Brighton-born filmmaker Pete Walker was a rambunctious independent talent who first came to prominence in the late-sixties when he was at the forefront of a British boom in sex films, a phenomenon that allowed many a profit-conscious maverick the opportunity to establish themselves outside the mainstream of the British film industry -- among them, Tony Tensor (later of Tigon Films) and director Norman J. Warren ("Satan's Slave"). Much like those two, Walker would use the softening of the BBFC's attitude to sex on film (under the tenure of John Trevelyan) to kick-start a career as a director/producer of films such as "I Like Birds" (1967) and "School For Sex" (1969); but he would quickly look to branch-out into slightly more populist fare, interspersing successful sex films such as "Cool It Carol" (1970) and "The Four Dimensions Of Greta" (1972) -- two films with the dubious distinction of having introduced Robin Askwith to a nation of unsuspecting dirty macs -- with thrillers such as "Men Of Violence" (1970) and, later, his exploitation-horror flicks like the notorious "House Of Whipcord" (1974).
When Walker released his first film in 1967, the British Film Industry was going through one of its periodic booms and was flush with American money from Companies such as AIP, who wanted in on some of the takings to be earned from the enormous world-wide boom in British horror (sustained, chiefly, through Hammer Film's wide appeal). But, as is so often the case, within a few years boom was followed by bust: as the fallout from the Vietnam war began to take effect across the pond, the American money drained away from British films, just as the economy began to flounder in the grip of a crippling inflation which eventually knocked the bottom out of the industry altogether. By the early-seventies, the country's film industry was not capable of sustaining anything more daring than low budget horror films and saucy sex-comedies; and the sound stages of many of Britain's top studios stood all but empty!
This is when people like Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren really came into their own; unlike the flagging Hammer Productions (who would only ever half-heartedly raise themselves to compete with their more explicit overseas competition by adding a smidgen of peak-a-boo nudity to their traditional formula in films such as "The Vampire Lovers" -- which is not to say these films don't have their pleasures!) Walker was well aware of the sort of dubious ingredients needed to sell a film in this harsh environment -- and he was more than prepared to give audiences exactly what they wanted in abundance! But there is a bit more to the man's oeuvre than just an unashamed attitude to sex n' gore: Walker was a peculiar mixture of taboo-busting iconoclast and social conservative; he was able to inject his films with a dark nihilistic attitude and immediate, non-supernatural terrors which served as allegorical satires on contemporary social concerns without detracting from their required exploitation function of making a buck! Walker was the closest British horror ever had to its own Wes Craven, George A. Romero or Tobe Hopper -- American filmmakers whose early works were also breaking with the established rules of the horror genre while reflecting the times they were being made in.
But although Walker quite deliberately sought to set himself apart from the traditional Hammer formula of old, his best films (specifically, the trilogy of masterpieces produced between 1973 and 1975, all of which are included in this box set) still feel utterly suffused with Englishness. Gothic themes and motifs prevail in most of his works: cursed familles with terrible secrets that come back to haunt; oppressive patriarchs and terrorised heroines. The main difference is that in Walker's cinema, the colourful never-never land of Hammer's lush, romantic, fairy tale Period Gothic is replaced by grimy, down-at-heel, resolutely contemporary settings; while the black & white, good-verses-evil moral certainties of traditional British horror films are turned upside down or dispensed with altogether (as we'll see later). The independently-minded Walker took British horror down a unique road all of his own devising; his films are filled with visceral flourishes of Grand Guignol, a paranoid sense of unease, and black sardonic humour. This marvellous Blu-ray box set from Kino/Redemption presents two of his very best films and two fairly good ones, along with a host of informative commentaries and other extras, and is an absolute must-have for any horror fan with a sense of history. Let’s take a look at each film in the set in detail...
Die Screaming, Marianne
In-between two of his more popular sex films, and before "The Flesh and Blood Show" (1972) which was his first true horror outing, came Walker's first attempt to find a popular general audience. Despite its 'horror' title, "Die Screaming, Marianne" (1971) is really a Hitchcockian thriller that divides its time between the slightly faded milieu of post-swinging, early-seventies London and various unspoiled Portuguese sun spots. Originally titled "Rebound", Murray Smith's script delivers a story which, in retrospect, clearly features many of the ingredients that later came to dominate in Walker's work, though they aren't quite developed to the near-hysterical pitch of black melodrama that we can now term "Walkeresque".
The film was an unusually troubled production for Walker, who, at one point -- in order to regain control of his increasingly unruly young cast -- had to pretend to cancel the whole film while the crew was shooting on location in Portugal. The director then flew back to London where he held a press conference to beret his bemused star, Susan George, for unprofessional behaviour! Walker's account of all this is related on the film's audio commentary with Jonathan Rigby, but in any case, these behind-the-scenes troubles are certainly not evident on screen. Unlike many purveyors of exploitation (although this film can't really be counted as such) Walker was an extremely professional filmmaker with a straight, conventional, no-nonsense narrative style. Much to the chagrin of many of his critics, who were unable to attack them on grounds of ineptitude, Walker's films were always well-made and stuffed with fantastic performances from actors who would often be considered far too good for the kind of material they were appearing in. The parlous state of the British film industry was the main reason for this state of affairs, of course -- and in the case of "Die Screaming, Marianne" it helped Walker gain the services of veteran "Quo Vadis" star, Leo Genn who came straight from shooting another piece of low-budget drive-in fodder for Harry Alan Towers -- Jess Franco's "The Bloody Judge", and would follow-up with Lucio Fulci's "Lizard In A Woman's Skin"!
The main thing wrong with "... Marianne" is its rather vague, meandering plot line which is completely kippered in the latter stages by a preponderance of plot holes, mystifying illogicalities and total implausibility. But it still features several standout sequences and some lovely performances along the way.
The story starts with an exotic dancer called Marianne "The Hips" McDonald (Susan George) almost getting run over by a sports car on a dusty, Portuguese road while on the run from several mean-looking heavies. The driver of the red convertible turns out to be a young, trendy British man called Sebastian (Christopher Sandford) who, after hurling a few angry words of abuse, starts flirting furiously with the tanned blonde bombshell. Perhaps looking for a quick escape from her pursuers, Marianne accepts a lift from Sebastian and ends up travelling back to London -- and is soon living with him in his apartment!
After having only spent a few days with each other, Sebastian casually announces that he has booked an appointment at a registry office and they are to be married that morning! Even more strangely, Marianne seems willing to go along with the plan, despite her initial shock. Sebastian's best friend, Eli (Barry Evans) drives them to the registry office and they grab a drunk woman off the street to act as a witness! But there is such an obvious attraction between Eli and Marianne that, in the unromantic hurry of the event, the registry office clerk is not sure which of the two men Marianne is supposed to be marrying! And so, having already begun arguing with Sebastian on the way to the office, she tells the clerk that Eli is the man she is with! This leaves Eli surprised but not disappointed at the end of the day to find himself with an impromptu wife! Marianne quickly moves in to the young jazz musician's loft apartment -- leaving a furious Sebastian to puzzle over where his plan went so wrong!
It's quite hard to work out what is supposed to be going on in this opening half hour, since the motivations of every single person are rendered so obscure; but this part of the mystery is eventually solved when it is revealed that Sebastian has been secretly plotting with Marianne's corrupt ex-Judge father (Leo Genn) and her evil, sociopathic half-sister Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable) in order to stop her inheriting her dead mother's fortune -- along with some documents that implicate the Judge in a terrible political scandal. Marianne will be entitled to the fortune on her next birthday (her 21st), so when Sebastian's plan to marry her to gain access to the fortune fails (after Marianne realises who he is working for) Sebastian returns to Portugal where the decedent Judge and Hildegarde live in perverted, incestuous splendour in a luxury villa. The three now hatch a scheme to trick the unsuspecting Eli and Marianne back to Portugal -- where they plan to deal with the matter in much more direct terms!
Although Pete Walker states on one of the featurettes in this box set that he thinks Susan George and Barry Evans were miscast in their roles, it is hard to agree on the evidence presented here. George was a much sought-after rising starlet of the period and is perfect in the role of the beautiful but resourceful titular heroine. The striking opening title sequence has her gyrating to a bombastic score by Cyril Orndale against a bright red backdrop -- it sums up both the tacky pop culture of the time and George's appeal as a kind of post-sixties "it" girl pretty well, and the film presents us with a lead character that is both a feisty and independent young woman, yet vulnerable and sympathetic at the same time.
Barry Evans effectively plays Marianne's uncomprehending boyfriend, Eli as a likeable boy-next-door type, who finds himself way out of his depth. Walker claims that the part should have been played in a much more macho, heroic way by someone like Ian McSane; but, given the way the story pans out, this seems quite preposterous. The director's feelings may well have been determined by the amount of difficulty he reportedly had with Evans on set. The actor will be better known to many viewers from his comedy roles in series such as the now terminally politically incorrect, "Mind Your Language", and he quickly became typecast by the sort of roles he was always given in these shows. It serves him in good stead here though, and his character can be seen as a clear forerunner of the many ineffectual male "heroes" that populate Walker's later horror films: always completely unaware of the dangers that lurk around every corner and, in their ignorance, often doing more harm than good despite the best of intentions. The moment Eli responds to Marianne's attempts to warn him about the danger they are both in with the line "why don't we have a nice cup of tea and talk it over", you know he's never going to be that much use to her!
Two of the things that save the film, despite the incoherence of the plot, are the excellent performances from Leo Genn and Judy Huxtable as Marianne's most villainous family members. Genn gives a menacing portrayal of a refined yet utterly amoral father (known only as The Judge); in the process exhibiting some quite extraordinary eyebrows which curl upward in a way that make him look even more fiendishly evil! Genn's character is always polite and urbane, but leaves no doubt as to his true nature; and, as if to emphasis his creepiness, Walker adds a truly macabre and chilling scene where The Judge and his daughter, Hildegarde discuss their sexual lust for each other while he brushes her hair before bed! But if Genn conveys understated threat throughout the film, Judy Huxtable (at the time, married to Peter Cook who was also present on set) is often completely terrifying as the mad and murderous Hildegarde! Painfully beanpole thin and with a pallid complexion and panda-eye makeup which displays a heroin-chic fashion sense years before such a thing was even invented, Huxtable gets to ham it up to her heart's content as she sets about plotting all kinds of unpleasant ways to kill-off young Susan George. This pair paints an unflattering portrait of a dysfunctional family, anticipating the horrendous Yates family in "Frightmare" by several years. The film also features good support from ferret-faced Christopher Sandford as the scheming boyfriend, and a nice turn from Walker-regular, Kenneth Hendel as The Judge's right-hand man.
Towards the second-half of the film, the story seems to degenerate into a series of near unconnected scenes and the script often makes little sense: we never really know why Marianne happily travels back to her Father's villa when she has spent the whole film trying to evade him, and even after Hildegarde and Sebastian quite blatantly attempt to murder her, she still hangs around the place rather than getting the hell out! But Walker ably shoots several standout scenes that save it from total obscurity and the film is loaded with nostalgia for early-seventies British culture. Like all of Walker's low budget films, everything was shot on location rather than in studios, so the London apartments we see are actually owned and lived-in by the members of the crew, giving the film a unique sense of period authenticity. Walker's love of Hitchcock's work is well-illustrated by a beautifully handled suspense scene where Eli gradually begins to realise that the supposed "policeman" in an adjoining room is planning much more than just taking down a few particulars. Shot and edited extremely skilfully, this scene is indeed worthy of the Master of Suspense; in the end, it is Walker's abilities as a film maker that are showcased here -- his ability to work on a tight budget and gruelling schedules and to still be able to bring in something that looks professionally made. When the material he was working with began to match these skills, it resulted in several classics of Independent British horror...
House of Whipcord
"House Of Whipcord" started out as a few pages of story ideas concocted by Walker and old Etonian writer/director, Alfred Shaughnessy. Later famous for creating the UK TV series, "Upstairs, Downstairs", Shaughnessy had actually been part of the beginning of the Golden Period of British horror, directing Hammer heroine Barbara Shelly's 1957 debut, "Cat Girl" and a few years later, a typically weird piece of work -- which caught the attention of the noir-loving Walker at the time -- called "The Impersonator" (1961), about a homicidal pantomime dame preying on the residents of a northern town. Walker had imported some of this theatre-based macabre into his first attempt at horror, "The Flesh and Blood Show"; indeed, he had Shaughnessy resurrect his own horror career by getting him to write its screenplay! But, for whatever reason, the "House Of Whipcord" script ideas had to wait until Walker came into contact with another ambitious up-and-coming writer and aspiring actor called David McGillivray, before their true potential could be realised. Walker wanted to tap into the rising European exploitation market and to that end, he and McGillivray made "House Of Whipcord" into a kind of contemporary British Gothic variation on the 'Women In Prison' genre -- full of unnecessary nudity and wanton, whip-cracking sadism! But with McGillivray's sharp-witted dialogue and a clear eye for satirical detail, the film also became a mischievous dig at various competing strains in British culture: from the outwardly cosy, blue-rinse moral puritanism of Mary Whitehouse's Festival Of Light movement to the vacuous "free-love" values of a generation of spoiled youths -- the screenplay presents a black grotesquerie of exaggerated social types while providing the first taste of Walker's ruthless no-holds-barred nihilism.
On a dark thunderous night, a bedraggled, rain-drenched young woman clad only in a sack-dress emerges from a wood on a roadside where a lorry driver has parked his vehicle for the night. Soaking wet and practically catatonic, she is unable to give the driver any information about where she has come from and what has happened to her, but he does notice that her body is covered in appalling wounds. As the driver sets off to get her treated, the woman's feverish mind runs over the events that have led her to this point...
With its pitch-dark, wood setting -- Illuminated only in flashes of blue lightening, this opening pre-credit sequence couldn't be more Gothic in atmosphere. Even the "medieval" style of the font used for the titles puts the viewer in that traditional British Gothic frame of mind. But once the film flashes back to relate the story proper, we are immediately catapulted into the gaudy, over-bright fashion excesses of 1973! The rain-soaked girl turns out to be a budding French glamour model called Ann-Marie De Vernay (played by real-life page three girl turned-actress, Penny Irving) who is living in a London flat with fellow model and friend, Julia (Anne Michelle, who fans of sleaze will remember from the Tigon distributed "Virgin Witch"). At a party to celebrate the completion of her daring nude glamour shoot at Covent Garden, the young French girl is chatted-up by a dark and handsome young man named Mark (Robert Tayman). While everyone-else pours over the risqué photographs from the shoot -- mocking the stern-faced elderly protesters who picketed it for its moral laxness -- Mark persuades Ann to spend the weekend at his parent's Mansion in the countryside. Ann-Marie notes the pun in Mark's full name (Mark E. Dessart -- geddit!) but it doesn't seem to occur to her that it probably isn't his real one!
Walker gets most of the expected -- and required -- dabs of female nudity from the buxom Michelle and Irving out of the way in the film's opening twenty-minutes or so; and when an early, fairly standard piece of expository dialogue between the two actresses is conducted with both of them in the nude while Michelle towels Irving off after a bath, you are immediately reminded of the grotty, British exploitation milieu that this and most of Walker's previous films were a part of. But, with the change of location to Dessart's parent's Country Mansion (the exteriors of which were filmed at Little Dean Gaol in Gloucestershire) the film takes on a very different tone from that frivolous, sex comedy vibe, and we are plunged into a despairingly bleak and forebiding world.
Upon arrival at the towering Mansion house, Dessart disappears and Ann-Marie is left alone in the forecourt. A stern-looking woman called Bates (Walker's "Psycho" reference), who Ann-Marie takes to be a maid, emerges from the gloom and ushers her into the house; but as soon as the heavy doors clamp shut behind her, the naive model discovers she has been lured into a living nightmare! The inside of the Mansion house has been turned into a Home Counties House of Correction by ruthless, broach-clad harridan in tweed, Margaret Wakehurst (a brilliant performance from Barbara Markham) and her doddering, retired Judge husband, Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr) -- still living out his perceived "duty" in a semi-delusional haze while passing sentence on "depraved young females of every category with whom the effete and misguided courts of Great Britain today have been too lenient!" With the help of two hatchet-faced martinet wardens (Dorothy Gordon as Bates and, in the first of many spellbinding performances, Sheila Keith as the ironically named, Walker) the duo endeavour to reform their young female charges (brought to the couple's attention by their army of suburban moral reformers who keep track of the British justice system's many liberalised failings) by subjecting them to a harsh regime of petty rules and punitive humiliation! Punishment for transgression of any kind is dished-up on a strict 'three strikes and you're out' basis: starting with solitary confinement, progressing to flogging, and ending with death by hanging! Ann-Marie finds herself stripped of her "trendy" seventies fashions and banged up in a tiny dilapidated cell -- as are all of the other helpless young women whose "modern" behaviour has offended the staunch morals of their righteous captors. But Ann-Marie soon discovers that Wakehurst's promise that, if she follows the rules, she will be released when her sentence is served, is merely a front to appease the gruesome governess' decrepit husband. In reality, Wakehurst is out to indulge her perverted desire for punishment before disposing of the captives by manipulating the system to make sure they all end up hanged! And if Ann-Marie doesn't find a way to escape, there is no chance of her leaving the place alive!
All of this absurdity is delivered with chilling conviction, in such an evocative, yet relentlessly grim, setting (the makeshift Jail's depressing interiors were filmed at a disused asylum in Clapham) that one can't help being made to feel distinctly uneasy; Walker and his team manage to generate a heady atmosphere of deranged, middle-class malice and institutionalised insanity that lingers with the viewer long after the film is over. That sense of leaving behind the sedate order of the everyday world and being plunged into a disorientating, hellish inferno of physical and psychological torment has only ever really been bettered, in my book, by Tobe Hopper's original "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (the films even share the same cyclic structure where the heroine's attempts to escape always deliver here straight back into the heart of the terror) -- although Walker's menagerie of twisted, female, psychopathic murderers have more recognisable origins than the grotesque oddballs that populate Hopper's classic film.
The immediacy of the darkly threatening interiors that house these horrors is, largely, down to the small group of key collaborators who, from this film on, worked on nearly all of Walker's key horror films: Peter Jessop's photography captures a particularly foreboding atmosphere, while art director, Mike Pickwood already had a perfectly murky location at his disposal for the country-house-turned-prison -- with its peeling walls and inky, dungeon-like gloom; but it is the house's incongruous juxtaposition of these Gothic nightmare qualities with interior spaces that carry an air of institutional authority about them that give the film it's peculiarly disturbed ambience. For instance, the inmates are brutally flogged in a section of the manor that looks like a respectable school hall, with a "World For Christ" banner displayed above them; a feature that was already present when Walker originally scouted the location!
This brings us to the question: to what extent is the film intended as a satire? Trevelyan's successor at the BBFC, Stephen Murphy, certainly saw it as a withering critique of the Festival Of Light (a Conservative Christian movement that campaigned against the permissive society) and the Mrs Wakehurst and Justice Bailey characters as thinly veiled stand-ins for its most forthright media campaigners, Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford! This was vehemently denied by McGillivray and Walker, but it seems unquestionable that Barbara Markham's character is highly representative of that type of uncompromising, blinkered conservatism that came to be all too familiar in future years thanks to people like Margaret Thatcher, Edwina Currie and Anne Widecombe. Markham even fortuitously sports a Camilla Parker Bowels hairstyle -- helping to bring the reference points bang up to date!
Walker was looking to annoy as many people as possible though, and so also poked fun at the self-centred younger generation who fall prey to the film's vituperative, middle-aged vipers; it's just that, so compelling are the female antagonists (in the hands of Markham and Sheila Keith in particular) that critical opinion at the time seems to have overlooked that fact. The film was quite well received critically, and didn't gain the media notoriety that Walker expected. Actually, although the director was primarily aiming it at the exploitation market, the film is nowhere near as sleazy as, say, an average Jess Franco WIP flick from the period; indeed, it only suffered the loss of one audio whiplash effect at the hands of the British censors! Its nudity is quite tame and, for the most part, is kept separate from the violence -- despite the salacious title!
If not completely convincing as either a social satire or a full-on exploitation flick, then perhaps the film can now be seen as a bleak expose of the way perceptions of femininity in the seventies were being shaped and exploited by the competing political forces that were vying with each other for dominance at the time. Even if there were no particular pretensions as far as this subtext was concerned, the film does seem to inadvertently play out that way in hindsight. The party scene at the beginning establishes Ann-Marie's exploitation for the sake of commercialisation, with rowdy London trend-setters leering over her nude glamour photos while she lurks in the background, apparently detached from her peers. Fox-faced Robert Tayman (Hammer's Count Mitterhaus from "Vampire Circus") lures her away from this degenerate and frivolous crowd with the promise of his tall, dark and handsome sensitivity, only to be revealed as a sadist working for his fearsome parents. The central conflict of the film becomes apparent when Anne-Marie is first delivered to the manor house-come-jail, and into the clutches of vindictive warden, Walker: Penny Irving and Shelia Keith's characters are played as exaggerated versions of two competing representatives of femininity, and the moment when Keith enters the room where Irving is being held, and casts a contemptuous, beady eye over Ann-Marie's ridiculous suede suit and clumpy, bright-yellow seventies platform shoes, is priceless! The prison's females -- Governess Wakehurst and the two twisted wardens -- represent cultural forces that are the polar-opposite of the leery, exploitative younger generation from the start of the film, but their influence is even more destructive and oppressive. "I'm going to make you ashamed of your body", Walker hisses at Ann-Marie, "I'm going to see to that personally!" Ironically, the first thing she does is force Ann-Marie out of her clothes and into a freezing-cold prison shower! It seems both ends of the political spectrum are mainly out to exploit and humiliate the modern woman, and the fact that Penny Irving ends up naked whichever side of the equation she is on simultaneously symbolises that point and provides the film with its main commercial asset!
At the time that Walker was filming the exteriors for "House Of Whipcord" in Gloucester, not far away -- in a small, sleepy village -- an average working-class husband and wife called Fred and Rosemary West were busy perpetrating all manner of grisly crimes; crimes which would, one day, lead them to become known as Britain's most notorious serial killers (although not the most prolific. But we'll come to that later). The idea of unspeakable acts taking place in unassuming, everyday surroundings, and being committed by ordinary-looking people, was becoming more common in the seventies; and the notion that the cherished institution of the family could take-on such perverted and deranged forms was at the heart of 1974's major hit horror movie, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre". The contemporaneous British film, "Frightmare", brought the two ideas together in a mischievous, downbeat suburban shocker that, like Hopper's classic, placed a cannibalistic family with an inordinate fondness for power tools at the centre of its action. While "House of Whipcord" received enthusiastic critical notices, "Frightmare" filled the critics with revulsion; and its satirical digs at modern psychiatry and well-meaning liberal do-gooders did not go down at all well! But the film now stands as one of the highlights from this period of British horror, and is definitely one of Pete Walker's two greatest films.
The McGillivary/Walker collaboration continued for one more film (the exploitation-slasher flick "Schizo") but it seems the magic was beginning to fade, and for 1978's "The Comeback" Walker turned again to Murray Smith (writer of "Die Screaming, Marianne") who brought his more traditional style to the project. All of the subversive elements of Walker's best films had pretty much disappeared by this point and it seems that the director had exhausted his inspiration. Smith's script was intended as a pastiche of Jimmy Sangster's "mini-Hitchcock" thrillers, produced for Hammer in the early sixties. Films like "Taste Of Fear" (1961); Mania (1963); Nightmare (1963) and Hysteria (1965) were inspired by "Psycho" and Henri Clouzot's French thriller "Les Diaboliques", and usually featured similar plots involving attempts to drive someone mad. In fact, so familiar is this kind of plot that "The Comeback" ends up feeling more like a rehash than a pastiche.
The oddest thing about the film is Walker's choice of lead: American pop singer, Jack Jones plays (surprise, surprise) an American pop singer called Nick Cooper, whose agent (Webster Jones, better known as Bosley from "Charlie's Angels") rents a good old-fashioned Gothic Mansion in the British countryside to enable his client to relax and get over his recent divorce while he works on his new comeback album. The house is run by an oddball old couple, Mr & Mrs. B -- played by Bill Owen (or Compo from "Last of The Summer Wine") and Sheila Keith; and Cooper soon makes himself at home by getting intimate with his agent's secretary, Linda Everett (Pamela Stephenson -- this cast-list gets weirder and weirder!). Meanwhile, Cooper's ex-wife turns up at the couple's abandoned London Penthouse to collect her things and, in one of Walker's bloodiest murder set-pieces, gets hacked to pieces by a scythe-wielding maniac in an "old hag" mask! Back at the Mansion, things rapidly start going to pot for housewife's heartthrob, Nick Copper: strange sobbing noises keep him awake at night and a grotesque corpse appears outside his bedroom door, only to disappear when Mrs. B comes to investigate his screams. The days go by and Copper starts having a breakdown -- all the while, his ex-wife's rat-nibbled corpse continues to fester as it lies undiscovered in the Penthouse!
Anyone who has read this far won't be too surprised to learn who is involved in the murders (just in case, skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers on the subject) despite the film going to absurd lengths to make every single character look suspicious: Webster Jones plays a smarmy American agent in much the same manner as his "Charlie's Angels" character -- until it turns out that he's a rather troubled soul who dresses up as a woman in private (this is meant to make him look suspicious I suppose); Nick's sleaze-ball best friend, on the other hand, openly ogles Pamela Stephenson's breasts in a lift and casually comments on the stiffness of her nipples -- not your average pickup line it has to said! All of this barmy behaviour is just a cover to enable Walker's favourite old head-case Sheila Keith to act crazy throughout the film without it being totally obvious that it is she who is the killer! Walker obviously realises that the plot line isn't the film's strongest point and so he wisely sends the whole sub-genre up rather than attempt a serious entry in it! Sheila Keith is pivotal in this approach and she is as brilliant as ever here, with her performance going a long way towards saving the film from falling flat. She manages to inject even the most innocuous sentences -- such as, "would you like me to spread that butter for you sir?" -- with an undercurrent of malicious intent! When we finally get to the big revelation at the end of the film, that Mr and Mrs B are behind all the mayhem at the Mansion, Keith lets rip with a hilariously over-the-top speech in which she condemn the hapless pop musician. She and her dominated husband (shades of "Frightmare" here) blame Nick for the death of their daughter -- an obsessed fan of the singer who committed suicide after he got married! "You, with your foul contortions and your lewd, suggestive songs", she spits, "with your music that drives innocent children to behave like beasts in a farmyard. Disgusting!" This is particularly comical when you consider the fact that it's being directed at a rather harmless-looking middle-aged man whose spaced-out hippie music (judging from the, mercifully brief, snippets we get to hear) is hardly likely to bring down society as we know it!
Keith's performance is complemented by some seriously gory, but extremely well-staged kills. The only problem is, there aren't enough of them! After Cooper's wife (a brief cameo from Holly, daughter of Jack, Palance) is sliced-up at the beginning, there isn't another decent murder until the last third of the film! The rest of the time between seems to be mostly taken-up with Jack Jones wandering about in his dressing gown looking perplexed! There is some tension surrounding Mrs. Cooper's corpse and whether it is going to be discovered by any of the other characters; we also return to the corpse throughout the movie as it gets progressively more rancid and disgusting (very Fulci-like nastiness this). But, Murrey Smith's script tends to wander aimlessly for large stretches of time and the film loses too much energy and momentum until Sheila Keith's show-stopping finale.
"Schizo" actually dates from a time when Walker and his then writer David McGillivray were starting to struggle with their "formula". Although still bonkers enough to more than warrant attention, it's actually a pretty standard psycho-thriller of a type Jimmy Sangster was much more comfortable with than evidently were McGillivray and Walker! Gone are the crazed Catholic priests cheerfully getting away with murder ("House of Mortal Sin"), the cannibalistic little old lady in the attic with a power drill ("Frightmare"), or the right wing patricians running their own correctional facility for errant teens in the Home Counties ("House of Whipcord"). By comparison, "Schizo" trots along in a fairly standard thriller fashion. It concerns ice skater, Samantha Falconer (Lynne Frederick) whose wedding to top carpet selling tycoon, Alan (Lohn Leyton) is somewhat marred by a bloody machete left next to the wedding cake, deposited there by a weirdo in a dirty mackintosh and a red bobble hat (Jack Watson). This sets Sam off having weird hallucinations about a naked woman being stabbed in her bed. The bobble-hatted nutcase starts making crank phone calls and eventually even starts breaking in to the newly married couple's house while Alan is at work and Sam is in the shower (yep ... your standard shower scene, that's how traditional this slasher-cum-thriller really is). Lots of other odd things start occurring and it transpires that Sam is trying to hide a dodgy past from her unsuspecting husband. She confesses to a psychiatrist friend that the intruder is a man called William Haskins - the man who murdered her mother when Sam was only seven, and who is now let loose from prison, apparently out to finish the job he left only half completed when he hacked her mother up in her bed with a machete! Soon, the psychiatrist gets the chop as well (or rather, a bloody gash in the throat!) and Haskins continues to terrorise Sam until a tense climax in her husband's factory at night results in a "twist" which most viewers will have worked out some time previously.
To pep up this fairly standard plot, Walker indulges himself in some gory set-pieces which actually go much further in terms of visual gruesomeness than most of his other, better films. Among its delights there are throat slashings, machete attacks, a hammer in the face (before the unfortunate victim is pushed under the wheels of a bus) and a knitting needle through the eyeball! The nudity and gore, and the general air of grainy sleaziness prevalent throughout, ties this in well with Walker's other films from the early '70s, but the subject matter is nowhere near original enough to make this particular film quite as memorable. There is one fantastic scene at a séance though, which starts off as quite a funny dig at the type of people who are usually attracted to such practices, before transforming itself into an unexpectedly scary demonstration of supernatural terror, all the more bewildering since this apparently genuine manifestation of the supernatural isn't explained away later, as one would expect in an otherwise "realistic" thriller of this genre.
"Schizo" is then, despite a few dodgy performances (while the always wonderful Stephanie Beacham is woefully under-used) and an uninspired plot, actually a rather watchable little period piece with a number of quirks which add colour to its otherwise standard plotting and which gives a vivid (if rather depressing and miserable) snapshot of mid-'70s Britain (check out those supermarket prices!).
This Blu-ray collection from Redemption (by way of Kino/Lorber) presents all four films in 1080p HD for the first time, each transferred from the original negatives. As one would expect, each also feature their share of print damage and artifacts, but, barring a full remaster, this is as good as these films have ever (and will ever likely) looked. Yes, there’s an abundance of cinematic grain, but it isn’t at all out of place, and, surprisingly, does little to mask fine details in facial features and close-ups and the overall crispness of the image. Each film is paired with a perfectly adequate mono LPCM audio track that, while not a model of the auditory excellence we’ve come to expect from the medium, service these films quite nicely.
Bonus features abound, with interviews, commentary tracks, and trailers accompanying each of the films (sans Schizo, which only features an interview with Walker). These extras are the crimson bow on a wonderful gift to fans of Walker and British horror cinema, and this collection should most certainly be considered for their collections! Recommended!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!