Norman J. Warren: the gentleman of English exploitation

You’d be hard-pressed to hear a word said against the director of Her Private Hell, Satan’s Slave, Inseminoid, Bloody New Year and other minor triumphs of British sex and horror film.

17 March 2021

By Josephine Botting

Norman J. Warren (right) directing Sarah Keller in Terror (1978)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Norman J. Warren’s films Incident, Fragment and Her Private Hell are available to rent on BFI Player. Her Private Hell is also available on BFI dual-format Blu-ray/DVD.

Horror fans are a surprisingly sentimental breed and many of the social media posts mourning the loss of film director Norman J. Warren describe him simply as ‘a lovely man’.

Director Norman J. Warren and cinematographer Brian Tufano filming Warren’s first short film Incident in 1959

For someone who left a catalogue of gory exploitation fare this may seem an unlikely epitaph, but Norman’s warmth and enthusiasm were key to his success. When making an effects-heavy supernatural feature film on a tiny budget, you rely on the dedication and ingenuity of your cast and crew to lend credibility and deal with the myriad problems thrown up. Distinguished actor Michael Gough was happy not only to portray a devil worshipper in Satan’s Slave (1976) but also to provide his own wardrobe and be paid almost entirely in fish and chips. The giallo-inspired Terror (1978) contains a highly effective scene in which a character in a film studio is enveloped by a haunted reel of celluloid, for which Warren managed to beg several junk prints of Saturday Night Fever. In his 1980 sci-fi/horror blend Inseminoid (1980), Chislehurst Caves stand in for the distant frozen planet where Judy Geeson gives birth to an alien progeny.

Horror had not been Norman’s first love; his film education came via the French New Wave and his first short film, Fragment, reflects the pure visual story-telling of those films. In just 11 minutes and with dialogue replaced by a haunting jazz score, Fragment eloquently portrays a failed love affair and secured Warren direction of his first feature, Her Private Hell, in 1967. His career in the industry had begun some years before when he was taken on as tea boy by Dimitri de Grunwald and learnt editing, racking up assistant credits on features and commercial films. When progression to directing eluded him he made his own film, with collaborators like composer John Scott working for nothing.

Norman J. Warren (in coat) directing Her Private Hell (1967)

None of this experience prepared him for directing a feature film and he recalled the mixture of excitement and terror that he felt his first day on the set. Far from a megaphone-wielding director, Norman’s technique was co-operation rather dictation and he created a close-knit team in which everyone played their part. Her Private Hell is described as Britain’s first narrative sex film yet owes more to European art cinema than the more smutty forays into the genre that British cinema tended towards. The film ran at London’s Cameo-Royal cinema for over a year and its success gained Warren an immediate second assignment to make another sex film, Loving Feeling (1968).

Sally Faulkner as Jo and Glory Annan as Jessica in Prey (1977)

Warren now felt he had exhausted the genre and hunted for other directing jobs. But the 1960s were coming to a close and Hollywood had largely ceased funding the British industry. So, after some aborted projects, he once again decided to go it alone, setting up an independent production company to make Satan’s Slave, a wonderfully British take on the idea of the terrors lurking beneath the surface of respectable society.

He followed it with Prey, in which a lesbian couple take in a stranger who turns out to be a flesh-eating alien, and his masterpiece Terror, a cleverly linked series of horror set-pieces based around a cursed sword.

Judy Geeson as Sandy in Inseminoid (1980)

As the 1970s came to an end, it became increasingly difficult to obtain funding and equally hard to find a cinema to show them, as independent venues gave way to the homogenised exhibition strategies of the cinema chain. Norman’s best production of the 1980s was Inseminoid, though it was beset by unfair comparisons to Alien. 1986’s Bloody New Year was perhaps the ultimate example of collaborative filmmaking, cast and crew gathering on Barry Island in south Wales to create a time shift movie set in a haunted hotel. 

Bloody New Year (1986)

Norman Warren made no great claims for his work; he loved the filmmaking process and was delighted with the reception his films have had over the years. Appearing at film festivals and fairs all over the world, he has charmed each new generation of genre fans with his enthusiasm and insight. His final credit was on the feature film Susu in 2017; originally envisaged as a directing project for him, he stepped aside to mentor young female director Yixi Sun in her film debut.

In 1959, Norman had shot a short film, Incident, with fellow cine club member Brian Tufano but they ran out of money to finish it and the 16mm rushes languished for nearly 50 years. In 2007, Norman finally completed the film with the help of students at the National Film and Television School, and it premiered at BFI Southbank with Norman and Brian in attendance. The film is a delight, demonstrating how the early talent that Norman Warren exhibited had been enhanced by the skills he had acquired in the intervening years.

As a filmmaker, he was professional, imaginative, sensitive and innovative, a master of low-budget production. And as a person? He was lovely.

Further reading

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