Norman J Warren’s ‘Her Private Hell’ (1967) BFI Flipside Release

5 Jun

The BFI’s Flipside label should be celebrated far more than it already is. The label releases forgotten British cinematic gems that have been long overlooked, under praised or generally not seen since their initial theatrical run, and presents them in restored glory on dual format. This February finally saw the first feature length picture by British director Norman J Warren, Her Private Hell, released on DVD through the Institutes label.

A simple cautionary tale, Her Private Hell is the story of Italian model Marisa (Lucia Modugno) who travels over to London to start a lucrative career in fashion modelling. Young and pretty, but clearly inexperienced, Marisa eventually finds out that it’s not fashion modelling that her agency really wants her to do… After being seduced by photographer Bernie (Terry Skelton) and being made to live in his flat under supervision of magazine executives (Pearl Catlin and Robert Crewdson), tensions increase when Bernie’s previous flame tries to undermine Marisa and our lead girl starts falling for rival photographer Matt (Daniel Ollier, in a role once considered for Udo Kier whose screen tests are included as an extra in the DVD release). Eventually revealing photographers of Marisa are sold to another magazine and she must decide what she wants to do and who she wants to be friends with before her career ends.

Released in 1968, Her Private Hell has historical significance as it was Britain’s first narrative sex film and it’s wonderful to finally be able to see it. In the mid-60s, British film circles finally realised that sex had a real commercial value and European titles were regularly imported and distributed, their art-house vibe and slightly more relaxed attitudes towards sex and sexuality a big hit with a more censored and straight-laced British audience. Bachoo Sen, one such distributor, set up Piccadilly Pictures with cinema owner Richard Schulman and together they both set out to finance Britain’s first narrative sex film (with a budget of roughly £18,000). The script was written by New Zealander Glynn Christian (himself having recently moved to England and clearly familiar with the feeling of isolation that Marisa struggles to deal with) and young director Norman J Warren was signed up to direct.

The picture itself is beautiful to watch with some wonderful shots captured on the black and white celluloid. The transfer is well presented but has notable jump cuts here and there where the negative had been destroyed over time. To try and get the most complete picture they could, the BFI enlisted the help of Something Weird Video who provided some standard definition inserts. Whilst this footage is of a lesser quality, the thought of their contribution far outweighs the annoyance of a few blurry shots. Considering its starter point in British sexploitation history, the film owes far more to European cinema in its tone than the later smuttier comedy that would dominate British sex films of the 1970s (given Sen’s distribution background this is hardly surprising). The cast are brilliant, with Modugno perfectly capturing the feel of being a fish completely out of water, her wide eyes full of innocence and naivety. She plays her torment well; angry, confused and torn between the people she thinks she’s friends with and whom she can trust. There’s a great moment when Bernie plays with Marisa in a sinister way, shining a projection of a glamour model right into her face knowing her insecurities and dilemma around her work situation. The poor girl looks utterly terrified. Skelton, Catlin and Crewdson are also fantastic as the magazine executives and the hotshot photographer slowly grooming and manipulating their ‘star’ model to earn them more money. Cute eye candy is supplied by Ollier as the younger, more talented rival photographer who might possibly be the only good guy in the whole film (Ollier’s French accident was so thick and incomprehensible that he was dubbed in post production, sadly rather obviously).

Successful and profitable upon release (although Warren saw none of the money), it ran in cinemas for months after premièring at London’s Cameo-Royal Cinema, albeit in cut form. Whilst not an explicit film, it still had material that the BBFC had issues with and wanted to cut, namely imagery of nude breasts and the revelation that Skelton and Catlin were married which implied an open marriage and infidelity. Unsurprisingly, a little more nudity existed in the US cut of the film, including a great trippy striptease from Jeannette Wild, which can be seen in alternate sequences as an extra on the DVD package. Even the title cards from the trailer (which I have posted below) were subject to exception by the BBFC. Intact were the opening credits, somewhat racy for their time but beautifully shot of a naked couple caressing on a bed. It is worth remembering however (because there are some people out there who will wonder…) that this is an early sexploitation release, so nudity is incredibly limited and sex is all but implied.

Also included in the extras selection are Warren’s first two films, the shorts Incident (shot in 1959 but completed in 2007) and Fragment (1965, Warren’s first theatrical release) which show Warren’s early competences as a director. Both films are a delight to watch and deftly deal with their subject matter of doomed relationships and desperation. Warren would make one more film with Sen the following year, 1968 sexploitation release Loving Feeling before parting ways with Piccadilly Pictures over money. Warren would have later success in the 70s and 80s within the horror genre, releasing Satan’s Slave (1976), Prey (1977), the Suspiria influenced Terror (1978), Alien rip-off Inseminoid (1981) and Bloody New Year (1987).

Fine acting, a good jazz inspired soundtrack (just one of the similarities to Blow Up released six months before) and a beautiful transfer make for a stunning package that once again shows the Flipside label as a force to be reckoned with.

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