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Tyburn Films: British Horror’s last line of Defence


From the Hammer stable, a new company not destined for glory on the finish line...

Tyburn Films

1976 saw the publication of John Brosnan’s excellent book The Horror People. Written during the summer of 1975, it makes interesting reading 40 years down the line. Those who feature prominently in the book – Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Jack Arnold, Michael Carreras, Sam Arkoff, Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and Milton Subotsky – were still alive, as were Ralph Bates, Mario Bava, Jimmy Carreras, John Carradine, Dan Curtis, John Gilling, Robert Fuest, Michael Gough, Val Guest, Ray Milland, Robert Quarry and Michael Ripper, all of whom were given a mention. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Junior, Michael Reeves and James H Nicholson were not long dead. Hammer, Amicus and American International Pictures were still in existence. George A Romero had yet to achieve his prominence and Stephen King wasn’t even heard of!

The Horror People - John Brosnan, 1976More importantly, the publication of The Horror People marked a time when the genre underwent major changes. The Exorcist (1973) was still the most talked about horror film in history. Christopher Lee announced his departure from the genre (as did Vincent Price, although Brosnan was unaware of this), and the terminal meltdown of the British Film Industry had just started. By the end of the seventies, Hammer, Amicus and AIP were no more and British horror production had ground to a complete halt.

Brosnan devoted a chapter to a new British company called Tyburn Films. Founded by the charismatic and ambitious Kevin Francis, Tyburn had produced three chillers, and were keen to keep the English gothic tradition alive and well.

By the time the book got published, the company had ceased film production. Instead of competing with horror’s big guns (who were declining faster than anyone could imagine), Tyburn represented the swansong of a dying genre that had no place in the world of expensive SFX gore and low budget slashers. In reality Tyburn was the King Canute of British horror – unsuccessfully fighting against the tide of change.

Although not without interest, it’s fair to say that Tyburn’s three films aren’t that good. If they were to compete with Hammer, they needed to produce several top quality horror films. But with Hammer floundering, Tyburn could never succeed in the face of changing cinematic tastes.

Kevin FrancisKevin Francis was born in London in 1944. He was the son of Freddie Francis, the distinguished cinematographer who made his mark in the sixties directing several classic horror films for Hammer and Amicus. Father and son were different personalities: John Brosnan described Freddie Francis as “quiet and thoughtful” and his son “brash and bristling with energy.” Whereas his father hated being associated with the genre, Kevin Francis is a die-hard horror fan from childhood; his hero is the great Peter Cushing.

After working in a variety of occupations including livestock buyer and slaughter-man, Francis started out as a runner on several of his father’s Hammer films. He graduated to production manager in 1967 and worked as an assistant director for his father on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968).

After working as production manager on the Monty Python comedy And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), Francis turned producer on The Trouble with Canada (1971). Undaunted by the UK’s economic problems caused by the State of Emergency, the coal strike and the Three Day Week, the ambitious producer was determined to build a new film empire to rival Hammer in style, content and entertainment value. In 1973 he formed Tyburn Films Productions Ltd with the high hopes of achieving his dream.

The company’s first film is Persecution (1975), which began production in October 1973. Adapted by Rosemary Wootten, Frederick Warner and Robert Hutton from Hutton’s original short story Sheba, Persecution is a venture into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) territory. Joining the long line of Hollywood leading ladies who lent themselves to the horror genre, Lana Turner, still glamorous at 53, plays Carrie Masters, a sinister invalid woman, loved by her cats, hated by her son David (Ralph Bates) and harbouring a dark secret within the walls of her gothic mansion.

Persecution (1974) posterPersecution is a psychological horror that emphasizes Carrie’s mental cruelty towards David as she hires a nurse (Olga Georges-Picot) to seduce him and break up his marriage to her equally hated daughter-in-law (Suzan Farmer). When his wife dies in an accident deliberately caused by Carrie, David goes off the rails, although by this time he takes his long overdo revenge, the viewer has completely lost interest.

Persecution is a slow, depressing affair that is high in ideas and enthusiasm, but lacking the necessary suspense. Cameos by Trevor Howard and Patrick Allen add dramatic weight but they are completely wasted with the rest of the cast looking ill at ease throughout. And cats simply aren’t scary! Lana Turner never forgave herself for taking part in the film; she even fell out with her old boyfriend Robert Hutton with the rift lasting several years.

After a varied Hollywood career, Hutton moved to England in the sixties where he established himself as a character actor. Already a successful writer, Persecution was his only film as a screenwriter. Unfortunately he was unhappy with the film and felt it would have been better if his old friend Freddie Francis directed instead of Don Chafe.

Brilliant at making fantasy features such as Jason and the Argonauts (1962) and One Million Years BC (1966), Chaffey’s style does not suit horror. But in all fairness, if Francis directed Persecution, the results would probably not be any better. After the embarrassing Trog (1970), the dreadful Vampire Happening (1971) and the indescribable Son of Dracula (1973), Francis was at the end of his tether with the genre. Probably the only reason why he directed Tyburn’s other films was more out of loyalty to his son.

Released the following year, Persecution did not do well at the box office but undaunted, Kevin Francis went full throttle into Hammer inspired period horror using. In addition to his father, former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds provided the scripts under his famous pen-name John Elder, and Peter Cushing was brought in as the star. The films are marginally better than Persecution, but their out-of-date futility is even more evident.

John Hurt starred in 'The Ghoul' (1975)The Ghoul (1975) began production at Pinewood Studios in March 1974 and ran on similar lines to the Hammer classic The Reptile (1966). It centres on a group of bright young things, among them Hammer glamour girl Veronica Carlson and pre Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) star Ian McCulloch, who end up stranded at the remote country home of former clergyman Dr Lawrence (Peter Cushing). However the good doctor harbours a guilty secret – his son is the flesh-munching ghoul of the title. Before long these dim-witted party animals end up on the menu!

On paper The Ghoul had the hallmarks of an imaginative horror. Set in the 1920s, which is very rare for a post war chiller, it was assembled by an experienced production team. The swirling fog and reworking of all those ancient clichés gives the film the right gothic atmosphere, and the small but solid cast gives typically dependable performances. The Ghoul of the title is a memorably gruesome character played with dispatch by Don Henderson.

Peter Cushing in 'The Ghoul' (1975)And there’s Peter Cushing. From the moment he appears on screen, he brings with him smiles and chills in equal measure. It’s a case of sitting back and trusting him fully. The film may fail him but he would never fail his public. As an actor who never gave a bad performance throughout his long career, his fans know he will always guarantee 100% commitment.

But that’s where all the good points end. The main problem with The Ghoul is a sluggish script that spends too much time focusing on the supporting characters that are, in all honesty, a bunch of idiots. The build up is far too slow and the lack of suspense adds to the boredom. It’s one of those rare occasions where gratuitous gore, nudity and tongue-in-cheek humour would have improved things considerably. Most horror fans want to get down to the business of seeing a ghoul go on a murderous rampage.

If the film lacks pace at the beginning, the rushed climax is a long time in coming and is far too busy with everything happening at the same time. Everyone gets killed and no one cares. Apart from Cushing, you do not root for anyone.

And there’s Cushing’s performance, which was achieved with some difficulty. Following the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971, the grief stricken actor threw himself into his work like a man possessed. Many of his roles dealt with bereavement in some way. He played widowers Tales From the Crypt (1972) and The Creeping Flesh (1972), a bereaved father in Asylum (1972) and a characters who dealt with bereavement in The Twins of Evil (1971) and Fear in the Night (1972). His otherwise excellent performances make uncomfortable viewing, with many fans wanting a return to the humorous eccentrics he displayed in Horror Express (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1973).

In the case of The Ghoul, it was one bereaved character too many. Playing another grieving widower (the photo of his wife on display is Helen Cushing), the actor’s fragile state is evident. According to interviews with Freddie Francis and Veronica Carlson, Cushing, now cracking under the stress of his imposed workload, suffered an emotional breakdown during the making of the film. It was the only occasion where his performance is not a joy to watch. If any good came from it, he managed to get it out of his system for his next Tyburn effort. Shame The Ghoul isn’t worthy of such excellent acting.

Production on The Ghoul wrapped in June 1974 and keen to maintain Hammer’s assembly-line approach, Tyburn began production on Legend of the Werewolf (1975) in August 1974. Previously knows as Revenge of the Werewolf, Anthony Hinds had originally written the script as a proposed Hammer sequel to Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Hinds then reworked the script for Tyburn’s final excursion into gothic horror.

Legend of the Werewolf (1975)Legend of the Werewolf begins with a wild wolf-boy captured by a flea-pit travelling circus run by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith). Christened Etoile, he becomes the star attraction and remains with the circus where he grows into a handsome young man (David Rintoul). However during a full moon he changes into a wolf, kills the circus strongman and flees to Paris when his affinity to animals gets him a job at a zoo. However the wolf urges won’t go away.

Before long a savage murderer is terrorizing the streets of Paris. They are brought to the attention of sardonic police pathologist Professor Paul Cantiflanque (Peter Cushing) who deduces that the killings are the work of a wild animal. An amateur detective with a slight Holmesian bent, the Professor starts his own private investigation into the killings, and so finds out that a werewolf is on the loose.

Horror fans are split in their opinions on which film is the better of the two – The Ghoul or Legend of the Werewolf? The latter is by far the more superior as it moves at a faster pace and generates a lot more excitement. It also boasts a strong cast that includes Ron Moody (hamming it up as the zoo-keeper), Roy Castle, famous nude pin-up Pamela Green and Michael Ripper in a tiny role of a tramp. Graham Freeborn’s werewolf makeup is extremely effective and while lacking the feral intensity of Oliver Reed, David Rintoul turns in a moving performance as the tormented Etoile.

After his uncomfortably heart wrenching turn in The Ghoul, it’s a delight to see Peter Cushing back to his jaunty old self with a splendid comic performance. As the type of person who would happily eat dinner surrounded by body parts, Professor Cantiflanque is a fascinating character. As brave as Van Helsing, the pathologist cuts a more sympathetic figure that, unlike Cushing’s previous monster hunters, wants to help Etoile rather than kill him. One could see a series of films featuring Professor Cantiflanque.

But that is not to say Legend of the Werewolf is a brilliant film. It suffers from a sloppy cheap and cheap-looking production. The claustrophobic sewer scenes work well but the Parisian streets look threadbare. And while Francis puts more effort into his direction, he lacks the spark of his early career. It looks clear from his lack of enthusiasm that he was all for jumping off the horror bandwagon.

The Ghoul went on general release in June 1975 with Legend of the Werewolf getting its premier in October 1975, around the time John Brosnan wrote The Horror People. Like many horror films of the time, reviews were mixed but Peter Cushing, as always, got singled out for praise. However neither film received a theatrical release in America, harming any chance of commercial success in that all-important international market.

With The Ghoul already on release, Kevin Francis spoke to Brosnan in detail about his future plans. He was developing a script for a new film called The Golem and expressed a desire to make a horror spoof on the lines of The Cat and the Canary (1939). Other projects in the pipeline included By the Devil…..Possessed, The Phantom Coachman and a horror series entitled Tyburn’s Tales of Terror. Among the dormant Hammer projects Tyburn intended to film were Dracula’s Feast of Blood and an adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Satanists, which got as far as the casting of Peter Cushing, Orson Welles Trevor Howard and Shirley Bassey (!) along with Freddie Francis as director.

Freddie Francis had high hopes of Tyburn doing well and Brosnan’s chapter has an air of optimism about the company’s future prosperity. But when The Horror People finally got published, Tyburn had faded from view and another chapter in British horror came to a quiet end.

With The Golem falling by the wayside, production on The Satanists was due to start in March 1976. However, filming was abandoned following the failure of Hammer’s final horror film To the Devil - A Daughter (1975), a poor adaptation of another Dennis Wheatley novel. Unable to secure American distribution rites for The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf, Tyburn’s remaining projects were also dropped.

With The Omen (1976) following The Exorcist as another expensive horror extravaganza, Tyburn simply could not compete with the big budget competition. Even zero budgeters Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) introduced a streak of viciousness that made the average Hammer horror look tame and conservatism. The only British filmmaker influenced by the slasher genre was Peter Walker, who made great strides with House of Whipcord (1974), Frightmare (1974) and House of Mortal Sin (1975). But this new horror trend simply wasn’t Tyburn's style, and Walker’s attempts to go up-market with The Comeback (1978) brought his career to an end.

British horror was dying. Tigon ceased production in 1972 and American International Pictures closed its UK base in 1974. Following the failure of To the Devil, a Daughter, a dying Hammer made one more film before folding. Amicus did change direction with a successful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (1975). It was followed by At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The People That Time Forgot (1977) but by that time, the company’s founder Milton Subotsky had already quit and was now conducting a lengthy and bitter court battle with former partner Max J Rosenberg. With Star Wars (1977) revolutionizing science fiction in terms of big budget special effects, the dinosaur genre became passée and Amicus faded from view.

In 1976 Kevin Francis formed Tyburn Productions Inc and moved into TV production, training films and buying and selling for television. But his love for horror never diminished, and in the mid eighties he briefly returned to film production by paying homage to his movie hero Peter Cushing.

A big Sherlock Holmes fan, Francis had long considered bringing the Great Detective back to the big screen, which included another version of The Hound of the Baskervilles featuring a stop-frame animated hound courtesy of Ray Harryhausen. When that idea was dropped, Francis turned his attention to a new story that would cast Cushing as an elderly Holmes.

The Masks of Death (1984)The Masks of Death (1984) is a made-for-television movie notable for being Peter Cushing’s swansong as the Great Detective. Called out of retirement by the British government, Holmes and Dr Watson (Sir John Mills) investigate the disappearance of a German prince and the possible threat of war if he is not found. With Roy Ward Baker coming out of retirement to direct, the veteran cast includes Ray Milland, Anton Differing Anne Baxter (as Irene Adler) and Gordon Jackson.

The Masks of Death is an uninspired and rather slow-moving adventure. Of course Peter Cushing is a joy as always. He is as sharp as Holmes in his seventies as he was when he first played him in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Sadly he looks very frail, especially when playing alongside the still athletic looking Sir John Mills. The only actor to look frailer than Cushing is Ray Milland, who was recovering from a stroke. Although Cushing’s age does not affect his performance in the slightest, one can’t help but wish the film was made ten years earlier when the actor still looked fit enough to carry it off more convincingly.

The Masks of Death was released in cinemas across Europe. Its UK television screening met with a favourable response, so a sequel looked inevitable. However Tyburn’s plans to film The Abbot's Cry got shelved because of Cushing’s poor health. The Mask of Death may not have been perfect but it rounded off a fitting end to the actor’s career.

Francis wasn’t through with Cushing yet. In 1987 he paid tribute to the actor with the Tyburn-produced television documentary Peter Cushing - One Way Ticket to Hollywood. Interviewed by Dick Vosburgh, the actor warmly recounts his life and career, and you don’t want him to stop for a minute! It’s a wonderful piece of television that serves as a lasting tribute to the great man.

None of Tyburn’s three horror films are available on DVD, nor have they been shown of television for a while. Perhaps it is time for the films to be re-evaluated for a new generation. Gothic horror still retains a great deal of popularity among nostalgia fans so maybe those who were disappointed by The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf first time around might give the films a second chance. And while Kevin Francis never quite became the new golden boy of in British horror, he deserves 10 out of 10 for trying to keep it alive. For that Tyburn has earned a place in horror history.

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