For fans of horror cinema of the 1970s, auteur Pete Walker is sort of the British version of America's Roger Corman. Or more accurately, he's a hybrid of Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, as in his films there is often a combination of Corman's low-budget and camp sensibilities and Lewis' copious use of stage blood and female skin. And this combination has, of course, endeared Walker to generations of horror fans.
This "British Horror Quadruple Feature" from Shriek Show (aka Media Blasters) offers four of Walker's films from the early 1970s:
In FRIGHTMARE (1974), arguably one of Pete Walker's best films, the Western concept of family is skewed in a dark, dismal narrative that inexorably spirals towards an inevitable downbeat ending. By modern standards, it's not too high on the gore scale, but it is downright chilling nonetheless.
When Edmund Yates (Rupert Davies) and his wife, Dorothy (Sheila Keith), are convicted of committing unspeakable acts of murder and cannibalism, a judge sentences them to a psychiatric institution, where they are to remain until it is proven that they are no longer a danger to others. Shift 15 years into the future (and to color film), and the couple has been declared sane and released. Not wanting any publicity or undue stress, they live a reclusive life in the country, and only Edmund's daughter from a previous marriage, Jackie, knows who and where they are. Even the daughter that Edmund and Dorothy procreated together--Debbie, now 15 years old--has been led to believe that her parents died just after she was born.
Lately, Debbie has been hanging around with violent delinquents and having run-ins with the law. Is she in any way responsible for the bartender that went missing soon after she and her friends visited the pub? And Jackie has been making mysterious visits to her father and stepmother in the wee hours of the night. Just what is in those blood-soaked packages she brings to them? Are Edmund and Dorothy falling back into old habits? And if they are, how deeply are their daughters involved?
As far as older British horror goes, FRIGHTMARE is one of the best to come from outside of Hammer studios. The dialogue is replete with witty funeral-parlor humor, but there is also plenty of grisly action that is no laughing matter. Some of the murder scenes can be stomach churning, but interestingly, most of the actual violence and gore is beyond the camera eye. Yes, a heaping helping of blood and guts is sometimes served, but rarely is the viewer privy to the actual slicing, dicing, or skewering. In many ways this makes the action all the more chilling, especially when the frame is filled with the wild eyes and crazed visage of the killer as the bloody, stringy nasty bits flip into view.
HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974) may not be Walker's best horror film, but it is still pretty darn good. If viewed with the tongue-in-cheek spirit with which it was made, the film is actually a rippingly fun but dark parody of 1970s mores and jurisprudence. The cheesy gallows humor is punctuated with several verbal and visual puns, and as with most exploitation films of the era, there are scenes with outre violence and a tantalizing peppering of gratuitous T&A.
Most of the performances in the film are surprisingly good, and fans of British horror and exploitation will recognize genre regulars like Sheila Keith (who was also in Walker's 1974 film FRIGHTMARE) and Robert Tayman (who co-starred in Hammer Studios' 1972 offering VAMPIRE CIRCUS), among others. Peter Jessop's cinematography for HOUSE OF WHIPCORD is excellent, creating a brooding atmosphere that perfectly suits the story without detracting from the underlying humor.
THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (1972) follows a group of struggling young thespians as they attempt to stage a Grand Guignol production. Unfortunately for them, a killer lurks in the dilapidated old theater where they are rehearsing (and bedding down), and the young actors are soon getting picked off one by one.
Essentially an old-dark-house story transplanted to a different milieu, the plot of THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW is cliche even by the standards of the decade in which it was made. In comparison to most of Walker's other horror films--and even when compared to other exploitation flick of the 1970s--the use of grue and gore is minimal, and what IS there is not particularly effective. Sadly, even the ample T&A peppered throughout doesn't add any real voltage to this shocker wannabe. Not Walker's best effort, by far.
DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE (1971), one of Walker's first horror thrillers, is probably the weakest of this lot. It has essentially none of the gore and skin for which Walker would later become famous, and the story itself is a cliche tale involving the young heir to a fortune and the jealous family members who want to kill her and get their mitts on the dough.
The film is not totally without merit, however. As the young heiress, cute and perky Susan George is a delight to watch. Most of the supporting cast is pretty good, too, especially Barry Evans as Ms. George's love interest. Walker's direction is adequate, though it's not his best effort, and there is some very interesting camera work, specifically a couple of split-screen shots that predate Brian De Palma's masterful perfection of the technique by a few years. Still, this one is, overall, only of interest to fans of Susan George and to Walker completists.
As for Shriek Show's DVD editions of these films, the source prints used for the digital transfers are abysmal. Most of them contain countless scratches and other filmic artifacts, and there are numerous instances of color shift and contrast fluctuation. In addition, all of the prints look faded and washed-out overall. Probably the print that is in the best condition is the one used for the transfer of DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE.
On the plus side, all the DVDs do present the films in their original theatrical aspect ratios. Bonus material for each film varies. All have the original theatrical trailer for their respective film, and three of them offer a feature commentary with Walker and a moderator. Instead of a commentary, THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW disc contains a video interview with Walker.
Not all of these films represent the best from Pete Walker, and the Shriek Show (aka Media Blasters) DVDs aren't of the greatest quality. But FRIGHTMARE and HOUSE OF WHIPCORD are great films that belong in the collections of fans of the Grand Guignol, and those two alone make this DVD set worth the price of admission.