WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?
1972 / Bill Bain
By the time that the cameras rolled on What Became of Jack and Jill? (UK, Bill Bain, 1972) In 1970, Amicus had been a proud purveyor of horror for a full five years. In the space of that time, however, tastes had begun to change. The delights of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965) would no longer cut it for horror’s most reliable market – the teen audiences in search of a few good scares in between snogs on the back row. Mindful of the ever-increasing risk of becoming staid, both Amicus and its biggest UK rival Hammer, looked to change things up. In doing so, they turned their eye towards America, whose horror output was beginning to lean towards the graphic (Night of the Living Dead (US, George A. Romero. 1968)) and psychological (Rosemary’s Baby (US, Roman Polanski, 1968)), whilst their more mainstream efforts (Bonnie and Clyde (US, Arthur Penn, 1967)) focused on a daring youthful rebellion that managed to hold a mirror up to contemporary mores even though it was ostensibly set almost forty years earlier. Eager to replicate some of this style, Hammer began to throw off some of its older, more established stars in favour of new, younger ones like Ralph Bates and Shane Briant, with the intention to cultivate them across several movies. Also cast off at this time was the traditional gothic Victoriana of pea soupers, foreboding castles and horse-drawn carriages, replaced by a modern-day ‘swinging London’ setting of coffee bars, Carnaby Street fashions and sports cars in films such as Straight On Till Morning (UK, Peter Collinson, 1972) which mixed psychological horror with youthful deviancy and Dracula A.D. 1972 (UK, Alan Gibson, 1972) and its sequel The Satanic Rites of Dracula (UK, Alan Gibson, 1973) which acknowledged young people and the counter-culture, albeit in the cheesiest of manners. Looming over all these attempts however was a bona fide British horror classic, A Clockwork Orange (UK/US, Stanley Kubrick, 1971). This soon-to-be-withdrawn movie became a moral panic greeting the hungover morning after the party before the early 1970s and, with its potent mix of psychological horror and counter-cultural deviant subversion, helped spawn a new, scuzzy and bitter-tasting exploitation era in X-rated fright-fests. The story behind What Became of Jack and Jill?, a movie which definitely fits that category, is not a clear-cut one for Amicus aficionados.
Based on the novel The Ruthless Ones by Laurence Moody, the film stars Paul Nicholas, who had then achieved significant recognition playing the lead in the musical Hair in London’s West End in 1968 but who is now perhaps best known for his starring role in the sitcom Just Good Friends (BBC TV, 1983-1986), as callous youth Johnnie Tallent and Vanessa Howard, star of Tigon’s The Blood Beast Terror (UK, Vernon Sewell, 1968), Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (UK, Freddie Francis, 1969) and Amicus’ intended ‘scream queen’ for the 1970s, as his even more unscrupulous girlfriend, Jill Standish. Together, the pair plot to gain Johnnie’s inheritance by frightening his housebound grandmother (veteran actress Mona Washbourne) to death, gaslighting her with tales of a youth revolution intent on interning or executing the over 75’s who they believe to be a drain on society. Some cite its production as clear evidence that Amicus were not only acutely aware of the new tastes for more exploitative fare, but they were also eagerly embracing it and determined to beat Hammer by purposefully seeking out material that was darker, more violent and sexualised for the grindhouse markets in the US. Others however point to the protracted production as an indicator that something went seriously awry. The film was shot at Shepperton Studios in 1970 under the somewhat darkly ironic working title of Romeo and Juliet ’71 (a nod to Romeo and Juliet (UK/Italy, Franco Zeffirelli, 1968) and its recent success) but didn’t actually see the light of day until 1972 when US distribution rights were picked up by 20th Century Fox. Whilst Fox did as Amicus hoped and gained the film some financial success on the grindhouse circuit, the gap between the film being wrapped and its eventual release (combined with the fact that it more or less crept into UK cinemas) does suggest that Amicus chiefs Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenburg were less than pleased with the movie and its lack appreciation at home may have contributed to the fact that it remained the only feature film that director Bill Bain ever made – the Australian returning to a steadily prolific career in British TV before his untimely death from skin cancer ten years later aged 52. Even today, What Became of Jack and Jill? continues to suffer its ignominy; receiving no release to DVD or Blu-ray, it remains Amicus’ most obscure and least loved offering.
But does it deserve such obscurity? Well, personally I would say no. Granted, the film’s acidic taste is an acquired one, but there’s nothing here that wasn’t being done elsewhere in exploitation cinema at the time. The London of What Became of Jack and Jill? (Johnnie resides with his grandmother at the stereotypically suburban named Acacia Avenue) is a washed-out one of drizzly streets and dour-faced middle-aged men like Peter Copley’s solicitor and the wandering hands of Jill’s employer played by George A. Cooper; in short, a more authentic look and a dampener on the supposed swinging 60s. It’s the sickly capital familiar to all who have viewed Duffer (UK, Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq, 1972), Nightbirds (UK, Andy Milligan, 1970) and, if you can bring yourself to recall Robin Askwith’s bare arse pumping away once more, Cool it, Carol! (UK, Pete Walker, 1970). Indeed, Pete Walker is relevant here as he was unmistakably the leading figure in the UK’s exploitation cinema and movies like House of Whipcord (UK, Pete Walker, 1974), Frightmare (UK, Pete Walker, 1974) and House of Mortal Sin (UK, Pete Walker, 1976) focus on the generational divide and conflict in the same way that Amicus does here. Where Walker succeeds and they arguably fail however is that, for Walker, the looser moral values of Britain’s youth were ironically in their infancy in comparison to the callous hypocrisy and barely contained dangers represented by their elders and the institutions they operate within or indeed control. It is a worldview not dissimilar to Kubrick’s own in A Clockwork Orange, and that’s why Walker arguably plugged the gap in the wake of that film’s removal from view. Walker’s exploitation however is far more risqué than What Became of Jack and Jill?, whose success within the grindhouse circuit rather belies the lack of violence and nudity on display. The salty dialogue of screenwriter Roger Marshall ensures Vanessa Howard’s Jill talks a good game, but anything sexual is reserved as ‘noises off’. Whilst the actions are chaste, however, the intentions are not. It is arguably the all-pervasive, unpleasant air contained, like a vacuum within the claustrophobic warrens of the Tallent home, and the despicable machinations of its deeply unlikeable and irredeemable protagonists, which makes What Became of Jack and Jill? so unpalatable. A nihilistic and sleazy movie, What Became of Jack and Jill? didn’t prove to be the way forward for Amicus after all. As the seventies continued apace, Subotsky and Rosenberg retreated to the comforting familiarity of their portmanteau format.