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Mr. Michael Powell on Making Horror Films
From our Special Correspondent
The Thunderer; 5th July 1960

When Peeping Tom opened a month or two back in the West End, The Times found in it finesse and that first essential of a thriller, the ability to thrill. Other critics were not so happy: "The nastiest film I have ever seen," wrote one, and another said, "It's a long time since a film digusted me as much as Peeping Tom - beastly picture". Such reactions have been produced, to a greater of lesser extent, by several of the current cycle of British horror films, but what distinguished this one, apart from its being an unusually good example of its type, was that it was directed by one of Britain's few major directors, Mr. Michael Powell, whose past successes have ranged from I Know Where I'm Going to The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann to The Battle of the River Plate. Why, at this juncture in the history of British films has he turned to a story of, in detail at least, quite gothic horror?

His answer, when we asked him, was simple. "As usual at the moment, I had two or three stories in preparation, and this was the one the companies wanted to finance, so I made it first." Was this, we wondered, because horror films accounted for many of the major box-office successes of the moment? "Quite possibly - I really don't know. Of course, I don't think of it as just a horror film at all - I tried to go beyond the ordinary horror film of unexplained monstors, and instead show why one human being should behave in this extraordinary way - it's a story of a human being first and foremost. That's why I had my own son play the central character as a child" (and played the child's sadistic father himself, we interposed?). "Yes, I felt it gave the whole thing a greater truth than if we had a routine child actor. My son understood what we were doing - I explained it all to him - and enjoyed doing it." We suggested that one reason for the outraged response was the casting of a normal, handsome young man in the role of the murderer instead of a conventional fairy-tale devil. "I think that had something to do with it - he was a figure to disturb an audience by asking to be identified with, understood. My wife's criticism was that he was not in fact ordinary enough to achieve this; that's a criticism that makes sense to me. I think she may be right."


Themes of horror, we remarked, were not so novel in Mr. Powell's work as some critics had suggested - they occured in The Red Shoes ballet, in The Tales of Hoffmann, and, perhaps particularly relevant to the present instance, in A Canterbury Tale, which featured Mr. Eric Portman as a magistrate who goes round pouring glue into girls' hair. Mr. Powell politely disagreed with the last instance: "That was really Emeric Pressburger's film. I'm a director; I hate writing. With A Canterbury Tale I had doubts because the script had a wonderful idea - this man who cares so much about truth and beauty that he has to act for it, even on pain of being regarded as some sort of lunatic for what he does - but it was a Continental idea that did not fit into an English film. If I was going to make an English film with it at all, I should have done more with it, translated it more. But I didn't. i filmed it straight and the result was a tremendous flop. Since then I've never filmed anything I've had reservations about, as I'm not conceited enough to think I'm so good I can get away with anything I'm not absolutely sure of.

"You're probably right about the horror themes in my work generally, though. I think they occur naturally in the work of any master director (by that, of course, I don't mean a director who makes masterpieces, but just a director who knows what he wants). Rex Ingram, with whom I served my apprenticeship, and who still remains for me a model of the real director, always had them - there were hunchbacks or monstors lurking on the fringes of all his films, and he made at least one thorough-going horror film, Black Orchids. Indeed, he liked it so much he made it twice."

Would his own next film be still on horror lines? "Oh no. It's a film in praise of the Brigade of Guards. I'm shooting background material now and casting the four main parts later. Of course it's not just an animated recruiting poster - in fact its irreverence will probably annoy the Army intensely when it's finished. Still, they were furious about Colonel Blimp at the time, and now they speak of it with the greatest affection. The English will always laugh at themselves eventually, even if it's not till 10 years after the event."

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