The result of a desire by producer Brian Smedley-Aston and writer/director James Kenelm Clarke to emulate the success of low budget British exploitation directors such as Pete Walker and Norman J Warren, The House On Straw Hill started life as a fairly straightforward racy thriller, with the ready availability of a holiday home in Norfolk and a small cast and crew, allowing the £50,000 budget to stretch to the giddy heights of actually purchasing a Morris Minor (alas, the Rolls Royce also featured was only borrowed). Udo Kier’s presence gave the film a beautiful leading man and (possibly more important at the time) a greater shot at breaking into the European market and Linda Hayden brought both the acting skills and notoriety earned in Baby Love (1968) and The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970). What changed the whole tone of the film and, more importantly, the marketing focus, was the addition of funding from Revue Bar owner and men’s magazine publisher Paul Raymond and the casting of his then girlfriend Fiona Richmond as Kier’s girlfriend. The sex and violence were upped and the promotional campaign wrote itself.
The movie concerns Paul Martin, a successful novelist, who has rented a house in the country in which to write that difficult second book. A visit from his girlfriend, followed by a quick bout of aggressive love-making, fails to inspire, so feeling constrained by the very act of actually typing words on paper, he sends for an assistant to transcribe his ramblings. This assistant, played with wonderful doe-eyed menace by Hayden, is the catalyst for the increasing chaos that ensues, with rape, murder, lesbianism, revenge, kung-fu and masturbation all thrown into a lean 84 minute mix.
The performances by the two leads are excellent, with Hayden’s good girl gone bad routine more than a match for Kier’s slightly wonky Eurotrash stares. Kier and Richmond are both dubbed by another voice artist – in Richmond’s case this is down to her lack of straight acting experience, but for Kier, the voice over seems to be trying to add a German accent, which some would suggest renders the whole thing pointless. Anyhow, the film is hardly dialogue heavy and the dubbing is done fairly well. The photography is gorgeous throughout, with a glorious summer enhancing the beautiful surroundings. Despite its low budget exploitation birth, it’s clearly a film shot, edited and scored by a very talented crew, with the tight claustrophobia of the indoor scenes contrasting with the almost ethereal beauty of the English countryside to great effect.
Although no indie classic, The House on Straw Hill is a tight piece of Brit-trash, which nicely balances its twin targets of terror and titillation. When one considers the era in which it was made and its subsequent struggles with censorship both at home and abroad, the strong sexual elements may have ultimately hampered its ability to gain a wider audience and this release will hopefully bring a new appreciation of its lurid charms.
Severin present The House On Straw Hill in its uncut form, shown in a ratio that looks to be approximately 1.66:1. Before we start, an on-screen title card informs us that the source material for the film has deteriorated to such an extent, that this new edition is a composite of two censored 35mm prints and the original uncut negative. Despite the Frankenstein nature of the results, all three sources blend in pretty well, with no jarring differences between each one. What may be jarring to some viewers is how battered the film looks. Colours are pretty flat and the film is littered with scratches, some minor, some very noticeable. This is no reference quality print, but presents the film, warts and all, in as good a condition as is possible. Credit must be given to Severin for not overdoing the digital restoration and the resulting print damage adds a suitably ‘grindhouse’ feel to whole exercise.
Audio is presented in one channel DTS-HD MA and is clear, balanced and no doubt true to the original presentation.
An audio commentary, featuring director Clarke, producer Smedley-Aston and moderated by journalist and producer Jonathan Sothcott appears to have been ported over from a previous DVD release. All concerned are very complimentary of the film and crew and rather than simply talk about what we’re watching on screen, they use the action as a jumping off point to elaborate on the production as a whole. Very English and very interesting, the commentary also provides an excellent example of how low budget film making has changed over the last 35 years. Thoroughly recommended.
Apart from a slightly bizarre trailer which singularly fails to give us any idea of what the film is about, the only extra is a 15 minute interview with Linda Hayden, entitled An Angel For Satan. Taken from an old DVD of The Blood On Satan’s Claw, this 10 year old feature has been re-edited by Severin to include a bit more on House On Straw Hill. Despite a clear affection for her other work, Hayden loathes The House On Straw Hill and makes no bones about bad mouthing it. Her dislike seems to stem from the film being retitled Exposé on release, with copious pictures of a nude Fiona Richmond featured heavily on all publicity material. In fact, on the audio commentary, the producers agree that she may have a point!
The House On Straw Hill is a fantastic example of the British exploitation quickie. It’s rougher and tougher than a lot of its contemporaries, yet exhibits a real craft and skill in its execution. Time hasn’t been kind to the only existing film elements, but this only adds to the feeling that you’re watching (and enjoying) something that you probably shouldn’t. Severin deserve a pat on the back for resurrecting this long lost gem and this region free Blu-ray is the perfect introduction to the film’s naughty charms.