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Ten Tigon Tales of Terror


Mark Iveson looks back at the horror output of an oft overlooked British independent film studio...

Although Hammer Films will always be associated with British horror, the studio did have stiff competition. Amicus specialised in the successful horror anthologies and US counterparts American International Pictures established a permanent UK base in the mid sixties. Other smaller independents took their own bite from the cherry tree of horror with some success, the best known being Tigon Films.

Tigon has received some belated recognition in recent years. Andy Boot’s book on British horror Fragments of Fear devotes a chapter to the company while John Hamilton’s excellent book Beast in the Cellar covers the varied career of Tigon’s charismatic founder Tony Tenser.

Like Hammer’s Sir James Carreras, Tenser was one of the British Film Industry’s great entrepreneurs. Born in London to poor Lithuanian immigrants and a movie fan since childhood, he was an ambitious man with a natural talent for showmanship. Combining shrewd business sense with his love of the movies, the handsome, sharp dressed Tenser worked as a promoter of foreign language movies for Miracle Films. With Michael Klinger, he formed the Compton Cinema Club, a private members’ club that screened such risqué flicks as Eva and the Handyman (1961) and George Harrison Marks’ infamous Nature as Nature Intended (1961).

Tenser’s main ambition was to produce films, and with Klinger and Robert Hartford-Davis, he founded Compton Cameo. The company’s early output was limited to sleazy exploitation, mostly directed by Hartford-Davis. They included That Kind of Girl (1963), The Yellow Teddy Bears (1963), Saturday Night Out (1963) and The Pleasure Girls (1964). Hardly potential Oscar winners but they did provide early film roles for up and coming actresses Francesca Annis and Pauline Collins.
Taking advantage of the post war horror boom, Compton Cameo produced the interesting gothic chiller The Black Torment (1964). It was followed by Roman Polanski’s English language debut Repulsion (1965) and the Sherlock Holmes adventure A Study in Terror (1965). Following Compton’s venture into art house with Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac (1965), Tenser resigned to form Tony Tenser Films, which he later renamed Tigon.

Under the Tigon banner, Tenser dabbled in a variety of genres that included science fiction with The Body Stealers (1967), comedy with What’s Good for the Goose (1968), For the Love of Ada (1971) and The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1972), mainstream with Black Beauty (1971), a return to sleazy sexploitation with Monique (1968) and Virgin Witch (1972), the downright bizarre Zeta One (1969) and the western Hannie Caulder (1971).

Following Tenser’s failed attempt to take over Hammer, Tigon merged with the Laurie Marsh Group and ceased production altogether. Tenser continued as an independent producer, his last film being Peter Walker’s Frightmare (1974), before retiring from all his business interests in 1998 to devote his time to golf. He died in 2007.

From this eclectic output, Tigon produced a couple of excellent chillers and one of the greatest British films ever made. Tenser also achieved an amazing feat by casting horror legends Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele in his films. Basil Rathbone very nearly appeared in one and horror reservists Michael Gough, Michael Ripper, Dennis Price, Rupert Davies, Duncan Lamont, Ian Ogilvy and Patrick Wymark added solid support.

So let’s have a look at ten Tigon terrors.

The Sorcerers (1967)

Tigon’s first venture into horror not only gave Boris Karloff one of the best roles of his later career, it introduced a young maverick director named Michael Reeves. Thanks to his inherited wealth, Reeves, a film fan with a photographic knowledge to rival Quentin Tarantino, bought his way into the film industry and worked his way up the ranks to second unit director on Castle of the Living Dead (1964). After making his directorial début with Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966), Reeves approached Tenser with his next project about disgraced hypnotist Professor Monserrat (Karloff) and the device he invents that allows the wearer to experience the sensations of another person under his control. His guinea pig is a bored young man called Mike (Reeves’ school-friend Ian Ogilvy). Monserrat is able to experience everything that Mike does; however his evil wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) takes control of Mike and forces him to carry out several criminal acts, including murder. Despite the obvious low budget, Reeves’ directs with a strong visual style that makes good use of the London locations. Lower down the cast list are Susan George and gifted stage actor Victor Henry, whose career was cut short by a road accident that left him in a vegetative state for the last 17 years of his life. The always impressive Karloff is at the very height of his powers, lending quiet dignity to a standard mad scientist role.

But even Karloff gets upstaged by a malevolent, carpet-chewing performance by veteran actress Catherine Lacey. It was the role she will be remembered for but one that she found the nature of playing extremely distressing. That alone adds to the film’s unsettling impact. For Michael Reeves, it was a promising start to what should have been an excellent career.

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Tigon’s first attempt at a Hammer style period horror. By 1968 even Hammer’s best work was behind them and this effort hardly ranks as a classic although it could have been, had circumstances been better. Tenser scored an amazing coup by hiring two of the cinema’s greatest Sherlock Holmes. Basil Rathbone was cast as mad scientist Professor Mallinger with Peter Cushing in the more interesting role as Holmesian Scotland Yard detective Inspector Quennell.

Sadly this historic teaming never happened. Only days before he was due to fly out to England, Rathbone died from a heart attack. He was replaced at the last minute by Robert Flemyng, who does a good job. Despite a decent production, solid acting and Vernon Sewell’s workmanlike direction, the film’s Death’s Head Vampire moth monster is too laughable to generate any scares. Cushing, as usual, gives an excellent performance even though he considered this his worst film! A bit harsh as it’s not that bad, and certainly better than his dire later efforts Tendre Dracula (1975), The Devil’s Men (1976) and A Touch of the Sun (1978).

Witchfinder General (1968)

One of the greatest British films ever made, and one that made the BBC’s top 100 movie list. It also marked the high point of Michael Reeves’ tragically short career. Based on Ronald Bassett’s novel, the film tells the story of real life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, a failed lawyer who found a profitable sideline torturing and executing alleged witches during the English Civil War. Reeves wanted Boris Karloff in the role, but the elderly actor was too frail to handle the physical requirements. His next choice was Donald Pleasence, but as Tigon entered a co-production deal with American International Pictures, the powers that be at AIP insisted their contract star Vincent Price played Hopkins. Furious at the decision, Reeves made no secret of his contempt towards the actor, refusing to extend him any courtesy during filming. If anything, he tried to goad Price into anger because he did not want any of the OTT flamboyance that characterised the actor’s later horror performances. Price, ever the good-natured professional, took it all in his stride, and even took Reeves advice to play Hopkins completely straight, the end result being a truly frightening and unforgettable performance that makes uncomfortable viewing.

Beautifully photographed by John Coquillion, the violence is both graphic and uncompromising. In fact Witchfinder General turned out to be a very hard act to follow. Reluctant to be pigeon-holed as a horror director, Reeves, a manic depressive hooked on a variety of prescription drugs, became increasingly unstable. He was scheduled to direct Price’s next film The Oblong Box (1969) when he was found dead in his flat, the victim of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-five. Had Reeves lived, the possibility of Hollywood success looked very likely, although his refusal to play by the rules could have had the reverse effect. What the future may have held for the director will never be known, but as a piece of cinema excellence Witchfinder General has stood the test of time, securing Reeves’ status as one of the genre’s most iconic and individual talents - and all on the strength of only three films.

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Tigon’s second co-production with AIP should have been the horror film to end all horror films. There was the dream teaming of Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Italy’s horror queen Barbara Steele, with Michael Gough and Rupert Davies in reserve. Peter Cushing was also up for a part but the actor, disillusioned with the genre and the quality of the roles on offer, turned it down in favour of a short-lived return to television. Unfortunately the film is a laboured and confusing mess that wastes a talented cast. Steele looks awesome in green paint but shares no scenes with Karloff and Lee, and has little more than a cameo. A bored-looking Lee gives a boring performance in a boring role, and Gough’s mute butler is nothing short of terrible. Only Karloff rises above it all, despite being confined to a wheelchair. Ever the committed professional, he overcame a near fatal bout of double pneumonia to film the evening scenes in the freezing cold. After completing his work he returned to Hollywood to film scenes for four low-budget Mexican movies made back-to-back. Even from his death bed he was recording for a Readers Digest radio show. Now that’s determination! The film may be poor, but it is valuable as a final record of a fine actor and an all time horror great. Boris Karloff died the following year.

The Haunted House of Horrors (1969)

Long before the Friday the 13th (1979) type horror, Tigon produced this cheesy slasher about a group of trendy young things spending a groovy weekend in an old mansion, only to be killed off one by one. Sounds familiar? Its badly made and poorly acted, with the sixties fashions (mini-skirts excepted!) being a lot more horrifying. Now relegated to one of the more obscure British chillers, The Haunted House of Horrors could have achieved a cult following had the original casting gone ahead. Pre-pop legend David Bowie was considered for a leading role and director Michael Armstrong was keen to use him, but as AIP was co-financing the film fading American pop star Frankie Avalon was brought to boost overseas interests. Boris Karloff and Peter Cushing were also considered for supporting roles, but Karloff was too ill to take part (his role was taken by horror regular Dennis Price) and Cushing, now extremely tired of the genre, turned his down (he was replaced by George Sewell). The presence of Bowie, Karloff and Cushing could have added something, but as it is the film has little more than curiosity value.

Beast in the Cellar (1970)

The Blood Beast Terror, and The Haunted House of Horror may have been poor movies, but they are fun to watch. This silly effort is extremely dull, with only the presence of Flora Robson and Beryl Reid holding it together. The mysterious deaths of several young soldiers from a local army base is traced to two elderly sisters who apparently bricked up their young brother in a cellar several decades earlier to prevent him from doing his national service. Finding a way out of his prison, the now demented (and very old) brother has started attacking the young men, the colour of their uniform driving him to violence. Yes it’s implausible that a frail old man could brutally murder a fit young squaddie! If there was a film that needed a bit of camp humour, then this one fits the bill. As it is, it is slow, boring and humourless, with misjudged central performances from Robson and Reid. With British horror films beginning to suffer at the box office, Beast in the Cellar is an early indication that Tigon was losing direction.

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

This excellent but underrated British horror returns to Witchfinder General territory. A young farmer uncovers the remains of a humanoid-like skeleton. The skeleton then disappears and before long the nearby village falls victim to a series of mysterious deaths caused by a Satanic cult comprising of the younger villagers led by Angel Blake (Linda Hayden). It is up to the Judge (Patrick Wymark) to battle this evil. Blood on Satan’s Claw is a dark, low-key but stylish film directed with a real sense of urgency by Piers Haggard, who manages to get compelling performances from his young cast, especially Hayden, whose angelic looks hides truly evil intentions. The strong period feel also adds impact. What probably went against the film was the lack of a major horror star. Peter Cushing was scheduled to play the Judge, but declined the role when his wife died. His replacement, Patrick Wymark, an actor who never gave a bad performance, steps in with total conviction. Sadly it was his last film role. Shortly after completing his stint on the film he went on a tour of Australia with a production of Sleuth but suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 44. Best known for his TV performance in The Power Game, Wymark had trouble finding good roles to equal his small screen success, so this final turn as the Judge remains a fitting swansong.

Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972)

Adapted by former newsreader Gordon Honeycomb from his own novel, this has to be the most boring horror film ever made. Boring direction; boring performances; boring cinematography; just plain boring! Susan Hampshire plays a woman going through a messy divorce, who has an S&M type affair with a strange young man (Michael Petrovich). He dies suddenly, and because she is unable to accept his death, the strength of her love brings him back as a zombie, which is all very well until he starts decomposing! A romance with a zombie! Unfortunately there is no chemistry between the leads, and the sex scenes really needed a bit of grindhouse full-frontal nudity to keep the viewer awake. Petrovich might as well be a corpse, judging by his performance, and Hampshire has a facial expression that looks as though she’s detected a bad smell that didn’t belong to her fella (most probably the script). If you want to watch a film about love beyond the grave, stick with Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) and avoid this pile of crud at all costs.  

Doomwatch (1972)

Film version of a moderately successful (but hilariously dated) Quatermass-inspired TV series starring Robert Powell, John Paul and Simon Oates. Both Paul and Oates were recruited for the big screen version, but Powell was moving on to more high-profile film work, so the lead role was taken by reliable Scottish actor Ian Bannen, with Judy Geeson, George Sanders and Geoffrey Keen making up a strong cast. Also brought in to provide a bit of subtlety was Hammer director Peter Sasdy. Not so much a horror film as an anti-pollution message (the locals on a remote Scottish island turn into mutants thanks to the illegal dumping of chemical waste), the film is high on ideas but short on action. Sasdy adds some atmospheric touches, and the performances from all concerned are solid, but the end result it simply too dull to enjoy. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either – just falls somewhere in between.

The Creeping Flesh (1972)

By the time this excellent chiller was released, Tigon had already ceased film production following its merger into the Laurie Marsh Group. It was just as well, as the British horror genre was slowly dying. It’s a real pity, as this is one of the best chillers the company ever produced, boasting a literate script and fine performances from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their only Tigon film together. The period setting is reminiscent of Hammer’s best work, and the link is further strengthened by director Freddie Francis’ excellent visual style and solid support from Hammer stalwarts Michael Ripper and Duncan Lamont. The Creeping Flesh owes a great deal to H.P. Lovecraft as Cushing's Professor Hildren brings home a humanoid skeleton from New Guinea that can grow flesh if touched by water. Of course everyone knows what will happen, but that takes a back seat to a complex sub-plot that reveals the skeletons in Hildren’s family closet. Although a kind man by nature, his neglect of his young daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) and the death of his insane wife triggers off a series of events that prompts Hildren to develop a serum from the skeleton’s blood that he thinks can cure evil, and rashly injects the serum into Penelope when she learns the truth of her mother, something Hildren has kept from her, to cure her of any insanity. Sadly it goes the opposite way. Also involved is Hildren’s unscrupulous brother, James (Lee) who has his own agenda.

Playing one of his many grieving widowers following the death of his own wife, Cushing’s fragile state and emotional collapse makes uncomfortable viewing. He adds dignity and warmth to the role. Lee himself is also good value, although he doesn’t do a great deal until the end. Actually it’s the film’s climax that really makes the film work. Told in flashback, the final twist leaves a lot of unanswered questions, most notably whether the story is true or just the ravings of a madman. At a time when the Hammer ship was slowly sinking, The Creeping Flesh remains a excellent swansong from an interesting rival named Tigon.


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