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24th Nov 05
A centuries-old witch's curse is to blame for a series of ghastly murders in 1970's London...
Review Reviewed as part of The Norman J. Warren Collection boxset.
When Norman J. Warren saw Suspiria he was profoundly affected by it. His next film, it was decided, was to be directly influenced by Argento’s powerful visual signatures. Using strong, colourful lighting, a relentless soundtrack, elaborately gruesome set pieces and huge, and broad brushstrokes of horror, Warren and his small crew constructed an acute celluloid attack, aimed straight between the eyes.
Terror’s story opens 300 years ago, with a witch being burned at the stake. It transpires that we’re watching a film within a film, made by Charles as an attempt to chronicle his ancestral history. When his sister falls under a trance and tries to attack him with a huge sword (from the aforementioned period), Charles begins to worry that all is not well. And he’d be right. Not only does his sister have great trouble in holding the massive sword due to its incredible weight, but he learns that his family line (he and his sister, Anne) is cursed, courtesy of the witch in her last few hot moments at the fiery stake. Soon, a lot of acquaintances start to die in very horrible ways that include decapitation, impalement, stabbing, head crushing, etc.
This is what happens when a bunch of keen young film fanatics go out and make a horror film with hardly any money, a handful of ideas about plot, and a lot of ideas about atmosphere and ways of killing people. What Terror does is it creates a loosely constructed scenario – that of the witch’s curse – and uses it to justify an 80-minute murder medley. The victims are tenuously linked, but fans of this film’s qualities won’t care about that. They also won’t care about the lack of a central, driving plot, instead opting to stay on the ghost train instead of jumping off before it’s finished.
Helping to keep you firmly saddled into the ride is the charming time-capsule quality that permeates Warren’s 1970’s output. It’s no secret that the 70’s was the best decade for horror films, so ploughing through the low budget offerings of the era like this only serves to enrich the schlock palate. It’s also incredibly good fun. Warren’s cameraman and long-time accomplice, Les Young, is particularly adept at creating just the right kind of atmosphere, and his experience proves indispensable when it comes to resourceful camera tricks to portray otherwise impossibly expensive effects.
Young and Warren really go to town on the Argento-flavoured lighting effects. Yup, it’s Christmas tree time in Horror Land, time to dig out all those red and blue gels and saturate the screen with their magic. What is also strikingly similar to Argento’s style is the enthused willingness to work the weather into a storm frenzy – Terror’s characters are often subjected to horrendous, Argento-inspired weather conditions – rainstorms, thunder, lightening – everything is crashing down on them, and this is simply accepted, like most of what happens in Terror. Otherwise you can forget it.
The murder scenes (which are plenty) are pretty remarkable, with one in particular being totally knockout. When Phillip realises that Ann is more involved in the murders than she’s admitting, he is thus placed instantly in danger, and is trapped inside his film studio by the unseen supernatural forces. They rip the entire studio apart; the wind machines work overtime to produce a spectacular sequence that sees our imperilled character desperately flee from attacking dollies, film cans, falling walls and fire. Even the film stock itself seems to have a life of its own, becoming what Warren and his crew nicknamed The Film Monster. Every object in the studio is pursuing him, attacking him, trapping him. There’s no escape. It’s a hellishly chaotic scene that culminates in his falling down a flight of stairs, smashing his head through the glass panel at bottom, only to realise there is another glass pane now directly above his neck. You can guess what happens next.
If this sounds like great fun, that’s because it is. Warren ties the eloquent set pieces together with a conscious disregard for central logic and detail but the humour in MacGillavray’s script keeps Terror from sagging as much as it could. In Charles’ studio, for example, a soft porn director is trying to complete his current masterpiece, inspiringly entitled Bathtime with Brenda. The comic relief accompanying these subplots is a welcome and genuinely well-written ingredient, and despite Terror being clearly no Suspiria, it’s certainly a hell of a lot funnier.
The soundtrack is suitably chaotic, relying more on sound effects and loops rather than music, which in this case is a rather cheap sounding synthesiser affair played during the credits, but works nonetheless. It might not be a patch on John Scott’s magnificent composition for Satan’s Slave but its analogue 70’s sound fits in effortlessly here.
Terror is cheap and cheerful British horror, made by people who love what they’re doing. It’s got laughs, shocks, nudity, bucket loads of claret and most important of all, personality. Special guest appearance by Chewbacca. No joke.
Bonus disc material: Bloody Good Fun – excellent 40-minute documentary featuring Norman J. Warren, producer / cameraman Les Young, production designer Hayden Pearce, screenwriter David MacGillivray, cast members Carolyn Courage, Elaine Ives-Cameron, and James Aubrey. Everyone involved in Terror had perhaps the best time of their careers – this documentary is superb fun.
Extras on Terror disc: Feature length commentary
20-second radio spot