By the mid 1970s, the gothic affairs of Hammer had all but petered out to make way for a new era of grisly urban horrors. With HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, director Pete Walker made the transition from frivolous sex romps to a more thought-provoking dark tale of moralistic fanaticism gone wild. With FRIGHTMARE, Walker again collaborated with talented screenwriter David McGillivray to create one of the most unconventional and original British horror films of the period. In making the film, Walker's intention was for the audience to leave the cinema feeling angry and frustrated after seeing it. You'll have to decide that for yourself.
The film immediately opens up with a black and white pre-credit sequence, taking place in 1957. It is there that we see a wayward fellow (Andrew Sachs, better known as Manuel on the classic 1970s Britcom "Fawlty Towers") seeking help at a trailer home. After being invited in by an off-screen character, we see the side of the man's head hideously devoured. An English couple, Dorothy (Sheila Keith, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS) and Edmund Yates (Rupert Davies, BRIDES OF FU MANCHU) are charged with the shocking crime and are sentenced to rehabilitation in a psychiatric ward until they can be positively cured.
Over 15 years later the Yates couple have been released and reside in an isolated country farmhouse. Meanwhile, their daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and her delinquent younger half-sister Debbie (Kim Butcher, THE CONFESSIONAL), who was given up for adoption while the parents were still imprisoned, are living together in a flat. Jackie can't control Debbie, who hangs out with a gang of leather boys and even gets involved with the murder of a barman (“The Benny Hill Show” star Michael Sharvell-Martin). Jackie tells of her troubled half-sister to Graham (Paul Greenwood, CAPTAIN KRONOS - VAMPIRE HUNTER), a young psychiatrist who she becomes romantically involved with. But she does not reveal that she is secretly delivering parcels of butcher's scraps to her stepmother in the middle of the night, or that Debbie believes her parents are no longer living. As Dorothy is still psychotic and still craves human flesh. Though her husband and her stepdaughter do everything to hold her in check, Dorothy is psychotic and still craves human flesh, and she has been advertising her services as a medium in order to lure unsuspecting victims. Even the young Debbie gets in on the act (like mother, like daughter), revealing a dysfunctional affinity in the family despite the generation gap.
FRIGHTMARE could be looked upon as a horror as a social commentary concerning skepticism towards the psychiatry field, but its a solid British horror film in the tradition of other shocking and acclaimed cinematic cannibal favorites of the time, namely Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and Gary Sherman’s RAW MEAT, which McGillivray saw before conjuring up the idea for the film. Aside from the clever story by McGillivray and Walker, what makes FRIGHTMARE so good is the performance by Sheila Keith as Dorothy. Keith, who appeared in a total of five outings for Walker, has an outward grandmother-like appearance, and she brilliantly plays it up as a seemingly sweet old lady ready to snap at any moment, as her character often does. Seeing her strike victims with a hot poker, a pitchfork and an electric drill is a sight to behold, and this is undoubtedly her finest hour. Rupert Davies (veteran of half a dozen 1960s British horror flicks including WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR) is also great in one of his final screen roles (he died in 1976), playing the enabling sidekick. As Edmund, he plays a cowardly, yet devoted husband who took partial blame for his wife's crime, and stays loyal despite her incurable madness. Victoria Fairbrother (aka Pamela Fairbrother) plays a young woman who goes to Dorothy for a tarot reading (Fairbrother had been one of the accused witches in Gordon Hessler’s CRY OF THE BANSHEE) and Leo Genn (who had a more significant part in Walker’s DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE), has a "guest star" cameo as a doctor (screenwriter McGillivray also has a walk-on as a white-coated physician). Tigon Films founder Tony Tenser was the executive producer, and this would be last feature film he was actively involved with.
Previously available on DVD through both Image Entertainment (full frame) and more recently from Media Blasters, the Kino/Redemption Blu-ray is the definitive presentation by far. Mastered in HD from the original 35mm negative, the film is presented in 1080p in a 1.66:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. Colors are bright and well rendered, with natural, detailed fleshtones and excellent contrasts. The bulk of the presentation’s darker scenes are appropriately shadowy and grainy, and night-time scenes are clear, resulting in nice detail. Blemishes on the source material are minimal, with the image being clean throughout. The mono English audio has very clear dialogue and no distortions.
Carried over from the Media Blasters DVD is an audio commentary with Pete Walker and director of photography Peter Jessop (who worked on numerous Walker films and later, THE MONSTER CLUB) moderated by Walker biographer Steven Chibnall who wrote the essential Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker. Here, Walker and Jessop recall working with the cast members, the challenges of lighting certain scenes, and the rabid response of critics to their films. “For the Sake of Cannibalism” (11:56) is a new video interview with Walker produced by Elijah Drenner. Walker discusses his initial dislike of the cannibalism aspect of the story, but goes on to say he took a “lighthearted” approach while making the film, and that all involved had great fun, including Keith in her maniacal role. Walker also states that it was the intent to make the film controversial and he talks a bit about the critical reaction after its release. “Sheila Keith Profile” (13:53, standard definition) was originally produced for the Anchor Bay Pete Walker PAL DVD set released in the UK some years ago. Walker, McGillivray, Jessop, Walker fan Graham Duff (writer of “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible” in which Keith appeared in), and actress Susan Penhaligon (who appeared with Keith in Walker's THE HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN aka THE CONFESSIONAL) all discuss how the actress was the antithesis of her screen personas, and rave about her acting talents with good reason. All of the five films she worked in for Walker are touched upon here. Trailers for this film, DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE; THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; HOUSE OF WHIPCORD and THE COMEBACK round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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