Pete Walker is an underrated British film director, an original talent who deserves a lot more recognition. That's not to go overboard about how good his films are, although they are often much better than critics at the time were willing to admit, but it is to recognise that he's one of the key missing links between the hegemony of Hammer and the days of the video nasty. Another link in the chain, Norman J. Warren, has already been the subject of an Anchor Bay 'Coffin' set and its good to see Walker get the same treatment.
Born in 1935, Walker served a lengthy apprenticeship in the fading golden age of British cinema and eventually found himself making mildly raunchy sex films such as I Like Birds, School For Sex and the surprisingly worthwhile Cool It Carol, the film which unleashed Robin Askwith on an unsuspecting world. He didn’t move into mainstream territory until 1970 when he managed to scrape together the money to make Die Screaming Marianne, a suspense thriller in the tradition of Hammer’s psychodramas such as Taste of Fear and, by extension, Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. This did well enough on a circuit release to lead to The Flesh And Blood Show, a film partially made in a cheap 3-D process which Walker also utilised in the amusingly daft sex film which remains his biggest hit, The Four Dimensions Of Greta. But it wasn’t until 1973 that he teamed up with writer David McGillivray and hit upon a style which deserves to be called “Walkeresque” in a rivetingly nasty, deliberately sleazy thriller with the sensational title House of Whipcord. His subsequent career had as many peaks and troughs as the fading British film industry but he’s an unusual director in that, while he made several bad films, he never made a dull one. Fortunately, three of the films in this box set represent the highpoints of his work and serve as a fine introduction for anyone who is keen to discover the wonderful world of Walker.
Die Screaming Marianne 4/10
The earliest film in the collection, Die Screaming Marianne is also the least interesting. It’s not a bad movie but it’s a decidedly messy one; the kind of film which makes you want to scream at how many promising ideas are wasted. In this respect, it resembles several of the Hammer films which precede it, psycho-thrillers such as Crescendo and Paranoiac which spend an hour building up the suspense and then render all the effort wasted with a disastrously silly, badly staged conclusion. What all of these films ignore is the restraint demonstrated by their models - Les Diaboliques and Psycho - which always held something back to keep the audience gasping with amazement.
There are a number of things going for Die Screaming Marianne and, while it’s ultimately a disappointment, it’s still an entertaining movie. The principle virtue is the hard-working young cast. Susan George, as the titular Marianne trapped in a plot to retrieve a vital number to a bank account from her memory, is a good actress and she gives the film a solid emotional centre, especially in her scenes with Barry Evans, an actor who has an appealingly natural presence. Evans was a popular actor in the 1970s but his career went into decline and he ended up as a taxi driver, dying in strange circumstances at the age of 52. Equally good is Christopher Sandford as the amusingly amoral Sebastian and there’s a strong contribution from veteran Leo Genn as the outrageously perverted Judge - a character who shares quite a bit in common, not least his venality, with John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown.
But it’s still an obviously flawed film with a plot which gradually dives into incoherence and some badly done cross-cutting which is obviously meant to be suspenseful but comes across as simply confusing. The motivations of the characters seem obscured, although this could possibly be because the overtones of incest were toned down to appease the censor. The best scenes work as individual set-pieces in themselves however, the highlight being a very nervy sequence in which Evans is trapped in a Soho flat by two thugs posing as policemen. In scenes like this, Walker suggests the talent which would come to full flower four years later. Otherwise, his direction is pedestrian and anonymous which is understandable considering Murray Smith’s dire screenplay. His attempts to evoke Swinging London - which, by 1970, could be described as, at most, gently rocking - are laughable, especially the credit sequence which is likely to provide a few unintentional giggles.
House of Whipcord 8/10
Although Pete Walker has made more assured films, he has done nothing else with quite the same raw power as House Of Whipcord. It's such a simple concept that it's surprising how much shock value is packed into it. The set-up is straightforward but brutally effective. Julia (Michelle) is enticed by smooth talking playboy Mark E. Desade (Tayman) into spending some time at his parent's house. But instead of a pleasant weekend away in the country, Julia finds herself imprisoned in a 'corrective institute' for depraved young women run by Mark's mother Mrs Wakehurst (Markham) and the senile Justice Bailey (Barr). Julia finds herself in a living hell, tortured by the sadistic warders Walker (Keith) and Bates (Gordon) until she is so terrified she can barely comprehend what's happening to her. What she does know, however, is that minor infractions are punished by whipping and subsequent misdemeanours result in summary hanging.
I really don't want to give too much away because House of Whipcord is a very well plotted film with a fantastic, unexpected twist in the middle that works even though both writer and director admit that it's directly copied from one of the most famous thrillers ever made. Several of Walker's typical concerns are present, however, and this is probably the first of his films which could be described as 'Walkeresque'. Apart from some embarrassing scenes at a 'swinging' party towards the beginning of the film, the doomed attempts at modish trendiness which sink Die Screaming Marianne and The Flesh and Blood Show are absent, replaced by a vivid, disturbing sense of cruelty and pain which is very unusual in British cinema. Although Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is a far superior film in an artistic sense, House of Whipcord shares that film's troubling evocation of the agony brought by imminent death and the way in which the viewer responds to it. The scenes in the institute are superbly designed and Peter Jessop's deliberately dark lighting scheme suggests all manner of depravities which aren't directly depicted. Indeed, one of the defining features of Walker's style is that the overwhelming impression of brutal violence is often much more disturbing than anything which is depicted on the screen. The brutality which is shown is horrible enough to send our imaginations into overdrive. House Of Whipcord is one of his least explicit films in terms of on-screen violence but its incredibly affecting because we emotionally respond to the character of Julia and the terror which she feels. It's this kind of effect which has led Walker to describe his work as 'terror films'.
Another facet of Walker's later work which is present in this film is an extraordinary sense of the impotence of men to do anything to protect the women they care about. Time and again in Walker's movies, the male characters who should be heroic are nice, friendly and pleasant types but are totally ineffectual. You see this with the Ray Brooks character here who is a bit of a dishrag and it recurs to varying degrees with Paul Greenwood in Frightmare, Norman Eshley in House Of Mortal Sin and John Leyton in Schizo. Walker seems to find women much more interesting and this immediately marks out his work in a world - exploitation horror - which, at the time, tended to depict women as purely victims. Walker's heroines may often be victimised to some degree but they are also vivid, tough and proactive. If they fail, it's not for lack of trying. He's even better with the villainous women, frequently played by Walker's favourite actress, the marvellous Sheila Keith. She was an actress typecast in nice, distinguished old lady roles and she accepted Walker's offers to play sadistic villains with alacrity. In House Of Whipcord she does a fine job as the nastiest member of prison staff this side of Clancy Brown in Shawshank and she's matched by Dorothy Gordon as her mean-minded, snivelling companion. Equally good is Barbara Markham as the astonishingly vicious Mrs Wakehurst, an obvious parody of Mary Whitehouse (to whom the film is, ironically, dedicated) and, with wishful thinking, Mrs Thatcher. In the years since the film is made, however, Walker's public opinions have demonstrated a right-wing reactionary stance which might please both Thatcher and Whitehouse and this gives the film an extra kick when you consider that he might actually think Mrs Wakehurst wasn't entirely wrong. In the context of the film though, the dialogue supplied by David McGillivray is spot-on for a parody of Whitehouse, full of mealy-mouthed generalisations and self-righteous moral fervour.
Perhaps thinking that the liberal anti-moral campaigner stance evinced by House Of Whipcord had gone a little too far, Walker's next film has no doubt about what liberalisation had done to British society. Frightmare is explicitly about the danger of letting criminals out of confinement before they had been rehabilitated; in this case, the mentally ill represented by Sheila Keith's dotty tarot-reading cannibal Dorothy Yates and her useless, compliant husband Edmund (Davies). I don't want to get too far into a socio-historical reading of the film but it's clear that Walker and McGillivray are setting up the liberal establishment as a stooge for some pretty easy targets. I doubt that even the most liberal of us would really agree that letting a woman suffering from psychotic mania out after fifteen years was a good idea, especially when her cannibalistic tendencies have clearly not been cured. But one has to admit that the concept works in the context of the film.
The irony is that Dorothy Yates is the most sympathetic and realistic character in the film. Although Walker clearly sees her as a threat to society, he gives her enough quiet moments to ensure that we see her as a rounded human being and her agony in fighting against her violent instincts is made genuinely touching by Sheila Keith's superb performance. Upon leaving prison, Dorothy returns to her old ways, setting up a tarot-reading service as a front for finding victims to feed her lust for human meat. She's a terrifying creation but it's made clear that no-one is making any effort to either help her or cure her. She's been abandoned to the care of her husband and he's even less use than the medical establishment. Rupert Davies is excellent as the hapless Edmund who seems both repelled and fascinated by his wife's cravings. In many ways, he's a classic Walkeresque male, in such thrall to a woman that he can't even move to help his own daughter when she becomes threatened. Walker's disdain for the powerlessness of men extends to the Paul Greenwood's trendy psychiatrist Graham - a straw man if ever there was one, being both a man and a psychiatrist, the latter profession hated by Walker almost as much as he hates counsellors. The women fare a little better with Deborah Fairfax making a strong impression as good daughter Jackie and Kim Butcher making something memorable and funny out of bad daughter Debbie who seems to have inherited some of her mother's unfortunately anti-social tendencies.
Frightmare is a more explicitly violent film than Walker had made before, although it's fairly mild compared with the Italian cannibal films which would follow within a few years. One might have expected a gentle lady such as Sheila Keith to have been reluctant to get involved with the gorier stuff but she apparently went at it with glee. The killings are often just out of view, below the frame, but we see plenty of the aftermath. This isn't quite Driller Killer but it's quite close and its still stronger stuff than you'd seen in a Hammer film of the period. The tawdry realism of the settings seems to make it nastier as well. There are, to be fair, some unintentional laughs here and Keith's enthusiasm for the film sometimes comes across as a little bit too much but if you make an effort to get involved with the characters and the situation then Frightmare is still very effective. Mention should be made of the contribution to the overall effect of Peter Jessop's typically fine cinematography and the deliberately hysterical music score by Stanley Myers. It's not as intense a film as House of Whipcord but the set-pieces are perhaps even more disturbing and the final ten minutes is as good a depiction of escalating terror as Tobe Hooper's contemporaneous Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
House Of Mortal Sin 8/10
Also known as The Confessional Murders and filmed as The Confessional, this is the third collaboration between Walker and McGillivray and is probably their most mature, considered work together. They have the confidence here to go beyond shock into some thoughtful social questions - a little too thoughtful for Walker who apparently thought McGillivray's original script read like "A Play For Today with murders". House Of Mortal Sin is slower and talkier than its predecessors but this works in its favour as the result is something which works as a drama as well as a terror film.
Beginning with the suicide of pregnant teenager Valerie, after she has been to confess her sins to her local priest Father Xavier Meldrum (Sharp), the film focuses on the Catholic Church as a haven for the morally corrupt. Meldrum is in the habit of tape-recording his parishioners confessions and using them to get money. But he's not only a blackmailer, he's also a demented obsessive whose life with his senile mother (Barry) and fanatical housekeeper Miss Brabazon (Keith) has driven him into madness. Hating himself and the corruption he sees around him, Meldrum becomes obsessed with Jenny (Penhaligon) and begins to set himself up as the man who can heal her life. At the same time, he is trying to stop his role in the girl's suicide getting out, which involves silencing her talkative mother. Matters are complicated by his curate Father Bernard Cutler (Eshley) who is doubting his vocation due to a growing attraction to Julia's sister Vanessa (Beacham),
As my summary suggests, this is quite a complicated film and the twists and turns of the plot are certainly more contrived than in Whipcord or Frightmare. In particular, the role of Bernard isn't entirely satisfactory, possibly due to Walker's typical lack of interest in traditional heroes. There are also signs of strain in the character of Miss Brabazon. Although Sheila Keith plays her with obvious delight, especially when she's tormenting the geriatric mother, the twist about her relationship with Father Meldrum is a little hard to swallow. This comes out in an dramatically cumbersome and excessively verbose final act, a failing which surfaces in all of Walker's films from this point on and is especially ruinous in Schizo.
However, the substance of the film is considerable and Father Meldrum is one of the most memorable characters in Walker's work. Anthony Sharp, taking on the role after several other actors including Peter Cushing declined, is magnificent. He's a familiar actor to television viewers, usually playing a retired colonel or benevolent vicar, and his basic solidity is used to devastating effect here. It's genuinely unnerving to see this most gentlemanly of men killing people and this adds a definite kick to some of the murder scenes, especially the ones which Sharp himself apparently found distasteful - the murders by poisoned communion sacrament and a strangling with rosary beads. The risk here is that Walker's own hatred of Catholicism, based on his childhood in a Catholic school, could have overpowered the character but Sharp's believably tormented performance ensures that Meldrum emerges as a credible character. There’s obvious pleasure being gained by Walker from having a go at Catholicism and blasphemising left, right and centre and he was evidently disappointed when the film failed to raise the expected controversy.
As ever, the female characters come across strongly. Apart from the reliably superb Sheila Keith and an exceptional performance by Hilda Barry as the mute, senile mother, there are very impressive turns from Susan Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham,. Both actresses provide a focus for viewer sympathy and they both take on the role of the hero which Norman Eshley’s Bernard is seemingly unable to play. That’s not a reflection on Eshley’s performance, which is fine, but on the lack of interest that Walker and McGillivray have on him, and his celibacy dilemma is raised then ignored.
House of Mortal Sin is, as I stated earlier, a surprisingly thoughtful film. If it doesn’t supply any real answers, it does raise some interesting questions about the abuse of authority by Catholic Priests and about the relationship of the confessor to the confessing. In between, it also manages some hard-edged and occasionally very nasty death scenes. Even though some of them are obviously contrived - a murder by incense burner for example - they are staged for maximum impact and edited with split-second timing. It’s probably the film of Walker’s which is most able to stand on its own as a piece of drama as opposed to a genre film, even if it isn’t his best work.
The Comeback 6/10
We now move from the near-sublime to the completely ridiculous. The Comeback is a ludicrously silly film but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Indeed, it’s hugely entertaining to watch so long as you don’t take a minute of it seriously. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so this will be a very brief overview of why I think the film works as entertainment even while its dying on the screen as horror.
Jack Jones plays a pop singer who is making a comeback after a painful divorce from his wife. However, is seems that someone doesn’t want him to return to show business and a campaign seemingly designed to send him insane is put into motion. Exactly what this involves is best learned by the viewer but I will say that it involves a couple of brilliantly staged murders that are so much better than most of the rest of the film that it seems like they’ve come out of a different and much better movie, These murders are among Walker’s best film work and they shame the film that they adorn.
However, as I said, there is enjoyment to be had here. Jack Jones comes through with a pretty convincing performance, although I find it hard to believe that he could ever have been a teen-idol of any description since he seems geared to somewhat older tastes. Nothing wrong with the performance of Pamela Stephenson as his PA and new love either. I could have done without David Doyle’s boisterous and irritating performance and Bill Owen, as a sinister gardener, doesn’t bring a great deal to the party either. But Sheila Keith is once again in evidence and although her role is rather small, just wait until the climax when she has a scene that is perfectly pitched between high-camp and intense melodrama. In the space of five minutes, she walks off with the film and, for just a moment, the ludicrous nature of the denouement doesn’t matter a jot.
Walker’s defence for this film, which saw him collaborating with Murray Smith for the first time in seven years, is that it was never meant to be taken seriously as a horror movie in the first place. That’s a pretty desperate defence considering that the film doesn’t appear to have much of an intentional sense of humour and Walker’s past record in comedy - the appalling Tiffany Jones springs to mind - isn’t exactly promising. But whether intentional or not, The Comeback is often very funny indeed and seasoned horror fans will have an absolute ball watching it. Indeed, I once saw a screening in which the final entrance by the killer was greeted with a standing ovation and his execution of the wrong person with cheers and gales of laughter. Approach the film in this spirit and you won’t be disappointed - especially since the first two murders are so well staged that, for a few seconds, you might even be quite impressed.
The Pete Walker Collection consists of five discs, each containing one film with a few extras. Two original documentaries are also included, both of which can be found on the House Of Mortal Sin DVD.
Picture quality is generally very good indeed. The Comeback is, for some reason, presented in a in fullscreen transfer but one which is quite pleasant to look at, albeit a little too grainy for comfort, and much better than the print found on the Satanica VHS release. The other films are presented in anamorphic widescreen at ratios varying from 1.78:1 to 1.85:1. Frightmare is given a crisp and detailed transfer that looks better than any print of the film that I’ve seen before - especially a 35MM print shown in Bradford back in 1999. Some minor print damage in places but nothing too serious. Nothing much wrong with Die Screaming Marianne and House of Whipcord either, although the latter, intentionally shrouded in darkness, is a little softer and contains a small amount of noticeable artifacting. House Of Mortal Sin contains some obvious print damage and a slightly excessive level of grain, while The Comeback seemed softer than it should be with a lack of detail evident in places. However, I should emphasise that these film still look good enough to pass muster and are a world away from the versions which have been available on VHS. The availability of decent prints is obviously an issue with films such as these and similar minor problems can be found on the Image R1 disc of Schizo. From what I can gather, all of the films were shot in fullscreen and then matted for cinema release. So even though you're losing some of the image, you're seeing the films as they were intended to be seen in the cinema. On The Comeback, you're simply seeing the unmatted full-frame version.
Each film has three soundtracks. The one to listen to, as ever with Anchor Bay, is the 2.0 mix, which is the original mono spread over two channels. All of the films sound better than I’ve ever heard them before - Die Screaming Marianne in particular - and minor hiss and crackle is the worst you’ll have to put up with. The 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround remixes are the usual waste of time and the quality of them is diminished by the distortion of the original sound mix with music frequently overpowering every other element in the track. If you liked the ‘surround’ mixes on previous Anchor Bay discs then you will presumably like the ones present here. Personally, I’d rather they spent their money doing something more useful.
There are a variety of good extras present. The two documentaries on the House of Mortal Sin disc are both excellent. The first, “Courting Controversy” is about the films in the set and feature good interviews with Walker, David McGillivray and the writer Graham Duff whose rabid love of British horror would come out in his frustratingly inconsistent but occasionally devastatingly accurate scripts for Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. I’d have liked more comment on Walker’s other work - nothing much here about his sex films or less well known efforts likeHome Before Midnight - but newcomers should find this a very valuable introduction. The second featurette is a 14 minute tribute to Sheila Keith who died last year. She was clearly adored by the people who worked with her and their love for her is evident here.
Otherwise, each film is accompanied by its original trailer, some biographies and, for every film except Frightmare, reasonably accurate film notes. We also get an audio commentary on all the films from Pete Walker and, on Frightmare and House of Whipcord, his DP Peter Jessop. These two are the least satisfying tracks because Walker and Jessop don’t seem to have much to say and the host, Walker’s biographer Steve Chibnall, seems a bit lost as to how to get them talking. The other three tracks are much more enjoyable with Jonathan Rigby - author of “English Gothic” who can currently be seen in London playing Kenneth Horne - drawing out of Walker some fascinating anecdotes and opinions and displaying an intimidatingly wide knowledge of the films. Walker comes across as likeable and talkative but it’s a shame that his relationship with David McGillivray seems to have precluded the writer from participating in the commentary tracks. I ended up having more respect for Walker as a person than I did before listening, although some of his views are odd to say the list, notably a jaw-dropping generalisation about anyone who becomes a teacher having dubious intentions towards children.
The packaging is, once again, a coffin set but Anchor Bay’s design has vastly improved since the debacle of the Amicus Collection and I had no problems with rattling discs when it arrived. It looks great with an entirely appropriate picture of Sheila Keith at her most demented adorning the cover. I also want to praise Anchor Bay for finally realising the need to include subtitles on their films, although this does not extend, as yet, to the extras.
I heartily recommend The Pete Walker Collection, both to fans of the director who will never have seen the films looking as good as this, and to newcomers who should have a good deal of fun, providing they have a strong stomach.