Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Frightmare (1974)


The other day I was asked whether I'd seen any 'good' films lately.  "Define 'good'," was my reply.  After all, critical judgements are all relative and entirely dependent upon factors subjective to the viewer and the circumstances under which they saw the film.  Then some smart arse came back with the question, "Well, have you seen any films that you think are 'good'?"  But the problem remains, how do we define 'good', even in personal terms?  Indeed, is the duality of 'good' and 'bad' in any way a useful approach to assessing films?  Particularly films of the type we tend to discuss here.  Take Pete Walker's Frightmare as a case in point: is it, in any way a 'good' movie?   If we were to judge simply on technical criteria such as cinematography, dialogue, productions values, lighting or sound quality, for instance, I doubt that anybody other than Walker's most ardent fans would rate it as being more than 'adequate'.  Similarly, it would win no prizes for its, sometimes clunky, plotting or the originality of its basic set up.  In fact, upon its initial release, the film was reviled by most critics, condemned, in fact, as an example of everything wrong with low budget British horror movies.

But to properly appreciate Frightmare you have to understand what it represents - what Director/Producer Walker and his screenwriter David McGillivray had set out to achieve.  Produced at a time when the established giants of British horror films, Amicus and Hammer were on the skids, with the latter, in particular, desperately trying to adapt its product for contemporary audiences, Walker and McGillivray sign posted the way ahead for horror cinema.  Whereas the traditional Hammer product had located its horrors in a 'safe' fictionalised Victorian setting, Frightmare, sets its depravations fairly and squarely in contemporary Britain, denying its audience any 'historical' insulation from them.  True, other British horror movies in the late sixties and early seventies had already utilised contemporary settings,  but they had still employed traditional horror tropes such as mad scientists, vampires and monsters and traditional plot structures.  There are no mad scientists, ghosts or monsters, however, in Frightmare.  The only 'monsters' present are ordinary people, like ourselves.  Which, undoubtedly, is what made contemporary critics so uncomfortable - with no fantastical framework to distance themselves from the violence and unpleasantness on screen, they were unable to simply dismiss it as 'harmless fantasy'.  An earlier generation of critics had, of course, expressed a similar reaction to the earliest Hammer horrors, which recast the black and white Universal horror fantasies of their childhoods as highly sexualized gore-fests in glorious colour.

To return to 1974, this reaction was, as far as I can see, exactly what Walker and McGillivray wanted.  The whole point of Frightmare seems to be to satirise the middle class idea that violence and depravity are things which happen to other people and which can be ignored by 'decent' people.  Even when it does impinge on the lives of 'regular' people, it can be safely neutralised and contained by the appropriate authorities.  Hence the film is structured to constantly juxtapose the comfortable middle class world of dinner parties and professional employment enjoyed by the nominal hero and heroine with both the juvenile delinquencies of the latter's half-sister and the gory goings on at her parents' remote country cottage.  Said parents are former psychiatric patients recently released after fifteen years of incarceration, having been declared 'cured' by their doctors.  The wife had been found guilty of a series of cannibalistic murders, which her husband, although not a participant in the killings, had sought to cover them up.  Unfortunately, whilst the authorities had succeeded in temporarily containing this aberrant behaviour, their complacent assumption that the wife was cured is quickly proven wrong.  Once again, her husband, aided by his now adult eldest daughter attempt to contain her cannibalistic tendencies by supplying her with sheep's brains.  The younger daughter, by contrast, seems to have inherited her mother's violent tendencies, although these are lazily dismissed as regular teenage rebellion.  Inevitably, they turn out to be far more sinister.

Ultimately, authority, whether in the form of the police, the medical profession or psychiatry, prove unable to deal with this renewed outbreak of suburban cannibalism, mainly because tey trefuse to truly believe that it is happening.  In the film's latter stages, it moves from merely satirisng middle class complacency to an extension of the assault on the religious right-wing morality lobby Walker and McGillivray had mounted in their previous movie, House of Whipcord (in which a reactionay retired judge ran his own private court and prison to punish 'depraved' young women).   Here, they attempt to undermine the notion of 'family', as propagated by the reactionary religious faction, as something which guaranteed safety and promoted moral values.  As the film's family unit is reconstituted at the film's climax, things take an even grimmer turn, culminating in a bleak and nihilistic final scene.

So, is Frightmare a 'good' film?  More to the point, did I think it was 'good'?  Well, by any regular standard of criticism, it probably isn't.  Walker is a solid, rather than inspired, director, but, after a fairly slow start, keeps the film moving and approaches the subject matter with real relish.  The performances of the supporting cast are adequate, but not outstanding.  The 'star' names, Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith are, by contrast, outstanding.  In what was to be his last film, Davies gives a terrific performance, entirely sincere and believable as a man desperate to protect the woman he loves and maintain some semblance of 'normality'.  Sheila Keith is truly magnificent as his cannibal wife, one moment coming on like a loveable old granny, the next demonically stabbing people with hot pokers and drilling open their skulls with a Black and Decker so as to get at their brains.  Indeed, it was the electric drill scenes which seemed to upset contemporary critics the most although, see today, they are pretty mild.  But these scenes look forward to the gore films and video nasties of the later seventies and eighties.  Which is where a lot of the film's significance lies - as well as being a riposte to the increasingly feeble traditionalism of the once mighty Hammer, it provided a clear indication of an interesting new route for the horror film. Which partly answers the question of whether its 'good' or not.  In purely artistic terms, probably not.  But in terms of what it represented, both as a blueprint for the future of the genre and a critique of middle class values with regard to violence and the family, Frightmare is undoubtedly very 'good'.  Except that I still don't think that 'good' (or, by logical extension 'bad') is a useful term with which assess and classify films.  They can be both at the same time.  Ultimately, a more useful and pertinent measure is whether or not you enjoyed a film.  On any level.  By such a measure, Frightmare scored pretty highly with me.


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