Good old Pete Walker. It’s nice to know that in 1974, when Hammer was cashing in on popular trends by indulging in the colourful theatrics of THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES and Amicus had just made one of the best examples of the British ghost story movie in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, someone was working hard at producing our own equivalent to Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
Like Hooper’s film, much of FRIGHTMARE’s action takes place in an isolated location in the country. Where it differs, however, is in its very British attitude towards all the madness and horror that occurs there. Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith, whose performance I enjoy more and more every time I watch this film) is a cannibal with a predilection for brains. But when she isn’t gibbering with glee drilling open peoples’ skulls, or subjecting pretty Pamela Farbrother (who you would think would have had enough of being tortured on film after CRY OF THE BANSHEE) to a poker through the guts, she’s a kindly (and slightly pathetic) little old lady who does crochet by the fire. Her husband Edmund (Rupert Davies) knows exactly what’s going on but adheres to the time honoured British traditions of Not Wanting Any Trouble and Pretending It Doesn’t Exist. Because of Keith’s stellar performance Davies’ role often goes unnoticed but it’s also a masterly study – this time in male impotence, never willing to take responsibility and insidiously scheming so that the blame for any upset within the family can be attributed to his daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax). Jackie’s his daughter from his first marriage, which means she’s sane. Debra (Kim Butcher) is Dorothy’s daughter, which means she’s not. Graham (Paul Greenwood) is a psychiatrist which means he’s going to get everything wrong with self confident superciliousness before dying horribly - Walker and screenwriter David McGillivray do seem to have it in for the psychiatric profession in this one. Graham’s boss is called Dr Lytell and he has an X-Ray upside down on the screen in his office. He gets referred to the director of the mental institution from which Edmund and Dorothy have been released. “We didn’t kick them out for the fun of it you know,” he says. “They’re completely cured – as sane as you or I.” Cut to bloodied corpse being hidden beneath straw in the barn. And if we haven’t got the point by the end of the film, just as heroine Jackie is about to be meat-cleavered in the face by her stepmother we get a replay of the sentencing judge’s “And let the members of the public be assured that you will remain in that institution until there can be no doubt whatsoever that you are fit and able to enter society again” from the movie’s black and white prologue.
It’s been said that the first three collaborations between Walker and McGillivray (HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE, and HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN) form a trilogy in which the respective institutions of the law, the family and the Catholic church are attacked and to some extent satirised. I’ve found that much of the horror in Walker’s films tends to stem from their implication of a lack of trust. We cannot trust our elders and self-appointed ‘betters’, or our doctors, or our priests, or the girl we’re married to (SCHIZO) or even a kindly old couple of housekeepers (THE COMEBACK). Much of the power of the cunningly constructed endings to these films lies in how believably the innocent parties are drawn to their fates. In Walker’s world of horror, it’s always the scheming villains who will win, and you can’t get more bleak than that.