MJ Simpson- A Few Moments with the SFX Guru and Full Moon Massacre Co-Star. by Brian Kirst

British writer MJ Simpson has earned a stellar reputation as a nonfiction genre writer and reporter. He has written, extensively, for SFX Magazine, has published a biography on Douglas Adams and is currently working on a book about the life of 'Bride of Frankenstein's' Elsa Lanchester. He maintains an exuberant website, www.mjsimpson.co.uk , full of interviews, reviews and fun tidbits of experience and knowledge. In addition, this happy father and husband, has begun appearing as an actor in low budget fare like 'Full Moon Massacre' . He is fun, down to earth and, as revealed below, a man of great integrity. It was my pleasure to share a few moments of time with him recently.

  Brian: Was writing always something that you wanted to do or was it a passion that surprised you later in life?

MJ: "Later in life?" How dare you! I'm not later in life! I have always written, ever since I knew which end of a pencil made a mark. And oddly, although I have occasionally dallied with a short story or the start of a novel, my primary interest has always been non-fiction writing. (I have also always been interested in scripts. I wrote comedy sketches and little plays at school and nowadays I write occasional film scripts.)

When I was about 12 or 13 I started sending spec article to magazines on subjects such as stamp-collecting, banging them out on my mum's manual typewriter, which was the size of a small car. I finally sold my first article to a mag called Record Collector in about 1990, having honed my craft writing for sci-fi, comedy and music fanzines. Nowadays, the writing is basically a paying hobby, You can't survive - and certainly can't raise a family - just writing about movies.

Brian: Do you have a favorite genre to write about? Is it science fiction (You have written a popular biography about Douglas Adams) or horror or a combination of the two?

MJ: Douglas who? Never heard of the fellow. That book, whatever it is, must have been written by someone who looks exactly like me (and has the same name).

I have been a science fiction fan for literally as long as I can remember, because my earliest memory is of a 'Doctor Who' episode which was broadcast when I was 19 months old. (Coincidentally, the new 'Doctor Who' series started when TF Simpson was 19 months so I sat him down to watch it and he loved it, just like I did as a kid.) I spent my childhood reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and all the other SF greats but curiously I only really became interested in horror about 14 years ago, when I was doing a degree and decided to write my dissertation on Frankenstein films.

I worked for three years on SFX magazine (as Staff Writer, then News Editor, then Deputy Editor), writing about all sorts of SF, fantasy and horror in films, books and TV. Whatever came into the office, we had to write about it. Now I pretty much restrict myself to writing about movies, which I class as 'cult movies' because it's a handy catch-all description.

I think the area I love writing about most is actually animation. I adore (almost) all animation and love interviewing animators. I think it's a fascinating area of film-making which has been surprisingly undervalued and poorly served, compared with other genres and styles.

Brian: Speaking of the Sci-Fi Horror Blend - do you have any feeling about Roger Corman's 'Galaxy of Terror'? It's one of the first low budget 'Alien' rip-offs and it is one of my favorite B movies.

MJ: Confession time: I've never seen 'Galaxy of Terror'. You know, there are lots and lots of films I have never, ever seen. You simply can't watch everything. Maybe twenty years ago, at the height of the video boom, you could feasibly, over a lifetime watch every fantasy, horror and sci-fi movie ever released in the UK or USA. But today there are so many indie features, so many DTV films and TV movies, and such a vast panoply of foreign films being discovered every year that you just can't watch everything.

Maybe one day I'll watch 'Galaxy of Terror'. But I have about eight DVDs in my To Be Watched pile and probably 50 in my To Be Watched Someday pile, and more arrive every day.

Brian: Do you still get excited when interviewing certain people or has that feeling dulled over time?

MJ: A good interview is a good interview. There aren't many people that can make me excited just to meet them, although there have been a few. Usually these are people who haven't been extensively interviewed and whom I couldn't see any way in which I would ever get to interview them. And then it all falls right.'Weird Al' Yankovic was one, Eric Sykes was another. Two of my comedy heroes, who both gave me long, fascinating, hugely enjoyable interviews.

What excites me now is when I get an e-mail from someone, out of the blue, thanking me for reviewing on my website something obscure that they made or were in. For example, I like to review those strange, Australian, 45-minute animated adaptations of classic novels that you can often find in bargain bins. I found and reviewed a version of Jules Verne's 'Five Weeks in a Balloon' - and a few weeks later received an e-mail from an actor named Loren Lester. That had been his first credit and he went on to do loads of great stuff including the voice of Robin/Nightwing in the 'Batman' cartoon series. And he very kindly allowed me to interview him. That was a thrill for me, probably more so than if I ever get to interview Spielberg or Lucas or one of the other big boys.

Brian: Has there been an interview that you would consider the most interesting? (Not necessarily the best one, but the most unique.)

MJ: Last year I reviewed a 1939 black-cast voodoo picture, 'The Devil's Daughter', and in researching the film I was amazed to discover that one of the stars was still alive and potentially contactable. Emmett Wallace was 96 (probably 97 now) and his grandson had made a website about his career. That grandson confirmed that Emmett still had his marbles and loved talking about the old times, and he very kindly conveyed some questions and relayed the answers. They were good answers too.

That was just extraordinary - interviewing somebody about a film they made in the 1930s. That's like touching history. Sends a shiver down my spine.

Brian: What are your favorite genre films?

MJ: My all-time favorite film is actually not SF or fantasy (although it has a very vague mystical aspect to it and the ending is quite horrific). And that's John Huston's 'The Man Who Would Be King'. It's the most brilliant adventure film imaginable, with Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer. Caine also starred in another favorite non-fantasy film, 'Zulu', easily the best war film ever made.

But you're asking about genre movies. I love the original 'King Kong' with a passion, and I really enjoyed the recent remake too. I think the original 'Star Wars' is absolutely perfect (I know most people prefer 'Empire' but I love the first film).

I don't know if there are any other specific titles that I could cite as unwavering favorites. In more general terms, I love Japanese monster movies, Disney animated features, Universal horror films and - more unusually - Asian snake-woman films, which is an extraordinarily extensive subgenre.

Brian: A reverse of that question. Which genre films do you consider your least favorite? (On the website, I love the review of 'Hellgate' starring 'Welcome Back Kotter's' Ron Palillo.)

MJ: Being British, I have absolutely no idea what 'Welcome Back Kotter' is about or who Ron Palillo is. But 'Hellgate' is jaw-droppingly bad. If you want to find especially bad films reviewed on my site, the other ones to check are 'Kannibal' and 'The Jekyll and Hyde Rock n Roll Musical'. I don't like trashing films unless they're actually offensively, insultingly bad. Sites that just tear low-budget films to pieces for being low-budget annoy me. I always judge a film on how well it achieves what it sets out to do with what it has available. To criticize a film (or any artistic endeavor) for not being something it's not trying to be, or for not having something which it couldn't have had, is just pointless and does no-one any favors

However, I think it is worth thoroughly ripping apart big-budget monstrosities. The three worst studio features that I have ever seen are 'The Avengers', 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' and 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. All of these treated their audience with utter contempt. They can all tick all the boxes: bad scripts, bad direction, bad casting, bad acting, bad production design and lousy special effects. And they get a bonus point for taking as their source material something which was so highly acclaimed, well-loved and universally regarded as a classic, then stripping it of whatever made it so good and having the hubris to replace the missing bits with piss-poor new ideas created by (apparently) baboons.

The absolute worst film I have ever seen on the big screen is undoubtedly 'The Blair Witch Project'. An extraordinarily successful marketing campaign for an absolute nothing of a film. Watching a blank screen for 80 minutes would have been scarier and more interesting (and would have had a better plot and more characterization too).

Brian: You've appeared in a film called 'Full Moon Massacre' - Does anything in particular stand out about your experience playing a werewolf in that low budget horror fest?

MJ: I wish to stress that I don't play a werewolf in 'Full Moon Massacre'. I play a TV reporter, presenting a news story about the horrific killings. I knew the director, Tom Rutter, from Fred Olen Ray's discussion board. He's only nineteen (Tom, not Fred) and lives not too far from me, so he invited me over to shoot some stuff. It was just me, Tom and his mate, basically improvising news reports. Great fun. There's also a very funny sequence among the out-takes where, every time we try to film, a series of progressively larger buses keeps coming round the corner.

I recently met up with Tom again to shoot some scenes as a newspaper editor for his second feature Mr. Blades. I enjoy acting (I did a lot of - drama when I was younger) so if any other directors want me for parts in their films, get in touch. (You will need to live near Leicester or be prepared to pay my travel, I should stress.)

Brian: I am thrilled about your Elsa Lanchester biography. (One of my favorite possessions is a c.d. of her singing bawdy Cockney songs!) What drew you to her as a subject?

MJ: When I was researching the Frankenstein dissertation mentioned above, I watched some of the Universal horrors and became intrigued by the way that Elsa and her character had become horror icons despite only making one appearance on screen, whereas the other iconic actors - Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, Carradine - each had a bunch of credits. I looked up a list of Elsa's films (in a book - no IMDB in those days) and discovered that she had made stacks of movies including classics like 'Witness for the Prosecution' and that I had actually seen her in things like 'Mary Poppins' and 'Murder by Death'. So I bought her autobiography, and that's where I encountered something remarkable. The book, Elsa Lanchester Herself, published shortly before her death in the early 1980s, is actually all about her husband, Charles Laughton. After a few chapters on her early life, Elsa disappears from her own autobiography. This was, I have since discovered, because she wrote it as a biography of Charles, couldn't find a publisher, so very slightly rewrote it and sold it as an autobiography. There's masses in there on Laughton's dealings with Bertholt Brecht and so on but no mention at all of things like Elsa's Oscar nomination or the film she made with Elvis.

Basically, Charles' story has been told several times but Elsa's has never been told at all. And it's a fascinating story, in terms of both her career and her personal life. I always say, the best reason to write a book is because you want to read it and no-one else has written it yet. That's certainly the case here. I want to read a biography of Elsa Lanchester and the only way that's going to happen is if I write the damn thing myself. It will be published by Tomahawk Press in the UK, who have published excellent books on 'Night of the Demon' and 'Zulu'.

Brian: Is there some tidbit about her that you\rquote ve found fascinating that you'd like to share with the Racks-n-Razors readers? Also- when is the book coming out?

MJ: It's not really a question of interesting snippets because, as I say, Elsa's entire life has gone largely unrecorded. Nobody has ever considered her body of work, which includes 60+ films stretching from the silent era to 1980, more than 100 British and American radio and TV shows, plus records, theatre, cabaret, even classical ballet. And nobody has ever considered the Laughton-Lanchester marriage from Elsa's side of things. For me, the most interesting part so far has been uncovering what a huge, huge star she was in Britain in the 1920s. When she married Charles, she was actually the more famous of the two but he rapidly eclipsed her and now she is viewed as just a side-story to his life. That's what I want to change with this book. Having said that, the thing that most people will probably pick up on, because sex sells, is that despite what the rumors may have you believe, Elsa was not a lesbian or even bisexual.

When will it be published? When I finish it. The problem is that I can only really work on it when I get a day to myself without interruption from Mrs. S or young TF, and that only happens very occasionally.

Brian: Finally, are there any future projects that you'd like to tell us about?

MJ: I have several other books that I want to write, but I don't like writing a whole book on spec. Once I've written a proposal, I see no point in going any further until I have a publisher interested. And the non-fiction market is not in a good state. Take a look at the shelves of your local bookstore and mentally remove everything which is connected to a TV show in some way or written by someone 'famous' and you'll see how rapidly the range of books shrinks. There aren't many publishers and those that do exist are generally small and have limited scope for new books. It's a tough market.

I have a book on space exploration which I want to write and one on animated films and a biography of a famous American inventor. All of these are books which I want to read but they don't exist yet. I just need to get publishers interested. Frankly, if I get the right contract I could have another book out before Elsa. Meanwhile, I continue to add new stuff to my website, write articles for Fangoria and other mags, and try to sell some scripts.

Thanks for this interview. It's been fun and useful to put all these ideas down in words.