Reuniting him with David McGillivray, Warren’s next film was a good deal less solemn than Prey. Indeed, Terror is rather a jolly romp which has some good jokes and lots of knowing silliness amidst the frequent gory murders. Inspired by the work of the Italian filmmakers Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Terror is, at its best, a thrillingly cinematic piece of work which is not unworthy of its influences.
Back in the 16th Century, a witch is burned by the local Squire but she returns to life to kill him and his wife, and curse all of his descendents. Three hundred years later, a film director James Garrick (Nolan), descended from the Squire, has made a film about the curse and is astonished to find that the witch’s hatred is still very much alive. Gradually, people connected with the film begin dying in bizarre circumstances and it begins to look as if no-one in London is safe from the curse.
The obvious debt which is owed by Terror is to Dario Argento’s classic shocker Suspiria (which has been comprehensively reviewed by my colleague Michael Mackenzie elsewhere on this site). The bathing of images with bright primary colours, the black-gloved killer brandishing a knife and the elaborately bloody murders all seem to spring from the Italian genre film and the cheerful disregard for plot logic is clearly derived from Suspiria, another cross between the supernatural thriller and the classic giallo. Indeed, by halfway through Terror, the whole theme of a family being cursed is forgotten and characters begin dying for no discernible reason. The central plot device of the witch’s curse upon the family who would destroy her is also very reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. This use of Italian sources is fascinating because it indicates how determined Norman Warren was to get away from the cliched staples of British horror. Indeed, the opening film-within-a-film is simultaneously a homage to the Hammer Gothic and a refutation of it, making the most of the archetypal elements and relying on the genre literacy of the audience to realise that its having its leg pulled.
The opening is also a rather clever touch on the part of Warren and his screenwriter David McGillivray – who also wrote Satan’s Slave. It works on the level of Hammer pastiche but then it turns out to be a completely straight and crucial piece of backstory. This double-edged narrative device is typical of the rest of the film. Whereas Satan’s Slave and Prey are rather humourless – which tends to make them seem nastier than they really are - Terror is, intentionally, very funny indeed and the filmmakers delight in playing with archetypal genre sequences – lengthy chases through dark woods accompanied by lightning being the most common - and, even more so, in the determinedly scuzzy setting of ultra-low budget filmmaking. Along with the opening film-within-a-film, we get deliciously funny snatches of a soft-core film called “Bathtime With Brenda” which is being made at the studios. This was heavily endebted to the experiences which Warren and McGillivray had in their careers – the latter’s most famous work in the British sex comedy field was I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and he later wrote “Doing Rude Things”, the definitive guide to the genre and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. It’s obvious that the filmmakers have immense affection for the world of cheap movie making and this is another reason why Terror is so enjoyable to watch.
Warren’s customary affection for gore is very visible here and the film sometimes seems like an excuse to string together a lot of violent killings. This was one of the criticisms made by sensitive critics about Suspiria and is a complaint which has always dogged Warren’s reputation. However, even if the criticism has an element of truth about it, there’s no doubt that the level of imagination here is a lot greater than in most British horror movies. There’s a rather marvellous garrotting/impalement, a death by lighting equipment and, best of all, an inspired sequence in which a collection of film cans become deadly and lead to a window-pane decapitation straight out of Argento. By this time, Warren’s own particular signature has become established – the lacerated throat close-up of which he is incredibly fond. Why this should have become his motif is something of a mystery but I assure you that if you see any of these films with a horror-fan audience, the ‘throat scenes’ always get a resounding cheer.
The acting is generally very competent and some of the performers – notably James Aubrey and Carolyn Courage - are really rather good. It’s not easy to give a convincing performance in this kind of film where visual style takes precedence over conventional narrative and, on the whole, the cast do very well. As for the occasional cameos by the great and the good of British horror, notably critic Alan Jones and McGillivray himself, it might be kinder to draw a veil. However, the visual style is often quite remarkable. Les Young’s cinematography is breathtakingly resourceful, creating atmosphere through a range of effects from brightly coloured filters to inventive dolly work, and the editing is razor sharp. Hayden Pierce also deserves mention for his creative production design which makes the film look a lot more lavish than its budget allowed. Warren’s pacing has also come a long way since Satan’s Slave - the tersely effective Prey obviously taught him a lot – and the film manages to be taut and suspenseful throughout, despite the occasionally self-indulgent moments of comic relief. All things considered, it’s all of a piece in which the lack of logic and supremacy of style over substance seem to come together to make a kind of sense. Consequently, Terror is probably Norman’s best movie.
Now, a brief aside to offer you some more Doctor Who connections. In addition to another appearance from Michael Craze, we get a brief turn from William Russell – who played Ian Chesterton, one of the first companions from way back in 1963. Peter Craze, brother of Michael, also appeared in two "Who" stories; "The War Games" and "Nightmare Of Eden". British TV Science Fiction fans will also be pleased to note Glynis Barber’s first film appearance, a few years before she appeared in Blakes Seven.
Once again, Anchor Bay have come up trumps with their Norman Warren Collection. Terror receives an impressive anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and looks as good as it ever has done. This uncut print is nicely detailed, richly and vividly coloured and suitably filmlike. There is some artifacting present throughout, largely in the darker exterior scenes, but this is not too distracting. Perhaps the film could have looked a little sharper in places but all in all, fans of the film won’t be disappointed.
The three soundtracks are virtually identical to those on Satan’s Slave. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is mono pumped through the two front speakers with no separations but clear dialogue. The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks are the usual unhappy compromise but I have to admit that the lower end of the music score is given a little extra punch and there’s less obvious messing about with the soundtrack than usual. However, once more, I’d much prefer a restored mono track to these remixes.
The extras are less notable than those on Satan’s Slave. As with that disc, the highlight is a wonderful entertaining commentary track from Warren and McGillivray. The former supplies the background information and the latter affects a cyncial, ‘can’t remember anything’ air which is genuinely amusing.
The commentary is immensely enjoyable but the other extras are less impressive. We get a 20 second radio spot for the film, a rather bizarre French trailer and two deleted scenes. One of these is particularly diverting, however, featuring more from the chaotic filming of “Bathtime With Brenda”.
As with the other discs in the set, we get subtitles for the film but not for the extra features.
Terror is something of a triumph of style over substance and one of the rare occasions where the British horror film has mined the work of great Italian genre directors for inspiration. If you’re not a fan of this kind of thing then you’ll find it ludicrous. If you’re a lover of horror movies however, this should definitely appeal.