Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slasher Sleaze

SCHIZO (1976)
THE COMEBACK (1978)

The Daily Mail described SCHIZO as "polished, pernicious cods wallop."

IN the 1970s, Pete Walker made a series of films more sophisticated than the exploitative titles implied. SCHIZO is an under appreciated slasher given added cult status by the fact that the leading lady is Lynne Frederick, who was married to Peter Sellers and died of substance abuse at the age of 39. The film opens with night shift worker William Haskin (Jack Watson) reading in a newspaper that ice-skating star Samantha Gray (Frederick) is to marry wealthy manufacturer Alan Falconer (has-been pop star John Leyton). Haskin starts to stalk Gray, who looks for reassurance to her psychiatrist Leonard Hawthorne (John Fraser), lover of her best friend Beth (Stephanie Beacham). Gray tells Hawthorne that when she was a young girl, she witnessed Haskin stab her mother during a lover's quarrel. After serving sentence he now is after Samantha; or is there a different connotation?

Walker has always heralded the twist ending as something fresh and unique, but the climax is more of a contrived confirmation than a revelation. Screenwriter David McGillivray struggled to add meat to Walker's bones of a story - delivering a first draft allegedly only 42 pages long - and there is evidence here that the Walker-McGillivray partnership was going through the motions. Yet there are several effective shock sequences to hold interest - including death by hammer and knitting needle - and a mixture of roving camera and close-ups are used to generate tension and menace. The casting of Watson is a big plus, an actor able to suggest a lot by doing seemingly very little, whose worn facade and controlled stares makes his character genuinely unsettling. As Steve Chibnall points out in Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker, the main difference with SCHIZO when compared to the film maker's more famous canon of work - HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE et al - is that previously Walker explored contrasts between aged killers and youth culture; here we have the victimisation of common man.

Redemption's remastered US import Blue-ray of THE COMEBACK, released in February.

Quitting school at 15, Frederick appeared in a number of supporting roles in the early 70s, including Dora Mueller in VAMPIRE CIRCUS. As Julian Upton acutely states in Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, the actress "went from appearing in SCHIZO to marrying one" when she tied the knot with Sellers. Within weeks, Frederick's emotional destruction began, amid violent attacks, the actor's increasing heart problems, and Sellers' plummeting box office appeal. After Sellers' death, his widow binged on drink and drugs; in his hastily revised will, Frederick was left almost everything, while his three children were left an insultingly token sum. Frederick subsequently married David Frost then LA heart specialist Barry Unger, filling the Unger marital home with photographs of Sellers and even devoting a room to his memory. In summary, Sellers biographer Roger Lewis describes Lynne as Seller's "supernatural double or fellow lost soul; except she acquired his insanities without the compensations of his genius."

Walker followed SCHIZO with THE COMEBACK, the last of his 70s terror output, and in an attempt to appeal to an American market in the wake of the crippled British film industry, the most conventional. Gone are the low-key locale of Walker's earlier triumphs; now the viewer sees locations for the rich and famous. Reuniting the director with the scriptwriter of DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE, Murray Smith, the picture sees crooner Jack Jones cast as Nick Cooper, a faded singer returning to England from America to make a comeback album. His ex-wife has been murdered in their docklands penthouse, a fact unknown to him as he is staying in a country mansion maintained by Mr and Mrs B (Bill Owen and Sheila Keith). Increasingly disturbed by nocturnal sounds, and driven to a breakdown by the discovery of a rotting corpse then a head in a hatbox, Cooper discovers that Mr and Mrs B are exacting revenge for the suicide of their daughter, an obsessive fan who could not accept his marriage. Both a psychological thriller and a violent murder mystery, THE COMEBACK consequently never quite gels, but Walker manages a memorable conclusion when our nominal hero confronts the dastardly duo.