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Revenge

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1971
Studio: 
Network
Genre: 
Thriller
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.66:1
Directed by: 
Sidney Hayers
Cast: 
Joan Collins
James Booth
Ray Barrett
Kenneth Griffith
Tom Marshall
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
1
Bottom Line: 
3

Released the same year as “Straw Dogs”, this quintessentially British domestic psychological thriller-cum-melodrama attempts to tap into similarly scandalous matters of controversy as Sam Peckinpah’s classic of primal-violence-in-a-picturesque-village, even managing to work in an ambiguous but clammy rape/sex scenario at one point (that contrives to seem even more deliciously psychologically unconvincing than the more infamous version it resembles), this one featuring Joan Collins near the start of that period in the early ‘70s when she was knocking out quite a number of these mildly risqué genre pieces before she gave up the ghost and absconded to Hollywood for more glamorous roles and a presumably less rain-soaked lifestyle. Potentially, this Rank Organisation production could have been even more contentious than it is, given its feverish revenge plot-line soon becomes so much the catalyst for the unravelling of an ordinary family’s personal inter-relationships, that impotence, incestuous infidelity and murder end up intruding upon otherwise calculatedly mundane surroundings to become the overheated order of the day  – and that’s before we even mention the dominant theme of the piece, namely that perennial 1970s exploitation favourite paedophilia. Maybe we should all have guessed earlier that something very unpleasant was going on beneath the surface of 1970s British showbiz culture, given the mysterious number of films featuring rape and/or gymslip sex that got produced during this decade of British cinema.

 Like the similarly torrid “Assault” before it (a Suzy Kendal film made by much the same production team), “Revenge”(absurdly retitled “Inn of the Frightened People” in the US before it was even more absurdly [and misleadingly] re-retitled“Terror From Under the House” for its video release, as a tempter for the Horror crowd), although always adequately but perfunctorily directed by “Circus of Horrors” and “Night of the Eagle” helmsman Sidney Hayers (a director who was to become a mainstay of American syndicated TV shows such as “Magnum P.I.” and “Baywatch” in the '80s) from a script by Harrow-educated ITC adventure series writer John Krush (“The Saint”“The Persuaders!”“The Protectors”) is a determinately low-rent tabloid exploitation piece, but one that nonetheless holds back slightly from going the whole hog in pushing the censor-baiting angle ... instead providing just enough of an undercurrent of prurience to make its unwholesome intentions discernible. In his article about the film for “Offbeat”  -- Julian Upton’s published collection on unsung British B-movie obscurities -- Daniel Buxton ponders how we’ve apparently since lost that disreputable side of the British cinema that used to so delight in any chance it could take for exploiting the most controversial tabloid hysterias of its day ("Eden Lake" is the closest we've come since to re-igniting that flame) while exhibiting seemingly little regard for taste or decorum. Perhaps that’s why even relatively tame offerings such as this George H. Brown/Peter Rogers-backed co-production (Rogers was, of course, also the man behind the original “Carry On” series of films) still conveys, all these years on, the jolting charge of something that seems so inherently disreputable: would anyone today seriously consider the possibility of making a mainstream film in which the parents of a child who has been found raped, murdered and left on a rubbish tip get to be portrayed, by the end of proceedings, as almost as venial and unsympathetic as the original perpetrator?

Although the social issues surrounding the policing of child sex crime and public vigilantism could theoretically have made for a much more considered, nuanced drama, “Revenge” makes its own particular approach more than apparent through its marketing campaign, which has Joan Collins on the poster given suitably appropriate foregrounding, clad only in some skimpy undies; she plays pub landlord’s wife Carol Radford: stepmother to Jim Radford’s two younger daughters Jenny and Jill (Zuleika Robson) and his young adult son Lee (Tom Marshall) from a previous marriage. At the film’s start, this fraying family unit has just attended Jenny’s funeral and is returning home, along with Lee’s girlfriend Rose (a twenty-three-year-old Sinéad Cusack), to open up the pub for that night’s business. Tension exists between Carol and her stepdaughter Jill. It transpires that the departed Jenny was abducted, molested and killed by a serial child murderer after Carol was late picking her up from outside the school gates; and though Jim (James Booth) tries to reassure his wife that it was not her fault, Jill is not so forgiving and still worships her ‘real’ mother, who now lives abroad. These tensions are amplified when acquaintance Harry (Ray Barrett), the father of one of the killer’s other victims, walks into the Radfords’ pub and informs Jim that the chief suspect in the case – a local weirdo called Seely (Kenneth Griffith), who’s been observed trying to tempt schoolchildren into his house with bags of sweets – has been freed because of a lack of evidence. Events quickly escalate as Harry and Lee cajole a reluctant Jim to take part in kidnapping Seely in order to force a confession out of him. With the injured suspect trussed up in the pub's cellar, emotions soon reach boiling point as the men attempt to hide their secret from both family and investigating police officers who turn out to have been conducting surveillance on Seely’s house. A suspenseful pressure cooker situation is soon being primed to explode in a melodramatic flurry or mutual recrimination and violence.     

Produced at Pinewood Studios, “Revenge”, thanks to its extensive use of Buckinghamshire location shooting, establishes the seedy but authentic atmosphere of a damp, miserable small town 1970s England at the turn of a decade only just catching up with the idea of the 1960s, if not the reality. Its younger women, such as Rose, are still seen wearing those PVC raincoats associated with the previous decade's fashion explosion (the murdered child’s shiny red plastic mac and boots can similarly be spotted, hanging in the hall of the living quarters of the Radfords’ pub). Everything here just looks slightly grubby and dour and takes place amid unprepossessing interiors that instantly conjure a sense of the protagonists being trapped in the stultifying air of another age. In retrospect Joan Collins is perfectly cast in the thankless role of Carol, as she looks genuinely crestfallen at the indignity of being forced to pull pints, wash dishes or have to unload a washing machine -- her character being of a type that would’ve wanted much more from life, and who is presumably thinking how women like her were surly by now meant to be living glossy, exciting Sunday Supplement lives full of free love and plush furnished living interiors. Similarly, when Jim, Harry and Lee decide to tail Seely in their grey hatchback, they trundle through cramped but leafy streets still lined with crumbling Victorian terraces, skirting high streets displaying colourful store-front banners that belong to long-since-vanished retailers. Here, newsagents still sell handfuls of pick-&-mix in a paper bag, alongside the Benson & Hedges. The setting is like a moving picture postcard portrait of a half-remembered version of a ‘70s childhood for those of us like myself who grew up in similar such surroundings.  

Kenneth Griffith gets barely a line of dialogue throughout the 89 minute run time, but he gives a performance that manages to convey the appropriate sense of someone who exists, like an ill-defined shadow, somewhere on the margins separating the clichéd image of the creepy sex pervert in films -- with bottle-top spectacles and shabby, ill-fitting suit -- and the pathetic middle-aged loner, thus keeping the viewer wondering whether he is truly guilty, or simply the victim of the grief and rage of the victims’ family combined with a general small town prejudice against the outsider. The men manage to convict Seely in their heads just by observing how he takes the long route from his house to the local cornershop (where, even more suspiciously, he buys bags-full of coloured sweeties): a route which also happens to take him past the local school -- the same one from outside of which the two murdered children were abducted. Just as damningly, Seely’s house has a slipway behind it (“a wheelbarrow’s ride in the dark!”) running all the way up to the rubbish dump where the children’s bodies were later found. And when Harry and Lee investigate the kidnapped Seely’s house they discover a careworn, dingy environment in which a cobwebbed room has been set up as a shrine, “Psycho” style, to Seely’s dead mother – a development that takes the film into areas of Gothic imagining so mannered in their appropriation of the appropriate horror movie tropes that one is inclined to view them as an awkward double bluff that suggests his probable innocence, rather than a confirmation that he’s the psycho child killer who's being sought.

After the slow build-up to what turns into a half-bungled kidnapping of their suspect (the men stage a rushed drive-by, intending to bundle Seely into the boot of Jim’s car under cover of night), the majority of the rest of the film concentrates on the aftermath and the consequences of their actions, with Seely (now beaten and bloodied, and his spectacles broken) ending up being forcibly hidden from Carol and Lee’s barmaid girlfriend in the cellar of the pub. Ostensibly Krush’s screenplay exploits the Hitchcockian suspense element that’s been introduced by this point, as the men attempt to carry on in public as normally and as calmly as possible for the benefit of unsuspecting customers and family alike, while disappearing below at regular intervals for bouts of feverish beatings up and shouting at their cringing, whimpering captive. This doesn’t last long, though, with both Carol and surviving daughter Jill eventually cottoning on to the drama taking place beneath their feet.

The focus of the film then becomes a close character study of a group of people crumbling under extreme pressure, with only Jill proving to have any remaining moral integrity, while the men are driven to increasingly extreme behaviours out of fear and an untenable cowboy mentality when it comes to the expression of their idea of what constitutes being a man: Jim turns out to harbour an explosive rage beneath his civilised pub landlord exterior (allowing James Booth, normally associated with light comedy roles, the rare chance to present a more serious figure as a family man bubbling over with anger); while Harry, so bullish and manipulative in his tireless efforts to persuade Jim to take part in the original plot, quickly proves himself a coward, not only looking for an excuse to disappear at the first opportunity when things get hot and leave the whole mess for Jim to deal with (flimsily pleading work commitments in Manchester that force him out of town), but even at one point trying to goad him into finishing the injured victim off -- until Jim points out that Harry could just as well do it himself if he so wished!

Lee’s problems, meanwhile, lead to the film’s most hysterically overheated latter phase, in which it is suggested that the group’s extremity of reaction to the release of Seely tells us some unpalatable things about masculine pride at its worst: after initially displaying boyish, macho enthusiasm for Harry’s kidnap plan, Lee is subsequently unable to consummate his relationship with Rose, while Carol has a suspicious habit of turning to him for hugs and cuddles to relieve the stress of the spiralling situation. Driven by his anger at the affront to his masculinity that his impotence has brought out in him, Lee angrily sexually attacks Carol in front of Seely, half to distance himself from the sexual inadequacy he perceives might be seen to be a commonality between himself and the despised captive, and half in order to fulfil his selfish ,unacknowledged desires for Carole. The episode turns from assault into consensual sex halfway through (artfully filmed by Hayers as a blurry POV, shot through Seely's broken specs), with the frightened suspected offender and possible killer becoming the only witness to the couple’s semi-incestuous cuckolding of Jim. By the end, doubts about Seely’s guilt (local newspapers tell of a new suspect being interviewed by the investigating squad) and Jim’s discovery of what his wife and son have been getting up to behind his back, brings about a decisive breakdown in the family structure, with Jim left alone to deal with an impossible situation as the Police now start displaying renewed interest in what might be hidden in the cellar, a turn of events that ironically gives the true killer an unexpected chance to strike again with the targeting of another young girl, this time a friend of Jill’s, who happens to be dressed in exactly the same red shiny coat as Jill’s sister Jenny had been wearing when shewent missing!

Released in a brand new digital scan on Blu-ray and DVD as part of Network’s on-going British Film Collection archive,“Revenge” is an entertaining British b thriller, mixing slow burn suspense and unashamed exploitation. Hayers directs in a mostly workmanlike fashion, but with occasional instances of flare such as a sequence in which Jim, Harry and Lee beat up the captive Seely as we switch between the numerous POV shots of the participants, using hand-held camerawork so that the viewer gets to experience the event from the viewpoints of both perpetrators and victim. Also, regular “Carry On” series composer and conductor Eric Rogers supplies a suitably dramatic 1970s-style score. This release features an excellent new 1.66:1 transfer, an original theatrical trailer, an image gallery of promotional stills and a PDF of the film’s promotional brochure and script, accessible from PC or Mac .

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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