The baby-sitter-in-peril motif has long provided a reliable suspenseful situation for horror movies. Some of the greatest in the genre and countless 'slash-by-numbers' B-movies alike have made ample use of this simple premise over the years; the scenario almost writes itself: an ordinary young girl is left alone in a creepy dwelling while a maniac is on the loose. Eventually, the killer shows up in the house where she is looking after a child (or children), and she is forced to fight for her life and that of her charge(s).
Perhaps it is the combination of isolation and the maternal anxieties elicited by the risk posed to a child under an inexperienced person's care, that makes this such a successful formula -- after all, the mere necessity of the 'baby-sitter' inherently acknowledges society's unspoken worries: children can't just be left alone in their cots for a couple of hours to sleep soundly until we get back ... "something" might happen! We instinctively identify with the heroine in this dilemma. Of course, along the way there are plenty of opportunities for some puritan morality to be displayed since these movies' kill-fodder will invariably be composed of the virginal baby-sitter's "irresponsible" and sexually-active young friends, while the "pure" heroine survives the ordeal to baby-sit another day!
For the first forty-five minutes or so, Peter Collinson's 1971 thriller "Fright" plays like a genteel, British prototype for these later slasher conservative morality plays -- typified by John Carpenter's classic "Halloween" (1979). The situation is carefully prepared: Amanda (Susan George) is a local girl from the village -- employed by the Lloyds to look after their young daughter Tara for the night while they drive into town to celebrate a 'special' anniversary. The couple seem ordinary and friendly, though Jim (George Cole) is slightly detached and Helen (Honor Blackman) uncommonly nervous about leaving her child -- even for just a few short hours. Once left alone, the apparently confident Amanda soon begins to feel uneasy in the secluded country-house -- especially when she spies a face staring in at her through the kitchen window! When her horny boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman) shows up and, in the course of trying to charm her into bed with his wide boy patter, tells her that Jim isn't really Helen's husband since she is not yet divorced from the man who tried to strangle her a year before being locked up in an asylum, she becomes very worried indeed! The fact that "Plague Of Zombies" is playing on TV doesn't exactly help to put her impressionable mind at rest either!
It seems obvious where things are going from here and -- frankly -- this would have been more than enough for me: the atmosphere Collinson injects into the film through the use of wide-angle lenses and all manner of odd camera angles which exploit every nook and cranny of the house's architecture, is quite addictive and, in the opening half-hour, Susan George also seems to be shaping up well as the ultimate British scream queen! From the moment we see her arriving alone and vulnerable at the house in the film's opening minutes, to the second when -- already driven halfway to distraction by a succession of red-herring scares -- she opens the front door only to have the bloodied body of her boyfriend, (kicked-out a few minutes earlier for his excessively wandering hands) collapse in her arms, "Fright" looks like a superior though completely standard British chiller, whose appeal lies more in its nostalgia value and the fun of watching recognisable Brit actors in the unfamiliar environment of a straight-down-the-line horror movie than in any inherent power to unsettle.
But Collinson's film has a few nasty surprises in store for the complacent viewer! This is actually one incredibly dark and psychologically nasty film, which goes to places most thrillers only lightly touch on. One can only marvel at the resilience of Susan George who made this film around the same time as "Straw Dogs"; once again she is put through the mill in a similarly harrowing role which makes far more demands than most Slasher movies require of their female leads, and calls upon the actress to act out yet another peculiar and rather queasy sex/rape scene! Amanda's encounter with her boyfriend (played by Dennis Waterman) establishes early on in the film that she is probably a virgin and a nervousness and reticence about sex is subtly called into play. In any other film of this genre, this would be a badge of honour and a sure sign that she would make it to the end of the film terrorised but otherwise relatively unscathed. But in this instance (scripted by the author of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy, Tudor Gates) events take an unexpectedly unpleasant turn: when Helen's mentally disturbed ex-husband Brian (Ian Bannen) turns up, Amanda is forced to submit sexually to him in order to calm his unpredictable and violent nature since -- in his confused state -- he imagines that she is his wife! From here-on-in the film becomes more of a dark, brooding tragedy than a traditional suspense thriller -- something which may alienate some viewers but which invests it with far more depth and emotion. The plot develops into a siege movie where it is made increasingly apparent that Amanda is becoming as unhinged through the trauma of events as her attacker!
Susan George's performance here is the equal of the one she gave in "Straw Dogs" and confirms the actress as a great talent who never quite seemed to gain the kind of status she truly deserved. She has to carry the movie in its first "Creepy-house" half as she becomes increasingly uneasy in her surroundings. Basically, for much of this first part of the film she is acting alone and has to convey the appropriate sense of escalating terror caused by her runaway imagination with no one else to play off. But the role becomes even more demanding with the appearance of Helen's disturbed husband Brian; her progression through fear, disgust, anger and hysteria is another tour-de-force of acting and although the film is never explicit, the audience is left in no doubt concerning the experience she has had to endure and just how traumatic it is for her timid character. As the film progresses and the viewer is increasingly pulled in very different and conflicting directions emotionally, she always remains sympathetic because of this.
The unsettling atmosphere is considerably enhanced by equally compelling performances from the rest of the ensemble cast: Honor Blackman's image as a hip sex-kitten is brutally undermined -- though her character, who initially appears weak and nervous, eventually redeems herself through a convincing display of courage. George Cole and Dennis Waterman, here appearing in the same film for the first time though they share no scenes together, are both great in small but important roles. The unusual thing about this film is its maturity in the treatment of all the characters; with the possible exception of the Lloyd's complacent family-friend, Dr. Cordell (John Gregson), we feel sympathy for almost everybody concerned even if they don't always display the most noble of qualities. This even extends to the psychopathic husband played by Ian Bannon -- who isn't just a cardboard cut-out maniac but a human being whose hurt and confusion is as sympathetically portrayed as that of the other characters -- only enhancing the tragedy of events.
Anyone expecting and looking for a standard slasher may feel short-changed by "Fright"; accept it on its own terms though, and what we have here is a first class slice of British horror -- individualistic and unsettling and stuffed with standout performances. Anchor Bay's disc gives us a fine anamorphic transfer but little in the way of extras apart from a spoiler-heavy trailer and an interesting biography of director Peter Collinson.