I was saddened to learn over the weekend about the death of filmmaker Michael J Murphy. Although I doubt they were ever aware of each other Murphy is forever twinned in my mind with Cliff Twemlow, both being D.I.Y filmmakers who against considerable odds managed to form their own mini-film industries around themselves, at a time in 1980s Britain when the traditional film industry was all but on its knees. For a long time Twemlow and Murphy were each known only for one film venture that had come to prominence during the early days of VHS rentals. In Twemlow’s case GBH, and in Murphy’s the video double-bill of his two shorts Invitation to Hell and The Last Night, before a more complete picture of their careers emerged, in the process revealing them to be far more prolific than anyone could imagine.
Whereas GBH set the standard for all that what was to follow from Twemlow, Invitation to Hell would prove to be largely unrepresentative of Murphy’s career as a whole, later films like Torment (1989) and Second Sight (1992) deriving their power from complex plot twists rather than shock value, and in truth seem to have more in common with Hammer’s ‘Psychological Thriller’ period (Taste of Fear, Crescendo, Hysteria ) than the Video Nasty era that Invitation to Hell and The Last Night came out of. As it turned out Invitation to Hell was an overly commercial move for Murphy, designed to try and ride the wave of the ultra-gory horror video rentals of the time, and with its pitchfork impaling, head crushing and climatic heart pulling Invitation to Hell must have surely ticked all the boxes of those Video Nasty renting, underage drinking, juvenile delinquents whose viewings habits the tabloid press were getting their knickers in a twist over at the time.
Like most people, Invitation to Hell was my first exposure to Murphy’s films, I encountered it after it was re-released on video in the late 1980s by a fly-by-night company calling itself Senator Releasing, a release that as tends to be the case with that film was issued without its director’s permission. Many of the exploitation films put out by bargain basement video labels like Senator tended to be of the American or European variety, so in that company Invitation to Hell was something of an abnormality, it being British made. For that reason Invitation to Hell tended to double as a compelling mystery for British horror fans at the time, firing their imaginations over whether Murphy was simply a one shot filmmaker or whether he was some undiscovered horror auteur with more films out there someplace.
Eventually other Murphy films would be traced and prove the latter assumption to be the correct one, even if it took allot of detective work to track those other films down. Torment and Second Sight would be the next Murphy films to resurface thanks to TV screenings on the HVC channel, airings that would lead Darrell Buxton to write about Murphy in the 2003 book ‘Creeping Flesh’ an early attempt to get to grips with the larger extent of Murphy’s career. In 2005, Torment and Second Sight would turn up on TV again, this time in the early days of The Horror Channel, whose short lived sister channel Zone Thriller unearthed two further Murphy films, Roxi and Road to Nowhere. Over time other Murphy productions would make their presences known, revealing Murphy to be a director whose work wasn’t exclusively tied to the horror genre. Atlantis and Avalon were his stabs at the peplum genre, whilst Death Run proved to be an energetic attempt at the post-apocalyptic action genre that held its own against the best Italian made films of that genre and ran rings around the other notable British example that is Lindsay Shonteff’s comparatively dull and lifeless The Killing Edge. With these films Murphy displayed an admirable refusal to let his filmmaking ambitions be muzzled by the films’ low budgets or in the case of Death Run the lack of a tradition for making post-apocalyptic films here in the UK.
ad caps for the horror channel's screenings of two of Murphy's films
1985’s Bloodstream is another Murphy film that has only surfaced on the collectors circuit in the last few years, and lifts the lid on the unscrupulous side of the 1980s video industry, painting a vivid picture of the shark infested waters that Murphy must have had to swim in to make films back then. Born out of Murphy’s bad time film industry experiences, and being screwed over by video distributors, Bloodstream tells the tale of a naïve filmmaker who is commissioned to make a gory, supernatural horror film only to then be conned out of royalties by crooked pre-cert video distributor William King, who calls the resultant film ‘rubbish’ and has the director thrown out of his office. Naturally King is actually laughing behind the filmmaker’s back and making a fortune by distributing the film on video, with much of this highly claustrophobic film documenting King’s con games and scheming and playing out in his scummy office which is full of trash film posters a la John M East in Emmanuelle in Soho.
The experience of being fucked over by King leaves the filmmaker unbalanced, resulting in him donning a skeleton mask and stalking, then murdering King’s associates and family members. In true slasher film style each character is allocated a couple of scenes in order to reveal their foul and unlikable nature, successfully convincing the audience that they are fully deserving of the violent fate that befalls them. Ever the dedicated filmmaker, the auteur turned serial killer documents all of their deaths on film, constructing the ultimate horror film to screen to the thoroughly hateful King, a character rumoured to be based on Des Dolan, the general manager of GO video and an associate of Dick Randall during the making of Don’t Open Till Christmas. Intercut with this tale of revenge are film within a film sequences meant to illustrate the type of horror film product that King is making money out of by distributing on video. Anyone who grew up during the video era will immediately recognise the kind of pre-cert video material that Murphy recreates in these ‘film within a film’ vignettes, from a slasher in the woods affair featuring a masked murderer killing teenagers with an axe, to a gut munching zombie film, an Exorcist rip-off and even a Paul Naschy type werewolf movie. Gamely refusing to exclude his own filmography from this type of treatment, the “rubbish” film that causes all the trouble between the filmmaker and King is clearly based on Murphy’s own Invitation to Hell, adding a further autobiographical element to Bloodstream.
In light of the enormous hold that the Video Nasty and pre-cert video era still has over people’s imaginations these days, it remains unfortunate that Bloodstream isn’t that widely known. For its stands unique as a response to that turbulent time in British home viewing made whilst it was still being played out, an insider’s expose of the exploitative, shit-heeled side of the video industry, and an outrageous revenge fantasy made by someone who had obviously been burnt by it. For gore mavens Bloodstream is also a field day for gross-out delights, melting flesh, death by chainsaw, and scenes of zombies cannibalising the living, make Bloodstream the bloodiest British horror film of the 1980s, a take on the Video Nasties phenomenon that would have almost certainly had been branded one itself had it ever seen the light of day back when it was made in 1985.
Given the thriving horror fanzine scene of the 1980s and 1990s it is regrettable that Murphy’s career fell under the radar of even the most dedicated cineastes and fanzine editor during those decades. If there is some tiny solace to be had over Murphy’s passing it is that recent years have finally seen him become the source of critical attention, and championed by the likes of writer Paul Higson, filmmakers John Ninnis and David Beynon (who interviewed Murphy for their upcoming ‘Industry My Arse’ documentary) and Wayne Maginn whose Sarcophilous Films company brought Invitation to Hell and The Last Night back into DVD circulation in time for their 25th anniversary, complete with interviews and audio commentaries by their director. While I can make no claim to having known the man himself, Micahel J Murphy films were always welcome in the Gavcrimson household and a few years ago I was surprised –in a pleasant way- to receive an unsolicited signed still from ‘The Last Night’ from Murphy himself, thanking me for my interest in his films. Murphy’s death –reportedly unexpected and as a result of compilations from thrombosis – is all the more sad given that his career was far from inactive, with several projects still in the pipeline. Of late Murphy also penned the introduction to ‘Dead or Alive’, an upcoming book about British horror films of the 1980s, a genre and period that Murphy played an important role in (as the book’s editor Darrell Buxton has remarked “our book seemingly features his films on every other page”). Hopefully Dead or Alive will also add to the long overdue reputation Michael J Murphy deserves as a true maverick of British horror cinema.