Following the success of Michael J Murphy's schlock horror gem INVITATION TO HELL on DVD, Sarcophilous Films have answered horror fans requests by following it up with the very welcome DVD debut of the outlandishly entertaining SKARE so to celebrate the occasion our very own low budget terror connoisseur Stu Willis has tracked down filmmaker Michael J Murphy to discuss the films, his career and more in our exclusive SGM interview…
SGM: First of all, thank you for taking the time to consider these questions. It's massively appreciated not only by me, but I'm sure by all of our site members and the many other horror fans out there looking for something unique and special in this age of watered down mainstream genre fluff.
MJM: No problem Stuart.
SGM: What professional background did you come from prior to getting into making films? And how did this influence your decision to make films?
MJM: Briefly, I started making standard 8mm sci fi and horror films at the age or 12 to 13 with school friends. Had very little money, of course at that age, but saved what I could to buy reels of film. After making 3 full length and a couple of short films all shown at various venues in the area I went for interviews to several film companies and at the age of 16 after sitting my O levels (as they were called then in the '60's) I went to work as a trainee at ABPC studios at Elstree (where years later "STAR WARS", and "RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK" where filmed). I was there for under a year as the studio was taken over by EMI and Brian Forbes appointed Studio Head and I went home to Portsmouth to continue making my own independent small-budget films which I've been doing ever since, on and off. Recently more off than on because of lack of finance! But the influence to make films was just simply my great love of the magic of the cinema. I would try to go everyday and often watch the same film several times. In the late 50's and 60's some of the flea pit cinemas showed double bills which ran Monday to Wednesday, changed programme for Thursday to Saturday and had a Sunday-only double bill. For 6 old pence (2.5 new pence) you could get an under 16 year old's ticket and stay there all day if you wanted. I had great parents but there were problems with some other family members which drove me out of my home making the cinemas in my area an escape from the reality of my life at the time.
SGM: Who would you cite as your main influences as a writer and director?
MJM: No one really. Who knows what effect films, books and music have on you? I enjoyed many types of films as I was growing up and was always a bit of a dreamer, influenced by what I had seen. I loved the style of Hitchcock but could equally enjoy the thrill of the spectacle of "EL CID" or "SPARTACUS" which so impressed me in the early 60's as did "JASON & THE ARGONAUTS" and a little later intrigued by the work of Fellini, the homespun security of many of the earlier Hammer Films which I was to witness the shooting of at Elstree later in the 60's. The horror movies and thrillers of Mario Bava and the early films of Dario Argento. Oh so many I could go on and on…….
SGM: Equally, are there any filmmakers that you would liken your work to?
MJM: Not that I know off. I suppose I have always been more visual than a message-driven, intellectual type film maker. Schlock, fun movies, because of very limited budgets and general lack of talent in certain areas of production. But the ultimate aim was always to try to entertain, however dreadful the final result might be! Never to take myself too seriously, but try to get a reasonably gripping plot that may not be that original, but done, very often with tongue in cheek, because there was never the time or technical opportunity to do what I would really want to do. I cut my cloth accordingly. So I really can't say who influenced me. I suppose in answer to the question everyone and everything! Sorry if this is not a very inspired reply?
SGM: What experience did you have when you first became a filmmaker and what are the most important things you've learned since beginning the process all those years ago?
MJM: All those years ago? God you make me feel SO old! I've had some truly wonderful times making films, however awful some of them might have ended up. Weird and wonderful memories that I think would be very difficult to have in most other areas of work. As far as what I have learnt? That's a difficult question! When I started out I had huge ambition and drive. As I've gone on I am much more focused on the organisation and planning of a production and trying to get it within schedule and budget etc. Maybe that is because I am getting older and although the fire and passion is still there it is more controlled by commercial aspects.
SGM: "INVITATION TO HELL" has maintained a healthy cult following over the last three decades. What's your take on the film's enduring appeal?
MJM: Who knows? It was made so quickly and is obviously such a cheap budget movie. Maybe it is because it's SO bad there is a sort of charm which really has nothing to do with me. It just happened. I've made other movies I think are much better but they don't seem to have the same appeal.
SGM: "INVITATION TO HELL" was also one of the most sought-after titles from the age of pre-certificate videotapes. What are your recollections of that era? Can you share your thoughts on getting your film recognised and out on video store shelves, and your experience of the furore surrounding uncut horror films on tape at the time?
MJM: These are difficult questions. I have to think back a long time ago. I don't think I was that aware of what was happening at the time. I wasn't thinking of just making horror films or to cash in on the video nasty type market. I just wanted to make films. Horror was not particularly my main interest but I just did the best I could to make something that would be sellable so I could go on to make the sort of films I really wanted to make. But that's never really happened! Now that would be an interesting question: what sort of films would I really want to make?
SGM: That was going to be my next question....swear to God!
MJM: I was kinda joking with what sort of films I would really like to make! But I suppose as ludicrous as it sounds I would love to remake "BEN HUR"/"THE TEN COMMANDMENTS"/"SAMSON & DELILAH"...any great big epic with a cast of thousands, action, spectacle and romance. I'm a corny kind of guy!
SGM: What type of budget do you work with on your films? Are they self-financed?
MJM: The budgets are very, very low. I think the cheapest I made was £500 up to nearly £20,000. Mostly self financed but if anyone was keen enough, or mad enough, to invest, I have done my best to make a marketable and entertaining product. I am very grateful to those people who have tried to help and they all live up to the name of 'angels' who gamble their money in the very difficult world of low-budget film making.
SGM: Working on such low budgets must bring its share of headaches. Are there any anecdotes that you can share, based on nightmare shoots or scenarios?
MJM: There are so many it could fill a book. I've had a set blown down by a rare British hurricane after spending months building it and hardly shooting any footage. Shot nearly half a film with a camera that wasn't working properly. Lost 2 weeks of location filming in the post. Cameras stolen, sets wrecked by vandals, stranded on location and unable to get home etc., etc.. But, luckily no one (so far) has been seriously hurt or physically damaged in any of my films. Possibly mentally disturbed but not physically damaged?
SGM: Response to Sarcophilous Films' DVD release of "INVITATION TO HELL" and "THE LAST NIGHT" has been extremely positive. How does this make you feel - bemused, or invigorated to make more films?
MJM: It makes me feel good and rather bemused and I'm always up to make more films. But sadly I have to live so I can't rashly embark on anything unless I can afford it. But like it or not I'll be back in the not too distant future!
SGM: "SKARE" is Sarcophilous Films' second DVD release of your work. Can you tell readers a little about the film?
MJM: "SKARE" has quite a history and this is explained by me in 'The Making of Skare' featurette which is one of the extras included in the new release, so I suggest everyone buys a copy to find out! Far too complicated to explain now and I'm trying to be a good marketing businessman type guy!
SGM: Another of your films, "ATLANTIS", looks to have been a very ambitious production. How was this achieved with limited resources?
MJM: I've made quite a few fantasy type, historical mini (very mini) epics. God knows how it was achieved! Hard work, good planning and teamwork. Plus a hell of a lot of fun making it!
SGM: "BLOODSTREAM" looks fucking amazing - a real celebration of horror. What's the plot and motivation for this one?
MJM: "BLOODSTREAM" is one of my least favourite films. Mostly due to technical values and some bad acting and cringe worthy moments. But horror fans seem to enjoy the tackiness of the production and I suppose the plot and general idea is good. Just wish I'd done it better. But it was the cheapest feature I've ever made and to quote the closing line of dialogue from the movie "ONE DAY I'LL MAKE A BLOODY GOOD FILM". But you have to see it (available from Sarcophilous Films soon) to understand! Another bit of crass marketing on my part. Why not?
SGM: It's easy for people to denigrate films made on very low budgets, and your films have been met with unjust criticism from some quarters for their cheap qualities. How do you respond to these people? Be as brutal as you like, they're ignorant anyway.
MJM: I've kind of got used to bad reviews. Even being a bit of a joke in the mainstream of film distribution. But I'm the first to criticise my own work and can understand why people denigrate my films. I could be petty and say "given the budgets and time I have I'd like to see them do better". But no I will rise above it. I have a lifetime of great memories and experiences. Where many others have spent their time talking about doing things and never doing anything. But, of course, being human, I do like a bit of praise or recognition occasionally.
SGM: Of all the films you've so far made, which is your favourite - and why?
MJM: I don't have one favourite. I suppose they are all like my children and even though secretly you have your favourites you are not going to tell anyone. SORRY!
SGM: And, if I may ask, are there any of your films that you consider to be failures in terms of what you were hoping to achieve?
MJM: All of them………but again they are like my children so don't tell anyone!
SGM: Are there any more unfilmed scripts in progress? If so, can you tell us anything about them?
MJM: Yes there are, but you'll have to wait and see. I'm not SO old I can't churn out more!
SGM: If Hollywood asked you to direct a big budget remake of "INVITATION TO HELL", what changes would you make and which famous people would you cast?
MJM: It would have to be twice as long for a start so it would need a total re-working. I would cast the most famous and bankable people available to guarantee a big box office smash! No, seriously, I would love such an opportunity and would more than likely try to find new and up and coming talented people who were just right for the roles.
SGM: Finally, do you have tips for aspiring filmmakers?
MJM: Just do it. Find a good workable team of actors and crew. Give them a good experience. Something they will always remember. And work VERY VERY hard!
SGM: Once again, thank you for your time and congratulations on a legacy of fantastic films. Long may it continue!
MJM: Thank you. I've had fun answering your questions!
Special thanks to Michael and Wayne at Sarcophilous Films - for more information on Michael J Murphy's films check out the Sarcophilous Films website here.