Fantastic Fest Review: Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow
The big dreams and lost chances of a forgotten exploitation king
By Richard Whittaker,
11:00PM, Sun. Sep. 24, 2023
The small British town of Eccles is arguably famous for only two things. One, the Eccles Cake (a relative of sorts to the mince pie), and two, Cliff Twemlow. Only one of the two has earned a documentary, as the filmmaker gets an overdue reappraisal in Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow.
If you're unaware of his work, it's not that surprising. Almost none of the former nightclub bouncer's movies saw any kind of release, and his IMDb page is a minefield of misinformation, of mistimed release dates and credits for films that never existed beyond sizzle reels designed to attract investors. The title of the one biography of the filmmaker – C. P Lee and Andy Willis' The Lost World of Cliff Twemlow: The King of Manchester Exploitation Movies – gives an indication of how many missing moments there are in his story.
Now his story shuffles onto the screen he loved with Mancunian Man: The Legendary Life of Cliff Twemlow. In what feels in many ways like an organic extension of his research into British exploitation culture for documentaries like Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, director Jake West threads those pieces together into a linear narrative that still tries to find the measure of the man.
Oddly, Twemlow himself is elusive (not much of a shocker for a man who lied about his age and consistently worked under pseudonyms). Equally elusive are his films, since he worked in the era of video rentals, when stores would stock anything and everything, often with no questions asked. For anyone who frequented those stores – in the UK, often little more than a converted corner shop or just a room in someone's house – Twemlow was instantly recognizable from the cover of grimy crime flick G.B.H. Wielding an axe, one-handed, in a blood-splattered white tuxedo? How could you not remember that?
That sleazy gangland knee-breaker may have been the purest summation of Twemlow himself: in the parlance of the region, a big lad, taking no nonsense, solving problems. But through extensive interviews with his co-stars and friends (who were generally exactly the same people, Manchester not being knee-deep in actors in the Eighties and Nineties), West finds an explanation of how a working-class kid from the roughest of neighborhoods managed to become a generous indie filmmaker after a surprisingly successful musical career.
If anything, Mancunian Man serves as a timely reminder of how residuals and royalties enable artistic careers, since much of Twemlow's freedom from working club front doors came from the sales of one 7-inch single. That became the seed money for his career in exploitation, action, horror, and science fiction, most of it shot in and around his hometown. That is, unless he could scrape together the cash for an overseas Bacchanalia that was as much holiday (and often more so) as it was film shoot.
But the fact that even the most hardened of genre fans have probably never seen a Twemlow movie is an indicator of the tragedy that lies at the end of the road. His attempts to become a mixture of George A. Romero and Charles Bronson (with a neat sideline in pulp novels), and to build a regional film industry in often-overlooked Manchester, were admirable. Yet it was all an uphill struggle for this self-trained filmmaker who never saw a corner he didn't think he could cut. His whole career may be summed up by one tiny stunt in which he broke his nose because he didn't realize he was diving onto rocks: If he'd only paid attention, West seems to warn us, what could he have become?
But this is not the story of Twemlow the low-budget success. Instead, as lovingly recounted by friends he made into actors and actors who became friends, it's the charming story of a rough-and-tumble dreamer who tried to make his own little Hollywood in the rain-drenched shadow of the Pennine hills.
North American Premiere
Fantastic Fest screening
Wed., Sept., 27, 11:20am