Writer and filmmaker Sean Hogan is a prolific one-man hyper-creative, in the past, he has produced the excellent comic book documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD (2014), and contributed as a scriptwriter on grisly 21st-century shocker The Borderlands (2013). More recently he has authored a brilliantly detailed study of overlooked British cult horror Death Line and, England’s Screaming, a marvelously ingenious piece of fiction that combines the lives and histories of a host the UK’s finest dark fantasy figures.
Andrew Graves tracked him down the other day for a chat, amongst other things he spoke about writing, Pinter, and the state of the British horror movie in a nightmarishly bleak post Brexit setting.
Diabolique: We all have a gateway into the world of the horror film, be it the 1970s-late-night double bills, or the video nasty wave, or the books of Denis Gifford or Alan Grant, what was your way in? And what’s your fascination with that genre?
Sean Hogan: Definitely guilty as charged there. I’m not entirely sure what came first, the horror movie coffee table books or the late-night TV screenings, but I vividly remember them both. I recall moving to a new house and the kids from down the street having a pile of those books, and me just pouring over them, gobsmacked at some of the stills inside. I then set out to collect some myself, and am glad to say my own Alan Franks and Denis Giffords have survived the ensuing decades and are still safely housed on my bookshelves.
As for the TV screenings, I certainly remember sitting up with my Dad to watch late-night Hammer films, and have a very strong recollection of seeing the BBC2 double-bill of The Seventh Victim (1943) and Race with the Devil (1975). The Lewton was a bit too refined for me at that age, but Race with the Devil absolutely terrified me, and is still a film I’m very fond of. Similarly, we sat up to watch the TV broadcast of Damien: Omen II (1978) (I hadn’t even seen the first one at that point) and it frightened the life out of me – so there’s certainly a dotted line you can trace all the way up to England’s Screaming there! And likewise, with the VHS era – my family were early adopters, and so I remember watching horror movies on video before the video nasty panic even erupted. My brother and I were allowed to watch Dawn of the Dead (1978) fairly early on, and having grown up on the relatively cosy Hammer films, that one just blew my tiny mind – I remember us rewinding the moment with the zombie and the helicopter because we simply could not believe what we were seeing.
I don’t really know how to account for my early fascination with the genre, though – it just seemed like an entirely natural thing for me to gravitate towards. I can certainly intellectualise it now and say that I love the potential horror has for using symbolism and metaphor as a means to look at the world, but that’s hardly what drives your initial enthusiasm as a kid. I just always responded to the genre on a very deep, instinctive level. Even when I was being scared (which was often), I loved it. And I found myself responding to the pessimism and ambiguity of a lot of these films very early on – I remember seeing Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) on video and thinking the ending (which was certainly divisive upon its release) was just a brilliant way to tell the story. So, I definitely think genre films helped shape my fundamental notions about creativity and storytelling. Which, in a sense, eventually ended up leading right back to me writing England’s Screaming.
Diabolique: What was the starting point for the book, how did you narrow the film choices and cast of characters down to a workable project?
SH: As always, I have to give due credit to David Thomson’s book Suspects here, which does a similar thing with film noir characters, and without which I would never have been inspired to write my own take. Looking back on it now, the whole thing was really somewhat down to sheer chance. I’d had the idea of doing a horror-themed Suspects, but at that point, I was working solely in film and didn’t really think I had the literary ability or even the right to attempt a quasi-novel. It was only when Electric Dreamhouse editor Neil Snowdon approached me about writing a horror film monograph that things started to fall into place (and I still don’t know why he approached me, as I didn’t even know him at the time!). I ended up choosing Gary Sherman’s great film Death Line (1973), and with Suspects very much in mind, wrote the bulk of it in the form of the fictional journal of the Donald Pleasence character from the movie. Luckily Neil liked what I’d done, and when I mentioned that my daydream of redoing Suspects had been the seed of it, he told me he’d gladly publish that book if I ever wrote it, which was very flattering. But I still didn’t really think I would.
Skip forward a couple of years, and I had some downtime while I was waiting on a film project to happen (it didn’t), and I suddenly thought to myself, you could write that book now. It still seemed like an almost impossible undertaking, but what I finally decided to do was write a few sample vignettes to see how they might work on the page, and then send them to Neil to see if he was still interested. So, if memory serves, I wrote four – the sections dealing with characters from Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Repulsion (1965), The Haunting of Julia (1977) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971). There was no real rhyme or reason why I chose those four in particular, the stories for them just occurred to me. I was happy enough with them, so I sent them to Neil and he responded positively. So now I had to figure out exactly how I was going to write this…
I considered drawing up some kind of huge flow-chart where I could plot the whole thing out in advance, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt as though I could spend months on doing that alone. So essentially, I just started writing it instead, not in any particular order at first, and without any real initial idea of where I was going. I would watch films in the mornings and write in the afternoons, and I just let the book dictate what it wanted to be. I knew going in that the character of Damien Thorn would provide certain structural pivot points for the narrative, so I guess I had a vague sense of what the thrust of the book was, but looking back on it now, I feel like it was informed both by the subtext I found in a lot of the films (issues of class and politics and the establishment) and the tenor of the times in which I wrote it. Given that it was written in late 2018/early 2019, you can probably guess what they were. The B(rexit) word is never mentioned in the book, but my anger about that whole process and what it signified is certainly a large part of what the overall story is about.
So I watched a lot of films and took a lot of notes, and it just seemed to come together fairly organically. It did feel as though I couldn’t think about much else at the time! I would often have films in mind to include, but without any particular idea of how to tie them into the overall framework, and then I would lie there trying to get to sleep at night and something would just pop out of the stew of my unconscious. As someone who was very used to planning fairly carefully (writing screenplays mostly requires that), this was an entirely new way of working for me. I did want the book to be somewhat representative of UK genre as a whole, so as much as I could I tried to pick a selection of works that served as examples of certain important aspects or sub-genres, but beyond that I really just chose films/characters that earned their place. And there was never a definitive list – some films I would watch and discard, and others would force their way in there unexpectedly. I remember sitting down to watch Possum, more just as a new film rather than with any real expectation of including it in the book, but I knew by the end that it would go in (as the most recent film included, it makes a nice narrative bookend with the earliest one, Dead of Night (1945).
Diabolique: Were there any angles/films you would have liked to have explored but couldn’t fit into the finished work?
SH: Well, the book (largely) omits period gothic horror, simply because the narrative span is deliberately contemporary, but that’s obviously a huge chunk of British genre cinema to leave out. That was purely a storytelling decision, but part of me still wonders whether there’s another volume to be mined there! I also feel bad for poor Peter Cushing, who has a couple of cameo moments but deserves much better, especially seeing as Christopher Lee is represented to such a large extent that he even gets to play a scene with himself. I did consider including Corruption but never found a place for it at the time – although I did have an idea for that story recently, so perhaps if there’s ever another edition! (I did write an additional UK-themed vignette for my website recently, so God knows I’m still adding to it.) Similarly, the overall timeframe didn’t really permit the inclusion of any future dystopias, but the likes of A Clockwork Orange (1971), Threads (1984), The Damned (1963) or No Blade of Grass (1970) would probably be fairly fruitful to write about (and given the ultimate direction the book takes, I’m sure they’d fit in fairly seamlessly…).
Diabolique: We often talk about more famous characters from horror like Lord Summrisle etc., but what makes England’s Screaming so inventive is the way in which you also concentrate on lesser-known characters from this rainy island. Which character or characters from the pantheon of British horror are particularly overlooked in your opinion?
AG: I don’t know exactly how overlooked they are now (I’m certainly trying to do my small bit to give them their due!), but two films that initially spring to mind are The Medusa Touch (1978) and Death Line. The latter has at least been somewhat better regarded in recent years (I remember Guillermo Del Toro writing about it in Sight & Sound back in the ’90s), although I still don’t know how widely it was seen, at least until the recent restoration. But The Medusa Touch was always treated pretty sniffily in my recollection, and it’s only recently that people like me who saw it on TV as kids and grew up loving it have started to claw back a bit of critical ground. Having seen both that and Death Line when I was younger, it was really a revelation to return to them as an adult and realize that not only do they have two extremely vivid and well-written characters at their centers (Inspector Calhoun in Death Line and John Morlar in The Medusa Touch), but they are both fundamentally quite radical films that challenge the corruption of the English establishment.
Calhoun, I wrote about in my Death Line monograph (which is in some ways a direct prequel to England’s Screaming, especially in terms of how it utilises Christopher Lee’s Stratton-Villiers character), and Morlar I knew would have a part to play in England’s Screaming. Quite how big a part he would have I didn’t originally know, but he was so delicious to write that he kept forcing his way in there, and pretty soon I realised that he would be sticking around right until the end…
So those two for sure, but if you want a couple of somewhat more obscure examples, I would say The Corpse (1971) and Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (1972), both of which I watched for the first time while prepping the book. The Corpse contains a wonderfully unpleasant performance by Michael Gough, and is another of the Les Diaboliques (1955) knock-offs which were so prevalent in the UK in the 1960’s/70’s. But unlike a lot of those other films (which I do enjoy), it’s very attuned to the dialogue and behaviour of the English middle classes. Very Pinteresque, in its own seedy way (and Harold Pinter is someone that I will stubbornly maintain is a huge influence on UK genre, despite the fact that he never wrote anything that could be easily classified as horror and I’m sure would have been absolutely appalled at the suggestion anyway). And Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is a weird little necrophiliac love story that certainly suffers from moments of somewhat purple screenwriting, but also has a marvellously melancholy sense of loss and inescapable doom. Let’s just say it definitely makes for a good thematic double-bill with the considerably more famous UK work it gets twinned within the book!
Diabolique: Death Line, is a very ‘unseen’ film, and your book offers more than just a standard analysis, but how would you sell that film to the uninitiated?
SH: The Death Line book is actually taken up with a fictional exploration of the film’s story, from the viewpoint of the Donald Pleasence character. I am of the opinion that his performance as Inspector Calhoun in that movie is one of the great genre film performances: brilliantly observed, hysterically funny, and quite unlike anything else he ever did. One thing I certainly wanted to do was write in that particular character’s voice, because it’s just so distinctive (much as I ended up doing with Morlar later on). So, I hope that section of the monograph does something very similar to what England’s Screaming sets out to do, which is to take a look at these films from the inside out, through the eyes of their various characters. The monograph has other sections which take a more objective critical approach (including a long interview Gary Sherman kindly granted me), but that part comprises the meat of the book, for me.
In terms of selling Death Line, well, there’s just so much to recommend it. As well as Pleasence, it has another great performance by Hugh Armstrong. It has some really striking visuals – excellent production design, and one of the seminal long take sequences in movies. It’s both very funny and extremely dark and violent. And it’s brilliantly, savagely political – very much a part of the 70’s New Wave of US horror, in a sense (not often characterised as such because it’s so very English in its subject matter, but Sherman was, after all, a US ex-pat). Honestly, if you haven’t yet seen it, please go and buy the blu-ray immediately.
Diabolique: Death Line is a great example of the quintessential British horror film. In many ways, the scary movies made in this country, are as unique as the Italian Giallo or Japanese J-Horror, yet it’s incredibly difficult to define what makes them so individual when placed against the work of other cultures. How would you begin to sum up their undefinable appeal/fascination?
SH: For a long time, I might have said that I much preferred the output of the aforementioned US New Wave to many UK genre films. Films by directors like George Romero and David Cronenberg were certainly very important to me when I was younger, and I thought that’s what the best of horror cinema was. Those films are still very meaningful to me, but I think my appreciation of what a lot of UK genre cinema achieves definitely grew over time. Many of these films have a fairly seedy, kitchen-sink aspect to them, which was something that probably used to put me off to an extent, but which I would probably now consider to be a fairly natural representation of England as a country. I suspect I may have previously viewed a lot of these films as expressions of aspects of our national character that I had absolutely no time for – the snobbery and small-mindedness, the appalling fixation on class and social betterment, the unquestioning obsequiousness to our supposed superiors – and not grasped just how many of them were undermining or attacking those aspects. I was just too close to them. It was certainly a revelation to me that, when I started making my own films around fifteen years ago, I would see reviews putting them within the context of older UK genre films, and I’d invariably think Those films don’t have anything to do with what I want to do. But of course, they did, very much so. So, this book is kind of me coming home, in a way. And if you’re at all interested in the underlying fabric of what makes up this country, then I think a lot of these films get at it in a far more direct and insightful fashion than do many critically-lauded works of supposed social commentary. There’s always been a somewhat snobbish BFI-mandated attitude towards genre cinema over here, but if I want to watch a film about the English class system, I’d much rather look at Death Line again than The Souvenir (2019), put it that way.
Diabolique: Though you have extended this basic idea to incorporate more European elements with your other book Three Mothers, One Father, (Black Shuck Books), would you consider expanding the concept to include characters from other continents? You touch upon Wake in Fright (1971) in England’s Screaming for instance.
SH: I think I knew when I completed England’s Screaming that it might end up being part of a bigger whole. It just seemed like unfinished business, in a way. Given the interwoven nature of it all, there were just so many other films, countries and narrative possibilities. So, when Black Shuck Books came to me and asked if I’d contribute a short book to their Shadows line, I immediately said, sure, I’ll write a Euro-horror sequel to this UK horror cinema book I’ve done that isn’t even published yet! (To his eternal credit, the publisher didn’t laugh at me for my shameless presumption.)
Three Mothers, One Father is what resulted. It’s a much shorter book, and so is much less of a general overview than the previous volume. It tells a much more focused story, and includes fewer films. But it operates in much the same way otherwise, and hopefully attempts a similarly satirical kind of contemporary relevance. And there are certainly a couple of call-backs to events in England’s Screaming…
So right now, there are the three interconnected books: Death Line, England’s Screaming, and Three Mothers. Could there be more? It obviously depends on how the two new books fare with readers, but I certainly feel as though I would be somewhat remiss in not taking on US genre cinema next. I don’t have anything specific planned right now, but I do feel that itch nagging at me, if anyone will even publish it! Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m always open to pulling in movies from anywhere in the world if they fit the story I’m telling, but much as I love Asian horror films, I’m not sure I know the social turf well enough to attempt an entire book on them.
Diabolique: How would you describe the state of the British horror film in the 21st century? How do more recent films from Ben Wheatley such as Kill List (2011) or A Field in England (2013) or other films like Prevenge (2016) or The Borderlands (2013) or Dead Man’s Shoes, sit alongside more classic examples like the Amicus or Hammer films, how are they different yet somehow similar in their outlook?
SH: I think that in some respects, the situation here is similar to elsewhere in the world, where you have a generation of filmmakers who are genre-savvy but also don’t make distinctions based on cultural snobbery, so have little compunction about mashing up genre and arthouse. Therefore, you get Ben Wheatley riffing on both Witchfinder General (1968) and Culloden (1964) in A Field in England, or Prevenge, which is a blackly comedic B-movie take on The Bride Wore Black (1968). And certainly, when I worked on the script for The Borderlands, I was well aware of genre antecedents such as The Stone Tape (1972), and looked to include scary stuff in that sort of vein, but also wanted to expand on the more existential elements, and the religion vs paganism themes.
It’s these kinds of films which have led to the current focus on “elevated genre”: essentially just a bullshit marketing term for intelligent horror (which has always existed, even if it’s been less prevalent during certain eras). But the result of this rebranding is to permit certain, supposedly more highbrow, critical outlets to approve of these newer films, because they’re not ‘just’ genre. However, this is entirely arbitrary – there is a definite, easily traceable lineage there, and you can see it in the way older horror films suddenly become critically respectable once those critical connections have been made. Blood on Satan’s Claw would have been considered nothing more than B-movie exploitation fodder when I first watched it on TV as a kid, but post- A Field in England / the folk horror explosion, it’s now seen as OK for Sight & Sound to write approvingly about it. So, in fact, I would argue that many of these contemporary films are essentially doing very much the same thing as a lot of older genre works are. Perhaps sometimes they might want to try and remind you (often quite loudly) that they’re supposedly more sophisticated in their approach, but for instance, as much as I like it (and not to single it out), but I don’t see that Kill List is doing anything in delineating its clash between paganism and the aspirational English middle classes that, say, Robin Redbreast (1970) or A Photograph (1977) didn’t do first.
I also think (and this is partly the voice of bitter experience) that finding understanding UK producers/financiers that will actually get genre films of a certain level of quality made here is extremely difficult. Either you have to accumulate enough critical cred that the BFI might help finance your film (in which case it had probably better be genre-but-not-too-genre), or else you’re probably reliant on private money, which all-too-regularly results in absolute garbage, simply because what private investors often want to do is make something that copies whatever genre film happened to be successful last year. So invariably what you end up with is a lot of low-budget junk, a few genre-ish films, and maybe the odd gem that somehow sneaks through. Still, when I first started writing England’s Screaming, I wasn’t sure how many contemporary films I would include, and there ended up being quite a few, so there’s always hope…
ENGLAND’S SCREAMING: https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/englands-screaming-hardcover-sean-hogan-5047-p.asp
THREE MOTHERS: https://blackshuckbooks.co.uk/shadows-20/