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FILM INTERVIEW: Kim Newman Talks “…Old, Weird British Movies”

Kim Newman Full

Kim Newman is one of the most flamboyant but well-respected British horror critics around. He’s a contributing editor to Sight & Sound and Empire, where his ‘Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon’ column sorts the trash from the treasure in the world of low-grade horror. As well as writing fiction like his popular Anno Dracula series, Newman’s possibly best known for his horror compendium Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of The Horror Film which, following its recent update, will tell you just about everything you need to know about any horror film from 1968-2011. To put it in perspective, when the BBC‘s flagship and all-knowing film critic Mark Kermode frequently quotes you and defers to your superior judgment, you’ve got to be doing something right!

We caught up with Newman following his appointment as as British Film Ambassador to celebrate Network‘s release of “The British Film” collection. Many of these films, released in batches of 5-10 a month, have gone unseen since their original theatrical runs and are almost exclusively new to DVD — for more info check out the Official Facebook Page or use the hastag #TheBritishFilm on Twitter.

In this interview we discuss his ambassadorial role, what makes these releases so exciting, his love of classic Hammer horror, his favourite directors, old and new, and find out what advice Kim has for young filmmakers (here’s a clue — enough with the zombie films, already!).

You’re working as a British Film Ambassador — can you explain a bit about the project, what your role entails and how you got involved?

Yes, the role involves kinda talking about, and bigging up, old, weird British films, which is sort of an interest of mine! How I got involved… it’s as simple as they asked me. I assume they wouldn’t have asked me if I didn’t have some kinda credit on this. I’d done some work with the company, Network, over the last couple of years on various older and odder films, quite often British, and they acquired this huge grab-bag of old movies that we’re all excited to see come out again… or at least I am excited to see come out again and I hope to be able to communicate that to other people!

So they asked me whether I’d be up for doing a bit of promotion — well, I suppose what it is, is that a lot of these movies are too old to have anybody alive to go around telling you how good they are! Although it’s turned out that quite a few people involved with them are still alive! Jess Conrad from Konga is making a personal appearance at a special screening, which I’m really pleased about, although I can’t be there. There was a feeling that in order to put this stuff in context there was a need for somebody who could do a bit of spin on them… and that’s me!

Well, yeah, we’d say you were a pretty logical choice given your background! Some of the titles Network are releasing – Konga, Devil Girl From Mars, Horrors of The Black Museum – sound a bit like American drive-in pictures. What do you think separates these from their US counterparts?

Well, yes, they’re in sort of the same vein. They have the same genre as American drive-in movies. Horrors of The Black Museum particularly looks like one because it’s got that wide-screen shape – drive-in movies in the ’50s were basically the shape of windscreens for obviously reasons! But there’s still a Britishness about them. Devil Girl From Mars is the absolute epitome of that. It’s got exactly the kind of plot that you might see in an American science-fiction film of the 1950s, y’know, this woman invader from Mars in a leather dominatrix outfit with a giant robot comes to Earth to kidnap men to repopulate her planet. But because it’s British, rather than turning up in an American small town or the White House lawn or the desert, quite often it’s the wilds of Scotland and most of the film is set in a pub!

This is the thing about British science fiction. I was talking to Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) who’s got a film coming up called World’s End which is exactly the same – science fiction but set in a pub. It’s a very British thing that you can have the end of the world, in a pub… and Devil Girl From Mars in particular is a great use of the pub as a setting. It’s also got that thing — although it’s set in Scotland, so you’ve got John Laurie from Dad’s Army doing Scots — it’s got a lot of those 1950s cut-glass British actors in it, so even though it’s the most arrant pulp (it doesn’t have the ambition of the Quatermass movies which were quite serious) it is utter trash but it’s well-spoken trash.

It’s also reasonably well made… Quite a lot of American low budget science-fiction of the period is amusingly shoddy or ramshackle. But even the cheapest British films seemed to have been made by proper technicians and they have West End-style actors in them, so the sets don’t wobble and some of the effects, although 60 years on they don’t look good compared to what you might get from a low budget film now, but by the standards of the time they were pretty good. They were solid products and yet they were deeply demented! When you bring that forward to Horrors of the Black Museum or Konga, which are deliriously strange – almost stream of consciousness nonsensical and outrageously lurid – yet still there’s this vestige of respectability there.

Maybe it’s because of the way things have been going this week, but it reminds me of the way that certain British newspapers seem to be at once obscenely and disgustingly lurid and yet lip-smackingly moralistic! These have got that feel… this is the British cinema version of that, quivering with disapproval about all these awful things, all the while just having to show you it in Eastman Colour on the big screen.

What are your favourites from the Network collection that are being re-released that people should really be checking out?

The one I’ll defend as actually a brilliant movie is House in Nightmare Park, the Frankie Howerd old dark house comedy. I think it’s very funny, but it’s also surprisingly creepy – it does the thing that the best horror-comedies do of being funny but also a bit scary at the same time. It’s got a good mystery plot as well, which is well thought through, so that’s something I could recommend.

But I’d just say pick them all up because one of the nice things about this is that we’ve reached that period in time in DVD where all the obvious classics are out there, so if you get one of these movies you’re quite likely never to have seen it before. I can guarantee… they’re not all great, but they are all surprising! If you sit the average kid down, who’s been brought up on SAW and Hostel, in front of Horrors of The Black Museum, a film from 1959, they will be astonished at how the first scene gets them. It’s still one of those moments where you think – did I really see what that film just did!?

Do you think that there was ever really a “golden era” of British horror or do we tend to look to the past overly nostalgically?

Oh we do… I mean, for me the ‘golden era’ of British horror was the ’70s when I was a kid just coming into it all. I think there’s a period between… hmm… the era spanning the original Hammer films, which sort of start in the mid-’50s with the Quatermass films, then Dracula and Frankenstein in colour and sorta runs to the mid-’70s where you get those really weird things like the Vampire Kung-Fu movie – Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – and To the Devil a Daughter, which I think were the last ones, and in between those dates I think there’s not a single British horror that I don’t, on some level, love. Even the dud ones I would probably buy on DVD and watch over and over again.

I’m not sure if that’s true of… I dunno…  Because there’s been a lot of British horror films made in the last 10-15 years, there’s been a big revival, probably because directors have come along who are enthused by the traditions. I admire quite a lot of those films, I like some of them… but I don’t love them in the way that I love even the worst Hammer films… even The Mummy’s Shroud. It’s like… I will probably watch The Mummy’s Shroud many more times in my life than I’ll watch Eden Lake… and I actually admire Eden Lake, it’s got a lot going for it. But it doesn’t have that “Is this what I want to watch this evening?” vibe that I think that period of British horror has for me.

It’s possible that people who are much younger than I am growing up now will look at back on these, in the same way that one of my favourite British horror movies is Dracula AD 1972 because of the weird fashions, the music and the kids’ weird slang, and I suspect that if you happened to be 12 when Long Time Dead or Nine Lives or Mum and Dad or any of the recent British slasher movies came out, in 20 years time you’ll look back and think “oh, those were those terrible clothes we used to wear and there’s that stupid music we used to listen to” and that nostalgic edge will kick in again.

Like yourself, BTN are long time Frighfest goers – we always see you there looking very dapper – what do you think about the state of British horror?

Well, there’s always the thing that every year Frightfest shows some British film we all absolutely hate! It used to be a tradition that the festival would kick off with a really bad British film… I think they broke that with Eden Lake and there have been a couple of others since then that have livened things up – Cockneys vs Zombies and Grabbers (which is Irish, but same ballpark) that were both pretty good.

Now I think it’s not really fair to ask films to have the same resonance that older movies have when they’ve just come out. Also I think horror films today are much more knowing. They tend to be made by people who grew up loving the genre and knowing it increasingly well. Whereas quite often the Hammer films were made by whoever came through the door next and got assigned the film, and sometimes that led to decisions that wouldn’t have been made by people who had that insane affection for it… and this is true for a lot of genre stuff, a lot of genre TV at the moment. It feels to me like fan-fiction – it’s aimed directly at its audience and delivers what its audience wants, and that seems to be a way of narrowing focus so that you get something smaller and smaller and smaller, appealing to smaller and smaller audiences and yet it’s not really challenging.

There’s a great appeal to it and I can see where they’re coming from in some things, but I don’t think it’s a way of getting another Witchfinder General or Wickerman or Scream and Scream Again or Hammer’s first Dracula or Frankenstein movies. Those movies come from somewhere else. I don’t think those movies were made by somebody thinking, “What do the fans want?”

Who are your favourite British directors in horror and more generally?

My favourite director is probably Michael Powell. Alfred Hitchcock, if he counts as British? I have a great affection for that trance of directors – John Gilling, Terrence Fisher, Freddie FrancisPete Walker, even though he has a spotty track record… in crime, Michael Hodges. They’re all people working a little bit below the radar, people who tend to have one solid hit and then get less well-noticed… Gordon Hessler. I’ve recently been watching, because Network put out all of those Edgar Wallace Presents… movies, a lot of those early ’60s films and Robert Tronson is a name that comes up on a lot of the good ones.

He’s probably not a name that’s overly familiar to a lot of people…

Certainly not! Even I would have to look him up… I know he directed a lot of stuff like Man in a Suitcase on TV, he did a lot of TV work but he directed a lot of the good Edgar Wallace Presents movies. Vernon Sewell did a couple of really good B-pictures, although his better known films aren’t as interesting.

And is there anybody now that really tickles you fancy? We were thinking about people like Ben Wheatley maybe?

Oh, Ben Wheatley I like a lot… but I sorta don’t say those because I know those people. I know Ben Wheatley, Chris Smith, Sean Hogan, Paul Hyett and all those… And they’re all good but it’s kinda hard to talk about your friends!

You’ve got that distance with guys from the ’60s and ’70s

Yeah, absolutely and I think that all of those people would say they feel they’re good but they’re not Michael Reeves.

What advice would you give for any young filmmakers? Horror always used to be seen as a low budget way into the industry — does that advice still stand?

It is — making a horror film is a good way of getting your film seen. My advice would be, 1: don’t make a zombie film, it’s too late! Even if you’ve got a brilliant idea… I mean, I thought that the TV series In The Flesh was really good, and last year I really liked Harold’s Going Stiff so you can still come up with really good ideas for zombie films, but I suspect that the audience has reached a point where it goes “oh another zombie film…” So go away and make a Mummy movie or something…! But I guess Mummies are kinda zombies really… Just come up with something new! Tell me a story I’ve never heard before, that’s always a good thing. The other thing is if you’ve not got much money, work on the script. Do something like The Devil’s Business – that’s just three people in a house talking, but it’s good talk! Rather than trying to stage a big action sequence you can’t do, work on getting the script as good as it can be.

Interviewed by: Mikey Serpico

For more of Mikey’s work click here!

Konga is out on 13th May, Devil Girl From Mars drops 10th June and Horrors Of The Black Museum follows on 24th June. House In Nightmare Park is out now!

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