Having created some of the most quotable characters in the history of British television, for the past decade, Reece Shearsmith has continued to hone his craft with fellow League member Steve Pemberton. Inside No.9 has not only proved to be one of the best TV series out there but, in the age of ‘content’ has managed to retain the traditions of a ‘story well told’; bite-size tales with unique twists that more than earn their place alongside the rest of such highly regarded portmanteaus. Talented writer and performer he may be, but what most of us love about all the members of The League of Gentlemen is their love of horror. It’s what brought them all together, after all…
How would you define cult cinema?
It feels like a nebulous thing… but I guess it’s as much about the exploration; looking under that stone or even digging a little deeper to find those buried things that are exactly to your taste. Obviously, in this day and age, you’re never really more than 30 seconds away from not being able to find something about an obscure film you have half a memory of… and with cult cinema (and horror in particular) there is so much that falls below the radar. A lot of people own the films — most of which are singular and have a strong flavour — so they have a personal stake in what all of this means to them; to know about a film that the rest of the world knows nothing about. This creates a bespoke feeling about cult cinema and the world of cult films because by its definition it’s not for everyone. Those of us invested know that there is a real kaleidoscope of what people want out of the genre; a whole scheme of stuff you can find if you are willing to delve under the surface of these films.
How important do you feel the championing of older films is today, especially their preservation and curation?
Well, it’s fantastic because it’s all about discovering a film you’ve never seen. A great example is how everyone was going on recently about The Appointment. It’s the most amazing film. Edgar Wright was telling me about it; he didn’t know about the film back when he worked with Edward Woodward on Hot Fuzz — but never mind The Wicker Man, I’d have been asking him about that. So, when you suddenly find a hidden gem, it has to be championed, especially if it’s a film that connects with you. That’s when it’s sort of delicious to be on the trail of cult cinema.
Do you feel, in light of what is also happening with other forms of content, that the market for physical media could shift again… or is already shifting?
I think people like us have never been ‘turned’. I talk about this with Mark Gatiss a lot. I feel like we’re in a world where, in theory, there will be a new series or film put out on a main streaming service and it should tick all the boxes of what we like — it’s gothic, it’s dark, it’s like Jack the Ripper, it’s 1888 — all those things we love. We watch it… five minutes in, sick of it. Boring. It doesn’t do what we should imagine it should do. I think it’s maybe because there’s a sort of sausage factory sheen over all of them and made because there’s some algorithm of “Let’s have a team of all the baddies from the all the penny dreadfuls.” So, I always go back to the older versions of this world and the gothic nature of those things that got me into it in the first place. But anything new doing it, I feel like they don’t ever hit the mark in the same way.
They’re often so padded out. Completely the opposite of how concise you are with the Inside No.9 episodes that always tell tight and effective stories.
The suspicion that something is being padded feels very disparate. Speaking for myself — writing and solving the puzzles of telling more story in a short space of time — I always think (and not just with gothic stuff) that in most drama you see it’s an hour or three hours before they’ve actually dropped the first revelatory piece of storytelling. Nothing benefits from being stretched out when it could be written in a leaner way. I just think you’ve got a false investment in the characters because you’re just spending longer with them. That’s not any way to tell the story and if there is the suspicion that they don’t know what is going on, it’s a rudderless ship. But, as lovers of specific stories, tradition, ‘cult cinema’ and more focussed storytelling; we’ve maintained our love of these things. When newer versions of them don’t deliver, you return to all of the old stuff… and it’s all readily available with the likes of Arrow and Severin Films presenting absolute wonders both on physical media and via ARROW Player. You can now see them as they were meant to be seen and that is revelatory when you see things that have been restored while also uncovering the processes of how these things were made.
It’s astonishing. I recall you and the rest of The League mentioning on your Theatre of Blood commentary that when you originally watched the film you were often watching it through an analog haze; maybe even a black-and-white TV because you didn’t have a colour television. Quite the contrast to HD and UHD! Now we are in an age of 4K releases of films, which, in the eighties, would have been thrown on the fire.
It’s remarkable. I had the pleasure of watching four of Dario Argento’s films recently and then I met him with Edgar afterwards. That was like I was seeing them for the first time because I’d never seen them on the big screen. You sit there and it’s, “This is what they’re made for…” It’s sort of transformative to see them again in all their glory. Then, shortly after, I hosted the Theatre of Blood 50th. Not everything gets this treatment, so it’s great that dedicated people are wanting to also restore the feeling that the people who made them wanted you to have… because, as you highlighted, we saw them all on TV through a haze of trying to get the aerial to work properly, so it is a completely different experience.
Theatre of Blood is surprisingly gnarly and feels closer in tone to Death Line from the previous year.
Yeah, they both have proper savagery. Michael Holden’s death at the beginning of Theatre of Blood is horrible… then there’s this fruity performance from Vincent Price that distracts. It can come across as camp but the vitriol throughout takes it to other places. If you think of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in effect that’s Theatre of Blood in embryo but robs us of his voice box. Again, a revenge tale as Phibes exacts his punishment on the nine doctors and surgeons that he considers responsible for the death of his wife. The Arrow release is utterly beautiful and Phibes’ Clockwork Orchestra has never looked so resplendent. I do love that sort of ’70s National Theatre vibe… and the grim skyline of the capital. These films could be latter-day Hammer where Dracula was wandering around modern London. They’re grim in a modern way, so maybe more Amicus than Hammer.
Amicus, Hammer, Giallo… does the love of such films shape the flavour of a story from the offset or does this happen when in discussions with the director?
The nearest we got to doing a Giallo was “Private View”, but I don’t think we thought of that at the time. That was more of an exercise in writing our version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which could have been ‘executed’ in a number of ways. Our director Guillem Morales wasn’t even a fan of Giallo but felt the POVs of the murderer and the gloved hands were apt… coupled with the fact that it was set in an art gallery, of which there was always a lot of art in Argento’s films. We were playing with both the pretensions of the art scene and the subgenre. I suppose the gothic horror of The Harrowing was very much an exercise in doing the full-on haunted house mansion, but, the more successful horror episodes are when it’s about human nature — never mind the haunted house — suddenly it’s a Fritzl situation where some maniac has a woman trapped in his basement. They’re the more horrible ones because you’re not looking out for the horror.
It’s an ongoing thing, isn’t it; this recycling of the things you love because you want to see it yourself. That’s what No.9 is for Steve and me: “What film or telly would we like to watch?” Most importantly, it’s the exploration of all the ways of telling a story and keeping it surprising. All we ever attempt to do is to try to give people an experience that you don’t get any more.
We have to talk a little about The Cottage, which is often overlooked. Why do you think this is?
I think it was partly that it was Paul Andrew Williams’ next film after London to Brighton, which had been such a big hit for him and was so real and hard-hitting. So they were blindsided by the fact that he wanted to tell a very different story with The Cottage that was, unashamedly, a horror comedy. Then some people didn’t really know what it was meant to be; a kidnapping that becomes a British slasher with me appearing to be the Jamie Lee Curtis character. I was talking about this the other week at The Wicker Man 50th. It was the same then, as they didn’t know what the film was to be able to distribute it. People either go with the mix of genres or resist it.
The nature of anthologies is that not every story will connect with everyone, but what is always great is how many different types of stories Steve and yourself have told so far.
Yeah, absolutely, and that’s the space we’ve occupied inexplicably for ten years and it’s been joyous to play with so many types of storytelling. That’s why it’s great that people like Paul do a very gritty film one year and then the next something completely different. To have the room to be able to tell different stories in different ways is great.
Talking about different stories. Let’s talk Society. Can you remember the first time you saw this film?
I do. I went on my own and it was in the little Odeon on Haymarket… and I remember it very well because the jazz singer George Melly came in and sat in front of me with his pinstriped suit and trademark hat on and I thought, “Oh my god that’s George Melly!”
Where is this going?![laughs] It was an empty cinema apart from me and him… and his friend… watching Society. It was the strangest afternoon. But yeah… as a film, it was amazing. It was so many things at once, wasn’t it? There’s the satire about the rich feeding off the poor, but aside from anything else it was extraordinary to see because it was so marvellous to watch these early explorations of the most eye-popping practical special effects… imagine the horrific body transformations of The Thing but at a black tie event. Arrow’s release is a glorious rendering, that gorges on the slime, ooze and sex.
It felt like the swansong of the plastic fantastic; those kinds of practical effects before CGI exploded only a couple of years later.
Yes. Yes. And you wouldn’t get that now, other than those throwback films. This is silly but self-aware, while at the same time horrifying and stomach-churning to watch; if you’ve never seen it… this goes somewhere you would never expect it to and you see things you never expect to see, especially during that final ‘shunting’ sequence. There’s something quite wrong and… well, really perverse.
It always feels like there’s no filter to Yuzna and Gordon’s work.
Society has that quality that some films have; where it feels out of control. “They could do anything here, I could see anything.” And we find ourselves watching films like this… kind of unchartered territory that can be quite disturbing and you can’t do anything about it. It just descends into utter depravity as we realise just what the rich are getting up to with those cocktail parties that climax in people being turned inside out as the elite literally leech the life from their unsuspecting guests. It’s disgusting, funny and horrific all at the same time. A real late ’80s treat if you’ve never seen it.
In light of having already provided a couple of film commentaries for Arrow Video releases with the rest of the League of Gentlemen, which film from your Selects would you also love to provide commentary on?
I could happily chat away about The House that Dripped Blood, as I’ve got a lot of memories of watching all those stories and know the film backwards. Plus it’s an anthology and the lineage is still very much alive in my own work.
As a collector yourself you have some incredible horror movie memorabilia, those casts of the Daggers of Megiddo from The Omen a particular standout. Do you have a most cherished possession?
The Omen daggers are great. I’ve got three head casts; one of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, so they’re very cherished items. Then there’s my little bit of Wicker Man that somebody sent to me in a box that just said: “left leg” [laughs]. So, I took it to Christopher Lee when I had lunch with him and John Landis… he just took it from me and wrote, “Dear Reece, this is genuine.” [laughs] So it was anointed. I would have to say though, out of everything it always comes back to Theatre of Blood; my signed script by the entire cast being my most prized possession.
Of all the films from your Selects, which one would you present as a gateway to cult cinema?
If you want to just do a crash course in ticking all the boxes of horror, I would say Rec is a good one to start with. Great shocks and it’s genuinely frightening. The very fact that we have become so used to the Val Lewton Bus, “creep, creep, it’s a cat, creep, creep” — those nuts and bolts of how a scare has been manufactured — all these security blankets of steeling yourself for the next scare are now thrown out the window and that makes Rec all the more alarming. But, I say push them in the deep end of the swimming pool with Tenebrae, just because it’s so visceral and one of the perfect Argento films. If you’ve never been in this world of cult cinema it’s an extraordinary experience. His films ferment, they’re not easy — you don’t get something out of them immediately like watching a Blumhouse Horror — as there’s a creeping dread about them. This is heightened all the more with the twists and turns… so all of that ticks a lot of boxes based on these types of films we love so much.
Check out Reece Shearsmith Selects on ARROW. Inside No. 9 series 8 is out now on DVD or watch on BBC iPlayer and BritBox. You can also listen to The League of Gentlemen’s commentary on Theatre of Blood and along with Reece and troupe recall The Abominable Dr. Phibes on Blu-ray.