Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Bit of Mischief


FRIGHTMARE’s iconic poster art depicts Sheila Keith’s pre-Abel Ferrara use of power drills as an implement of murder, and is the film that best illustrates Pete Walker and David McGillivray’s distinctive brand of grot guignol.

FOR a regrettably brief period, Pete Walker made some of the most striking movies to come out of 1970s British cinema, at a time when the country’s film industry was in serious decline. Segued from sexploitation, Walker’s pictures tend to be downers (even his sex films are depressing), often featuring sadistic authority figures punishing anyone (but usually young women) who don’t conform to their strict codes. He has denied there being any political subtext to his work; however, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD is dedicated to "...those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment," suggesting Walker isn't entirely unsympathetic towards his villains. Although never undergone a critical reappraisal in the same way as American contemporaries Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, the producer/director maintains an avid cult following, commenting on his filmography “…all I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief." Walker is an auteur: his films are technically competent, if declining to indulge in grandstanding displays of technique that might have won him more recognition in the manner of Ken Russell.

By directing films set in the Home Counties, Walker bucked the trend of English Gothic; instead of mad scientists and cloaked vampires, his films dwell on old ladies and teenage tearaways. In HOUSE OF WHIPCORD - the first of four collaborations with critic-scriptwriter David McGillivray - Walker delivers a deliciously raw view of what happens when individuals decide to mete out justice in their own backyard. Ann-Marie de Vernay (Penny Irving) - a na├»ve French model living in London - is enticed by playboy Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman) into spending some time at his parent's house. But Julia finds herself imprisoned in a corrective institute run by Mark's mother Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham), and senile Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr). Overseen by sadistic warders Walker (the filmmaker’s illuminus, Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon), she exists in a living hell where minor infractions are punished by whipping, and subsequent misdemeanours result in hanging. As the prison’s intractable sergeant-at-arms, Keith delivers her lecherous lines (“I’m going to make you ashamed of your body di Vernay … I’m going to see to that personally”) with venomous aplomb. Less admirably, Irving is possibly the most irritating Gallic damsel-in-distress (“zees cannot be!”), and the film does suffer from a too tidy resolution, and a bundle of day-for-night scenes.

Censor Stephen Murphy’s fanciful conviction that HOUSE OF WHIPCORD’s self-appointed governors Wakehurst and Bailey were savage lampoons of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford led him to pass the film with only the deletion of a single whiplash effect.

Although Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM is far superior in an artistic sense, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD shares that film's troubling evocation of the agony brought by imminent death and the way in which the viewer responds to it; Peter Jessop's deliberately dark lighting suggests all manner of depravities which aren't directly on screen. Indeed, one of the defining features of Walker's style is that the overwhelming impression of brutal violence is often much more disturbing than anything which is shown. The torture scenes aren’t in the same league as Ilsa, yet the forced haircuts, sham legalities and ghastly institutional food are far more credibly appalling; instead of titillating shower scenes or lesbian gropings, we have unerotic nudity in uncomfortable surroundings.

Another facet of Walker is an extraordinary sense of the impotence of men to do anything to protect the women they care about. Time and again, the male characters who should be heroic are pleasant types, but totally ineffectual. When the battered heroine escapes, lorry driver Mr Kind (Ivor Salter) hands her back to Wakehurst under the impression that the prison is a clinic where she will be treated for her wounds, and the apparent hero (Ray Brooks) arrives too late. Walker seems to find women much more interesting, and this immediately marks out his work in a world - exploitation horror - which, at the time, tended to have women as purely victims. Walker's heroines may often be victimised but they are also vivid, tough and proactive. If they fail, it's not for lack of trying.

Despite her long and varied career on stage and television, Sheila Keith is best remembered for her collaborations with Walker, FRIGHTMARE being the only time she had a lead role.

Arguably Walker's best film, FRIGHTMARE turns the concept of the family unit upside down. In a black and white prologue, Dorothy Yates (Keith) is sentenced to rehabilitation in a psychiatric ward for her uncontrollable taste for human flesh. Her husband - Edmund (Rupert Davies) - is sentenced along with her, leaving their daughter, Debbie (an alarmingly credible Kim Butcher), in the care of Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund's child from a previous marriage. Years later, both Dorothy and Edmund have been released and live an isolated life out in the country. In London, Debbie has become an embittered juvenile delinquent, much to the dismay of Jackie and her psychiatrist boyfriend, Graham (Paul Greenwood). Unfortunately Dorothy's bloodlust continues unabated, with people falling prey to power drills, pokers and pitchforks.

Although Davies brings a complex pathos in his fine performance as Edmund, this is unquestionably Keith's show. FRIGHTMARE allows her to run the gamut from a tremulous and confused aging woman to a crazed, bloodthirsty maniac in the span of a few seconds, and her attacks are explicit and intense. Although Walker clearly sees her as a threat to society, he gives her enough quiet moments - made genuinely touching by Keith's performance. Walker cleverly subverts expectations by pointing out that corruption stems not from the swinging lifestyle shown at the beginning of the film, but rather from barbaric familial practices spread down from one generation to another which fester under the noses of polite society. From a technical standpoint this is also one of Walker's most accomplished features, creating an oppressive atmosphere as he contrasts the bustling city life with the dark, damp, lonely country locations, all enhanced by a chilling Stanley Myers score. FRIGHTMARE is a tightly constructed piece from McGillivray which invites the viewer to decide who amongst the Yateses is the biggest monster.

Influenced by Walker’s Catholic school background, HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (released in America as THE CONFESSIONAL) is another enduring classic.

Not as condemned for its assault on the Catholic church as Walker would have liked, HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN was made in an era when priests were good press in genre movies as exorcists and advisers. This melodrama taps into abuses of power, and the channelling of repressed sexuality into ultra-violence, as Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) secretly tapes confessions and develops obsessions with young women. In McGillivray’s intricate script, the writer packs in several Walkeresque murders by flaming censer, poisoned communion wafers and a string of rosary beads, while a more distinguished cast bring to life an interesting array of characters: Susan Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham as sleuthing sisters, Sheila Keith as a one-eyed lovelorn housekeeper, Hilda Barry’s bedridden mother and Norman Eshley as the more approachable Father Cutler.

But Sharp is simply spellbinding as Meldrum, at once frighteningly mad and genuinely tragic. Like several other cast members, Sharp was apparently dismayed by the subject matter, and its impossible to tell from his feverish performance whether we are watching Meldrum’s or Sharp’s self-disgust. Meldrum approaches his victims Dracula-like, achieving a brilliant role reversal as his glimmering crucifix becomes an object of terror rather than reassurance. The eruption of violence within such a genteel actor more accustomed to playing minor civil servants or stooging for Morecambe and Wise, makes them all the more unsettling.