To try and describe Terror (1978) in terms of a coherent plot is slightly difficult. The director, by his own admission, was more interested in making something that represented a visual experience first and foremost, rather than anything that was based on rigid logic and heavy scripting. Director Norman J Warren has made no secret over the fact that in making Terror he was strongly influenced by the dreamlike visuals and strong soundscape of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) . Although that is not to say that this film is a carbon copy, to suggest so would be doing Terror a complete injustice. Warren in fact uses a number of facets to make something of a vicious little proto-slasher, which celebrates horror past and present, and aligns British seventies horror with its more lurid European counterparts of the day and age. Also, with the help of David McGillivray’s script, he injects some dark humour into the mix, along with a heavy dose of murderous carnage.
The story bases itself around a film director James Garrick (John Nolan) , and his cousin Ann (Carolyn Courage). James has just completed a period horror film that he declares is based on the true story of his family and the witch’s curse that has plagued it. Apparently all the Garrick ancestors, including James’ late father, have met violent ends in one way or another. As if to confirm things during a post-production private screening party at James’ home, Ann is hypnotised in a parlour game and tries to attack her cousin with a sword. Shocked, everyone laughs it off as an elaborate prank,’ that is until people who are close to James and Ann start dying in horrifically violent ways.
I make no qualms about admitting I am a sucker for a good old Norman J Warren film. In my humblest of opinions his debut horror Satan’s Slave (1976) is something of a masterpiece for its time and place, and Terror isn’t far off the scale for me either. As an admirer of vintage British horror, for me Norman J Warren, and likeminded contemporary Pete Walker were two filmmakers who stood out from the herd. With cinema audiences dwindling at the time, the British film industry was in a state of flux. Major genre studios like Hammer were desperately trying to mix up their tried and tested formula to move with the times- and were on some level failing. Yet Warren, and Walker, came along with their-then modern-brand of horror which was far more sordid and graphic than anything coming out of Pinewood Studios and livened things up a bit. While films like Terror might seem tame or dated to a modern day audience, it is still important to assess them within their context because for their era they were very forward thinking and deserve to continue to be recognised for this factor.
As for the cast, well Terror utilises mostly, for then, unknowns- although some of the cast went on to bigger things. Glynis Barber appears here looking very glamorous in her first film role in a small part as Garrick’s friend Carol. Barber would go on to form quite a strong fanbase of impressionable young males given her striking good looks. Carolyn Courage as the female lead Ann, in this her only role in a feature film, does a great job- being both fragile and slightly sinister when called on to be. Also John Nolan as director James Garrick, who has a slightly smaller role than the introduction would suggest, manages to inject an air of mystery into his piece to the puzzle and where he might fit into things. There is a huge cast involved with this feature, considering its so low-budget, and even though the roles are all quite small in nature for many of the team there are some interesting and memorable characters who populate the film- including a frightening whip cracking (real life) stripper, and the cast of a sexploitation film who bring with them some hilarious lines.
The impact Argento’s work had on director Warren is evident here in the mood lighting, the all-encompassing Ivor Slaney score and surreal nature to the plotline. Warren employs coloured gels on the lighting in strong greens and reds to create something of a nightmarish landscape in key scenes. This harks back to Suspiria– although in all fairness this approach should really be credited to Mario Bava from whom Argento was heavily influenced. Slaney’s score isn’t as elaborate as Argento’s Goblin, but the ominous electronic melody that trots along in the background serves its purpose well. For the murders, and there are many for a British film made around this period at least, they are suitably vicious and graphic. Again the Italian influence is seen in the way the deaths are employed and shown in their true gory glory. There is a real artistry involved in the effects, especially when you consider Warren and his team were working on a miniscule budget, and a tight four week shooting schedule.
Terror is a real highlight for mid to late seventies British horror when the industry was starting to wane in terms of output and quality. The film does owe a great debt to the Italian forerunners of the decade, yet it still manages to retain a strong British personality- which is down to Warren’s approach and McGillivray’s scripting- especially with choice lines of dialogue like “get those wankers out of here”. Warren uses the clever plot device of a film within a film to create a pastiche to classic British period horror, with nods to the theatrical nature of Hammer horror. He also manages to get in a salute to his earlier career in cheeky British sex comedies- in some highly hilarious scenes featuring another film within a film ‘Bathtime with Brenda’– involving those wankers, and again some fantastic comedy scripting. When you factor in the series of gloriously lurid murders, and a supernatural witchcraft angle, you have something highly entertaining. Unlike Pete Walker’s satirical stabs- excuse the pun- in his horror entries to the British vaults, Warren seemed to come from an angle of gleeful celebration of the genre. Terror encompasses the spirit of the genre in a completely unrestrained and celebratory way. As scriptwriter David McGillivray sums up on the British DVD commentary for this release Terror is a film for “lovers of horror film”, making it great fun, packed full of wonderful clichés and graphic gore, now what more can you ask for?