After watching and enjoying Pete Walker's mistitled but still-interesting thriller Die Screaming Marianne, and then LOVING his gore-and-booby-filled horror flick The Flesh and Blood Show, I had high hopes for his 1974 terror trip Frightmare. I mean, just look at that poster. Creepy old woman holding a bloody power tool, the font of the film's title itself shattering under the onslaught of HORROR--it just had to be good, right?
Well, perhaps it was a case of expecting too much, or maybe the Vicar was just a little down this week, but somehow this Walker effort just didn't come together for me. In spite of a seemingly can't-fail set of ingredients--Beautiful sisters at one another's throats! A dark family secret! Abandoned carnival grounds! Ultra-mod bikers!--it managed to wind its way through all the reveals and a few reasonably gory set-pieces without making the strong impression it was probably trying for.
It's a shame, because the film starts out very strong. After a bright color shot of "LONDON, 1957," we're suddenly thrust into a black-and-white flashback in which hapless sap Barry (Andrew Sachs of Fawlty Towers fame!) is walking through the aforementioned abandoned carnival, his brows knit with purpose. There are few things creepier for my money than an abandoned or empty carnival, and the crane shots here showing Barry traipse across the strangely silent grounds are full of atmospheric possibility. Finally he comes to a dingy-looking trailer and knocks at the door. After a moment it opens, and Barry tells the unseen inhabitant that he "needs help" as he's in "rather a mess." As soon as the door shuts, Walker gives us a strange but cool montage of the grubby interior of the trailer--unwashed dishes, fluttering drapes, fortune-telling posters on the walls--all to some creepy minimalist piano music. Again, great stuff that gets even greater when we track over to the bench by the door where Barry sits, half his head mangled to a bloody pulp! The door opens and closes, and we're off!
If you've been paying attention you know I'm a sucker for a good credit sequence, and I like the one Walker gives us here--a deck of tarot cards are dealt out, a different card with each credit, some of them seeming to make a comment on the credit being shown. (For instance "DEATH" falls under the film's title, and when Walker's director's credit rolls around, "THE DEVIL" turns up. Nice.) It's not the booty-shakin' grooviness of Die Screaming Marianne's credits, but then what is?
Next we're whisked away to full-color present-day, where a Totally Mod Motorcycle gang is pulling up to the Toby Jug, a groovy pub and dance joint in swingin' 70s London. The chief troublemakers in the group are little Debbie and her Biking Boyfriend. When the barman refuses to serve the obviously underaged Debbie, she reports the insult to her Boyfriend, whose rage at the conscientious drink dispenser gets them all tossed from the club. The ne'er-do-wells lie in wait for the barman after closing time, though, and give him a vicious beatdown that leaves him bloodied and helpless. They scarper when an old man threatens to ring the constabulary, but Debbie stays behind a moment to say her goodbyes...
Jackie is at a stuffy dinner party with stuffy friends, including Matthew, a goofy-looking dweeb of a psychiatrist to whom she is inexplicably attracted, despite his hyper-analytical emotionless bearing and distinctly unflattering spectacles. After dinner Jackie comes home, has a venom-laden confrontation with her kid sister, and then heads out again on a mysterious errand in the wee hours.
The mystery is soon solved when we discover that Jackie and Debbie are the daughters of the couple from the b&w prologue, who have just been released from the asylum after 15 years (which is EXACTLY Debbie's age, it turns out); her nocturnal errand is to visit them at the country farmhouse they now call home. Her father Edmund is played by British character actor Rupert Davies as a kind, congenial sort who is slavishly devoted to the still batshit-crazy mother Dorothy (Walker regular Sheila Keith). Jackie has brought a mysterious package for Mum and warns Dad that "Debbie suspects" something amiss. On the train ride home Jackie has an unsettling dream in which a gothed-out Dorothy cradles the package like a baby in her arms, leaving tell-tale spots of blood in her wake.
Up to this point (and indeed, mostly throughout) Pete Walker's direction is very creepy and disturbing--odd angles and dissolves, minimalistic scoring, and strange imagery put together with an expert's touch as each new piece of the puzzle comes into view. The weird family dynamic between Edmund and Dorothy is well-drawn too, as the kindhearted old man seems powerless in the face of his wife's insanity, desperately worried that she'll have a relapse even though she's been certified sane.
her old hobby of telling fortunes via the magic of the Tarot, Dorothy lures unsuspecting lonely women to the farmhouse while Edmund's out being a chauffeur for some rich guy. Though it takes a while to get there, we eventually learn that Mum is offing her clients with a power drill (She can't help it! The DEATH card keeps coming up!) and stowing their bodies in the farm's hay bin for some nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Jackie learns from Dad that her still-mysterious packages are not having the desired effect--whatever that might be--and Jackie's psychiatrist admirer decides to stick his nose into the whole mess in a well-meaning but predictably disastrous way.
Along the way we also learn that Debbie is a chip off the ol' maternal block, as after an unproductive session with the police she leads her biker BF to a locked garage where she's stowed the body of the Beaten Barman, having murdered him and gouged out his eye post-smackdown! Mirroring this, Mum gets another attractive Tarot client and skewers her with a hot poker before drinking her blood, which she finds hard to explain when Edmund comes in and catches her in the act. ("It's my MEE-Graines!" she offers, unhelpfully.) Thereafter she reveals her stash of corpses in the hay to her husband, who ruefully but dutifully cleans things up and assists in the removal of the fresh body, thus falling back into that murderous co-dependency that got them where they are in the first place.
Meanwhile Matthew has taken matters into his own hands and gone to the asylum where Jackie's parents were committed to speak to the head headshrinker, Dr. Lytell, played by DSM's The Judge, the inimitable Leo Genn! (He's much more subdued and less fabulous here than in that other movie.) We also learn the Big Secret of Mum's incarceration thanks to a wonderfully casually delivered line from the chief inspector: "She was a cannibal...The fact is, she et people." Now we know why she held onto the remains! Haystacks? Hay-SNACKS, more like!
"packages"), telling her that they were human and leading her to believe that she, Jackie, was carrying on the family butchery business. Mum's smarter than they give her credit for, however, and in the big twist (Spoilers!) has tracked down Debbie and recruited her as an apprentice psychopathic murderer, a trade for which the girl has no small knack. The whole thing ends in tragedy and bloodshed, of course, with a downer ending of the sort that will appeal to many fans and a sort of touching fade out of Edmund, still powerless to stop his wife's insanity, resigned to being there for her anyway like a good husband should.
Frightmare is a well-made movie with some really cool visuals sprinkled here and there, and even some nice chunky gore on the post-mortem victims. The twisted family here, sort of a "Suburban Sawney Beane gone matriarchal," is a neat idea too. Still, I found myself a little bit bored by the end. It's fairly linear in its storytelling, which is not a bad thing in itself, but then everything plays out pretty much exactly as expected with few deviations or curveballs to divert you--even Debbie's involvement doesn't really surprise, as she's been a bloodthirsty psychobabe since square one.
Walker seems to have an axe to grind about the psychological health care system here, as Genn's Dr. Lytell says more than once, "Oh, we had to let them go--they were CERTIFIED SANE!", and the judge's pronouncement that the couple be held until they're "PROVEN ABSOLUTELY SANE" is echoed again in v.o.-flashback at the ending. It feels like Walker's poking you in the ribs going, "See? See? They SAY these nutso killers are sane, but they're NOT! And they LET THEM OUT ANYWAY! See? See? Get it?" It's an observation without weight, however, as from her first appearance it's pretty unbelievable that any doctor would have let Dot out of the looney bin without a second glance. Perhaps it was thrown in as a bone to the "social significance" cravers in the audience and on the censorship board. Or maybe it just popped up in the coke-fueled screenwriting binge and stuck.
Frightmare was quite a letdown after The Flesh and Blood Show and Die Screaming Marianne, so I have to give it only 1.75 thumbs--fans of Walker's and people who like this sort of thing might find something to like, but I like my cannibalistic family dramas a bit more MAD than this one gets. Jaded? Perhaps--but I know what I like.
Oh well. I still have House of Whipcord on the shelf. Where there's life, there's hope...