Exploring the Extraordinary

I'll be speaking at the fifth 'Exploring the Extraordinary' conference in York this September.

'Exploring the Extraordinary' is:

"an interdisciplinary  network  for those  engaged/interested in research into the 'extraordinary' - topics often regarded as paranormal, supernatural, religious, transcendent, ecstatic, exceptional, mystical, anomalous, magical, or spiritual."

The organizersDr Hannah Gilbert and Dr Madeleine Castro have put together an excellent network of researchers, artists and practitioners interested in their stated remit. Check out their website for more information. 

You can also see the conference programme and the list of abstracts

I'll be giving a paper on William Burroughs and tape recording. Abstract below: 

Playback Hex: William Burroughs and the Magical Objectivity of the Tape Recorder

This paper considers the status of the tape recorder as a magical object in the creative praxis of William Burroughs. Taking as a starting point the infamous instance of his attempt to 'curse' the London Moka bar in 1972, this discussion will look at the manner in which Burroughs simultaneously used the instrument as a practical device, a compositional tool and literary motif. In essence, my paper seeks to think through, and to a degree, synthesise the overlapping layers of biography, imaginative investment and textual practice 
that surround Burroughs's work. Academic criticism of his writing often seeks to separate these levels. My point will be that an understanding of the particular significance Burroughs invests into the tape recorder provides a means to conceptualise the creative and strategic matrix he establishes between specific material objects and a wider imaginative project.

Note: For more on the Moka Bar see here and here


Vampiric Phonography

The brilliant Red Rattle Books are about to publish two vampire anthologies featuring fiction and literary criticism: Dracula's Midnight Snacks edited by David Saunderson and Telegraph For Garlic edited by Samia Ounoughi. The first is a collection of vampiric short stories, the second is a volume of essays relating to Bram Stoker's Dracula. 
I've contributed an essay to Telegraph for Garlic that looks at the intersection between Stoker's novel and phonographic technology. 
Both books will be launched at a special event at The Betsey in Clerkenwell, London on 19th September. 


Capitalist Breakdown

I have an article in the new issue of the film journal One+One that looks at the annual road race and culture brand, Gumball 3000. Abstract below. Click on the title to read the whole article.

Gumball 3000 is an annual supercar rally that brings together a high profile crew of billionaires, rap artists, bored aristocrats and reality TV stars. For an entrance fee of £30,000 the contestants have the privilege of driving their ferociously expensive and completely unreliable vehicles across 3000 miles of Europe and America fueled by speeding tickets and champagne parties. Since its inception in 1999 by the entrepreneur Maximillion Cooper, Gumball 3000 has morphed itself into an ‘aspirational lifestyle brand’ spawning a series of DVD films such as Gumball 3000: The Movie (2003), 3000 Miles (2007) and Number 13 (2011).

The task of driving thousands of miles in 6-8 days renders any such journey quantitative rather than qualitative. The experience of travel becomes purely a question of mileage, speed and fuel consumption. Little attention can be paid to location because the need is always to be further on. It is this emphasis on dromos, rather than topos – the former aggressively consuming the latter – that lies at the heart of the Gumball 3000 venture in terms of both its status as a capitalist enterprise and its on-screen (self) representation. 

Each of the Gumball films wrestle with the representational monotony of such a high speed journey. The result is a series of almost indistinguishable projects that are more showroom catalogues than road travelogues. One strategy of invigoration adopted by the film-makers and the Gumball brand is the copious, self-conscious use of references to classic road movies. The Gumball Rally (1976) and The Cannonball Run (1981) are clear citations, but the brand also regularly invokes Vanishing Point (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Bullitt (1968).

This article considers the representational stakes at play in the re-performance of these cult films. Specifically, the discussion will consider the dissonance generated when broadly countercultural narratives (expressing ideas of individuality, freedom, self-sufficiency and rebellion) are re-enacted as part of a project of accumulative cultural capital (emphasizing the sovereign display of wealth, personal irresponsibility and financially contingent ‘freedom’). The key point of comparison will be the image of the ecstatic car crash in Vanishing Point versus the static weight of the broken Lamborghini in 3000 Miles


Following on from last year's Bad Trip event at Nottingham Contemporary, I've been asked to take part in their 2013 summer exhibition, Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep.

In parallel with the main exhibition, the gallery is running Aquaphobia, a four-week film season of aquatic horror films. I've suggested two events to run under the banner 'Invisible Horizons and Uncharted Waters'.

This special 'micro-season' will take place between the 13th and 20th August and will involve screenings of Warlords of Atlantis, Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Beneath the Sea. I'll also be delivering a talk on film, occulture and Atlantean myth as well as providing programme notes for each of the films. In addition, there's also a You Tube channel featuring a range of clips that supplement the talk.

For more details see the 'Invisible Horizons' page on this blog.


A Field in England / Monolith

A Field in England
(2013) from director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump is an excellent contemporary take on geomancy and English psychedelia. 

I've written a review of the film for Monolith magazine. Read it here.

An Interview with Richard Gordon

Richard Gordon (1925-2011) was a prolific and much respected film producer who was most closely associated with horror and science fiction cinema. Born in London, he moved to America with his brother Alex in 1947 where they both became involved in the genre film industry. Richard Gordon was initially active as a distributor via his company Gordon Films before working with Bela Lugosi on Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) and Boris Karloff on The Haunted Strangler (1958). Meanwhile, Alex Gordon worked with AIP on The Day the World Ended (1955) whilst developing independent projects like The Atomic Submarine (1959) and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955).

Richard Gordon stayed close to horror throughout his career as a producer. In the 1970s he worked with Antony Balch on Secrets of Sex (1969/70) and Horror Hospital (1973) before producing Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1981). In his later years, Gordon Films continued as a distribution company and was also active in developing DVD releases. Gordon recorded various commentary tracks, often with writer Tom Weaver who published the book The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon in 2011.

I first met Richard at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films where he was a regular guest. At the 2005 festival he graciously took some time out to conduct the following interview. This was originally intended for a magazine project that never really got off the ground. Thankfully, after some correspondence with Richard and a few adjustments here and there, a version of the text was eventually published in Scary Monsters Magazine #66 (Spring 2008).

Every Richard Gordon interview and article will tell you what a gentleman he was. Certainly, my conversations and correspondence with him affirmed this. Not least because he patiently fielded my fumbling questions as if he was being asked about his career for the first time. What also struck me was his immense enthusiasm for the horror genre and admiration for the film-makers and actors he had worked with. During the 2005 festival I went along with him to see Terror in the Tropics (2006), an awful public domain hatchet job that sought to make a ‘new’ film out of films like The Devil Bat (1940) and The Most Dangerous Game (1932). For most of the audience this was nothing but an end of festival time-waster. For Richard Gordon this kind of project was somehow… disrespectful.

My thanks to Dennis Druktenis, editor of Scary Monsters, for permission to reproduce this interview here.


James Riley: The film I've often heard you associated with is Fiend Without a Face (1958).

Richard Gordon: Yes, that seems to be the longest living film among the pictures I've made, it’s become a cult movie favourite.

Riley: Alex Cox has said that, for the time, Fiend was considered a relatively gory film, especially in the final attack sequence and the whole idea of a monster that basically sucks out the brains of its victims. Were you intentionally pushing the envelope a bit?

Gordon: Yeah, we were aware of the fact that we were pushing the boundaries somewhat, but we felt that the film needed it in order to have the proper effect. In the event, we didn't really have any problems with it except that when the picture opened in London there was something of an outcry by the press. They said that it was too violent and that some of the scenes in it, like the ones you described, were disgusting. One newspaper actually wrote an article saying that it was time that British films stopped imitating American low budget movies and that somebody should do something about it. An MP, I forget who it was, raised a question about it. Of course, nothing ever happened but all the publicity of all that which helped to promote the movie. We didn't actually have to cut anything out of the movie for the British censor or for that matter the American censor and it did very well right from the beginning.

It was made to go as a co-feature for another film I was making at the time called Grip of the Strangler with Boris Karloff, which in America was called the Haunted Strangler. In those days, everything was double feature programming. I had set up the Haunted Strangler with Boris Karloff and had made a deal with a British distribution company called Eros Films. They helped to finance it and were going to distribute it in the UK. However, they said that in order to get the most out of it, they really needed a second picture to go with it. I didn't have anything and they said they could put it with one of their own pictures but that would involve splitting the film rental. So I said that I’d produce another picture and then put them out as a package. They agreed, and so I found the story for Fiend Without a Face and decided to make that as a second feature. As it turned out over the years it achieved a cult following and ended up being very successful on its own.

Riley: Did you see it as part of your role as producer to actively ‘push the boundaries’ of acceptability?

Gordon: Well, yes but actually Hammer were the ones who started it. When Hammer went into horror films with Curse of Frankenstein (1958) and Horror of Dracula (1959), they were the ones who really pushed the envelope, creating a whole new form of horror film with much more explicit blood and violence. They were so successful with it I think it was logical for people like myself to try and follow in their footsteps and keep up so we wouldn't look like we weren't able to achieve the same level of production quality.

Riley: And yet the production quality that your films did achieve was one that seemed still to rely on the unseen despite a general move within the genre towards graphic violence. I mean, the sense of invisibility is right there in the title Fiend Without a Face and Horror Hospital, for example, seems to draw heavily an atmosphere of horror just as much as it focuses on visualised horror. Did you consciously try to keep a balance in your films between explicit material and more suggestive, implied elements?

Gordon: Yes, I was always in favour, in all the films I made, of being suggestive about some of the horror elements. It was Hammer who started the wave of making films so explicit with everything flung in your face. I always thought it was much more interesting and much more frightening if you suggest the horror rather than just throw it on the screen, where everybody knows it’s fake anyway. I try to find a balance between the two things. Horror Hospital was of course intended as a tongue in cheek movie but in Tower of Evil (1972) which was far more explicit than most other horror pictures of its time, I tried to also to make the unseen horror and the suggestiveness of it more effective that it would have been otherwise. I didn't want to be labelled a copycat of Hammer and be seen to be going exactly the same route as they were going.

Riley: I’m guessing that the Universal atmospherics and the suggestiveness of something like the Browning / Lugosi Dracula (1931) had an influence on your work?

Gordon: I was always a great admirer as a kid of the Universal horror films from the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932) those kind of pictures, all of which were more suggestive and I thought that was what makes these kind of pictures really interesting.

Riley: Could you speak a little about your own association with Lugosi?

Gordon: My association with Lugosi came about when I first emigrated to the United States in 1947 with my brother. In my most early days in New York we had been asked by British fan magazines to write some articles and interviews with American actors and send then back to England. We weren't getting paid much for it and so couldn't afford to get to Hollywood and get hold of any of the major stars, but whenever some interesting actor was in New York either promoting a film or appearing on-stage we would try and get and interview and do something. Lugosi was touring in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, which is in a way funny because Karloff created that character on Broadway and was a huge success with it.

Lugosi was appearing just after I arrived in New York in a small town outside the city called Seacliff, Long Island. My brother and I went out there to see it and managed to see him backstage for an interview. He was extremely friendly, very co-operative, very helpful and we got to be friends. He was living in New York at the time having given up on Hollywood and we kept in touch. A year or two later he was without an agent. He had a manger but he didn't do anything much for him. He asked me if I could possibly do something for him and he would be glad to have me as his manager. He was interested in doing a stage revival of Dracula he acknowledged that there was no Broadway interest and he suggested that that I could maybe set up a revival tour in England. If it was a success in England, Broadway would then be interested and the show could come back to perform there. I tried my best to do it and eventually succeeded in setting up the tour which was to begin in Brighton and eventually perform in the West End of London.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a success. Firstly it was a very cheap production and Bela was already really too old for the part and wasn't in the best of health. It closed before it came to the West End which meant that there was no chance of playing on Broadway. When the tour closed and Bela was more or less stranded in England with his wife, I put together a deal for him to appear in the movie Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), which seemed to be the only thing available where I could get him some money quickly which would enable him to return to the United States. And that was my association with him, managing his affairs for two, two and a half years. After Mother Riley he returned to Hollywood and I never really saw him again, but my brother who was by then working in Hollywood producing pictures for American International, kept up the relationship and was more or less friends with him until he died.

Riley: I believe your brother, Alex, was also involved with Ed Wood during this period.

Gordon: Yes, Alex was involved with Ed Wood. When he went out to Hollywood he was trying to put together some productions before his AIP work. Sam Arkoff (who was to become head of AIP) had Ed Wood as a client and suggested to Alex that they should meet and they could maybe do something together. Alex and Ed became friends and it was Alex who introduced Ed Wood to Lugosi and that was how that whole thing came about. My brother wrote the story for Bride of the Monster and also another picture, not with Lugosi but one that Ed Wood directed, called Jailbait, (1954) in which Steve Reeves made his screen debut in a small supporting role.

Riley: After your period of management with Lugosi did you then concentrate on mainly British based films?

Gordon: Yes, all the films I ever made were made in England. I set up a British Production company called Producer’s Associates Limited. I came back to England on trips to make the pictures. Previous to this I had done co-productions on behalf of other people but the first two I made on my own were Grip of the Strangler/Haunted Strangler and Fiend Without a Face. I then had an agreement with Karloff that we had an option on his services for a second feature. After we had made Haunted Strangler which was a very good experience, everyone was happy, I exercised the option and we looked for another subject. We only had a certain period of time for which his services were available as he was due for work in Hollywood. That second picture became Corridors of Blood (1958).

Riley: When you were making films in response to these kinds of contractual windows, did you find that it was easy to develop a horror film because of your familiarity with the genre?

Gordon: Well, I was always interested in horror and science fiction films and of course with Karloff it was the logical thing to do anyway. But quite frankly horror films, it wasn't so much science fiction films, but horror films seemed to be the easiest projects to put together. They didn't require elaborate production, locations etc and they could be made on a relatively low budget as long as you've got the horror elements, the shock elements. Also, you didn't necessarily need big stars, because it was the horror element that sold the picture more so than the stars, except in the case of Karloff and Lugosi. So I always tried to concentrate on that area of film-making and also I was very successful with The Haunted Strangler and Fiend Without a Face which I got MGM to distribute in the rest of the world outside the Eros distribution in the UK. MGM indicated that they would be very happy to come on in the production of the second Karloff film. That’s the route I chose to go. In fact the second Karloff film, Corridors of Blood which cost substantially more than The Haunted Strangler was shot at MGM studios in England and partially financed by MGM and partially distributed by MGM in the whole world. There we made as a picture that was originally intended to go with it, First Man into Space (1959) which also starred Marshall Thompson who was in Fiend Without a Face. The idea was that it could be a double bill, but by the time the pictures were finished, space travel had started coming into everyday life. There was talk about putting a man on the moon and MGM wanted to put First Man into Space out on its own to cash in on the trend and decided to release Corridors of Blood later on with something else.

Riley: Could you tell me a little bit about your involvement with Antony Balch?

Gordon: I made two pictures with Antony Balch. That was sometime later after I made First Man into Space and Corridors of Blood. I also made Devil Doll (1964) with Brian Haliday and another picture with him called Curse of the Voodoo (1965). Then I met Antony Balch during one of my visits to the Cannes Film Festival. I liked him very much. He was a film distributor at the time in the UK. He also had a great personal interest in horror films. I discovered quite by chance that Bela Lugosi had been his favourite actor as a kid and The Devil Bat (1940) had been a particular favourite of his. He had a 16 mm print and would show it for his friends and so on. Anyway, we got to be good friends and he was working towards becoming a director in films and making his own films. He had done a couple of shorts with William Burroughs with whom he was on very friendly terms, one called Towers Open Fire (1963) which is kind of a classic of the Beat Generation. Antony and I got along very well together, he knew what I was doing and he was a distributor in the UK also and we decided to try and make a picture together.

We came up with the idea of doing an omnibus picture which we called Secrets of Sex which he directed and I produced. He was really getting his feet wet as a director and it turned out very well and was certainly very successful at the box office. Then we decided to do a real horror picture as a second film and we came up with the idea to do Horror Hospital. We decided to it tongue in cheek as we thought that would be more fun. We made that picture together with Robin Askwith who we got to play the lead and we also got Michael Gough. I think for a low budget and Antony’s first experience at directing a real feature film it turned out rather well.

I would certainly have gone on producing pictures with him but unfortunately shortly after Horror Hospital he got ill. It turned out he had cancer and he really wasn't able to continue working. He was at that time preparing to make a film of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959). Because of his friendship with Burroughs who lived in the same building as Antony in London, he had given him an option to do it. They had become very close friends. If we had gone on and been able to go on in production, it was very likely that the third film we’d have done together would have been Naked Lunch. But Antony got too ill and died in 1980. He was only 42 years old and I think he would have had a brilliant career if he’d lived. He was the kind of interesting young director that England was producing at the time like Michael Reeves who made Witchfinder General (1968). I met him and also felt that I may have been able to do a film with him but he died also at an even younger age, 27. I think of either an overdose or suicide. There were several of these young up and coming directors at the time who seemed to be ready to do something more interesting than the run of the mill second features and so on. 

Burroughs later went on and made a deal with David Cronenberg for a film of Naked Lunch which didn't resemble to book very much. The problem with Antony’s script was that it resembled the book too much. No censors around the world would have passed the script the way Antony wrote it at the time (laughing). But we would have attempted it…

After that I went on and worked for other people. I made the Cat and the Canary (1979) and in 1980 I made Inseminoid with Norman Warren. That was the last picture I produced because by that time production costs had rocketed sky-high. The whole pattern of distribution changed in the 1980s because the major studios got involved in low budget horror and science fiction films and set higher standards for everything which made it much harder to get films into the cinemas. There was a new system of distribution whereby marketing costs became a huge factor by releasing films in hundreds of theatres at once with television advertising. I realised that I couldn't continue making pictures independently because it was impossible to raise the financing in the way I had done it previously so I decided to step out of it. 

I had a good run for my money. I mean, I’m not retired, I’m still working and because I own the copyrights to most of my own pictures and I’m still distributing them. What I've been doing for the last year or two and what I’m continuing to do is I’m restoring all the materials and putting them out on DVD, doing the extra features, putting on interviews and commentaries, interviewing actors and directors. I’m keeping very busy but I’m no longer involved in production. Also, the technology is changed to such an extent with digital computer graphics so if I was to try and produce a picture on my own, I don’t have the knowledge of the technology to do it. I would need somebody with far more experience in the new methodology in order to be able to make a picture.

Riley: It could be interesting to make a film now which did go back to basics and specifically did not rely on contemporary techniques…

Gordon: Well, it’s possible, but I think also distribution has changed so much and I think you need to have the backing of a major studio or a big distributor to be able to achieve anything. It’s no use making a picture if you find you can’t get it into the theatres or you can’t get it on screen.

Riley: From how you've been speaking about your role as a producer, it seems like you had a great deal of creative input….

Gordon: Oh yes, absolutely, I mean I always got myself involved in it in every step of the way. Once you put a picture together, I would first of all be involved in the creation of the script or the acquisition of the property and getting the director and the cast and the technicians together, raising the money. On the day you start shooting, you turn the picture over to the director. The producer’s job after that is merely to be there and to supervise it and to be on hand in case there are any problems: budgets and so on. During the making of the film that is really the producer’s role. I couldn't put creative input in on a day-to-day basis, as that’s the director’s job.

When I made The Projected Man (1967) with Tony Tenser, for instance there was a problem. We had a young director, Ian Curteis who had done a lot of television. The picture got into trouble and went over budget and Curteis, who had never really done a feature film before started to flounder and panic. I had to step in and we had to actually remove him from the production and I had to put somebody else in the role. That’s the sort of thing a producer has to do. But I couldn't have stepped in and done it myself; my job was to find somebody else who could do it, who had the necessary experience.

But I do always try to have creative input. I liked to have input in the editing, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out and also in the distribution: negotiating the foreign sales. That’s something I still do. I handle the international sales of my pictures, mostly for television which keeps me very busy. I have no intention of retiring, not while I’m still enjoying it. People say why don’t you retire, you don’t need to be doing this anymore, and I say, why should I retire? I’m having as much fun as I had when I was making the pictures. So when it stops being fun, and becomes a drag, then I’ll shut it down.

Riley: Ok, inevitable question: What’s your favourite film, and which is your favourite of your own films?

Gordon: I can answer you right away and say, the original King Kong (1933). It has always been my favourite. It made such an impression on me as a kid, I think that that’s how I got interested in this whole idea of following this particular route with my own production.

As far as my own films are concerned, I think I had the most fun with Horror Hospital. First of all it was tongue in cheek and secondly, Robin was such a fantastic individual. We had so much fun on that picture and he kept everyone in stitches all the way through the production. I give him more credit, more so than anybody else, for the success of that film because he infected everybody in the cast with that spirit of enthusiasm.

Creatively, artistically, I suppose The Haunted Strangler and maybe The Cat and the Canary were the best films from an objective standpoint. With Cat and the Canary I was lucky enough to get such a wonderful cast, Wendy Miller, Wilfred White, Carol Linley. The whole idea for that came from the success
of the Agatha Christie films like Murder on the Orient Express, (1974) which pioneered the idea of getting a lot of big name into cameo roles. Well, obviously I couldn't afford the kind of people who were in Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile (1978), but on a somewhat lower level, I tried to do the same thing. There were only ten characters in the story and trying to cast in the same way I got some good people: Edward Fox and Daniel Massey for instance. And we managed to schedule the picture so not all the actors had to be hired at the same time. Wilfred Hyde White only worked one day on the film. I thought that was a pretty good film, if I do say so myself…. (laughs).

Riley: What are your current projects?

Gordon: I’m not actually looking to get back into production. I've been approached a number of times by people looking for the remake rights for my pictures, particularly Fiend Without a Face over which there seems to be ongoing interest. I wouldn't be directly involved. I would perhaps have an executive producer role, but I‘m not contemplating getting back into production. Also, to be quite frank with you, when horror films started to become what we call ‘slasher movies’ like Friday 13th (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) it didn't seem to be fun anymore. Everything became too gross. It seemed to me that every picture being made just tried to be more explicit and more repulsive than the previous picture. It doesn't require any imagination if you throw everything in the audience’s faces. With the technology of today it’s easy to do if you have the money to spend, but it doesn't take any imagination to do. I appreciate that some of them are very good creatively and most of them make very good money, but I didn't think it would be that much fun making them if you didn't have to use your imagination to scare audiences.