of the Crimson Altar and on its re-release with the Helmut Berger Dorian Gray.
It was a nice gesture and it’s a shame that Tigon was now so busy that it wasn’t possible to realise. The company was expanding on a number of fronts including into the small screen where Tigon Television was in negotiations with Christopher Lee and Dennis Wheatley to make an occult based series. Elsewhere cinemas, bingo halls and music publishers all came under the burgeoning empire’s acquisitive grasp and soon Tigon was taking a lease over two floors of Hammer House, the corporate head office of James Carreras.
Zeta One /The Love Factor (1969)
Tenser was busy producing a sex comedy called What’s Good for the Goose (1968) when he was approached by Henry White and Edgar Bronfman’s Sagittarius Films with an offer to co-finance a script called Thin Air, by Mike St Clair. Since Sagittarius had the serious financial muscle of the Seagram whisky empire behind them, Tenser decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. Gerry Levy was slated to direct and, working under the nom de plume Peter Marcus, he rewrote Mike St Clair’s script to transfer Thin Air’s Californian settings to England, Anglicise the characters and lighten the tone so that it would land that all important ‘A’ certificate. It was also Levy who hired actor Patrick Allen to play Bob Megan a maverick NATO trouble shooter brought in to resolve the mysterious disappearances of military parachutists — in mid-free fall. After the brief flirtation with a beautiful but mysterious blonde, Megan, sporting a nice line in knitwear, is soon on hot on the trial of the culprits, the advance guard of an alien invasion force. Allen had starred in a number of movies including Hammer’s Captain Clegg (1962) but at the time he was best known as the title character in the popular television series Crane.
A spy for Section 5, James Word, finds a secretary for the section waiting as he returns home. As they play strip poker, he tells about tailing Major Bourdon. Bourdon was conducting an investigation into the women from Angvia. The Angvians are led by Zeta, and are an all-women secret society. The Angvians regularly abducted other planet’s women into their ranks where they were brainwashed to become operatives. Their next target is stripper ‘Ted’ Strain and so Section 5 uses her to set a trap for them. As Bourdon’s men take several of the Angvian agents prisoner, a final confrontation between the various parties occurs at his estate.
Vernon Sewell was no better served by his only other venture into the fantasy world of Tigon when Tenser asked him to help out on a science fiction film that was causing him some concerns. Zeta One was one of the more ambitious Tigon movies, at least in its design.
Adapted from a comic strip, the script by director Michael Cort was intended as a spoof on James Bond crossed with Barbarella, the sort of collision between broad humor and soft-core sex that became extremely popular in the mid-1970’s. The story has something to do with secret agent James Word being called in to investigate what would appear to be an invasion by scantily clad space sex vixens. More earthbound villainy came in the unlikely shape of bondage obsessed criminal mastermind, James Robertson Justice, and his obsequious sidekick played by Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, a late replacement for Frankie Howerd whose agent had wisely talked him out of it. Her Majesty’s Secret Service had recruited former Hammer actor Robin Hawdon and amongst the starlets squeezed into lycra and wigs were Dawn Addams, Valerie Leon and Anna Gael. As a concept it was an entertaining enough mix, but Cort, under pressure to meet the scheduled start date, assembled his cast and crew at the Camden Studios before the script had been finished.
The studio, a former wallpaper factory, was still in the throes of a major refurbishment which meant a number of the key sets would not be available. Cort, who was making his feature film debut, improvised as best he could, but the ill-thought out script and poorly realized set-pieces meant the assembled film delivered to Tigon was an unreleasable mess.
Tenser was not about to write-off his investment, so a wraparound sequence was hurriedly written and Hawdon was recalled to spend two days playing strip poker with Yutte Stensgaard; Vernon Sewell had the thankless task of making sense out of the garbled narrative.
The newly reconstructed film was marginally more comprehensible but despite generous coverage (and uncoverage in the girlie mags) it was something of a blessing when it sunk without a trace almost the moment after it opened.
The end of 1969 saw Tigon ready to get back into the horror business. Christopher Neame, late of Hammer, had joined the company as production manager and was being groomed by Tenser as his heir apparent. “There wasn’t a lot of difference between Hammer and Tigon in terms of spirit and the method of making a film, except, ” Neame explains, “Hammer budgets were tight, Tigon budgets were very, very tight!”
Tenser had taken advantage of the seasonal downswing in film production to book Pinewood Studios for several weeks starting in January at a very reasonable rate. The only problem was he didn’t have any films ready to make. “I suppose you could say that is where I earned my wages!” Neame muses. “Graham Harris brought us a script which at that point was called, Young Man I Think You Are Dying. He had developed the project up to a point with his partner James Kelly and now needed funding.”
The Beast in the Cellar (1970)
Soldiers stationed at a rural army base are being mauled to death in the surrounding woodland. The authorities suspect a wild cat, but sisters Joyce and Ellie Ballantyne (Flora Robson and Beryl Reid), who live in a house nearby, fear that the soldiers are actually being murdered by their brother Steven (Dafydd Havard), who has been locked in their cellar for nearly 30 years.
Joyce and Ellie discover that Steven has dug a tunnel out of the cellar, allowing him to come and go as he pleases. They also find the body of one of the soldiers. As they fill in the tunnel, Joyce suffers a fall, forcing Ellie to complete the task alone. Ellie then buries Steven’s victim near the house.
With Joyce now bedridden, Ellie realizes that she cannot cope on her own and calls in the army and police. She tells them that Steven is her and Joyce’s younger brother, born after their soldier father’s return from the First World War. She adds that their father had been left shell-shocked by his experiences and was violent towards Steven. After their parents died, Joyce, not wanting Steven to end up like his father, resolved to prevent him from being called up at the start of the Second World War. To this end, she and Ellie drugged Steven and placed him in the cellar, thereafter lacing his water supply with sleeping pills to keep him under control. After being physically abused by his soldier father, then incarcerated for three decades by his sisters, Steven has developed a hatred of uniformed army men and regressed to the level of a savage.
Steven re-enters the house and lunges at Joyce, who is wearing their father’s army overcoat and cap. He is fatally shot by one of the soldiers. Ellie realizes that Steven did not mean to attack Joyce, but a framed bedside photograph of their father in uniform.
The script was character driven and focused on the moral dilemma facing the sisters rather than the more obvious exploitative qualities which as Neame says was exactly its attraction: “I rather liked the script because it was different to the norm that we had been doing at Tigon. Tony didn’t agree with me, so it was one of those wonderful occasions, where I had to try to persuade him. It really became quite heavy, he was adamant it wasn’t going to make it and I was adamant that if he didn’t want to make it, I would go back to Hammer.” Time was the deciding factor and The Cellar, as it was initially re-titled, was green-lighted to fill the production gap. Neither Neame nor James Kelly considered The Cellar a horror film and their press announcements talked of an “intense family drama”, which was enough to land Beryl Reid, the popular comedienne who was trying her hand at straight acting after the success of The Killing of Sister George. To play opposite Reid, Neame approached the formidable Flora Robson whose career managed to run its four decades without coming into contact with companies like Tigon and who saw no reason to change that position now. Robson only relented after an encounter with an old friend on the train from Brighton.
“She told me she had been of a mind to decline our paltry offer when she met Laurence Olivier,” Neame reveals. “His advice to her was to take any job in these difficult times that would pay the rent.” Page after page of dialogue had been an attraction to the thespians but it was the last thing that Tenser wanted to see on the screen. After watching the first cut he sent Kelly back to the set to shoot some gory inserts which were randomly distributed throughout the film to beef up the narrative; and although it might not seem like it now, the seemingly endless exchanges between Reid and Robson were trimmed.
In case the public were still confused, Beast In… was added to the shooting title and Tigon’s art department focused their graphic on the titular creature. While Beast In The Cellar was in production, Neame was overseeing the development of a new version of Fanny Hill and still looking for a horror project to use the Pinewood stages.
Although Tigon released them separately in England, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Beast in the Cellar were double billed in America by Cannon Films minus Hayden’s full frontal nudity.
Seeing the downswing in the market, James Carreras was looking for a way out of film production. “He was getting on, I think he had his knighthood by then and he wanted to get out,” Tenser explained. “He told me that Hammer was for sale and was I interested?” Tigon certainly had the money. In the previous 12 months their capital base had grown from a mere £250,000 to nearly £15M and included the purchase of a chain of 56 provincial cinemas. Tenser also had the desire to turn Hammer into the Tigon Group’s filmmaking division. “I would keep the Hammer name,” Tenser insists, “but I would make my films, my way which was a lot cheaper than Hammer’s way. The people that he [Carreras] had were not used to working economically and we could do better.”
Terms of sale were agreed, contracts drawn up and even a celebratory dinner for members of the two boards scheduled to celebrate the deal. But the champagne remained corked. Carreras’ son Michael came in with a counter offer, by which time the Tigon accountants had poured over the books and concluded that the purchase was nowhere near as good a deal as it had first seemed. Tenser bowed out gracefully and left Hammer as a family concern.
The market for British movies, particularly horror movies had now dwindled to practically nothing. Overproduction at the start of the 1970’s led to a glut of films that more than slaked public appetites on both sides of the Atlantic, and the backlog of movies waiting release grew ever larger. Faced with dwindling returns, Tigon’s filmmaking aspirations started to shrink. The big budget adventures were out and low-budget comedies became the order of the day.
Black Beauty (1971) a retelling of the children’s classic was made and represented a massive change of direction for the company, It was followed later in the year by Hannie Caulder (1971), starring Raquel Welch, which realized Tenser’s long held ambition to make a western and was by far Tigon’s most expensive movie.
Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) is a frontier wife, living with her husband at a horse station between towns in the American West. After a disastrous bank raid, the inept Clemens brothers gang arrives at the station. They murder Caulder’s husband, gang-rape her, burn down her house, and leave her for dead. The brothers go on a crime spree, while Caulder recruits bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp) to help her get revenge by training her to be a gunfighter. The pair travels to Mexico to have gunsmith Bailey (Christopher Lee) build her a specialized revolver, to be a fast draw specialist. When bandidos surround the house, a gun battle erupts, but Hannie is unable to kill a man face-to-face. Price recommends she give up her quest for revenge, but she refuses, telling him to get out and that she was only using him and does not need him anymore. He leaves, telling her she is a bad liar.
As he goes, Price sees the Clemens brothers arrive in town. His attempt to take down Frank goes awry, because Emmett (Ernest Borgnine) throws a knife into Price’s belly, mortally wounding him. Hannie goes after them, killing Frank (Jack Elam) in a whorehouse. The two brothers swear revenge on her, but she gets Rufus (Strother Martin) in a store when he tries to kill her. Hannie lures Emmett to an old prison for a showdown and almost meets the same fate as Price, but Emmett’s attempt to throw a knife into her back is thwarted by the preacher, who shoots it from his hand. Hannie kills Emmett face-to-face, but realizes that Price was right – taking revenge will change her forever.
Patrick Curtis, then married to Raquel Welch, met with Tony Tenser of Tigon British Film Productions with a view to obtaining funding for a movie starring Welch. Curtis proposed a horror movie or a Western; Tenser, who had always wanted to make a Western, picked that. Tigon put up 100% of the budget, while Curtwel (Curtis and Welch’s production company) put up their services. Neither Curtis nor Welch took a salary, instead taking profit participation.
The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971) had a remarkable cast that included Bruce Forsyth, Spike Milligan, Leslie Phillips and Julie Ege in a series of vignettes played against the Biblical sins, but was undermined by lackluster direction.
The first segment, “Avarice”, is written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey. In this segment, a 50p coin falls down a drain and a rich man (Whitsun-Jones) orders his chauffeur (Forsyth) to retrieve it. A fisherman (Hudd) attempts to fish it out. The chauffeur’s efforts result only in the coin dropping farther down into the sewer. Other people become involved in the search, including a policewoman (Sims) and one of the workers in the sewer. In the end the rich man, seeing the sewage on the chauffeur, fires him but then falls straight into the open sewer. The chauffeur drops the coin in after him and after replacing the manhole cover, walks away with a purposeful stride.
For the Love of Ada (1972) was a dire adaptation of an equally dire television sitcom that almost no-one went to see. Both these films were aimed entirely at the domestic market and indicated just how parochial Tigon’s ambitions had become.
Walter and Ada Bingley (Wilfred Pickles and Irene Handl), an elderly couple, are about to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. To celebrate, their family, friends and neighbours plan a surprise party.
Plans were afoot to make more adventure movies including The Last of The Mohicans and Treasure Island, as well as Kill Me Kindly- a big budget thriller intended for either Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. Tigon’s distribution arm was equally diverse and offered cinemagoers everything from the erotic black magic of Virgin Witch (1972) to wholesome family adventure in Sammy, the Way-Out Seal (1962) (Disney).
Doomwatch (1972) An outsider visits a remote isolated village that has seemingly shunned the modern life. Doctor Del Shaw, an investigator from the British ecological watchdog group nicknamed Doomwatch, is sent to the island of Balfe, to file a report on the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. He becomes fascinated with the mysterious behavioural disorders of the locals who display rudeness and random aggression and a strange genetic prevalence of thick lips and sloping brows. Investigation shows that the villagers have been suffering over a prolonged period from hormonal disorders, which are being caused by leaking drums of growth stimulants that have been dumped offshore. The islanders have been eating contaminated fish and develop a disorder of excessive hormonal growth, which produces aggression and eventually madness, attributed to a form of acromegaly. Rather than seek help from the mainland they hide those who are deformed from any newcomers.
Doomwatch was another television adaptation but at least it marked a return to the fantasy genre, even if the budget was still modest and it says a great deal for the state of the industry that actors of the calibre of Judy Geeson and Ian Bannen turned up for a fraction of their previous day rates. The story concerns a group of intrepid scientists called in to investigate the effects of an oil tanker disaster near to a remote island. The environmental impacts take secondary consideration when the residents start to develop hideous mutations.
To direct the film, Tigon engaged Peter Sasdy who had previously helmed some of Hammer’s more interesting ventures including Hands of the Ripper, but who was keen to break new ground. “I told my agent I didn’t want to do any more Hammer films,” the irrepressible Sasdy says, “I wanted something new so I jumped at the chance to do a contemporary science fiction film, and I enjoyed it, it was fun to do.”
At its heart the film may have been science fiction, but the artwork was designed to promote the film’s ‘monsters’ even if on screen they were very much of the sympathetic variety. “I think perhaps the publicity suggested something the film wasn’t,” Sasdy allows, “It wasn’t a horror film, it was a thriller.”
To ensure the film reached its television audience the screenplay was tempered to make sure the BBFC was comfortable awarding an ‘A’ but despite Sasdy directing with his usual verve and engaging performances from the leads, the critics were unimpressed: “It’s rather dismal to see the cinema limping along picking up scraps from television”- said The Evening News, while The Sun’s critic crowed, “I would like to say it turns out as exciting on the big screen as the small but it doesn’t, not by a long way.” The disappointing returns meant Tigon’s plans for Doomwatch 2 were quietly shelved.
Tigon’s television subsidiary had come to nothing, but the company was expanding at a startling pace under the supervision of Tenser’s long-term partner Laurie Marsh, a self-made millionaire with a network of contacts in the City of London. With Marsh’s entrepreneurial skills the Tigon Group emerged as a major player in film exhibition, distribution.
Unable to sell either Doomwatch or For the Love of Ada (1972) for American theatrical release, Tenser began to re-evaluate his position in the rapidly changing world film market. His friendship with Hammer Films head Sir James Carreras afforded him an opportunity for expansion. “Tigon was located in an office building at 113 Wardour Street in London,” he notes. “We had the ground and first floors, and Hammer had the second floor-where the men’s room also happened to be. I would often be in there before lunchtime, taking a leak next to Jimmy and discussing the day’s work. We became quite good friends that way.
“Jimmy was a very popular and jovial man, and was always smiling, Towards the end of his time with Hammer, we tried to do a deal in which we would amalgamate. We discussed the possibility of Tigon buying out Hammer. But he decided that if he was going to give up the company, he should first offer it to his son Michael-and that’s what happened.”
The Creeping Flesh (1973) 27-year old independent producer Michael Redbourn, a former dubbing editor for Amicus, had purchased the rights to the property in January 1971, but was content to bide his time for a whole year to ensure, as he put it, that “All the elements were just right”. The availability of Cushing and Lee was obviously uppermost in his mind. As director Freddie Francis later pointed out, “The two of them together really work. I mean, if you want to make horror films … you can’t do better than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. They have a wonderful chemistry on screen.”
Prof. Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing), a Victorian era scientist is shown in what appears to be a laboratory meeting a young doctor. Hildern excitedly tells the doctor that he needs help because he has discovered a form of evil that is real, a living being, and that he has unwittingly unleashed the evil thousands of years too soon. Hildern then recounts how his discovery was made.
In a flashback, Hildern recounts his return in 1894 from an expedition to New Guinea where he has discovered an abnormally large humanoid skeleton. Paradoxically, the skeleton is far older than previously recovered specimens, but also much more advanced. Hildern hopes the discovery will earn him the prestigious Richter Prize. Hildern has little time to rejoice before receiving word that his wife, institutionalised for years, has finally died. This he learns from his brother James Hildern (Christopher Lee) who runs the asylum where Hildern’s wife had been held in secret. While visiting the asylum, James tells his brother that he made a psychiatric study of Hildern’s wife and plans to publish the findings in the hope of winning the Richter Prize. He also tells Hildern that he will no longer subsidise Hildern’s expeditions.
Returning home and to the skeleton, and with a new urgency to complete his research, Hildern discovers that the skeleton grows flesh when exposed to water. Hildern reviews myths of ancient peoples of the region where the skeleton was discovered, which tell of evil giants who will be roused by rain. Hildern theorises that the skeleton is the remains of one of those evil beings, and would not have been discovered before for thousands of years of erosion revealed its resting place. By that time, the science of the region’s inhabitants would have grown sophisticated enough to deal with the evil. Hildern makes a further conclusion – if evil can live as an organism, then it can be biologically contained and eradicated like a disease. Using cells formed around the skeleton’s fleshy finger – which Hildern removes – he develops what he believes to be a serum against evil. Testing the serum on a monkey, Hildern notes positive results.
Meanwhile, Hildern’s daughter Penelope learns of her mother’s death. Having been told for years that her mother was dead, Penelope reacts with shock when learning that her mother had been alive and institutionalised all that time. Worried that Penelope’s emotional outburst may be a sign that she has inherited her mother’s insanity, Hildern injects her with the serum.
The next day Hildern is shocked to see that the monkey has gone berserk, having gained the strength to escape from its cage and wreak havoc in the lab. Penelope has also left the house and made her way to the city, where she assaults several men at a tavern and then, when chased by the other patrons, murders another man at a warehouse. Because the dead man was himself an escapee from James Hildern’s asylum, James has sent men to the city. There they apprehend Penelope and bring her to the asylum, where a blood test reveals the serum. James realises that his brother has experimented on Penelope, which could unleash a scandal should it become known to others. Since James’s experiments have stalled – threatening his own chances of winning the Richter Prize – James decides to steal his brother’s research, including the skeleton.
James’s thief carries the skeleton out of the lab and unwittingly exposes it to rain. When the carriage taking the skeleton overturns, the skeleton – now coming alive – escapes. Hildern tries to follow the carriage, but turns back when he sees an ominous cloaked figure nearby. Returning home, Hildern finds that the skeleton’s fleshy finger has begun to move. Terrified, Hildern throws the finger into the fire. Soon, the creature, now encased in flesh but otherwise hollow, returns to Hildern’s house and removes his finger, but spares his life.
Hildern finishes his account and the story returns to the lab seen at the beginning of the film, Hildern’s lab is revealed to be a cell in his “brother’s” asylum, and Hildern an apparent inmate there. The visiting physician consults with James who scoffs at Hildern’s claim to be related to James at all, or that Penelope – who is also being kept at the asylum, having gone completely insane – is his daughter. James finds it normal for his patients to want to identify with him, seeing that he’s an obvious authority figure. James tells the doctor that the man claiming to be his brother had arrived there about the time that James won the Richter Prize. The camera returns to Hildern’s cell, which no longer resembles a laboratory. A distraught Hildern pleads for someone to help him. The final shot is of Hildern’s left hand, which is now missing a finger matching the one that he had removed from the skeleton. It is left for the viewer to decide if Hildern’s account was true or is merely the delusion of a madman.
While AIP, Hammer and Amicus were all struggling to keep their corporate heads above water and would be closing their doors permanently over the coming years, Laurie Marsh ensured that Tigon still posted healthy profits, even if film production was a rather sickly performer compared with the other ‘entertainment’ divisions.
Limiting their exposure to a maximum of £60,000 per production helped to offset the losses on recent their films but at a meeting of Tigon’s board in March the decision was taken to change the name of the company. Tenser says, “He [Laurie Marsh] felt it would be better for the Stock Exchange as Tigon had an image that was no longer relevant to the group.”
From that point on the company would be known as LMG (Laurie Marsh Group) and while Tenser remained in place as Managing Director it was obvious there was now a wholesale retreat from film production. “I knew we were coming to the end of an era,” he remarked, “it was an end I suppose to my type of film.”
Tigon’s last contribution to the horror genre, shot at Shepperton in January 1973, was one of their most polished and entertaining films. The Creeping Flesh marked a return to the company for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who were teamed by the renowned Hammer/Amicus director Freddie Francis.
The Creeping Flesh was a deliberate attempt to evoke the best of the early Hammer/Amicus films and in addition to Messrs Cushing and Lee, it included contributions from a number of familiar names including veteran character actor Michael Ripper and make-up wizard Roy Ashton.
Although Peter Cushing expressed misgivings about the film’s imperfect resolution of its plot elements, Christopher Lee echoed the director in his appreciation of the finished product: “The Creeping Flesh, made with Peter as sparring partner (which always seems to generate a better atmosphere than when we’re on the same side) was a beautifully mounted Victorian period horror tale.” Lee had taken time out during the making of the film to spend a single Saturday morning on Gary Sherman’s remarkable Death Line (Raw Meat) (1972). Shot at Shepperton alongside The Creeping Flesh was Peter Newbrook’s horror-thriller, The Asphyx (1972). Robert Stephens took time out from the shooting of that film to visit Cushing and Lee, and publicity shots were taken of the three famous Sherlock Holmeses gathered around Lee’s desk in the Hildern Institute for the Criminally Insane.
Cushing and Lee play scientists who are half-brothers and rivals for the prestigious Richter Prize. Independently they are conducting research in the source of evil and madness, and when Cushing unwittingly unleashes a long dead demon, Lee sees the opportunity for one-upmanship.
It is a carefully constructed and intelligently mounted production, elegantly directed and well acted by both Lee and Cushing. The latter is particularly impressive as he runs through the whole gamut of emotions from loving father to gibbering madman, while Lee delivers one of his finest evocations of black-hearted villainy. Freddie Francis was particularly pleased with his leading players, “Peter had that wonderful quality of making anything seem believable and you needed that on a film like this. Christopher Lee of course is a marvelous actor and he and Peter were a tremendous partnership.”
For all its quality the film it was aimed at a market that no longer existed. Just how out of touch it was can be seen in the listless US sales campaign which billed The Creeping Flesh as “More Frightening than Frankenstein! More Dreaded than Dracula!” Hardly the sort of inducement needed to bring out the audiences that had cowered at Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead and who would soon be shocked by The Exorcist.
Location shooting was undertaken near Tower Bridge and at Thorpe (near Egham), in Surrey. The lush interior settings were adapted by art director George Provis from sets left over from The House That Dripped Blood (1970). “That film had great style”, Francis accurately recalled. “One of the reasons for that was because it was produced by a very dear friend of mine, Norman Priggen … [who didn’t know anything about horror films; he just knew about producing good films . . . It wasn’t the usual unit of people who were regularly attached to the horror film. It was pure chemistry. It was just one of those things that clicked when put together.” Other vital contributors to the film’s “chemistry” were Norman Warwick, who was working as director of photography for Francis (himself a brilliant DP) for the seventh time in five years, and composer Paul Ferris, who had previously scored (and acted in) Witchfinder General.
Tigon, or rather LMG, had one last roll of the dice with Not Now Darling (1973), a comic farce starring Leslie Phillips and Barbara Windsor that wasn’t particularly saucy or funny. By the time it opened to a lukewarm reception, Tenser’s resignation had been made public. The man dubbed the ‘godfather of British exploitation’ flirted briefly with independent film production and was involved in Pete Walker’s Frightmare, but that effectively ended his career in cinema.
The film’s appearance, in February 1973, marked one of those rare occasions when British critics actually had some kind words for a British horror film … The Guardian – “Good, solid work from Freddie Francis … a technician who invariably takes more care than most in the genre with storyline and trappings. Messrs Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee benefit from the treatment.” The Sunday Times – “It employs the twin pillars of our native horror cinema … As a matter of fact, I thought Mr Cushing gave one of his best performances; and the screenplay, too, was on a higher level of invention than usual.” Films Illustrated – “Horror fans will welcome this, very much a return in class and style to the early Hammer films … The feel of the woodland scenes is more Danish or Swedish than English … and the period is flawlessly caught, intangibly as well as in plain view … Cushing’s cultured performance looks even better within a strong storyline, and Lorna Heilbron is excellent as the repressed daughter.”
After releasing Pete Walker’s sleazy slasher film The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) in England, Tenser produced his final genre foray. Tenser’s other supernatural outing also managed to underwhelm genre fans as well as the critics. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (1972) is a story of a love so deep and enduring it lasts beyond the grave.
Popular television actress Susan Hampshire plays a young woman whose holiday affair with a stranger (Michael Petrovich) ends in tragedy and the sudden death of her new lover. Imagine her surprise when her late departed boyfriend rolls up looking only slightly the worse for wear but, despite their best efforts to carry on where they left off, the lovers find a mixed living/ dead relationship carries its own unique challenges.
The premise could have provided the basis of a passable sitcom but director Fred Burnley and screenwriter Gordon Honeycombe (adapting his own novel) weren’t playing it for laughs. Instead of Gothic romance they delivered a slow moving, ponderous film, handicapped by indifferent performances from the leads. Time Out’s critic announced it “must qualify as one of the worst films of the decade…”
After co-executive producing the film version of August Strindberg’s Swedish play Miss Julie, Tenser resigned as Tigon’s director.
“It was as good a time as any to get out,” he explains. “One had to spend a lot more in making films, or make them more explicitly. The way things were going with horror and sex scenes. I felt that films were heading in a direction I didn’t think I could cope with. So, I got out whilst the going was good. Tigon was by then a public company, and continued in business. The various functions I had were taken over by the heads of the different departments. I disposed of my stock shares gradually, so as not to rock the boat.”
While Tigon remained active for another decade, releasing such sex comedies as Come Play with Me (1977), Sex with the Stars (1980) and Emmanuelle in Soho (1981), Tenser was lured back to the film business only once-in 1974, as co-financer and uncredited executive producer of Pete Walker’s gory cannibal fest Frightmare (1974). Denied a censor’s certificate because of its unappetizing subject matter, it received only a limited release in England from Miracle Films coincidentally, the same distributor for which Tenser had worked as a publicist 20 years earlier.
Since then, Tenser has applied his business skills to the British real estate field, buying, converting and leasing domestic and commercial properties. Refreshingly unpretentious about his cinematic contributions, he has no interest in returning to filmmaking, and rejects the notion that his genre legacy has any lasting value. Although he appeared to great acclaim at the 1991 and 1992 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, England-at which he received their International Award for his film achievements—he is uncomfortable with such public recognition, and prefers to consider himself merely a working man.
“I wasn’t trying to put any message across to the audience in my films,” Tenser reflects. “Making movies is like making furniture. You make the best product for the cheapest price, and get as much as you can for it. You don’t care if you make shelves for the world’s greatest books, or toilet seats. The only difference with the film business is that, because of the specific nature of my product, I had to have some concern about its content. Aside from that, I was just an honest journeyman making a living.”
The Sorcerers (1967)
Mini Weekend (1968) The Tomcat (1968)
Zeta One (1969)
The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Witchfinder General (1968)
Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
The Body Stealers (1969)
What’s Good for the Goose (1969)
The Haunted House of Horror (1969)
Scream and Scream Again (1970)
The Beast in the Cellar (1970)
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971)
Black Beauty (1971)
Hannie Caulder (1971)
Au Pair Girls (1972)
Love in Our Time (1972)
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (1972)
The Creeping Flesh (1973)
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The Dark Side#155