The Enemy Within!
Britain's Most Dangerous Video Nasty
words by Andy Roberts
In the 1970s, the whole world was under attack from a pervading sense of paranoia.
Tensions between the East and West during the tumultuous Cold War resulted in hysteria among Western society, terrified of a mass-scale impending invasion by Communist agents, a stealthy takeover of their national values and sabotage rendered by secretive operatives planted within their own ranks. Some of the horror remakes of the time, such as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even the later John Carpenter film The Thing tapped into this palpable sense of danger and dread the public felt, unable to trust any smiling faces for fear of malevolent intentions beneath the surface. It’s rather ironic therefore that the UK had its own experience of an enemy within during a time of nationwide distress.
The story has been related many times, but the era of the video nasties in Britain is still a very bizarre and somewhat amusing chapter in our country’s history. When the concept of home video arrived on our shores, legal loopholes allowed films on VHS to bypass the usual certification and censorship process and be released without any interference from higher powers. Although a strange concept to youthful audiences today, the rapidly growing enterprise of video shops had no obligation to check if films were suitable for their younger customers, with children technically able to access unexpurgated versions of hard-hitting horror and sex films. Though the statistics and data on exactly how often this was going on was woefully shoddy, the ensuing media panic ensured that a set number of films were demonised for their luridly violent content and promptly banned by the authorities. With most of the films having originated from America or European countries, they were easily decried in the media for their non-British nature but one example was not so easily explained away as a corruption of British values by foreign invaders.
Released under the title of Exposé by Intervision on VHS, House on Straw Hill is a British erotic thriller film directed by James Kenelm Clarke, responsible for some flagrantly popular sex comedies from the ‘70s like Hardcore and Let’s Get Laid. Starring recognisable German cult actor Udo Kier, sex symbol Fiona Richmond (who also appeared in Kenelm Clarke’s other sexualised output) and the sultry vixen Linda Hayden (from The Blood on Satan’s Claw), the film is a thoroughly cloying and atmospheric shocker focused on the exploits of Paul Martin (Kier), a dislikeable writer who is struggling with an intense case of writer’s block. Plagued by nightmarish delusions and dreams, his relationship with girlfriend Suzanne (Richmond) is strained to the point of simply using her for sex and then requesting her absence. To break through his creative stumbling block, he hires a secretary called Linda, who arrives and immediately catches Paul’s attention. A subtle game of cat-and-mouse begins with the pair as the writer struggles to contain his lust for his new typist. When a pair of youths and Paul’s housekeeper meet grisly ends at the hands of a rubber-gloved assassin, however, it’s clear that Linda’s arrival is hardly likely to improve the situation at Paul’s country home.
What is most striking about House on Straw Hill is how it manages to almost perfectly balance being an exploitative potboiler of sex and violence with the stylistic sheen and elegance of a European arthouse film. Even though the moments of explicit violence can be certainly deemed nasty and the sexual scenes sufficiently seedy, there’s an overall sleekness and aesthetic beauty ingrained into the images that makes them somehow impressive and shameless at the same time. Certainly compared to its contemporaneous ‘video nasties’, the film is not the overwhelming gore rollercoaster that The Evil Dead is, nor is it the tepid, boring endurance test of Frozen Scream; Kenelm Clarke manages to elegantly balance out the requisite bloody violence by suffusing the film with beautifully haunting shots of the English countryside, languid shots of Linda gazing out of windows and multiple scenes of nighttime shadows. There’s also a hugely oppressive tone over the entire affair, especially in the maddening sequences of Paul’s hallucinations, where a strange man appears impossibly at upstairs windows or continually commits bloody suicide, accompanied by frenzied screaming, blood spatters and intense reverberations of his anguish. Similarly, there are sequences when Paul imagines Linda menacingly smoking a cigarette which soon melts into her brandishing a kitchen knife over his drunken body. These flourishes of a broken mind and burgeoning insanity lend a real European vibe to the otherwise straightforward screenplay.
While the reliable Udo Kier is always a joy to watch in action, his character Paul is a rather miserable creature. With a stony-faced vacancy when making love to his girlfriend (combined with the unexplained kink of wearing rubber gloves), a short temper and tendency to use his fists, our main protagonist is hard to fully get behind. This is probably exactly the point, however, as both his frustrated attitude, seeming lack of writing skills and paranoia about a mysterious suicidal spectre are heavily hinting that something is not right with the author and his past. The same layers of mystery surround Linda, a publicly demure but privately vulnerable young woman with more than her fair share of secrets. While initially appearing to be a professional typist, Linda frequently self-indulges in masturbation to a picture she keeps in her suitcase. While this is relatively normal behaviour, the frequency of onscreen fumbling clearly designates Linda as a highly sexual person, which is in stark contrast to her frosty responses to the eager Paul.
There’s clearly a perpetual mystery surrounding the young woman, especially with her manipulative nature shining through when she casually dismisses Mrs. Aston or brazenly seduces Suzanne into bed. Suzanne herself is almost entirely uncharacterised, reduced to a simple sex doll which Paul uses and dismisses with a marginal amount of emotion. She doesn’t seem too upset with the casual arrangement as she frequently takes her leave and returns on a booty call. Even later in the film, she has been upgraded by Paul as a mere tool to make Linda jealous of his sexual prowess, only to be used in the same fashion by Linda as a major middle finger to the man. Despite suffering a pretty nasty demise, Fiona Richmond’s performance leaves little doubt that her presence was simply for exploitative purposes, especially evident as most of the film’s marketing features Richmond prominently. Other perfunctory characters such as Mrs. Aston and the two youths (Karl and Smedley) exist simply as fodder for the pyretic maelstrom of violence that bubbles in the titular house.
If there is a real weakness of House on Straw Hill, it’s that there’s little intrigue to be had when it comes to the killer’s identity. Though the film employs a very giallo-esque technique of utilising a mostly unseen murderer during the kills, donning a pair of rubber gloves (a none-too-ambiguous nod in the direction of the disreputable Paul) viewers will hardly be surprised when it is revealed that Linda is actually responsible. There’s too much of an evident conniving undertone to her actions, as well as a fairly explicit violent temperament when she is attacked by two lecherous youths in a field.
Since it was classed as a video nasty, viewers shouldn’t be surprised that the scenes of sex and violence in House on Straw Hill are fairly strong. While comparatively tame by modern attitudes, the feature does boast a fair amount of delusory images of slashed wrists, blood running down bath drains and bloodstained hands rapping on windows. Throats are slit, bodies are pulverised with shotgun blasts and there’s a particularly sexualised Hitchcockian stabbing in a bathtub which suffered the majority of the BBFC’s censorious cuts in the cinema version.
In a strange twist of fate, these cuts still persist in the most recent UK version of the film so modern viewers won’t even get to see this brutal demise in its entirety. Ardent viewers will have to track down the rare pre-cert versions or import the US Severin Blu-Ray which is fully uncut. That’s not to say however that the film isn’t devoid of shocks; there’s a graphic rape sequence in the same vein as Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs, in which Linda is attacked by two village idiots and forced at gunpoint to submit to them sexually. Like Peckinpah’s example, Linda’s reaction to the rape is somewhat muddled; whilst clearly in distress at first, she demonstrates a change in tactic by suggestively caressing the barrel of her attacker’s shotgun, allowing a lascivious smile to show on her face.
Though this clearly would have been an issue for the BBFC as it suggests she is enjoying her assault, it actually showcases a rare display of bodily autonomy in a female character and refusal of the expected victimhood. In a move that heavily foreshadows Linda’s ruthlessness and ulterior motives towards Paul, she lulls her attackers into a false sense of security by responding positively and then using the sexually suggestive motion with the shotgun to seize it suddenly, blasting her attackers dead with buckshot and extricating herself from the situation. In true dramatic fashion, however, with a deus ex machina in a similar style to A Bay of Blood, Linda’s deeds are undone by a surprising figure with a shotgun…
While the film was released in UK cinemas with around three minutes of censor cuts, the Intervision VHS version was completely uncut and so, it fell afoul of the dreaded DPP’s list of video nasties. It’s unclear exactly what caused the seizure, but it can be assumed (like most of the examples) that the protracted scenes of explicit sex, the conflation with the scenes of violence and the uncomfortable ‘no means yes’ rape sequence all combined to make a rather problematic VHS release. It was notably successfully prosecuted in court, leading to its removal from the video shelves and subsequent unavailability for many years. Even today, it has mostly been vacant from DVD and Blu-Ray catalogues, with only small scale DVDs of the censored version floating around. Considering the ‘video nasty’ movement was vehemently opposed to the filmmakers and crew involved, it’s no surprise that the people behind House on Straw Hill were adversely affected, at least in part.
James Kenelm Clarke didn’t really continue with his filmmaking career and instead pursued a musical path, only returning briefly to the film world to work on the 2010 adaptation of House on Straw Hill, entitled Stalker. Actress Linda Hayden distanced herself from the film, stating that it was the only motion picture in her filmography that she regretted working on. Actor Udo Kier also found himself disliking the film, mainly because he chose to be paid a salary instead of the lucrative video rights, which backfired when the film was an unprecedented success in the Japanese market, making a huge ton of money.
Even today as one of the infamous ‘final 39’ nasties, House on Straw Hill rarely gains the same accolades or praise as other titles like Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Tenebrae receive in spades. While it’s not a high-octane zombie onslaught or a mindless teen splatterfest, Kenelm Clarke’s psychosexual mystery thriller certainly deserves a reappraisal as a truly unique piece of sophisticated exploitation, forever mired in an era of paranoia, fear and moral panic.
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