This, the first of British independent writer/producer/director, Pete Walker's forays into the '70s horror market, contains all the themes and motifs that soon came to define his distinctive style; a style later developed and honed with the help of writer David McGillivray and the work of regular actress, Shelia Keith. Walker's films stand out for being some of the few British horror films made in the '70s that are set in a recognisable contemporary Britain of the period, and present a disheartening picture of a rather grubby, careworn land sinking inexorably under the stifling burden of ageing authority figures who're seemingly always intent upon holding back or destroying the ambitions of the younger generation with their parochial conservatism. In pretty much all of Walker's films, the older generation — whether they be priests, middle-class martinets or just harmless-looking little old ladies — always turn out to be mad, malicious or both; while his feckless and rather useless young "heroes" are invariably woefully ill-equipped to deal with their elders' malignant evil. This formula worked best in the three films for which Walker is now best remembered by genre fans: "House of Whipchord", "Frightmare" and "House of Mortal Sin", after which, the intensity and focus that marked those films began to dissipate somewhat under the pressure to replicate their success. "The Flesh and Blood Show" feels like something of a dry run for the later films, and represents Walker trying to bridge several divides at once: it has something of the sleazy, peek-a-boo quality about it of the early-'70s British sex films which Walker had been successfully making before his move into horror, and consequently features far more nudity (the boobs n' bums of the familiar buxom brit babes, of course — but also full-frontal male nudity in one brief scene!) than any other of the Walker horror pictures; presumably the result of the director hedging his bets so that, if the film didn't catch with a horror crowd, it could be marketed as a sex film instead. Secondly, the screenplay, by veteran writer Alfred Shaughnessy (most famous for creating "Upstairs, Downstairs") smartly highlights the contemporary '70s setting — in this case a drab, off-season seaside resort — populated with "foxy" young upstart actors eager to rehearse a play in a dilapidated theatre; but contrasts these modern "hip" trappings with a "Ten Little Indians" style plot that relies on the Gothic themes of more traditional British horror such as the 'dark secret from the past that comes back to haunt future descendants' motif. On the whole this film finds Walker still finding his feet in the genre, still struggling with pacing and tone and confidence; but it does feature enough elements of Walker brilliance to make this an essential addition to the British horror fan's collection — it will sit nicely alongside Anchor Bay UK's box set from last year, which omitted this film in favour of the patchy thriller, "Die Screaming, Marianne".
The film also continues the 3D gimmick Walker initiated with his sex film, "The Three Dimensions of Greta": over some rather murky shots of a seaside pier, shot — like most of the rest of the movie — on location in Croma on the Norfolk coast, a title card announces the inclusion of some three dimensional scenes at the climax of the film, and requests the audience wear the special coloured specs, handed out upon admission to the theatre, at the required moment! Unfortunately, the DVD audience will have to make do watching these scenes in good old fashioned black and white! The film begins by establishing a few of the characters who will later go on to make up some of the fodder for the ubiquitous slasher maniac. Straightaway, the exploitation vibe will be apparent to the viewer: when two female flatmates are awoken in the middle of the night by urgent thumping at their front-door, the blonde, bustier member of the two thinks nothing of answering it totally starkers! It turns out to be an actor friend, John (David Howey), playing a practical joke by stumbling into their house in the middle of the night with fake blood pouring from his chest where a retractable stage dagger has been applied. He finds this so amusing that he doesn't even think to ask why his young friend is still not wearing any clothes and remains with her tats n' arse on full display for the rest of the scene! He does remember to tell them all about a new theatrical group he's just joined though, which will be rehearsing a brand new play in an abandoned theatre in the seaside town of Eastcliffe. The two girls decide to come along too, seeing as, despite their willingness to get their bits out at every available opportunity, they're still apparently finding it hard to get work in the British film industry (Incredible!!). Also joining the group is the lovely Julia Dawson played by Jenny Hanley: an actress who, after a handful of roles (such as Hammer's "The Scars of Dracula"), gave up acting to become a successful children's TV presenter. People my age remember her best as one of the presenters of the crap "Blue Peter" rival, "Magpie". Mrs. Hanley plays an actress on the up (unlike everyone else in the film) after getting a lead role in a Hammer style period horror flick (Walker manages to recreate the glossy look of early '70's Hammer remarkably well in the few pastiche scenes we see of Julia's film — ironically, the rest of the real film sports an unglamorous sheen of documentary-style murkiness throughout!); however, the producers want to get her some stage experience, since they plan on making her their next starlet — so it's off to Eastcliffe with her where she, John and the other two young actresses meet more aspiring young actors willing to get their kits off at the drop of a clapper-board, which include among their number Mr. Robin Askwith — later to become a star of the "Confessions of ..." series of course, but at this point still a member of Pete Walker's repertoire company. Later on, the group is also joined by another actress called Sarah, played by the lovely Candace Glendenning: a stunningly beautiful British actress who only ever made a handful of films (invariably requiring her to shed her clothes, as she does in this one) before disappearing altogether from the Industry. The mysterious theatre group has employed a producer called Mike to head the rehearsals, though neither he nor anyone else in the cast has ever seen anyone involved with them! Mike is played by Ray Brooks: still seen in "Eastenders" today, and best known as the voice of Mr. Benn in the 70s kid's cartoon! Despite being the same age as the rest of the group, Mike takes charge, and the gang bed down for the night in one of the grotty dressing rooms. With everyone camped in the same room, there is ample opportunity to see prime British totty in the buff. Even wholesome Jenny Hanley is spied clambering out of her bra and knickers — although, since she is the only one who never show's her bum and breasts in the same shot as her face, she may well have had a body double for the pervy bits!
Of course, the theatre being dilapidated and hideously dark, with innumerable unexplored nooks and crannies; and the February coastal winds causing all manner of unwholesome noises to go constantly whistling and moaning through the rafters, it is only a matter of time before a homicidal black-gloved maniac turns up and starts offing the cast one-by-one in true slasher/gialli fashion! When one of the busty babes goes missing in the middle of the night, Mike discovers her decapitated head on a shelf in the cellar, lined up along with numerous theatrical masks and dummies! Her headless body is still propped up alongside a theatrical guillotine (apparently in full working order — surely that was just asking for trouble!!). He also finds practical joker John lurking about in the dark and immediately suspects him of foul doings. Mike now does the one sensible thing anyone does in the whole film, and calls the Police; however, by the time they arrive the decapitated head is no longer on its shelf and the body has been replaced by a stage mannequin (the killer must have done an awful lot of lightning fast mopping up as well, I should imagine). Waspish Inspector Walsh (Raymond Young) tells Mike to pull himself together and stop wasting their time; and when Mike finds a letter from the missing girl pinned to the notice board (actually placed there by the killer) he too (amazingly!!) shrugs off the whole incident and carries on rehearsing the play as if nothing had happened! Soon, cast members are disappearing all over the shop, but never does it occur to anyone to leave the place! Instead they befriend an old army Major, who regales them with tales of his own former acting days, and visit Sarah's aunt Saunders (Elisabeth Bradley) who has a few strange tales to tell about the Dome theatre's blood-soaked past. Now old and alone ("I hope I'm never reduced to talking to a dog!" quips one of the minor female characters!), Major Bell (Patrick Barr) seems an amiable old cove and appears to want nothing more than to share the company of vivacious and enthusiastic young actors who will rekindle his former love for treading the boards (plus the chance to peep on Candace Glendenning with her top off, obviously!) Even when it is discovered that the theatre group apparently employing them to rehearse the play at the theatre in the first place, doesn't actually exist, they still continue living and working there regardless, seemingly counting on someone else staging the piece when they get back to London (although judging by the few sequences that show us the play they are improvising, that seems an unlikely prospect!). Eventually, a deadly secret that haunts the theatre's past rears its head and provides the solution to the mystery — after being seen in an extended black and white (3D) flashback!
Anyone familiar with Walker's oeuvre will spot the identity of the killer without too much trouble. But there is a nice twist that connects the past to the present, summing up nicely the perennial themes of Walker's films and strangely prefiguring the solution to Dario Argento's "Profondo Rosso". Walker's favourite cinematographer, Peter Jessop, provides the realist, docudrama aesthetic — so familiar to the Walker cannon — with his gritty, grimy photography, and Cyril Ornadel provides decently atmospheric music. Amid the cheesy '70s sleaze and schlock there are a few genuinely inventive and creepy moments, chief among them, a scene where a grotesque tramp-like figure edges its way along a bench on the pier towards one of the actresses, who, not wishing to appear rude, continues to try and make nervous conversation with the brooding, rasping figure until it looms over her — whereupon it grasps her and attempts to assault her!
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is mostly fairly good, despite a few grainy scenes near the beginning, and the mono audio track sounds clear and crisp enough. The only real extra of note is a short video interview with Pete Walker (conducted on a windy beach-front in California) in which the amiable director talks about his film-making years, his move into horror movies, and how he didn't see himself consciously in competition with Hammer.
A fairly decent effort from Media Blasters then, and a fairly decent early stab at the exploitation/horror market from Pete Walker that gains extra marks for '70s nostalgia value.