Monday, October 15, 2007

Frightmare: Horror with a Stiff Upper Lip

I'm a sucker for sharply observed cinematic character studies, especially if they include cannibalism and power-drill murders.

British director Pete Walker forged a distinctive body of genre work in the seventies, making several horror films that combined the most tawdry and lurid subject matter with a singularly British sensibility. US grindhouse fare of similar vintage was all about sensationalism and blunt force trauma: Walker wasn't shy about using gore and (to a lesser degree) sex, but he added smarts and subtext to the mix, all without sacrificing one acrid ounce of unease and creepiness.

I'd seen--and enjoyed--some of Walker's other horror films over the years, but discovering his 1974 opus Frightmare recently was a major eye-opener. Make no mistake, we're still talking about a low-budget horror flick with typically direct and exploitive aspirations. But within its rinky-dink universe dwells a surprisingly rich--and disturbing--thematic underbelly.

Frightmare covers the saga of Dorothy and Edmund Yates (Sheila Keith and Rupert Davies), a married couple responsible for several cannibalistic killings in the late fifties. They're apprehended and committed to an insane asylum for over fifteen years, then pronounced sane and released.

The Yateses live in relative solitude, their past a secret to everyone but their oldest child, twenty-something Jackie (Deborah Fairfax). The devoted daughter keeps her parents' identities concealed from wild-child younger sister Debbie (Kim Butcher), insisting that their elders died many years ago rather than revealing the truth. But the outside world proves a rough fit for the old married couple, and the sins of the parents, it seems, can decisively taint their progeny.

Here's a crazy notion: If you take the phrase 'several cannibalistic killings' out of the above synopsis and substitute it with any old crime, you've got the template of an involving drama that clicks on a lot of levels. The solid script by David McGillivray (from a story by Walker) works effectively at face value as a character study: surrogate mom Jackie and hell-raising little sib Debbie navigate conflicts that feel grounded in reality, and Jackie's strained but still-loving relationship with her parents possesses similar weight and honesty. No, it ain't Merchant Ivory, but it's pitched at a much higher level than your average horror film.

Frightmare's directed with more skill than your average grindhouse fare, too. Like a lot of good directors, Walker converts a crippling lack of funds into an asset, mostly shooting in undistinguished gray suburban English locales and confining most of the action to tight rooms within small, unassuming houses and flats. The cumulative mood of claustrophobic creepiness is amplified by the surface blandness of the surroundings: Give or take the accents, this could be happening anywhere.

Cinematographer Peter Jessop even squeezes in some moments of visual poetry. All of Jackie's late-night visits with her parents take place amidst the lambent orange glow of a living-room fireplace in picturesque natural light. It's sharply subversive of Jessop and Walker to make Mum and Dad's house warm and homey, even though Mum and Dad are accused killer cannibals.

The pointed subversion doesn't end at the visual spectrum. The Yateses', um, problem serves as canny semaphore for the British upper class's fear of 'bad blood' infiltrating respectable society, and the inevitability of that bad blood spanning generations. Don't expect modern psychiatry to be of any help either, according to Walker: The movie's voice of intellect, Jackie's would-be boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood), pays dearly for his unconditional faith in his chosen profession, and for his inability to play-act as anything other than the rational academic that he is.

Graham also serves as a poster boy for Walker's damning indictment of his fellow countrymen--between Graham's studied-to-extremes approach to problems and Edmund Yates's proprietary meekness, Walker seems to be pointing up the ineffectuality of the prototypical British male. No wonder the movie ends on such a crushingly nihilistic note: the only movers in this tragedy are deranged (Dorothy Yates) or knee-capped by the ineffectiveness of others (Jackie).

Here's another crazy notion: This low-budget shocker provides an acting tour-de-force for the two old pros playing the cannibalistic couple. Davies paid the bills through various character roles in the fifties, sixties, and seventies (he's wonderful as George Smiley in 1965's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and Frightmare marked one of Davies' last feature film gigs before passing away in 1976. He's every inch the doting husband and loving father here, telegraphing the deep-set weariness that exists hand-in-hand with his love for his wife in a layered, finely-tuned performance. Sheila Keith, however, handily strides away with the picture.

Like Davies, Keith toiled in character roles over the decades and got her meatiest (no pun intended) work in horror flicks. She became a staple of Walker's repertory company, and in Frightmare, she gets the role of her career. Dorothy shifts from dottily-endearing to empathetically needy to stop-on-a-dime terrifying with the turn of an eyelash, and Keith's sonorous delivery adds classical crispness to McGillivray's dialogue. It's criminal that Pete Walker remained the only director to use her to her fullest (she died in 2004), because in Frightmare she gives the kind of rich performance from which genre icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were born.

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