Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser (Book)

Written by John Hamilton

Published by FAB Press

Unless you’re a UK cinema junkie, or just a big exploitation buff in general, the name Tony Tenser probably doesn’t mean a whole helluva lot to you. I know it didn’t to me when FAB first announced the publication of Beasts in the Cellar, but that was soon remedied.

During the heyday of British cinema, the late 50’s on through the mid-70’s, Tenser, along with various partners and under the banner of various companies, most prominently Tigon Film, helped produce and later distribute hundreds of films. The focus of Hamilton’s book are the ones he served as producer on in one form or another, films like the infamous “nudie” Naked: As Nature Intended and Monique, the first film in British history to feature a ménage a trois.

But what Tenser and Tigon are best known for are the horror films, and therein lies the meat of the book. While dabbling in other subjects throughout his long career, usually sex-themed comedies, Tenser always came back to the virtually sure-fire money maker; horror. They were usually cheap to shoot, had good turnaround times, and the public forgave the hyperbole that Tenser was famous for in their publicity to make his films sound far more disturbing and shocking than, for the most part, they actually were.

Before starting Tigon, Tenser was part of the production team that brought Roman Polanski’s classic film Repulsion to the big screen. During the Tigon days he showed Vincent Price at his most subdued in Witchfinder General and made headlines with Blood on Satan’s Claw. Tenser had a great eye for what the public wanted and when they wanted it, which is why his company continued to do well when those around him started falling apart. He was a master at promotion, using lurid artwork and attention-grabbing phrases to get the curious and adventurous into the theater.

While telling a good story of the man’s work throughout the years, and in turn the British film industry within the same time frame, one thing Hamiltion’s book neglects is a solid portrait of the man himself. Very little personal information is given, so it’s hard to get a feel for jus what kind of man he was, though various anecdotes from former business partners do help to fill in the gap a bit. The focus of the book is his work as producer, and it’s clear that Hamilton did a lot of digging to discover the history of these productions, but if you want a biographical look at Tony Tenser himself this isn’t the book for you. That’s not a bad thing, just merely an observation to give you an idea of what to expect.

Hamilton’s writing is, more often than not, a bit on the drab side, though he does cut loose with interesting anecdotes here and there and the occasional negative review, which are always amusing to read. I found myself having a harder time getting through Beasts than any other FAB book in recent memory, which I attribute to a combination of both Hamilton’s style and the fact that, overall, a kit of the non-horror films Tenser produced hold little interest to me.

That being said, Beasts in the Cellar is definitely a well-researched, intelligent look not just at Tenser’s career in it’s heyday, but how films in general worked those days in terms of how they were made and what kind of people made them. We criticize Hollywood now for just wanting to make a quick buck with uninteresting ideas and cheap shots, but this book goes a long way to show that that attitude has been around since the beginnings of film. While Tenser was of that mindset, he also had a great eye for quality and a belief that, once the money was in the director’s hands, the film belonged to the director, especially if it was someone Tenser trusted. That’s the kind of hands-off approach we don’t see much of these days.

I should also mention that the movie stills throughout are fantastic, as is to be expected from any FAB publication at this point. There are lots of shots from the sex comedies featuring very real breasts, which is never a bad thing, and some great pics from the horror pieces throughout. There wasn’t nearly as much poster art as I would have liked, the focus being mainly on behind-the-scenes and production stills, but what is there is great to look at.

More than anything else, Beasts in the Cellar is a great look at how movies, both horror and “other” genres, used to be made, with special attention given to a man that really knew how to do it right in his day. Though it can be a bit dry at times, it was overall an intelligent, entertaining read.

3 out of 5

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