Mini Mayhem — Little Devils: The Birth (1993)

Director George Pavlou and scripter Elliott Stein tell Dave the gory story of their horror flick’s troubled making.

George Pavlou, a London-based director who began his career with a run of successful short films in the early ‘80s, is probably best remembered for a pair of collaborations with author Clive Barker. Shortly after their two-film stint, Barker explained to Alan Jones how their partnership came about:

“I had met George at a dinner party. All we talked about were movies. He wanted to direct them, and I wanted to write them. It seemed a perfect match as we could learn the ropes together. So I suggested doing a ‘gangster versus mutants’ horror picture.” [1]

The resulting Underworld (1985), later rechristened ‘Transmutations’ by its American distributor, was labelled “pitiable hackwork” in Empire of the Bs: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band [2]. One of a handful of overly brutal critiques in an otherwise fair-minded book, the stylish ambition of Pavlou’s feature-length debut is ripe for reappraisal — the type of which has certainly been afforded to the helmer’s second picture with Barker, Rawhead Rex (1986). That, though, is hindsight. The damning criticisms levelled at Underworld and Rawhead Rex at the time of their release failed to earn Pavlou a seat at the table of in-demand British genre filmmakers like Anthony Hickox or Bernard Rose. In fact, it wasn’t until 1991, when Channel 4 showed some interest in a series Pavlou was developing, that the foundations for his third film, LITTLE DEVILS: THE BIRTH (1993), began to be laid, as the director explains:

“Little Devils started out as Gray Clay Dolls, a thirty minute pilot episode for a Channel 4 horror series that I developed called Chillers. It was broadcast but didn’t go to series due to a dispute with the producers.”

“It got good reviews,” adds Chillers‘ scripter, Elliott Stein. “Originally I had written it as a short story back in the mid-‘80s. It had come to me from a dream I had which featured those creatures climbing up my wall! But yes, the negotiations fell through in developing it as an anthology. George and I had the same agent, you see. We had this loose idea of a writer-director team in mind, and we went to Milan and Cannes armed with this pilot episode of the show and a cut of George’s director’s reel.”

“It was frustrating,” says Pavlou. “But we then decided to pitch a feature film version to a U.K. company at Cannes, Dandelion Productions, and they agreed to finance it.” [3]

It seemed like full steam ahead for this ambitious homegrown creative pair, but, as Little Devils rattled along, it became all too apparent that the producers were both ill-prepared and ill-advised.

“I felt that the significant last minute changes greatly impacted the quality of the film,” states Stein. “For most of the development, until about two weeks before shooting anyway, the script was an R-rated picture. Gritty, graphic, edgy – and very British.”

“We were scheduled to film in the U.K. originally,” elaborates Pavlou. “But as they failed to raise the full budget for the production, it was switched to Toronto and filmed with a non-union crew and cast. They also decided to film it on 16mm, and they picture graded from the one light video rushes instead of from the original negative, hence the final picture quality.”

Considering the shitshow unfolding behind the scenes, it’s an absolute miracle that Pavlou and Stein managed to get anything half decent in the can, let alone something recommendable.

Tweaking elements of the short’s concept — which saw Ronald Pickup play an eccentric inventor who houses a sinister secret in his flat — the biggest change from Gray Clay Dolls is Little Devils switching its aging lead for a withdrawn and gloomy Lionel (Wayne McNamara) (a point Stein confirms is closer to his original story). When we meet Lionel, he’s staggering into a mausoleum where we witness him scooping a treacly substance out of a malevolent-looking well. Back he goes to the imposing old house where he lives, its sizeable proportions split into apartments; and there he quietly sets about sculpting an army of hellish homunculi…

In a narrative quirk, it’s Ed Reid (Marc Price) who’s the primary focus of the story. A young singleton, Reid is quite the celebrity on the smutty writing circuit: he’s a keen author who pays his bills by churning out a much-loved series of dirty novels with titles like ‘Stewardess in Heat’. His mentor is Doc Clapton (a top-billed Russ Tamblyn) — a good Samaritan who looks after the homeless on his days off, dragging Ed along with him — and it’s here where our horndog hack meets his love interest, Lynn (Nancy Valen): a do-gooder by day, pole dancer by night.

A bewildering collection of contrasting characters they may be, but astonishingly it just about seems to work thanks to the likability of the leads, particularly Price, who seemed highly amused by his surroundings during Little Devils‘ Toronto shoot.

“Michael J. Fox [my former Family Ties co-star] was here filming, and my dressing room was much bigger,” Price jokingly boasted to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “It was an old toilet factory executive’s office. We were filming in an old toilet factory! There is something to be said for a low-budget production.” [4]

He’s great in the role, injecting Little Devils with the ideal blend of kooky and crazy. The presence of Tamblyn is a blessing for any picture, regardless of budget, and both Valen and McNamara are fine too — but, acting-wise, the whole film is stolen by the brilliant Stella Stevens as Ed’s neat-freak neighbour, a raging nymphomaniac.

The cynics among you will point to the derivative nature of Little Devils, not least the tone and flavour it shares with Ghoulies (1985). Indeed, considering Pavlou’s brush with Charles Band (the Ghoulies producer distributed Underworld and Rawhead Rex stateside), you regularly have to double take given Francis Haines’ Richard Band-esque score, and how similar the eponymous miniature creatures are to the titular tiny terrors in Subspecies (1991). Credit where it’s due, though: the so-called Little Devils are nattily constructed things with good malleability and a certain amount of personality.

Failing to secure a distribution deal in America, Little Devils has remained elusive in most territories since it debuted on U.K. video in August 1993 through High Fliers. Shivers Home Entertainment belatedly issued it on DVD in Canada in 2017, but judging by the bulk auctions of Little Devils discs (at £2 each) occupying eBay, it seems like the label has long since folded. For Stein, the film remains a notable sore point, with the decisions made by the producers still rankling the writer.

“It’s not a great film. From the changing of the title from ‘Devil Dolls’ to that horrible Little Devils, then the last minute rewrites that I had to do — literally as we were shooting — then the ending… It just wasn’t good. I must acknowledge my friend George, though. He’s a fine and talented director, and he made the film to be so much better than the circumstances that we were given. In retrospect, we should have walked away from this deal, shopped it elsewhere, and did it the way it was intended. Maybe then we could have made the amazing sequel that sadly never went anywhere.”

[1] Blood and Cheap Thrills by Alan Jones, Clive Barker’s Shadows in Eden, edited by Stephen Jones.
[2] Empire of the Bs: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band by Dave Jay, Torsten Dewi & Nathan Shumate, Hemlock Books, 2014.
[3] Dandelion Productions was headed by Noel Cronin, the founder of beloved British TV channel Talking Pictures. In his 2021 autobiography, Reel to Real: A Life in Film, Cronin makes a passing reference to Little Devils, admitting that it went wrong from day one. Pavlou doesn’t get a mention, but the producer subtly speaks of a director who tried to throw his weight around…
[4] A Few Laughs, Provided the Price is Right by Jeff Spevak, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 14th January 1993.

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