Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Post-Script: More Pete Walker

Though it's probably fair to handicap Frightmare as his finest work amongst the ones I've seen, British shock specialist Pete Walker directed several interesting and worthy thrillers throughout the seventies and eighties.

After being bowled over by Walker's cannibal drama, I quickly jammed every one of his horror movies (the ones currently on DVD, that is) onto my Netflix list. Die Screaming Marianne (his debut), The Flesh and Blood Show, and House of Whipcord have yet to hit the mailbox (and Walker's '76 effort Schizo is currently out of print domestically), but here's a rundown of the ones I've seen so far.

The Confessional (AKA House of Mortal Sin, 1976): Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) walks into a small catholic church to receive confession for the first time in several years, but Father Meldrum, the priest hearing her (Anthony Sharp), turns out to be a raving nutter who'll stop at nothing to cleanse Jenny's wayfaring soul...including murder. Walker's follow-up to Frightmare shares many of that film's virtues--likeable leads, Peter Jessop's excellent and evocative lenswork (he makes Meldrum's church a malevolent character in its own right), some impressive suspense setpieces, and a refreshing distrust of the status quo that warrants a hearty thumbs-up from this lapsed catholic--but it's not quite the home run that Frightmare was. the central fault here: the credibility-straining notion that Jenny's closest friends and loved ones would question her sanity on the say-so of the creepy and obviously unbalanced Father Meldrum. Also, there ain't enough Sheila Keith.

That said, Media Blasters has anointed The Confessional with some terrific extras: In addition to the entertaining Pete Walker trailers that adorn this and all of the other Media Blasters Pete Walker Collection DVD's, there's a lengthy documentary detailing Walker's career as a horror director, a loving featurette on the magnificent Sheila Keith, and informative director's commentary from Walker. All of the above pushes The Confessional from merely worth a look to pretty darned essential.

The Comeback (AKA The Day the Screaming Stopped, 1978): Walker himself rates this as one of the lesser movies in his canon (likely because it doesn't carry the metaphoric weight of some of his earlier works), but it's been a favorite of mine for years, and I'd stick up for it as one of his best. It's an engrossing thriller about a pop singer (played by real-life lounge god Jack Jones) attempting to record his comeback album while a killer slaughters everyone around him (or is his sanity just unravelling?). There's not much message here, but Jones is quite credible, Walker engineers the surreal air of disorientation--and the spasms of violence that come blasting out of nowhere--masterfully, and it's genetically impossible for me not to love a film in which David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie's Angels!) shows up as a possible murder suspect and closet transvestite.

House of the Long Shadows (1983): Desi Arnaz Jr. plays a headstrong American author who lays a wager with his publisher that he can hole up in spooky, deserted old Baldpate Manor and finish a novel overnight. Of course, the antiquated Welsh manse ain't all that deserted after all. Dotty Lord Grisbaine (Carradine) has kept his insane son Roderick locked away in a bedroom for years, but Roderick escapes from the manor ready to kill, and soon the rest of the Grisbaine clan shows up that night, just in time for a mayhem-filled reunion.

House of the Long Shadows made horror history by uniting genre icons Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine under one cinematic roof for the first (and alas only) time, but over the years critics, fans, and even director Pete Walker himself have levelled some serious punches at it. It's an easy target, being a very quaint old-fashioned Old Dark House-type thriller of the most quaint and old-fashioned variety (based on a quaint, old-fashioned novel by Earl Derr Biggers), and whoever cast Arnaz as the romantic lead has some 'splaining to do. But divorced from the hopelessly inflated expectations set by the presence of its iconic cast, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

All those haters should take the breezy tone set so nicely by the movie's cast to heart: Cushing's lisping Sebastian Grisbaine and Price's drama-queen Lionel Grisbaine provide the juiciest comic bits, but Lee adds self-aware wit to his usual glowering charisma, and Sheila Keith makes the most of her last character role for Walker as Lord Grisbaine's weary daughter. This is a cozy bit of entertainment, and a lot more worthwhile than you'd think. Here's hoping it comes to domestic DVD someday soon--and that Pete Walker softens up to it enough to offer his usual thoughtful commentary.

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