Frightmare (1974) Frightmare / Frightmare II / Once Upon a Frightmare / Cover Up / Brainsuckers (1974/1975) ****

     Pete Walker got it. While the three studios that had dominated the production of British horror movies in the 60’s floundered their way into obsolescence and eventual extinction in the 70’s, he saw the sharp turn into viciousness which the genre had taken overseas, and said, “Challenge accepted.” Walker’s horror films were no mere copies of the new generation of imports, however. Every bit as much as the output of Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon, Walker’s pictures are distinctively and unmistakably British, rooted in the unique anxieties of a people in the grip of uniquely anxious times. Frightmare was his first real masterpiece, a brutally effective meditation on generational strife, family breakdown, and conflicting responsibilities distilled into the hair-raising tale of a reclusive old lady who sometimes enjoys eating people.

     We begin in 1957, with a representative sample of the crimes of carnival fortune-teller Dorothy Yates (who’ll be played by the irreplaceable Sheila Keith, from The House of Whipcord and The Comeback, when we finally get to see her later on). Dorothy’s tarot readings are more convincing than most, we’re given to understand, so that she has a regular clientele who come by her trailer on the fairgrounds for more in-depth sessions even during the off season. Sometimes Dorothy’s appetite gets the better of her on these occasions, and she kills and eats the customer. Her husband, Edmund (eventually to be played by Rupert Davies, of The Night Visitor and The Oblong Box), covers for her as best he can, but inevitably the law catches up to the Yateses one day. Even then, Edmund stands by his woman, faking madness of his own so as to be locked up alongside Dorothy during her indefinite confinement to an asylum for the criminally insane.

     Over a decade and a half later, we meet half-sisters Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) and Debbie (The Confessional’s Kim Butcher). So far as the outside world is concerned, the girls’ parents are dead, and have been since Debbie was just a baby. They both spent most of their lives in a convent orphanage, but once Jackie came of age and got her feet under her economically, she applied for and was granted guardianship of her younger sister. The truth is more complicated than the official story, however. Both girls are the daughters of Edmund Yates, Debbie by Dorothy and Jackie by an unnamed previous spouse. Jackie knows what really became of her dad and step-mom, but Edmund swore her to secrecy, even with regard to Debbie. Better no mother at all than an insane cannibal, right?

     Our introduction to the Yates sisters comes in parallel, via two interwoven scenes depicting how the girls are spending their respective evenings. Jackie is having dinner with her coworker, Merle (Fiona Curzon, from Queen Kong and Love Is a Splendid Illusion); Merle’s boyfriend, Peter (Nicholas John); and a friend of Peter’s by the name of Graham (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’s Paul Greenwood). Peter and Graham are in med school together, and Merle is hoping to hook the latter up with Jackie. She’s only half-joking when she says that Jackie could use a good psychiatrist (as Graham will be once he completes his residency) to help him with Debbie. And to underscore the truth of Merle’s jibe, we switch then to Debbie, out on the town with her biker boyfriend, Robin (John Yule, of The Flesh and Blood Show), and his gang. At the Toby Jug pub, Debbie is refused alcohol on the grounds that she’s obviously underage. What she tells Robin, however, is that the bartender (Michael Sharvell-Martin) fobbed her off saying that he doesn’t serve tarts. Robin confronts the bartender, the pub manager (Tommy Wright, from Sex Farm and The Phantom of the Opera)— who has clearly dealt with Robin before— has the whole gang 86ed, and the bikers hang around outside until closing time to make sure Debbie’s honor is properly avenged. The barman is saved from worse than a cursory roughing-up when a departing customer calls the police— or at least he’s saved from Robin and his bully boys. Debbie, however, lets the gang flee without her, and as soon as they’re out of sight, she descends upon the bartender herself. When the police finally do arrive, there’s nothing for them to find but an alarmingly large pool of blood.

     Debbie is defiant when Jackie catches her washing the bartender’s blood out of her jeans late that night, arguing that if Jackie can go out at 2:00 in the morning, then there’s no reason why she shouldn’t come in at such an hour as well. The accusation takes Jackie aback, because she thought she’d been stealthier than that. You see, her parents were released from the asylum two years ago with clean bills of mental health, and Jackie has developed a habit of making late-night excursions to their cottage in one of the outlying boroughs. Those visits have taken on greater importance lately, too, because it seems that the couple’s psychiatrists spoke too soon. Dorothy’s cravings for human flesh are creeping back, and her appetite for great, bloody slabs of raw surrogate meats is difficult to keep satisfied on a chauffeur’s salary. Once or twice a week, then, Jackie chips in to buy her stepmother a pound or so of whatever cut is most easily make-believed into a hearty meal of long pig.

     What no one realizes yet is that Dorothy has had a full relapse. She’s reading her tarot cards again while Edmund is out driving the local squire hither and yond, and just as before, her customers have a fair chance of winding up in the secret pantry she’s set up in the workshed. And as we’ve already seen, Debbie is starting to take after her mom, even if she hasn’t yet made the jump to eating her victims. A pair of detectives (Victor Winding, of Schizo and The Medusa Touch, and Anthony Hennessey) come sniffing around Jackie’s flat about the missing bartender, provoking a fierce row between the sisters. Meanwhile, Robin proves less enthusiastic than Debbie expected about helping her dispose of the barman’s body, which she’s been hiding all this time. Jackie, for her part, decides to take Merle up on her suggestion, and points Graham Debbie’s way. He’s happy to oblige, but let’s face it— the poor guy has no idea what he’s getting himself into here. Especially not once Debbie figures out at last how her sister has been spending her late nights out of the apartment. After all, what could be better for Debbie in her current situation than a little motherly guidance?

     Well, would you look at that? A British equivalent to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may remain as elusive as ever, but we’ve at least found ourselves a British Deranged! Like Bob Clark’s thinly-veiled Ed Gein biopic, Frightmare concerns itself not so much with shocking physical violence (although there’s certainly plenty of that) as with the psychologies of the killer and the enablers, both witting and unwitting, whose misguided good intentions allow homicidal pathology to thrive. Frightmare, as befits its nationality, is more genteel than the American film— shabby where Deranged is squalid, and class-conscious in a way that few US horror films even attempt— but it’s no less disturbing for all that. Furthermore, it’s as unrelentingly bleak as anything in the stateside grindhouse tradition. Every attempt to do the right thing under increasingly difficult circumstances makes the situation catastrophically worse, and every good deed is punished with surpassing savagery. Intriguingly, though, Frightmare ends with its climax still unfolding, leaving it up to us to decide exactly how horribly to fill in the blanks. Pollyanna herself would have a hard time spinning a happy ending out of the last action before the freeze-frame, but there’s room to imagine a denouement somewhat short of the complete triumph of evil and insanity. Perhaps, for example, a redemptive sacrifice is in the offing, or maybe Jackie just proves very quick on her feet. The full 70’s bummer is equally well supported by the final shot, though, for those of us more pessimistically inclined.

     Another unexpected thing that Frightmare does is to create grounds on which one can argue for Walker as something of a counterpart to George Romero, as an accomplished dealer in the moral-allegorical school of horror. It’s just hard to determine how far to take that argument, since Walker has always admitted to a certain amount of cynicism and disingenuousness in this phase of his career. What we can say for certain is that Walker made a movie about an old lady with a penchant for snacking on the neighbors and her far too supportive husband at exactly the time when the gross inadequacy of the country’s elder-care provisions was first becoming a major issue in British politics. He made a movie about a young adult grappling impossibly with responsibilities to and for her cannibalistic stepmother on one hand, and her amoral thrill-killer of a little sister on the other, at exactly the time when the UK was failing even more signally than the United States at coming to grips with the mutual mistrust between the generations still lingering from the preceding decade. And at exactly the time when formerly reliable social coping mechanisms were yielding seemingly less satisfactory results with each passing year, Walker made a movie in which an idealistic young intellectual is overwhelmed, destroyed, and in the end literally consumed by the viciousness and barbarism that he was attempting to quell. All in all, it sure does look like Walker was trying to say something with Frightmare— and he did a pretty convincing job of it if he was. Maybe this time, it was the pose of cynicism itself that was disingenuous.



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