Tuesday, March 18, 2014

As Sane As You Or I

The last time Kino Lorber released any Pete Walker films on Blu-ray, it was in the form of a box set that included The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne, Schizo, and the cream of that particular crop, The House of Whipcord. I wrote about the set here, but the gist was that these are some odd films, about halfway into the realm of exploitation but never really pushing all the way. This reticence, which Walker has spoken about, could be to the film's benefit, as in The House of Whipcord, or could result in a film that barely seemed able to sit up, as with Die Screaming, Marianne. On top of all this was a whole different kind of strangeness altogether, but now's not the time to simply rewrite that post -- read it if you feel like it. The point is, today sees the release of two more Walker films by Kino through their Redemption line: The Flesh and Blood Show from 1972, and Frightmare from 1974. The range in quality on display in that earlier set is rather precisely illustrated with these titles.

To begin with The Flesh and Blood Show, well, where do I begin? The plot is simple: various young actors, all but two of whom are strangers to each other, are summoned by the promise of paying work to a once-abandoned but supposedly now up-and-running-again theater located in a small English seaside village. The show they are to put on, as the director Mike (Ray Brooks), who was summoned in the same way as the actors by the same mysterious employer, never ceases to explain, will be entirely improvised (we see a little of what they're putting together, and what they've decided on, apparently, is some kind of interpretive dance piece about cavemen). This means nothing in itself, however, and I think the improvisational nature of their show is just a short-cut by Walker and screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy so that they can quickly move past any questions about what the play is. The play is nothing, and there is no play.
This is perhaps fitting since The Flesh and Blood Show is also nothing. The title promises two things but provides only one, and in fact much of the time it seems like Walker is using the barest bones of a horror concept as a vehicle for nudity, of which there's a fair amount. All of it gratuitous, of course -- when the three actors we meet first (played by Luan Peters, David Howey, and Judy Matheson) arrive at the theater, they see two other young actors sleeping in the stalls, and the female of the two (Penny Meredith) is topless, for no particular reason that I could find. When she wakes up and sees that she's been observed, she says "Gor blimey!" (paraphrase) and covers up. It's that sort of movie. There's also lesbian shoulder rubbing.

It's worth pointing out that these sleeping actors are initially mistaken for deceased actors, and this is the second time in about ten minutes of screen time that someone is mistakenly believed to be dead. Those instances account for nearly half of the violence in the film. The Flesh and Blood Show is almost shockingly bloodless, despite the fact that it does include a decapitation (off-screen). In an interview on the Blu-ray, Walker chalks this up to censorship, and I'm sure he's right, but because the film, specifically as a horror film, has nothing else that it especially feels like offering to its audience, it's left with nowhere to go. I should say that of course the actors start being murdered, and who the hell summoned them to this theater in the first place anyway? So you'd think that what you're getting here is a proto-slasher film, but without any slashing. And I suppose it still is a proto-slasher film in some basic ways, but there's no push to wallow in anything. I've never seen a more humdrum lesbian scene than that shoulder rubbing bit, is what I'm really upset about.

One thing that's sort of interesting about The Flesh and Blood Show, and this is another way in which it differs from slasher films, is that not every character is killed -- in fact, most of them survive. This makes it seem almost like a murder mystery, which it sort of also is, though this element of the film doesn't have any energy either. But it is sort of interesting that the body count is so low -- I can get behind that, in fact. I was reminded of the rarity of this in horror films just a couple of nights later I watched The Prowler, Joseph Zito's somewhat notorious slasher film from 1981. That movie leaves a lot of people breathing at the end, too, and in some strange way kind of feels like an attempt to correct The Flesh and Blood Show, because while the body count is low, the gore is intense. The work of Tom Savini, naturally, the violence in The Prowler is some of the most disturbing I've seen in a slasher film (hence the film's cult status, I suppose). Savini was an infernal kind of wizard back then, and his make-up effects could seem not terribly far removed from what one might conceivably imagine the real thing looking like -- what does it look like when a nude woman taking a shower is actually stabbed to death with a pitchfork? Watch The Prowler and you'll have a pretty good idea. Of course, like The Flesh and Blood Show, The Prowler is otherwise quite bad, and everyone is content to hitch their star to Savini's wagon. Pete Walker had no Savini to carry him through The Flesh and Blood Show, and we're left with a film that Walker himself admits is "safe."

Not so Frightmare, however. This one also has a very simple story, though in this case it's one with a bit more potential to have something interesting squeezed out of it. In the 1950s, a married couple are arrested, tried, and convicted of a series of cannibalistic murders. In the opening flashback, we learn that the wife was the truly Satanic one, but the husband was fully complicit in her evil, so they're both locked up in an asylum until they become sane, an outcome the judge seems to think can be guaranteed. When Frightmare's main action begins, we soon learn that about fifteen years after being locked up, the couple -- Edmund and Dorothy, played respectively by Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith -- have been deemed sane and released. They have two daughters, one grown, named Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and one still a teenager, named Debbie (Kim Butcher) who was born while Dorothy was locked up and then put in an orphanage. Jackie and Debbie are together as the film opens, though Debbie believes her parents are dead. Jackie still sees her mom and dad, and indeed her dad does seem mentally stable. But Dorothy very much is not, and Jackie and Edmund know it. They want to stop her, even if it means tricking her, from tipping all the way back over into cannibalism. I'll tell you right now that they fail.
Frightmare is imperfect, but excellent. As is often the case with Pete Walker films, the youngsters who populate his stories are all blandly hip professionals played by actors who might be good if they were more carefully directed -- it's almost impossible to say. Though they all look different, they're all, men and women, basically the same person, more or less, at least those who aren't morally corrupt. What you also get with Frightmare, however, and which you also got with The House of Whipcord, is performances by more seasoned (older) actors. In this case, Rupert Davies, for example, is rather wonderful in a sad kind of way. You wouldn't be able to call this film a character study, whatever that means anyway, but Davies does sketch out the life of a man who found himself committing, or helping his wife commit, unspeakable acts, and you can tell that when he was convicted fifteen years ago he's the sort of person who believed his sentence was better than he deserved. Now that he's been granted a freedom he doesn't believe is his due, his only hope is to stop it from ever happening again. Very little of this is in the script, but Davies plays it.

Then you have Sheila Keith. Dorothy is the killer here, the source of horror, and she's magnificent -- she's terrifying, even, and Walker doesn't make some kind of grotesque joke out of her age (Keith wasn't elderly when she made the film, but she's one of those people who always looked older than she was) -- he simply lets go of her leash. The first scene where Keith is allowed to become fully berserk is truly chilling, a disturbing mix between "movie psycho" and the unpleasant thought that perhaps this is what being in a room with a psychopathic cannibal is really like. And she enjoys it. Keith's Dorothy loves murder, and loves sadism, and loves to eat flesh and lick human blood off her hands. It's how much Keith seems to relish it all that really turns your stomach, because while Frightmare is considerably more violent than The Flesh and Blood Show, Walker still isn't working with Tom Savini. But Savini isn't missed. Keith more than picks up the slack.


John said...

Not too sure now, but I don't think I was too crazy about Frightmare. Probably at least partly because of the lack of Savini-quality splatter. But then that's true of most movies.

bill r. said...

I come off as more of a splatter fan in this post than I really am. I'm not against it, mind you, it's just that I get tired of people defining the whole genre by that measure (which I'm not claiming is what you're doing). But with a movie like FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW, what they're doing is making a splatter movie, that's what it's there for, but there's no splatter in it. It's such a strange zero of a movie.

FRIGHTMARE, on the other hand, has other stuff to appreciate. Watch it again. Keith makes it all worthwhile.

John said...

Yeah, a culture of lazy formulaic crap like The Prowler just begets a lot more lazy uninspired crap, as well as a core audience conditioned to react badly to anything that strays from the formula.

On the other hand, I don't think reticence in art is necessarily a virtue (not that you were exactly trying to make a case for it). It might be justified in cases where the budget or the technical skill may be lacking, but it can also in itself be a hindrance, especially when it stems from an unwillingness (or an inability) to fully engage with the material. I don't think I've seen Flesh and Blood Show, but that sounds like a good example. Actually, I'd also point to the majority, if not the entirety, of the farcical "torture porn" genre, which far from "wallowing" in realistic depictions of torture and death, in fact dishes up gimmicky, stylized set-pieces of sanitized violence performed with all the conviction of high school video project.