It says a lot about the effectiveness of Tyburn Films’ publicity machine – at least within the horror scene – that in the 1970s, the newly formed British studio was being hailed as the next Hammer, despite emerging at a time that the old Hammer was breathing its last – and despite having only made a few films, all of which were financial failures. Even now, people often mention Tyburn in the same breath as Hammer and Amicus, placing them above the more prolific and successful Tigon. In reality, Tyburn were no more significant that short-lived production companies like Planet.
Tyburn was formed by Kevin Francis, son of acclaimed cinematographer and somewhat less acclaimed director Freddie Francis. Kevin had a career that led him from slaughterhouse employee to film company tea boy to Hammer staffer (he provided the story that eventually evolved into Taste the Blood of Dracula), and was now working as a freelance production manager. His ambition, however, was to be the new Hammer. There was only one problem – by 1973, the market for traditional Hammer Horror had rapidly dwindled, a victim of changing tastes in a world where Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead and even the works of Peter Walker were bringing a new realism to the genre. Producing gothic horror was probably not the brightest idea at this stage.
The first horror film to emerge from Francis didn’t have the Tyburn name attached. Tales That Witness Madness (1973) was an imitation of the Amicus portmanteau films, made under the World Film Services banner. Directed by Freddie Francis (as would be the later Tyburn horrors), it had its moments, but suffered from weak, derivative and sometimes laughable stories, one of which features a man falling in love with a tree!
The first ‘official’ Tyburn production was Persecution (aka The Terror of Sheba), a psychological horror story starring Lana Turner (who apparently hated the film) as a matriarchal monster in the grand tradition of the female villains played by other aging Hollywood legends in the 1960s (cf: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Nanny, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte). Here, her obsessive possessiveness pushes son Ralph Bates over the edge of sanity in a film that feels similar to the Hammer psycho thrillers (Crescendo, Fear in the Night and Straight on Till Morning). With a hint of the supernatural thanks to a creepy cat and fairly solid support from Trevor Howard and Olga Georges-Picot, it proved to be an effective, if minor thriller.
But this was not the sort of film Francis saw his new company producing. A fan of horror – and Hammer in particular – he wanted to carry on where his idols had left off. And this would mean appropriating the cast and crew of old Hammer.
The Ghoul was the first ‘proper’ Tyburn horror. Directed by Freddie Francis, written by Hammer stalwart John Elder (in reality Anthony Hinds, who had overseen production for Hammer in the 1960s) and starring Peter Cushing, this did seem like it could be a return to the glory days of the past. And on paper, it has a lot going for it – the supporting cast includes ex-Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson, John Hurt, Ian McCullough (making an early horror appearance before battling Zombie Flesh Eaters at the end of the decade) and Alexandra Bastedo, star of TV series The Champions and The Blood Spattered Bride. The film was set, interestingly, in the 1920s jazz age (taking advantage of sets built for The Great Gatsby), with McCullough, Bastedo and Carlson playing rich kids who challenge each other to a race to Land’s End, only to become lost on the moors (which moors isn’t made clear). They are attacked by red herring Hurt and offered shelter by Cushing, who has a sinister Indian servant, a private chapel and mutters a lot about corrupt Eastern religious cults – so clearly nothing good will come of this.
It doesn’t take long to realise that The Ghoul is essentially Hinds recycling his (rather better) screenplay for The Reptile, where an English man’s family is also corrupted by an evil Indian sect (revenge for British colonialism?). It’s an unfortunate comparison, because The Reptile is one of the best hammer films of the 1960s and The Ghoul can never compete. In fact, it turns out to be a somewhat tedious film. Devoid of shocks or any sense of style, it features listless performances, bored direction from Francis (who clearly didn’t feel the need to up his game just because his son was paying the bills) and seems incredibly dated for the time. Very little happens, and when it does, it’s handled with an overly genteel style. Kevin Francis had expressed disdain for the new trends towards sex in horror films – interviewed in Little Shoppe of Horrors, he commented that “there is a difference between using sex and showing tits”. True, perhaps – but Tyburn did neither and together with an equally coy approach to gore, it made the film seem very staid.
Now, you might argue that, despite a gratuitous (but nudity-free) bathing scene from Veronica Carlson, there was no need for sex to intrude on The Ghoul. But in the case of the next Tyburn film, sex was a significant plot point. The equally tame approach to Legend of the Werewolf suggests a fear of eroticism that borders on prudishness.
Originally announced as Plague of the Werewolves (a rather misleading title, given the singular nature of the beast in the film), the Hammer connection this time is even stronger. The film is based on a John Elder screenplay that Hammer had rejected in the 1960s after Curse of the Werewolf had failed to be a financial success. And if The Ghoul was a disappointment, then Legend… is even worse, failing on almost every level.
Looking at stills from the film, you’d be forgiven for expecting an atmospheric, well crafted chiller. And if you only watch the closing moments, taking place in the Parisian sewers, you’d probably think you were right. These scenes, with Peter Cushing facing off against the werewolf are creepy and poignant – they outdo Curse of the Werewolf in terms of pathos. But the rest of the film is terrible. The werewolf make-up, a clear but ineffective knock-off of that used in Curse… is poor, Freddie Francis’ direction dreadful and the acting shocking. It’s a rare bad performance from Cushing, who seems woefully miscast, while Ron Moody mugs furiously, as if sending up his Fagin character from Oliver!. David Rintoul, making his screen debut as the hapless young man who falls in love with a prostitute, bringing out the beast in him is terribly wooden and as for the appearance from Roy Castle… it makes his appearance in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors look like Olivier in comparison.
Legend of the Werewolf followed The Ghoul into box office oblivion – neither film even gained a US release for years. Things suddenly ground to a halt for Tyburn. Plans for future films with titles like Dracula’s Feast of Blood and By the Devil Possessed were rapidly abandoned, as was a proposed film based on Dennis Wheatley’s The Satanist. Plans for soundtrack albums for The Ghoul and Legend… were also quickly dropped, though both films were novelised – Legend… by Robert Black and The Ghoul, ironically, by the ultra lurid Guy N. Smith. Both books are considerably better than the films, Smith’s book adding in the sex and violence needed to make the story lively.
A Tyburn TV series concept also fizzled out and it seemed that we’d heard the last of this ambitious but misguided company. But it didn’t quite die. Tyburn remained in existence, with Francis working as a film buyer and seller for TV. And a decade after its last productions, Tyburn returned.
It was, admittedly, a rather more low key revival than the company’s launch. The Masks of Death appeared as a TV premiere on Channel 4 in the UK in 1984. But in many ways, it was as if nothing had changed. Cushing starred again in a screenplay by Hinds, although this one was directed by Roy Ward Baker – another Hammer veteran.
The film sees a return by Cushing, aged 70, to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Francis had initially wanted to make a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (which Cushing had starred in for Hammer in 1959 and again for the BBC in 1968!) but when funding fell through, decided to go with an original story that would explain Holmes’ advanced age. Here, he is tempted out of retirement on the eve of the First World War. Together with trusty sidekick Watson (John Mills), he investigates the discovery of three corpses that seem to have grave implications for national security.
The Masks of Death is rather better than the previous Tyburn/Cushing/Hinds collaborations, but nevertheless it feels old, tired and out of step. It seemed that Tyburn had a bloody-minded determination to stick with an increasingly old-fashioned style, no mater what.
Yet there is one other, remarkably obscure Tyburn feature – Murder Elite is a contemporary mystery thriller that has seems unreleased – it was scheduled for video in the mid-1990s on the ‘Taste of Fear’ label but doesn’t seem to have emerged. Currently, no Tyburn films are available on DVD.
Tyburn’s best film isn’t a feature but a TV documentary. 1989 saw Channel 4 broadcast One Way Ticket to Hollywood, a biography of / tribute to Cushing. Whatever else you might say about Kevin Francis and his films, he was clearly someone who held Cushing in great esteem, and this loving documentary is a fine tribute to the man. But this love of the golden age of Hammer horror was also the downfall of Tyburn, who were woefully out of step with public tastes in the 1970s. Because of this, rather than becoming a byword for terror, the company is little more than a minor postscript in the history of British horror.