Monday, 25 August 2008


Or the night before the night he came home...

For what we have here is a film that, released in 1971 and thus a good seven years before John Carpenter's seminal Halloween, plays out a somewhat similar babysitter in peril scenario, albeit in a lower key, almost kitchen-sink manner more in keeping with its British origins.

The babysitter in question is Amanda (Susan George), a childcare student at the local technical college who agrees to babysit for Helen and Jim (Honor Blackman and George Cole), a middle-aged, somewhat shabbily genteel couple who have recently arrived in the village.

Helen proves to be somewhat on-edge, though her concern at this point seems explicable as nothing more than that of a slightly neurotic mother leaving her young child, Tara, in the care of an unfamiliar babysitter in an unfamiliar place:

Amanda: “Is there anything I ought to know, Mrs Lloyd?”
“About Tara, I mean.”

It is only later, as the couple drive to what passes for the town's most glamorous night-spot – and, given the drab reality of much of early 1970s Britain quite possibly its only night spot – and meet with their friends that the truth begins to emerge:

Jim: “Do you think she knows?”
Helen: “Why should she?”
“I don't know – something she said about everyone knowing everything.”

That Helen and Jim are not in fact husband and wife and that she is celebrating her divorce hardly seems to warrant this concern, even given the villagers' apparently conservative attitudes...

The maniac's first appearance, reflected in a kettle

Meanwhile Amanda is unnerved by a presence outside, though when her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman) arrives she naturally takes this as one of his horror buff his practical jokes, the practical side of it as far as he is concerned that of getting into her pants in time-honoured slasher film manner.

While the film's discourse around sexual frustration leading inexorably to violence has parallels with Halloween's, we never definitively learn whether Amanda is or isn't a virgin unlike Laurie and her friends in Carpenter's film:

Chris attempts to persuade Amanda to go to bed with him

Chris: “You can't stay a virgin all your life, you know”
Amanda: “How do you know? I might not be one.”
“Ah, well, if you're not this is your big chance.”
“With you?!”

It was not Chris who was lurking outside earlier, however, but rather Helen's estranged husband Brian (Ian Bannen), who has escaped from the asylum where he was being held – yet another echo of Halloween, along with his taking a car to get here and killing the driver in the process, though this is kept off-screen– and is determined to get back his wife and child, whatever it takes...

It is also this aspect that gives Fright more of a slasher than a giallo feel, in that as there's no real mystery or conspiracy angle. We soon realise that Brian is insane, while Jim, Helen and their Doctor friend are only acting in everyone's best interests rather than seeking an inheritance and / or revenge as would typically be the case in a comparable Italian scenario such as The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.

A nice two plane composition with a fake split screen effect

Whatever the plusses and minuses of this approach, there's little question that the film's makers knew their business and goals.

Director Peter Collinson and co-producer Harry Fine had worked together on the earlier woman-in-peril thriller The Penthouse in 1967, with Collinson again mining similar psycho-on-the-loose territory with Straight on Till Morning in 1972.

This, in turn, was produced in conjunction with Hammer films who had worked with Fine and Michael Styles company Fantale Films on the Karnstein trilogy comprising The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Each of these was also made from a Tudor Gates script and featured music by Harry Robertson / Robinson. Editor Spencer Reeve also worked on two of the three Karnstein films, along with a further five earlier Hammer productions.

The Plague of the Zombies

All this is telegraphed by the inclusion of clips from The Plague of the Zombies as the film within the film that Amanda, perhaps unwisely given her state, watches on television – a neat little in-joke that also prefigures Carpenter's interpolation of clips from The Thing from Another World into Halloween.

Joining the dots still further around the British-Italian-US horror circle, The Penthouse starred Suzy Kendall prior to her women-in-peril roles for Dario Argento and Sergio Martino, whilst in between Italian excusions such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Torso she also appeared in Sidney Hayers's Assault, a film that with its mystery aspect – who is the rapist and killer haunting the woods near the girls' school? – is as much British giallo as proto-slasher.

George, meanwhile, had earlier appeared in Peter Walker's Die Screaming Marianne, a film also features some giallo-isms of the sort that would become still more pronounced in his later The Flesh and Blood Show – as a British take on The Assassin Reserved Nine Seats or Stagefright locked theatre murder scenario – and Schizo.

Classic 70s rack focus action

And then there's the fact that Cole and Waterman had both recently made appearances for Hammer, the former in The Vampire Lovers and the latter in Scars for Dracula. Indeed, the horror movie episode Chris recounts to frighten Amanda, of a girl being decapitated sounds almost like an out-take from The Vampire Lovers, while Waterman's apparent inability to enter the Lloyd house until invited resonates with Stoker's original formulation of the rules of vampirism and the fate that befell his character's brother in Scars of Dracula.

All this genre pedigree doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond an inherent interest in terms of trivia of course. Fortunately, cast and crew alike deliver on the promise it represents with the result an entertaining and suspenseful thriller that's worth watching in its own right.

Shot and reaction shot, enhanced by sharp editing

Cole and Blackman are the kind of solid professionals that the British theatre and cinema system was so good at producing in its hey-dey, adept at taking any character and presenting them with the same professional finesse.

George, though representative of a more contemporary approach where the female actor's abilities sometimes seemed to count for less than her willingness to strip off, nevertheless likewise acquits herself well.

In this she is also helped by the characterisation provided by Gates, as one that allows for her to express not only one-dimensional scream queen-isms but also an emergent sense of resolve, beginning with the brush-off she gives the too-cocky Chris and continuing, albeit intermittently, to rhw finale with its final girl-style shift from passive to active defence.

The stand-out performance for me, however, was that of Bannen as the madman. By turns terrifying and pathetic, he is always utterly credible, a far remove in this regard at least from the unstoppable, supernatural, archetypal “boogeyman” figure represented by Michael Myers in Halloween.

Bannen at his most threatening; note also the skilful lighting effect

Even more amazing, however, is that it isn't necessarily Bannen's best performance of this type, as anyone who's also seen his turn as the suspected child-molester in Sidney Lumet's The Offence could attest.

Collinson expertly builds the tension up through devices such as the unmotivated cut, camera set-up and movement – why that shot from the top of the stairs, looking down on Amanda at the door? why those hand-held shots in the already cramped space of the kitchen? – and a well developed eye and ear for picking out and exaggerating unnerving details, be it a giallo-style broken doll, a loudly rattling water pipe, or a tapping whose source modulates from a leaky tap to the dark outside and thus prompts Amanda to go investigate.

He also knows when to spring a Lewtonian “bus” rather than a more graphic shock, as in the following scene when a ghost-like sheet suddenly blows across Amanda's face. As an objective image it may not make sense, but as a subjective one it works beautifully to create the desired effect, whilst also hinting at her distracted state and the ease with which someone could have snuck past her whilst her attentions were otherwise occupied.

Not that gorehounds will necessarily be disappointed, with the brutal bludgeoning of Chris following shortly afterwards to demonstrate that Collinson could deliver the goods here as well if he wanted to.

The director also makes interesting use of more obvious subjective camera elsewhere in the film, sometimes presenting things from Brian's point-of-view with Amanda being replaced by his ex-wife, recalling the bizarre masks worn by the killer's victims in Lamberto Bava's Delirium: Photos of Gioia, but considerably more accomplished.

Robinson's music is satisfactory, with no emetic style balladry of the “strange love” sort, though the Ladybird, Ladybird title theme, with its subtle fairytale allusions to the events about to ensue, is sung by one Nanette, perhaps a British equivalent to all those Minas, Olympias and Christys' who so often did the honours in Italian product of the period. There's even a nice bit of Hammond-heavy party music that plays as Jim and Helen get down on the dancefloor, though whether this is Robinson's work or comes off a KPM library sessions album I wouldn't presume to say...

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