After having been found guilty of murder and cannibalism in the late-fifties, Edmund and Dorothy Yates (Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith) are confined indefinitely to a secure mental institution. But when modern psychiatry declares them cured and fit to rejoin society, the couple are subsequently released back into mid-seventies Surrey where it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well. Devoted husband Edmund had faked his own madness back in the old days - just so that he could be with his beloved wife; but he now suspects that Dorothy has not been entirely honest about her recovery.
Meanwhile, Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) - Edmund's daughter by his first marriage - has struggled to bring up her fifteen-year-old half-sister, Debbie (Kim Butcher) during their parents' incarceration, and now continues to keep the disturbing facts about the girl's true parentage a secret, letting Debbie believe that her parents are in fact dead. She also makes regular trips in the dead of night to the Yates's idyllic country cottage home, taking with her bloody brown paper parcels of offal in an attempt to assuage her step-mother's craving for flesh! When Debbie gets involved with the brutal beating and murder of a club bar-worker and the police come knocking on her door, Jackie enlists the help of a bespectacled psychiatrist friend called Graham (Paul Greenwood), who becomes fascinated with the delinquent young girl's case and starts rooting around in the family's past, only to learn the truth about her parents.
Convinced that Debbie's delinquency stems from a tacit sense that she has been lied to by Jackie, Graham pays a visit to the Yates home, pretending to be a potential customer for one of Dorothy's homely tarot card reading sessions. But a hell he can scarcely imagine is about to be unleashed.
Pete Walker's film-making career flourished for a brief moment in the early- to middle-years of the seventies, during which time he made three movies that have since come to be recognised as true, original classics of British Horror cinema. Walker's early career in some ways parallels that of sexploitation supremo George Harrison Marks (director of another current Odeon Entertainment title, "Come Play with Me"): a stand-up comedian in Soho strip clubs during the early sixties, Walker moved into making 8 mm stag films distributed by his own Heritage Films, before more serious film-making ambitions led him, first, to a brief stint as a bit-part actor and, later, into feature production - alternating a string of grimy sexploitation flicks ("I Like Birds", "School for Sex") with noir-inspired low budget gangster movies ("Strip Poker", "Man of Violence"), which also happened to contain copious amounts of nudity and violence.
While the likes of Harrison Marks made their pennies by increasingly immersing themselves in the burgeoning porn industry, the more conservative Walker (who always cultivated a determinedly pragmatic attitude to his work) sensed a niche opening up in the Horror market. The decimation of the British film industry during the late-sixties/early-seventies, combined with the advent of the recently re- calibrated 'X' certificate, allowed opportunist independent production companies to compete with the mainstays of genre cinema - namely Hammer Films and Amicus - on a level plane for the first time. Although the new classification was originally brought in to deal with what the BBFC considered to be more 'serious' films, such as Ken Russell's "The Devils" and Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange", it also allowed those trading in genre films to 'up the anti' in terms of the amount of sex and gore they could now expect to get away with. The old guard quickly began to struggle to compete in this new, liberated but cash-strapped atmosphere. Hammer tried shoehorning lesbianism and peek-a-boo nudity into their sedate period drama approach to horror, and when that didn't work they resorted to introducing Christopher Lee's Dracula and Peter Cushing's Van Helsing into contemporary '70s London settings - with embarrassingly awkward results!
Meanwhile, Pete Walker developed his own unique strain of '70s horror. By "House of Whipcord", the hardened cynicism and recurring thematic concerns which had really always been there, even in his sex flicks, finally found their most fruitful expression. But it is "Frightmare" that now stands proud as the director's finest film. Centred around the magnificent performance of Sheila Keith (one of the stand-out performances in British Horror cinema. By itself, it places her on the same exalted pedestal also occupied by the likes of Lee and Cushing) it is the film that best illustrates Walker's attempt to bring the new forthrightness of American horror into British cinema, while capturing a mood and an atmosphere that makes his movies feel just as distinctly and resolutely British.
Walker was a strange combination of showman and cineaste: his films were planned out in advance with the intention of creating media outrage and designed to appeal to a certain audience who enjoyed exploitation thrills. But he was also inspired by the cinema of Hitchcock and Tourneur, and considered his films to be 'Terror Pictures' rather than proper horror movies. "Frightmare" succeeds by carefully balancing the exploitation demands of the box office with the movie buff nature of the director; it also represents Walker trying to move away from his sexploitation roots by foregoing any overt nudity in the film. Although it didn't do great box office at the time (a Christmas opening in the middle of an IRA bombing campaign in central London didn't help matters!), its reputation has rightly grown over the years.
Although the contemporary settings, recognisable suburban locations and socially relevant themes of his films set them well apart from the tasteful, fairy tale quality of Hammer productions and the like, a recognisable strain of the Gothic nevertheless runs through most of them - no more so than in "Frightmare". The film combines the two approaches in interesting and disturbing ways and creates an uncanny atmosphere as the viewer moves from grotty club car parks and the sickly seventies decor of Jackie's city-based home to the strange, chintzy, fire-lit cosiness of Dorothy and Edmund's countryside cottage. "Frightmare" has an air of realism that comes mainly from the director's habit of avoiding shooting his films in standard film studios, instead utilising real locations (often the homes of his crew members) to save on production costs. But the Yates house exists in an entirely different atmosphere to the rest of the movie. It is a fairy tale representation - lit in a comforting halo of orange-gold via Peter Jessop's beautiful photography - of the perfect home; and shawl wrapped, snowy haired Dorothy - with her polite kindliness of manner - would appear to be the perfect representation of 'mother'.
But in Walker's world, if this was a fairy tale it would be a decidedly bloody Brothers Grimm rendering. David McGillivray's screenplay (based on Walker's original story) allows Sheila Keith full rein to indulge in flashes of weird, Gothic fairy tale ambience, her soft Scottish burr and friendly tone only enhancing the marvelous speeches McGillivray gives her about being a 'night person' ("Are you a night person, Jackie?"); and then there are some great scenes featuring her tarot card readings, for instance. Introduced as a ruse - Dorothy's means of tempting lonely disadvantaged misfits to her home through the ads section of the newspapers, so that she can eat their brains without their disappearances being noticed - the reading she gives Graham suddenly seems to introduce a note of the supernatural into the film, just as the forces of liberal, reform-minded rationality come into the picture. The resolute realism of the movie's concerns up till that point (psychiatry, madness, juvenile delinquency) makes this sudden change of emphasis all the more disturbing and jarring. Walker deals in these sorts of oppositions throughout the film. Its most memorable image - Dorothy, looking like a harmless, white haired home counties granny, gleefully drilling into someone's head with a black and Decker electric drill - is only the most obvious example, but the young daughter who has inherited her duplicitous evil is almost as upsetting. Played wonderfully by Kim Butcher, Debbie Yates is a beautiful, innocent-looking wild child who just happens to enjoy murdering innocent members of the public for kicks and blaming it on her feckless motor biker boyfriend!
Much is made of the right wing message that lurks behind Walker's films, not least by Walker himself. "Frightmare" seems to suggest that madness can be equated with supernatural evil, and that any attempt at rehabilitation is putting ordinary people at risk. But the actual plot of the film is so over-the-top and extreme a version of this message that it plays more like a parody designed to highlight Walker's inherent distrust of authority in all its forms - whether it be the moral authority of the family structure or the claims of psychiatry. No one could believe for a second, surely, that cannibalism is genetically inherited, lest of all a nebulous concept such as evil. But all of Walker's films depict the socially and sexually liberated carefree younger generation crushed or exploited by perfidious, authoritarian and always draconian forces of the establishment, represented by a conservative post-war generation.
"Frightmare" would seem to be Walker's most deeply personal film, although it was never written or filmed with that intention behind it. But it is hard not to read about the director's fraught relationship with his own mother, of his being brought up as an orphan after being abandoned in early childhood to a series of foster homes and a Catholic school, not to mention his being part of the club scene during the early sixties which resulted in his being introduced to many of the players in the Profumo scandal (the ultimate representation of the sixties spirit being crushed by stultifying conservatism) and not see "Frightmare" as being a subconscious distillation of deep seated angst. The genius of the film is to convert this material into a modern Gothic slice of grand guignol - its Gothic theme of Evil pursuing a family down the generations married with consummate skill to very real worries about the viability of the family itself in the modern age, and emerging ideas about the horrors it might conceal behind its facade. Although this would doubtless be far too close to a psychiatric reading for Walker to endorse, it's chilling to see the connections with reality this most exaggerated of tales seems to have forged in the years since its release. With cases like those of Fred and Rosemary West and Josef Fritzl, the reality is that there are no limits to the tortures and horrors ready to conceal themselves behind the smiling image of the ordinary family. The scariest thing about Walker's cinema is that these exploitation flicks, designed merely to court controversy and make money, ended up providing a glimpse of something twisted and very real behind the civilised norms of domestic family ordinariness.
Frightmare arrives on Blu-ray via Redemption’s US distributor, Kino Lorber, who presents the film in a pleasing 1.66:1 1080p transfer that, while not a technically superior print, is still quite the upgrade over previous standard definition offerings. The image is a bit on the grainy side, but not so noisy as to be a distraction, while fine detail is actually rather impressive in close-ups of faces and objects. There’s a few spots of print damage, most evident (of course) during the film’s opening credits, but, overall, this is a solid transfer that, barring a full restoration, is probably as good as the film will ever look.
Extras include the previously released commentary track from the Odean Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD, featuring Walker, director of photography, Peter Jessop, and moderated by Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker author, Steve Chibnall. Also included are a pair of new featurettes (HD); “For the Sake of Cannibalism”, an interview with Walker conducted by Eljah Drenner, and “Sheila Keith: A Nice Old Lady”, which offers a profile of the deceased actress that features new interviews with former co-stars. Rounding out the extras is the film’s theatrical trailer (HD).
One of the idiosyncratic treasures of British Horror cinema, made by one of its true mavericks - this is a must-see '70s classic which all horror fans should have in their collection.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!