Monday, November 26, 2012

Prepare the Death Cell

For a long time, the existence of Pete Walker was only known to me by a few striking movie titles, which I otherwise knew nothing about: Die Screaming, Marianne, Schizo, Frightmare. It wasn't until recently that I actually got around to watching any of his movies (or to learning that they were the work of the same director). Of the Walker films I've seen, the best one is easily Frightmare, which unfortunately does not turn up on the new Pete Walker Collection box set from Kino Lorber, but what the set does include is hardly without interest, even if it's a decidedly mixed bag, and even though the interest is sometimes fleeting. If nothing else, though, I was able to compare the Kino Blu-ray disc of House of Whipcord with the standard DVD from Shriek Show that I already owned, and boy does that DVD look shitty now.
Die Screaming, Marianne - I'm going to take these in the order in which I watched them, which means I'm beginning with this title, from 1971, written by Murray Smith and starring Susan George as the title character, a woman who, when we first meet her, is running from somebody or another, is treating hip motorist Christopher Sandford quite rudely, all before entering into a relationship with him as preparation for treating him even worse. As it happens, though, she has a very good reason for doing almost all of this, as Sandford is attached to two people from Marianne's life who wish her ill -- a corrupt judge, played by Leo Genn, and his daughter Hildegarde, played by Judy Huxtable. These two happen to be Marianne's father and sister (respectively, of course), and the relationship between the judge and Hildegarde is such that, even without their murderous intentions towards Marianne, would inspire hopefully anyone to steer very, very clear. Anyhow, it all has to do with inheritence, and this rather disappointing plot point can almost function as a synecdoche for this rather disappointing film. Walker is an interesting filmmaker, because he's been slotted into a sleazy, British grindhouse category, but in the commentary track for the actually quite violent Frightmare, he says something about not being interested in the nudity-for-its-own-sake aesthetic that so many of his peers trafficked in. That knowledge helps you understand why Susan George remains clothed throughout, even during a steambath scene, and anyway this isn't my complaint about Die Screaming, Marianne, though it's sort of related. The complaint is that the film has craziness, in terms of narrative and visual content, on its mind, but it never actually goes crazy. It's strangely muted, even when everyone starts dying. I think this ties in to Walker's lack of interest in old-fashioned sleaze, but a film called Die Screaming, Marianne should offer something else in its place. It's a thing I've noticed with Walker that he really takes his time in moving his story along, but he doesn't always do so in an engaging way. Plus that title is just a lie. The judge and Hildegarde may well want Marianne dead, but I don't think it interests them particularly if she does so screaming or not.
Schizo - Okay, now we're talkin'. The back cover of the Kino set describes this 1976 film, written by David McGillivray, as "Walker's spin on Psycho," but I actually think that's an oversimplification. Not that Schizo is as complex or anywhere near as great as Hitchcock's masterpiece, but the only real resemblance it bears to the earlier film is the title. In this one, Lynne Frederick (a gorgeous -- and tragic -- woman who I somehow don't recognize from film to film and always have to look up, after which I say "Oh, it's Peter Sellers' wife!" or, more often, "Oh, it's the girl from Phase IV!") plays Samantha, an ice skater who, when we meet her, has just become engaged to Alan (John Leyton). Samantha being famous enough to have this fact published as news, it comes to the attention of William Haskin (Jack Watson), a creepy man, recently released from prison, who immediately begins stalking her. This stalking includes posing as a member of the catering staff at Samantha's wedding, placing a bloody knife on the cart bearing the wedding cake, and preparing to wheel it out to the bride and groom before the head of the catering staff stops him, and he flees. So this is the sort of thing that happens, and Samantha assures everybody that she knows this man, that he was her mother's lover, and she witnessed her mother's murder at the hands of this maniac when she, Samantha, was just a child.

But the film is, in my view, a good deal more interesting and strange than that summary would imply. For example, the film has a twist which Walker seems entirely comfortable signalling to the audience, early and often, which only helps to allow the dread of its reveal to creep in earlier. You could have the twist, and let it just be a twist like any other twist, so that after the reveal the audience goes "Oh, okay, that's a surprise I guess, good job everybody," or you can allow at least the possibility of it into your film earlier and allow the effect to spread. Of course, the "possibility" turned into a certainty well before anything was blatantly confirmed, but it was fun to watch the performances of key players change once the idea was introduced. Plus this film is, like another Walker film I'll be writing about in a minute, just crazy enough to add a supernatural element to a film where nothing of the sort belongs. Basically, there's a psychic in the film, who's an actual psychic, and this fact has, at the end of the day, almost no bearing on the story's outcome. I have to say, I liked that. Because, well, why not do that?
The Comeback - This 1978 film, also written by Murray Smith, is easily the most insane Pete Walker film I've seen. Even more insane than Frightmare, because the insanity of that film is a good deal more coherent. Here, American pop singer Jack Jones plays American pop singer Nick Cooper, who is trying to embark on the recording of his first album in six years, while being aggressively, in a happy businessman sort of way, pushed along by his agent (David Doyle). Nick and his wife Gail (Holly Palance) have recently divorced, and Nick has rented, or had rented for him by his agent, a sprawling country home in England. The caretakers there are Mr. and Mrs. B, and they're played by Bill Owen and Sheila Keith. Sheila Keith, known for being so memorably, terrifyingly off her nut in Walker's earlier Frightmare, is not exactly a calming presence this time around, and The Comeback becomes something of a murder mystery as the audience, and Nick, try to figure out who from a very small pool of suspects could have murdered Nick's ex-wife.

Or you'd think that's what it would be like, except Gail's murder, which happens in the opening minutes of the film, goes undiscovered by the rest of the characters (barring whoever did it, of course) for a very long time, and when someone finally does find out about it, they're promptly iced, as well, so that The Comeback continues to have no living characters who are even aware that any murders at all have taken place. In the meantime, Nick tries to record his album while thinking he's either going mad, or that this giant house is actually haunted. At night he hears a woman crying, but can find no one, or he'll open a door and find a desiccated corpse in a wheelchair (Jack Jones's reaction to this sight is actually pretty convincing), but it's not there when next he looks, and so on. The Comeback, as I've said, offers up only a very small number of possibilities for the killer's identity, and I had one person pegged for it, and ended up being wrong. Well played, Pete Walker, although the reveal of it all is so ridiculously arbitrary (why does the killer wear that costume? For whose benefit?) that the film's other similarities to Italian slasher films ended up being underlined by the end. And then it throws in a ghost! A real one, I mean, very briefly. Just for...I don't know. Well, I kind of do, but this habit of adding one supernatural element to a non-supernatural horror film, which does not factor into the plot, is certainly an odd way to go, and Pete Walker has done it at least twice.
House of Whipcord - It's appropriate, or convenient, to close out with this 1974 film, written by McGillivray from Walker's own story, as it's the best of the four films in this set. I'd seen it once before, but this time around I found it to be quite a bit better than I'd remembered. It stars newcomer Penny Irving as a not entirely inhibited -- as opposed to uninhibited -- young fashion model who, at a party one night, catches the eye of Robert Tayman as a man called, or probably calling himself, Mark E. Desade. This guy, who dresses like he's Dracula from a 1970s Marvel horror comic, is plainly no good, but instead of butchering her, as you might expect him to do, he whisks her away to the titular house, where a doddering old judge (Patrick Barr) and his cruel wife (Barbara Markham) imprison young women whose morals they -- particularly she -- view as vile. This vileness can manifest in actions as minor as appearing topless in public, but if these terrified young women violate the prison rules -- and this is not, it must be noted, in any way an official prison -- three times, they're executed.

This kind of non-humorous, meaning it doesn't even try for jokes, horror satire is not entirely my bag, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit this is a pretty damn good one. Again, the premise of House of Whipcord, plus that title, would seem to indicate a sleaziness which turns out to be the actual goal, but as Walker likes, however unintentionally, to defy such expectations, the film is in fact relentlessly grim, and eventually gets to a point where even if the villains get theirs, all hope has already been drowned anyway. Barbara Markham takes the Sheila Keith role this time around (although Keith is here, too, playing an evil prison guard -- I bet she was very nice in real life), and manages the chilling requirements of the part quite handily. There's a religious base to what her character and the judge are up to with this private, secret prison, but curiously Walker doesn't lay that stuff on as thickly as you might expect. For one thing, whatever his beliefs, the judge is not entirely convinced by the rightness of his wife's extremes, but he's too old and out of it to really object, or to understand his own place in things, while his wife is more concerned with the ruthless bureaucracy and logical, to her, pursuit of revenge that follows the breaching of same, than anything else. There's some effective religious imagery, of the ironic kind, but Walker is content to go easy, and let the premise just play itself out. This is all to the film's benefit, which, as I say, manages to be truly and disturbingly shocking by the end. Walker can be hugely inconsistent, but when he hit on something good, he could be fascinating.

1 comment:

Baker Adamson said...

When we talk about old and classic movies Pete Walker is one of my favorite directors for sure.
I've seen "House of the Long Shadows" and a couple more of his work and i truly love it.