Keep Watching the Skies: The Cinema of Roy Spence

BY DEAN KAVANAGH 

[The Roy Spence Collection is available now on the IFI Player] 

“The celluloid strip recognises neither time nor space, only the limit of man’s imagination” – Nicholas Ray1

​In the mid-1990s ‘B-movie King’ Roger Corman came to Ireland and established a film studio. At the time he had made well over one hundred films and the financial incentives behind setting-up-shop in the West are interestingly stirred to the surface in Brian Reddin’s documentary It Came From Connemara (2014). Who would have associated Ireland’s conservative cinematic output with low-budget genre pictures? In a manner not too dissimilar to the plot of Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), the initial invasion of these cinematic preoccupations had already taken place decades ago, and at the time of Corman’s tenure they lay dormant as over forty psychotronic works on 16mm celluloid, tucked away in the small town of Comber, County Down. In this sleepy rural idyll several miles outside of Belfast, images of screaming damsels fleeing vampires, lycanthropes, demon-worshipping cults and alien invaders had been exploding through the gate of a Bolex since the mid 1960s. Pressed against the viewfinder was the widened eyeball of Roy Spence, the missing link between the island of Ireland and the B-movies of 1950s America.

Born in 1944 in County Down, Northern Ireland,  Roy Spence was set on a path to become a school teacher just like his twin brother Noel Spence. From an early age the brothers were interested in cinema as well as American fashion and culture, which they assimilated through the science-fiction B-movies of the 1950s.

As young cinephiles the Spence brothers spent their youth at their local cinemas, in particular the Tudor cinema in Bangor. Their days were awash with scents from the Art Deco infused salons, as well as the rat poison fumes from the rubbish bins they excavated in the back alley, rescuing damaged frames discarded by the projectionists. Roy Spence was immediately enamoured with the work of Ed Wood, Jack Arnold, William Castle, Kurt Neumann, Gordon Douglas, Herk Harvey, William Castle, Robert Gordon, Gene Fowler Jr, Bert Ira Gordon and of course Roger Corman, all of whom became influential on his filmmaking. The Spence brothers embarked on their journey into film production with Roy in the role of director, special effects creator and set-designer, and Noel as an assistant. And thus Gothic Films was born!

Roy Spence’s filmography classifies as fantasy, horror, science-fiction and expository documentary. His nonfiction works depict local craftsmen or processes that interested him, such as basket weaving, blacksmithing and dairy production. Maidens in Distress (1976), Along the Milky Way (1979), and Tommy Orr, Blacksmith (1981), among others, are straightforward expository works that are visually poetic and conceal atmospheres of science-fiction cinema, demonstrating that the influence of B-movie culture from 1950s America is omnipresent throughout his entire filmography.

What is even more exciting are the influences and aesthetical references to German expressionist films by Robert Wiene, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Paul Leni and Fritz Lang. For Roy Spence The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) are just as formative to his own practice as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1952), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and Dracula (1931 and 1958). Three of Spence’s greatest films The Coming of the Black Dawn (1965), The Testament of Caleb Meek (1969) and The Beast of Druids Hill (1971) are a flurry of charcoal shadows and low natural light, with haunting soundtracks that pronounce ancient settings, period costumes, black magic rituals and leviathan beasts. A touch of eerie macabre and folk-horror coalesce these three early works which share similar aesthetic and thematic preoccupations with Brazil’s first horror film, José Mojica Marins’ At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963) featuring the now legendary Zé do Caixão (aka Coffin Joe).

In the 1970s, Roy Spence built his house and private film studio out of sight surrounded by a small forest in his hometown. While news headlines from ‘Bobby Sands’ to ‘Bloody Sunday’ collected in stalls around the country, he was tucked away in his film studio surrounded by his collection of antique Wurlitzer jukeboxes. There he sat winding 16mm film and developing Martian prosthetics, transforming the place into a gothic graveyard or a massive spacecraft. It is not that political events failed to interest him, he just felt removed from the conflict. And so, through a dark copse of conifers, the distant strains of a melancholy Doo-wop harmony emanated from the flickering windows of his workshop. Spence was alone on his island of cinema. He would often remark: “I’m not sure where the filmmaking disease came from, there is no history of it in the family”2.

What is remarkable about Spence’s output is how it manages to feel so out-of-sync with Irish and British cinema of that time, and even more so with the tumultuous political history of that period in Northern Ireland. Not only do Roy’s films visually construct an alternate and fictional reality but it would appear that this real-life obsession with classic Americana (automobiles, literature, cinema, music and fashion of the 1950s) was necessary to provide a nurturing environment for the creation of the cinema he wanted to be part of. In 1964 Spence was making The Tomb of Frankenstein and Roger Corman was finishing The Masque of the Red Death; in 1966 Spence put the finishing touches on Wolves of Darkness (1966) while William Castle was shooting Let’s Kill Uncle; in 1968 Robert Gordon filmed Tarzan and the Jungle Boy and Spence was burning people at the stake in Devil’s Window; in 1970 Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi was released and Spence was screening his western Gold Fever. These were Roy Spence’s contemporaries and this was the cinema of his time.

The genre film is a well noted site of subversive political discourse and so it is legitimate to consider that the same could be said for Roy’s work during the Troubles. Dr. Ciara Chambers, lecturer in Film and Screen Media at University College Cork, discusses these possibilities in what is still the most definitive text on Roy Spence’s cinema in relation to the conflict. In The Spence Brothers: Amateur Sci-fi and Cine Culture in Northern Ireland, Chambers writes:

“What makes the sci-fi work of the Spence brothers stand out from much other amateur material produced in Northern Ireland is not only its focus on narrative filmmaking, but also the traces of conflict etched across these moving images. Within their ongoing dialogue with commercial cinema, they introduce many of the tropes found in professional representations of Ireland on screen: conflict, trauma, division, madness. What is different between the amateur perspective and the professional take here, however, is that violence and trauma are fetishised, and thereby made safe through a lens inflected with the cinematic associations with the genres of sci-fi and horror. Much in the same way that escalating Cold War tensions were etched into the narrative and visual aesthetics of many 1950s B-movies, the Spence brothers’ films bear the psychic traces of the violent turmoil of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’”3. (Chambers, 2013)

If you were making amateur films in the 1970s your work was distributed mostly via small film clubs and independent collectives. Roy’s work soon hit these regional and national film circuits making strong impressions with their twisted tales and accomplished special effects. His work often appeared in Movie Maker, a popular magazine dedicated to small and medium gauge filmmaking from 1967 until 1985. The publication would monitor the films trending at these clubs and would report on the annual ‘Ten Best’. This was an international competition held at the National Film Theatre and detailed in the pages of Movie Maker as a exclusive cover story.  Roy was awarded a total of ten of these awards throughout his career, reaching first place three times. Being considered one of the Ten Best was quite a prestigious accolade and the events themselves had famous guests in attendance with a chance for the filmmakers to mingle. Roy had his trophies presented to him by the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Glenda Jackson, Joan Collins and Jenny Agutter. His award winning films include Keep Watching the Skies (1975), The Key (1976), The Interview (1982), Phase One (1982), Specimens (1983), Magic Man (1985) and Thin Ice (1986).

The popular trends of the time were ‘relatable’ drama or social satire and though Roy’s films charmed and bewildered audiences with their homemade special effects and wry humour, they were still oddities. Filmmakers such as Bill Davison, a fellow Ten Best winner who was once described by Glenda Jackson as “the Ken Russell of the amateur film world”4, also defied the dictum of what was popular, although in another manner. His films Restless Sunday (1967), Once Upon a Sunday (1968) and In God’s Name (1974) created a stir on the amateur film scene and his later film Sanctum was heavily maligned and picketed upon its premiere in 1975 5. Davison’s films were fresh, exciting and kaleidoscopic excursions that later challenged the audience’s moral barrier between sexual imagery and religious iconography. Another Ten Best winner was Archie Reid, a documentarian who spent many years recording life in Northern Ireland. Reid went on to form ARC Films with Craig Clements, Rex Thompson and Rowel Friers, a renowned cartoonist. Friars was close friends with Roy Spence and designed all of his film posters and several of the wall display pieces for Magic Man (1985), in which he also stars. When one looks at the list of Ten Best winners it is easy to discern a trend of artists who turned their lenses toward society.

An earlier example of science-fiction in realm of Irish amateur film is the curious case of Desmond Leslie, a screenwriter, published author, filmmaker and composer from Monaghan. Leslie’s short film Them in the Thing (1956) was filmed on 16mm at his private estate in Monaghan using his family and friends as the cast. The most interesting aspect here is how Leslie merged some very beautifully captured ‘home movie’ footage depicting typical domestic scenes with an advancing science-fiction plot of first contact; a melding of the real and the imagined. While Roy Spence also depended on his family and friends as performers in his own films he never overtly blurred the lines with his personal life. Though he utilised the faces of his friends or local landmarks such as Helen’s Tower, Tulynakill graveyard, Scrabo Tower or even the rock quarry next to his home, his fantasy films appear utterly alien against the backdrop of his humble rural life. He built both large and small scale sets to escape the domestic trappings of his house and environs, constructing a hyper-fictitious universe was the only way in which his creations could live. The most detailed set the Spence brothers ever constructed was for their backwoods American odyssey The Wishing Stone (1979), for which an entire streetscape facade was constructed and numerous American cars of the period were procured. One of my fondest memories visiting château Spence involved a private tour of Comber by car with Kati Spence, Roy’s wife and frequent collaborator. We took to the winding back roads pointing out some of the places where she had been killed on camera.

Throughout the filmography of Roy Spence a true independent spirit and a sheer joy of making moving pictures permeates every frame. Though he was not one to shy-away from depicting the struggles of creating films with such a limited means, or indeed getting people to take part in the creation and viewing of the work. In Attack of the Saucer People (1981) an amateur filmmaker tries desperately to rile his film club compadres into making a short film. Throughout the narrative he is beset with every known production disaster and is eventually abducted by aliens. The acerbic humour doesn’t end there, for when his film club find the abandoned material (featuring the abduction) they remark that it looks crude and fake. In Roy’s cinema the film director is never let off the hook. Colin James, a filmmaker and close friend of the Spence brothers, documented the making of The Face on the Wall (1986) in his profile Roy Spence: Filmmaker (1986). Here we can see numerous nightmare production situations including one incident where an actor mixed up his call-time and arrived half a day late to the set after spending the afternoon at a hotel bar sipping martinis. We find that Roy has been on location for hours waiting for his wayward performer and the natural light required for continuity has depleted. It is here that the fictional narratives and real life scenarios merge over the realities of no-budget film production.

Though seven of Spence’s earliest films were shot on standard-8 film he had little interest in working with the small gauge format. To create his detailed in-camera effects, speed changes and composites he required a larger image surface and more sophisticated equipment. And so from 1970 he migrated from his standard 8mm Bolex S.L. to a H.16. RX in order to create his work on 16mm film. Over the past twenty years Spence shifted to analogue and later digital video. He often states that he holds no specific nostalgia regarding format, for him it is entirely about getting the job done in the most precise and practical way. The ‘look’ of 16mm, something that is highly coveted today, was not something he desired. In fact if you study his exposures, particularly those in daylight (see Maidens in Distress [1976], Tudor Style [1979] or Attack of the Saucer People [1981]) they are usually quite impeccable allowing for a luminous, naturally saturated and detailed image. A scratch, tramline or hair in the gate would cause him untold agony. Even the presence of heavy grain, prominent on faster stocks he used for certain interiors or night shoots, was not a desired outcome. The film materials themselves have aged rather well with only minor abrasions, though the soundtracks were not without their issues. Spence’s 16mm films are comag (with a combined magnetic track) and thus have suffered the fate of many materials in this format. Though the sound is murky with some audible warble in places it doesn’t detract too much from the potent B-movie or grindhouse atmospherics, though I’m sure Roy would disagree.

After a number of years the interest in Spence’s filmmaking waned as the demand for works with a more socio political engagement came to the fore. When his films were no longer being exhibited he decided to build his own cinema to screen them. Roy and Noel Spence built the Tudor cinema theatre, a temple dedicated to screening the films they love. It was constructed like a Frankenstein’s monster using cannibalised artefacts of the now defunct or ‘deceased’ cinema theatres of their youth. They then built another private cinema theatre on Roy’s property called The Excelsior, named after the Excelsior mine in It Came From Outer Space (1953). Both of these cinemas are living museums showcasing true Art Deco furnishings of the period, replete with original edition film posters and other historic design works. Stepping inside these cinema-temples is like stepping backwards in time. The Excelsior and the Tudor are two of the most beautiful cinema theatres in Ireland. From there the Spence brothers embarked on building over six additional, bespoke cinema theatres for their friends. Some of these constructions can be seen in the short television piece Movie Mavericks (NotAsSuchFilms, 2005) for BBC Northern Ireland or Tracy O’Connor’s The Chowder Club (GMarshTV, 2002) for RTE. These humorous films profiled the Spence brothers as amateur filmmakers, showcasing their personalities and lifestyles.

In the 1990s Roy Spence continued to make films which in turn granted him a small degree of local popularity. The reputation of the Tudor cinema grew and soon both Roy and Noel were entertaining many special guests including Ray Harryhausen and Sara Karloff, who became a friend and frequent visitor. Roy’s set-design and make-up effects expertise landed him a job on Enda Hughes’ 1997 comedy short Flying Saucer Rock and Roll, lensed by Seamus McGarvey and starring Ardal O’Hanlon, Joe Rooney and Tara Costello. The film later developed a cult following with its pastiche to 1950s B-movies and authentic shooting locations, primarily Noel Spence’s Tudor cinema. Popularity for the Tudor and the Excelsior grew and younger generations with an interest in genre films began to flock to these temples. Even indie rock group the Two Door Cinema Club took their namesake as a malapropism of Noel’s Tudor cinema.

The Spence brothers and friends established a private clique called The Chowder Club and they still meet weekly at one of their cinemas to watch new and classic films. Though newcomers are welcome, entry to this formidable cinephile alliance requires the applicant to pass a  series of tests. These evaluations involve the naming of film titles based on their poster taglines, such as: “It crawls… It creeps… It eats you alive!” or “No one who saw it lived to describe it!”

Filmmaking lead Roy Spence back to teaching.  From the mid 1990s to present day he has collaborated with local schools, theatre groups and youth groups utilising his trademark practical effects while editing new collaborative shorts entirely on video. He has since created over a dozen films with emerging amateurs. During this time he also  produced two fascinating instructional videos called No Budget Special Effects and No Budget Effects Makeup where he details the skills of his trade, as he says: “You will be surprised what you can achieve using the contents of your kitchen cupboard.“6

 Noel Spence is now a celebrated and published wordsmith with over a dozen volumes of short stories and a book of poetry under his belt. His work clearly reveals an astute wit coupled with a trademark black humour. Noel has penned tales that involve everything from deadly revenge plots on a school bully to the story of a con artist, posing as a pet detective, who is later afflicted with rabies. His writings have a devious charm and poetic introspection that at times recall Edgar Allan Poe and would not seem out of place in films by Roger Corman or of course Roy himself. In Noel’s stories, and in Roy’s cinema, evil is hidden in plain sight and there is a twist to every tale. And so, the last moments of a Roy Spence film will usually pull the carpet out from under you. In Roy’s ambitious drama film The Wishing Stone (1978), an impoverished rural family man discovers a fallen meteorite. Almost immediately he is catapulted into local stardom and visitors come from all corners of the United States to see the space rock. The film ends with our anti-hero, overcome with greed, murdering his long-lost relative with the meteorite. The alien stone that could grant him wishes of success, popularity and fame was his undoing.

Roy Spence built his family home in Comber with designs to pitch the roof at a higher angle so that the top floor could facilitate cinema projection. The production of films, viewing of films and his day-to-day life are intrinsically linked through cinephilia. For the past fifty years Spence has been active on the outermost periphery of the film industry in Ireland, he never received any state funding to support his art and has never had his work theatrically released.

Over the past decade there has been a renewed interest in his work and his films are now considered to be national heritage. Through initiatives set by the British Film Institute, Northern Ireland Screen and the Irish Film Institute his work has been showcased nationally, high-definition copies are now available to view online and his filmography is preserved at the IFI Irish Film Archive in Dublin.

When I think of  Ed Wood, Jack Arnold, Gordon Douglas, Ray Harryhausen, Terence Fisher or Roger Corman I think of Roy Spence. He is not a mere eccentric or a simple curiosity but one of the most independent spirits of underground filmmaking in Northern Ireland. There was no ulterior motive to his practice, he created his work out of a basic need to do so and when nobody would screen this work he built his own theatres to screen it himself. It’s not too difficult to consider these possibilities now, due to the ubiquity of technology and that many aspects of our contemporary film culture do little to belie the foundations of narcissism, status and one-upmanship reinforced by gatekeepers to industry and establishment. Roy Spence’s filmography teaches us far more than the correct ratio of red food dye to maple syrup or how to create a full martian body suit from nothing more than latex, ashes and a cabbage,  but to make cinema for cinema’s sake, no matter who is watching.

​Thanks to Roy, Kati and Noel Spence, Ciara Chambers, Fergus Fay, Anja Mahler, John T. Davis, Gillian Marsh, Sunniva O’Flynn, Kasandra O’Connell and Aaron Healy.

Words: Dean Kavanagh

The Roy Spence Collection is available to view now on the IFI Player and suite of apps. 

Scheibel, W. (2017). American Stranger: Modernisms, Hollywood and the Cinema of Nicholas Ray. Albany: State University of New York, p.110.

2  Roy Spence: Filmmaker. (1986). Directed by C. James. Comber, Co. Down: Colin James.

3 Chambers, C. (2013). ‘The Spence Brothers: Amateur Sci-fi and Cine Culture in Northern Ireland’ in Shand, R. and Craven, I. (2013).  Small-gauge storytelling: discovering the amateur fiction film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.292.

4 Yorkshirefilmarchive.com. (2018). Once Upon a Sunday, Yorkshire Film Archive. [online] Available at: http://www.yorkshirefilmarchive.com/film/once-upon-sunday [Accessed 9 Jul. 2018].

5 BFI Player. (2018). Watch Once Upon a Sunday – BFI Player. [online] Available at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-once-upon-a-sunday-1969-online [Accessed 9 Jul. 2018].

6 From an interview with Dean Kavanagh, conducted October 27th, 2016


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