‘A Very Serious Relapse’: Pete Walker & David McGillivray’s House of Whipcord, Frightmare and House of Mortal Sin

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pete walker

‘A Very Serious Relapse’

Pete Walker & David McGillivray’s House of Whipcord, Frightmare and House of Mortal Sin

Paul Lewis latest essay for Horrified is an extensive exploration of the work of director Pete Walker and his collaboration with screenwriter David McGillivray, focusing on three of the former's best-known films...

Pete Walker is a filmmaker whose once-controversial pictures have acquired a strong cult cache in the years since their original release.

Taken in its entirety, his body of work runs the gamut from light sex comedies to grim terror pictures. The apotheosis of his career is, arguably, the three films he made with film critic-turned-screenwriter David McGillivray in the mid-1970s: House of Whipcord (1974), Frightmare (1974) and House of Mortal Sin (1976). Each of these films explores inter-generational conflict and takes aim at a repressive institution: in House of Whipcord, the penal system; in Frightmare, the family; and in House of Mortal Sin, the Church. Walker and McGillivray also collaborated on 1976’s Schizo, a film that bears a number of similarities with the gialli all’italiana (Italian-style thrillers) that were popular during that period – such as Dario Argento’s 1975 Profondo rosso/Deep Red – and which anticipates the ‘slasher’ boom of the late-1970s. More conventionally plotted, though, with a fairly clever twist in its tail, Schizo sits slightly apart from the other Walker-McGillivray collaborations. (Notably, McGillivray also wrote two films – Satan’s Slave in 1976 and Terror in 1978 – for Norman J Warren, a director whose career, in terms of his trajectory from sex films to horror pictures, bears some comparison with that of Walker.)

Walker began his working life as a stand-up comic: his father, Syd Walker, had been a comedian, and his mother had been a showgirl. However, he ‘retired’ from comedy at the ripe old age of 19, and decided instead to pursue work as an actor. Eventually, he acquired the rights to a number of 8mm ‘glamour’ films and established another career distributing these, eventually moving into producing his own, with such descriptive titles as ‘Soho Striptease’ (1960), ‘Planned Seduction’ (1965) and ‘Godiva Rides Again’ (1965). In the late 1960s, Walker progressed into making longer sex films (such as I Like Birds in 1967, and School for Sex in 1969), alternating the production of these with gangster films and thrillers – though Walker’s gangster films also featured a heavy, easily marketable focus on sex. Of these, Man of Violence (1970) is particularly interesting inasmuch it features a bisexual hero in the form of the underworld fixer Moon (played by Michael Latimer).

With his creative foot firmly wedged in the door of feature film production, Walker soon made a name for himself as the director of feature-length softcore sex films such as Cool It, Carol! (1970) and The Four Dimensions of Greta (1972). The second of these has been claimed by Walker as the first British film shot in 3D; the picture features a handful of 3D scenes, and Walker would resurrect this effect in his terror picture The Flesh and Blood Show (also released in 1972), which featured a climax photographed in anaglyph 3D. (The 3D version of The Flesh and Blood Show wasn’t shown everywhere, however: a ‘flat’ version of the climax was also assembled, and Walker has admitted retrospectively that the 3D version wasn’t a success – most audience members misplacing their anaglyph glasses by the time the film reached its final sequences.)

In 1971, Walker made Die Screaming, Marianne, a fairly straightforward thriller featuring Susan George as a young woman who is on the lam from her crooked father, a corrupt former judge played by Leo Genn. From here, Walker began making what he called ‘terror’ films, beginning with The Flesh and Blood Show, briefly stepping away from the genre with the production of Tiffany Jones in 1973, and Home Before Midnight in 1979. Having established his own production company, through which all but one of his films were produced, Walker retained a sense of authorial control over his films, though this was mitigated in several instances by censor-imposed cuts.

From his early filmmaking experiences, Walker learnt how to make films in the quickest way possible, with limited resources. In interviews, he has established a distinction between a film director – who he suggests is merely a technician that takes responsibility for the visualisation of the script (and Walker has suggested that the script is the key element of a film, not the work of the director) – and a ‘filmmaker’. The latter term, Walker has argued, denotes a greater responsibility for the finished product: a filmmaker, in Walker’s words, ‘starts with an idea […] He can manipulate the whole project […] and then he’s got to get it funded, he’s got to get it made [….] He’s an overall creative businessman. That’s the “filmmaker”’[1]. Following this model, Walker would bankroll his own productions, using the profits from his previous films to finance the pictures through his own production company; the only exception to this was his last film, House of the Long Shadows, which Walker made for Cannon Films in 1983. Walker would also initiate and take responsibility for developing the premises of his films in collaboration with his scriptwriters. (An exception seems to have been Frightmare, which David McGillivray pitched to Walker, who initially baulked at the idea of making a picture about cannibalism.)

Walker’s terror pictures can roughly be divided into collaborations with specific writers. The film critic and budding scriptwriter David McGillivray built a relationship with Walker after interviewing the director for Films and Filming, and the pair collaborated on the four pictures that arguably form the core of Walker’s filmography: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, House of Mortal Sin and Schizo. The Flesh and Blood Show had been written by veteran scriptwriter Alfred Shaughnessy, who also scripted Walker’s Tiffany Jones in 1973; an adaptation of the well-known comic strip by Pat Tourret, Tiffany Jones marked Walker’s brief return to the sex comedy before he dived head-first into the nihilistic world of his collaborations with McGillivray. The Comeback (1978) was written by Murray Smith, who had also written Die Screaming, Marianne for Walker, along with the sex pictures Cool It, Carol! and The Four Dimensions of Greta. Murray Smith also wrote Walker’s 1979 film Home Before Midnight, a picture about a writer of pop ditties (Mike Beresford, played by James Aubrey) who strikes up a sexual relationship with a hitchhiker, Ginny Wilshire (Alison Elliott), unaware that she is only 14 years old. Home Before Midnight is a film that has achieved a striking retrospective relevance when viewed in the context of the revelations of sexual misconduct by various figures involved in the pop music biz during the 1970s. Walker’s final picture before retiring from filmmaking, House of the Long Shadows was scripted by veteran filmmaker Michael Armstrong and stands out in Walker’s filmography for several reasons: as mentioned above, it was bankrolled by Cannon Films; and unlike Walker’s other films (barring Tiffany Jones), it was also an adaptation of a pre-existing text, Earl Derr Biggers’ 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, a book that has been adapted for the big screen on several occasions.

Bringing Terror into the Present

With their contemporary settings, Pete Walker’s terror films stood in stark contrast to the dominant paradigms of British horror cinema that had been established via Hammer’s horror pictures in the wake of Terence Fisher’s one-two-three hit of The Curse of Frankenstein (1958), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959) – in other words, Gothic horror films featuring supernatural (or man-made) monsters in a period setting. In the 1970s, with its agonal gasps, Hammer tried to drag what was arguably its most profitable monster, Christopher Lee’s Dracula, into the modern-day in Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972) and its sequel, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973). Though both of these films have acquired a cult reputation in the years since their original release, it’s fair to say that they received a mixed reception at the time – their attempts to tap into a youth market, particularly through the depiction of Swinging London in Dracula A.D. 1972, seeming quite desperate and, ironically, more disconnected from present-day reality than Hammer’s period pictures of the 1950s and 1960s. (Incidentally, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is notable as the last film that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would make together – until Pete Walker’s 1983 picture House of the Long Shadows.)

In contrast, Walker’s horror films were resolutely of the ‘now’, though very much about a Britain – or specifically, England – that remained shackled to the past, as represented through various repressive institutions: in House of Whipcord, the penal system; in Frightmare, the family; in House of Mortal Sin, the Church. In fact, Walker has always preferred to call his films ‘terror’ – rather than ‘horror’ – films, to differentiate them from the Gothic, supernatural, period-set Hammer horror pictures of the era. ‘I don’t think I ever made horror movies’, Walker has claimed, ‘I made terror movies. Hammer made horror movies […] Mine were thrillers, I felt. They were graphic thrillers, perhaps’[2]. Elsewhere, he has argued, ‘I was making contemporary thrillers, really’[3]. The distinction is a subtle one; and along with their contemporary settings, Walker’s films’ focus on grue and taboo subject matter (particularly corrupt family units) aligned his mid-1970s terror films more closely with some US-made horror pictures of the period, such as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

Walker’s films of this era establish a curious sense of English Gothic, shorn of the period costumes and historical settings associated with the genre – focusing instead on brutal ‘new town’ environments, faded coastal resorts and their piers, fairgrounds, quaint cottages, high streets, roadside cafes and ageing Victorian prisons that function as symbols of the present’s ties with (and fixation on) the past. Where Die Screaming, Marianne had featured an early sequence with some nouvelle vague-style influences – a conversation being held in voiceover, above a disconnected montage of a car driving through the Spanish countryside – Walker’s terror films of the mid-1970s are more in tune with the social realism of British ‘New Wave’ cinema. (It’s worth noting that all of Walker’s terror films, barring House of the Long Shadows, had the same director of photography, Peter Jenner.) With their largely un-showy aesthetic and recognisable, frequently unspectacular environments, Walker’s terror pictures are draped in a veneer of social realism beneath which a fetid underground lake of perversion and cruelty bubbles. The films’ narratives frequently focus on journeys to isolated locales in which this underground lake swells and rises to the surface: the isolated Victorian prison in House of Whipcord; the cottage in which Dorothy and Edmund reside in Frightmare; the lonely presbytery in House of Mortal Sin. In Walker’s dedication to breaking free from the Gothic trappings of Hammer’s horror films, Walker’s terror pictures represent a profound shift away from escapist supernatural horrors to something much more grounded and nihilistic.

House of Whipcord (1974)

House of Whipcord opens on a dark and stormy night. A young woman, Anne-Marie (Penny Irving), is found by a truck driver and begs for his help. He takes her for a victim of sexual assault and promises to drive her to help.

An extended flashback follows. Anne-Marie, a model, meets the slick but ever-so-creepy Mark E DeSade (Robert Tayman) at a party. (The name should have been enough of a warning as to his intentions, to be fair.) DeSade’s interest is piqued when Anne-Marie is mocked by the other attendees for her part in a nude photoshoot that was interrupted by the police, a story that has made headlines. After a restaurant date, DeSade promises to take Anne-Marie to visit his mother in the countryside. However, he takes her to an isolated Victorian prison where she is stripped and booked by two wardens, Walker (Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon).

The prison, it turns out, is run by Mark’s mother, Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham). Wakehurst is a former prison governess who was dismissed after one of the inmates in her prison was found dead. (Wakehurst, it seems, murdered her, though was found not guilty of the crime.) Subsequently, Wakehurst established her own reformatory with the assistance of her lover, a former High Court judge, the blind and senile Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr); this ‘institution’ is focused on punishing young women, who are kidnapped by Wakehurst and her cronies, for perceived immoral behaviour. Wakehurst uses Bailey to provide validation for her cruel treatment of the women she abducts, incarcerates, tortures and, occasionally, kills.

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Meanwhile, Anne-Marie’s friend Julia (Ann Michelle), who is having an affair with married Tony (Ray Brooks), notices Anne-Marie’s disappearance; Julia and Tony attempt to track down Anne-Marie’s whereabouts.

There are some delicious ironies in the film’s opening sequence. Jack (Ivor Salter), the truck driver who rescues Anne-Marie, assumes her to be the victim of a sexual assault, and also assumes that her attacker is male. ‘Who did that to you, love?’, he asks her, utterly appalled: ‘He deserves to swing for it. Don’t worry. He won’t get away with it [….] Some of these blokes, it makes you wonder how their minds work’. The trucker’s casual suggestion that the culprit should ‘swing’ for the attack on Anne-Marie subtly suggests that Wakehurst’s cruel treatment of ‘wayward’ young women is simply an exaggerated element within a society that, more broadly, still values capital and corporal punishment – even years after both were abolished. It also foreshadows the hanging of Anne-Marie that takes place later in the narrative.

Walker’s collaborations with McGillivray foreground intergenerational conflict, an older ‘parent’ generation seeking to repress more liberal youth through abhorrent acts of violence. (In House of Whipcord, the repressive ‘parent’ generation is represented through Wakehurst and Bailey, her not-entirely-willing accomplice, who is largely kept in the dark about the cruelties inflicted by Wakehurst, Walker and Bates.) Taken as a whole, the films have a persistent, almost pathological focus on corrupt figures of authority. Perhaps some of this comes from Walker’s own background: discussing House of Whipcord, Walker has suggested that the premise of the film drew on his Catholic school upbringing and ‘the great piousness of these priests and brothers who were teaching me. But they were quite evil people, some of them’[4].

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House of Whipcord opens with an onscreen title declaring, ‘This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment’. Some commentators have seen parallels between Barbara Markham’s appearance and performance as Mrs Wakehurst, and Margaret Thatcher, who at the time of the film’s production was Secretary of State for Education. In 1961, Thatcher had, of course, memorably voted to restore birching as a punishment and deterrent for criminals, using language that would make Mrs Wakehurst tremble at the knees: ‘I do not agree that crime is a symptom of mental disease’, Thatcher had told the House of Commons, ‘Psychological treatment certainly has a place, but in the case of the hardened type of vicious young criminal it might be to the community’s disadvantage to encourage the thought in him that the crime was not his fault but was due to something in his background and that he was therefore justified in what he did. If, instead of giving him a short, sharp lesson, we encourage in him a feeling of self-justification, we may completely blot out all feeling of guilt or shame’[5]. Justice Bailey’s words in the film, outlining to Anne-Marie the function of Wakehurt’s institution, use similar rhetoric: Wakehurst’s ‘house of correction’ exists, Bailey says, ‘to cast what we regard as proper sentence on depraved females of every category on whom the effete and misguided courts of Great Britain today have been too lenient [….] This, young woman, is a real prison and a proper house of correction’. (It’s easy to forget that corporal punishment in British schools was only outlawed in 1986; prior to that, I vividly remember seeing one particular schoolfriend of mine being struck with a ruler so regularly that it became an almost daily part of the class routine, and my late father often recalled being beaten by the teachers at his rural school for nothing worse than coming from the ‘wrong’ village.)

More specifically, House of Whipcord had relevance for the era of Mary Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light, who during September of 1971 had held a couple of high profile rallies, in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, against perceived permissiveness in the media landscape. Walker and McGillivray’s original intentions were to make a WIP (Women in Prison) film but this eventually ‘started to veer towards [a satire of] the Festival of Light’, Walker has said, and the notion of ‘“right” people taking a “righteous” stand but [who] were just more evil than the people they were criticising’[6]. Walker saw the picture as an opportunity to poke fun at the hypocrisies of the ruling classes, Mrs Wakehurst and Justice Bailey functioning as caricatures of moral crusaders such as Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford. (Walker has suggested that the BBFC Secretary, Stephen Murphy, recognised House of Whipcord as a satirical depiction of Whitehouse and Longford, with the result that he passed the film with minimal cuts.)

There are some clumsy elements, to be sure: for example, the name of Mark E DeSade, which one might reasonably assume would be enough of a warning for Anne-Marie. Walker also displays no qualms about incorporating some salacious nudity, with Sheila Keith’s Walker demanding that Anne-Marie strip naked, in her arrival at the prison, so that she may ‘be bathed and checked for vermin’. (Walker – the director Pete Walker, that is, rather than Sheila Keith’s character in the picture – has stated that his days as a stand-up comic taught him the commercial potential of female nudity.)

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What works very well is how the narrative sets the present-day, with its apparent licentiousness (Anne-Marie’s status as a nude model; Julia’s affair with the married Tony), at odds with Wakehurst’s world, which seems to exist in the past. Travelling to Wakehurst’s institution is almost like a journey into an earlier time. After discussing the whereabouts of Anne-Marie, to get to the prison/reformatory Julia and Tony must travel from modern London to a quaint village, where they are offered vague directions by a rural policeman. The institution itself is very Victorian, with huge portcullis-like gates and puke-green walls. (The exteriors were shot at Littledean Jail, which was completed in 1791 and closed as a prison in 1854; thereafter it was used as a police station and magistrate’s court, and since 2003 has been the site of a rather controversial museum of crime.) The juxtaposition between the present and the past, represented by the prison, is most evident when Anne-Marie is taken there by Mark, her modish, playful suede jumpsuit at odds with the setting. These two worlds are often connected through some clever cross-cutting: there is a particularly memorable cut from the bars of Anne-Marie’s room in Wakehurst’s ‘house of correction’ to the criss-cross pattern of the bamboo headboard of Julia’s bed, where Julia is making pillow talk with her married lover, Tony.

What also works delightfully is Sheila Keith’s performance as the sadistic Walker, who takes great delight in punishing the young women who have been incarcerated/abducted by Wakehurst. ‘There’s nobody to flaunt yourself at here. Nobody to tease’, she tells Anne-Marie, ‘I’m going to make you ashamed of your body [….] I’m going to see to that personally’. Keith’s Walker is keen to escalate the girls’ punishment from the first-tier (solitary confinement) to the second tier (flogging), whereas Wakehurst seems to take personal pleasure in the third tier punishment (execution by hanging). Keith’s Walker takes great delight in lashing Anne-Marie, telling her, ‘I think you’re dying […] Little by little. First, we will kill your vanity, then the rest dies of its own accord’. That night, Walker enters Anne-Marie’s cell and fetishistically strokes the wounds on her back.

As Walker, Sheila Keith arguably steals the show, out-villaining the film’s chief antagonist, Mrs Wakehurst. It’s easy to see why she was given a more prominent in Walker’s next terror film, Frightmare.

Frightmare (1974)

Frightmare opens with a black-and-white sequence set in 1957. In this sequence, Barry Nichols (Andrew Sachs) wanders through a fairground and enters the trailer of a fortune teller. There, he is murdered, his skull split apart. Thereafter, married couple Dorothy and Edmund Yates (Sheila Keith and Rupert Davies) are sentenced for the murder (and others besides); they are committed to a mental institution. (Dorothy, it is later revealed, is a cannibal; Edmund has assisted in covering up her crimes.)

In the present day, wayward teenager Debbie (Kim Butcher) is in the care of her older, more responsible half-sister Jackie (Deborah Fairfax). Though she has had minimal to zero contact with her parents, Debbie is the daughter of Dorothy and Edmund; Jackie is Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage. (What happened to Jackie’s mother is never specified.)

Dorothy and Edmund have been released from the mental institution in which they were incarcerated; and whilst Jackie has kept Debbie away from Dorothy and Edmund, Jackie has been assisting Edmund by providing him with raw meat. Edmund feeds this meat to his wife, hoping to quell her cannibalistic impulses.

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At a dinner party, Jackie meets Graham (Paul Greenwood), a psychiatrist. The two quickly form a relationship, despite Graham’s clumsiness with the opposite sex. However, it becomes increasingly clear to Jackie that Dorothy has returned to her murderous, cannibalistic ways; and Debbie’s challenging, sometimes violent behaviour is escalating too. Graham becomes committed to using his skills as a psychiatrist to help address Debbie’s issues, leading both Jackie and Graham into a confrontation with Edmund and Dorothy… and Debbie, who has found her way into the heart of this peculiar family.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you’, wrote poet Philip Larkin in ‘This Be the Verse’, a poem that appeared first in print in New Humanist in 1971, and was published in Larkin’s 1974 volume High Windows. The poem has stark relevance for Walker’s Frightmare, released during the Christmas period at the end of 1974. Christmas is a festival of family and feasting, and Walker’s film is about both of these – if, by ‘family’, you mean the most dysfunctional, murderous household in England; and if by ‘feasting’, you include the cannibalistic consumption of human cerebral matter.

Following the success of House of Whipcord, wanting to rush another film into production, McGillivray approached Walker with the raw idea for what became Frightmare, but Walker’s initial response was to shy away from the notion of making a film about cannibalism, believing it would only appeal to ‘perverted minds’[7]. In comparison with her part as Walker in House of Whipcord, Sheila Keith was given a more prominent role as the film’s ‘monster’: housewife Dorothy, who uses her talent as a reader of Tarot cards to lure victims to her before dispatching them in brutal ways and using a power drill to extract their brains – which she then eats. It was a role that was relished by Keith, who had reputedly felt stifled in the stereotypical roles she had previously been given in television dramas and serials. Certainly, she performs with gusto. The key image from Frightmare, referenced on the poster and various other promotional material for the film, is a point-of-view shot from one of Dorothy’s victims as a leering Dorothy advances towards the camera, mania in her eyes, holding a power drill (fitted with a wood drill bit); the drill bites into flesh, and blood splashes onto the increasingly excited Dorothy’s face. (This is, of course, approximately five years before Abel Ferrara’s 1979 ‘video nasty’ Driller Killer would employ strikingly similar iconography.)

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As in House of Whipcord, Frightmare juxtaposes the past and the present. Dorothy and Edmund are an outwardly polite, stereotypically English couple. They reside in a cottage which Edmund has secured as part of his newfound employment as a chauffeur. In contrast, their daughter Debbie, a makeup artist at the BBC, lives a very contemporary life as a young, middle-class professional: she is introduced holding a dinner party in her swanky flat. At one point in the film, Jackie has a nightmare: travelling in a train carriage, she is confronted by Dorothy, seated across from her, staring. Dorothy’s face is pasty, the flesh around her eyes a vivid red; she holds a bloody parcel, wrapped in brown paper. Dorothy nears Jackie, blood dripping from her lips onto the pages of the book Jackie has been reading. This nightmare sequence seems to suggest, symbolically, that Jackie is frightened of her respectability being tainted by Dorothy’s past.

Edmund has enlisted Jackie in enabling Dorothy’s behaviour (by providing packets of raw meat for her to consume), though he tells his daughter that Dorothy has ‘taken to just standing, listening. I don’t know why [….] It could be my imagination, but I have a feeling that she’s trying to make me believe that she is better’. For her part, Dorothy informs Jackie that ‘I think I left all my headaches and my problems behind when I left the… other place’.

House of Whipcord had featured an interesting power dynamic, from the perspective of gender stereotypes, with Mrs Wakehurst presiding over the mock penitentiary; the doddering Justice Bailey was used by Wakehurst as little more than a puppet, his authority as a former High Court judge offering legitimacy to her acts of cruelty by providing the weight of his signature on the documentation she produced to support the punishments meted out to the incarcerated young women. (Who this documentation is intended for, is never explained.) There are perhaps parallels to be made with the American film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (released in the US the same year as House of Whipcord, but denied a certificate by the BBFC when submitted in 1975), and the manner in which the cannibalistic family kowtow to the decrepit, seemingly partially mummified Grandpa.

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This inversion of patriarchy, for want of a better phrase, is carried through to Frightmare, where it is foregrounded in the relationship between Dorothy and her husband Edmund. Edmund is fully aware of what Dorothy is capable of, and in the wake of the murder depicted in the opening flashback, he is convicted alongside her. Upon the couple’s release, Edmund enlists his oldest daughter, Jackie – Dorothy’s stepdaughter – to source raw meat for Dorothy to consume, hoping to quell her cannibalistic urges. (‘You seriously thought you could diminish her killing instincts by pretending to do it for her?’, a disbelieving Graham asks Jackie when he discovers, later in the film, that Jackie has been providing Dorothy with packages of raw meat.) However, the canny Dorothy is up to her old tricks, luring victims to the cottage with a newspaper advert foregrounding her skills as a fortune teller, before dispatching them brutally, cannibalising their corpses and storing what remains of the bodies in a disused stable adjacent to the cottage in which the couple live.

At an undisclosed point in the narrative, Dorothy makes contact with and recruits her biological daughter, Jackie’s younger sister Debbie, whose sadistic, eventually murderous behaviour – despite being raised in an institution whilst her mother was incarcerated – suggests an innate predilection for violence. When the passive Edmund discovers this, he becomes little more than an enabler – turning a blind eye to Dorothy’s (and, eventually, Debbie’s) most curious peccadillo, and assisting in the murder of Graham and Jackie that takes place in Frightmare’s final scenes. Edmund’s quiet complicity in his wife’s curious fascination, to the extent that he would help Dorothy to kill Jackie and Graham, is established earlier in the film. Though Edmund appears harmless, his seeming inability to prevent Dorothy’s murderous behaviour (presumably because he fears reprisals from his wife) is gradually suggested to be something much more complicit – a pathological refusal to intervene, perhaps, or possibly even a precarious/voyeuristic pleasure in her activities. In other words, Edmund is just as dangerous as his wife. Earlier in the film, Jackie speaks with Edmund, noting that Dorothy has ‘been in an asylum for 15 years. She must be cured’. In response, Edmund reminds Jackie, ‘We’ve both been in an asylum, Jackie’. The viewer might be reminded of the aphorism often (mis)attributed to Edmund Burke: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. Or, to couch it in a biblical reference of the kind Walker uses in both House of Whipcord and House of Mortal Sin, ‘Rescue those being led away to death, and restrain those stumbling toward the slaughter’ (Proverbs 24:11).

It is with Frightmare, particularly, that Walker achieved a reputation as a maker of exploitation films featuring strong women and weak men. The parallels between Wakehurst and Bailey in House of Whipcord, and Dorothy and Edmund in Frightmare, are reinforced in a line delivered in House of Whipcord by Wakehurst’s son, Mark: ‘They’re insane’, he tells Anne-Marie in reference to his parents, ‘Can’t you see that? They’re not really criminals. They need treatment’. Of course, in Frightmare, Dorothy and Edmund have been released after such ‘treatment’ – and Walker seems to show how flawed that premise is.

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Frightmare opens with the murder of Barry Nichols in 1957, photographed in black and white. Dorothy and Edmund are sentenced for this crime by a judge who admits that, ‘In 22 years on the bench, I have not found a more sickening case’. Committing the pair to a mental institution, the judge asserts, ‘And let the members of the public be assured that you will remain in this mental institution until there can be no doubt whatsoever that you are fit and able to take your place in society again’. However, in the present day, the couple are declared sane and released – only for Dorothy to suffer what Edmund describes as ‘a very serious relapse’. (After the film’s climax, in which Jackie and Graham are murdered by Dorothy, Walker presents the judge’s words on the soundtrack once again; at this point in the story, the audience will no doubt be shaking their heads at the naivete of the judge’s declarations and implicit belief in the concept of rehabilitation – having seen the extent to which Dorothy and Edmund have, since their release, simply reverted to their old, murderous ways.)

When Graham investigates the incarceration of Jackie’s parents, intending to help Debbie, he discovers to his astonishment, given the nature of their crimes, that they have been released. He speaks to a psychiatrist, Matthew Lawrence (Gerald Flood), at the mental hospital where Dorothy was committed. Lawrence tells Graham that when Dorothy was a child during the Depression, her parents used her pet rabbit for food; Lawrence says that she was ‘in such shock that she twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable’. Dorothy’s case ‘was the first case of cannibanthropy on record in this country’. When Graham expresses shock at the fact that Dorothy and Edmund have been released, Lawrence tells him, ‘We didn’t kick them out for the fun of it. They’re completely cured. As sane as you or I’. Walker undercuts Lawrence’s words immediately, by cutting to Dorothy and Edmund with the corpse of one of Dorothy’s victims. ‘You won’t tell anyone, will you, Eddie?’, she pleads. ‘These people, they have no relations, no friends. No-one will miss them’.

Frightmare was criticised by those who felt Walker’s film was validating the idea that those responsible for extreme criminal acts, like Dorothy in the film, cannot be rehabilitated and that in most cases, recidivism is inevitable. (One might remember Margaret Thatcher’s 1961 defence of birching, quoted above in discussion of House of Whipcord.) ‘The liberal press just took it [the film] apart’, Walker has said[8].

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Although Debbie has had minimal or zero contact with her parents, she shares her mother’s proclivity for sadism. Debbie is introduced arriving with a group of bikers at a nightclub, where she causes havoc by telling her boyfriend, Alec (Edward Kalinski), that the barman, who has refused to serve her a drink (she is underage), called her a ‘tart’. She intends to provoke a fight and relish in the ensuing violence. Alec and his cronies wait outside the nightclub and attack the barman. After they leave, Debbie murders the barman by whipping him across the face with a chain; later, she leads Alec to the body and suggests that he and his friends killed the barman accidentally, thus persuading him to hide the corpse. Already. Debbie is displaying her mother’s ability to manipulate her lover into covering up her crimes. Both Dorothy and Debbie exhibit manipulative behaviour – employing, to get their own way, everything from threats and violence to tears and self-pity. The similarities between the behaviours of Dorothy and Debbie is suggested throughout the film by cross-cutting from one to another. When Edmund confronts Dorothy about her murders, Dorothy launches into a sob story about being ‘so lonely’: ‘Can’t I have my interests?’, she pleads. (After Edmund catches her in the aftermath of another murder, Dorothy – a pitiful expression on her face – declares weakly, ‘I had to do it’.)

Through the character of Debbie, Frightmare suggests that violent behaviour is to some extent innate. Debbie is a source of consternation for Jackie, who has taken responsibility for her after her release from an unspecified institution – most likely an orphanage, but given Debbie’s behaviour, perhaps a reformatory. (In the nightclub, before the incident with the barman, Alec is warned by one of his mates that ‘You’ll get done. She’s underage. She’s just out of a convent’, to which Debbie responds, ‘It wasn’t a convent!’) To her respectable, middle-class friends, Jackie tries to excuse her sister’s wayward behaviour by commenting simply that ‘My sister’s a bit of an extrovert’.

Surprisingly, given Walker’s background in sex pictures – which bubbled under the surface of House of Whipcord, a film that featured ample female nudity – there is little to no sex in Frightmare. In fact, the film has a very puritanical point-of-view. Walker’s next terror picture, however, would feature a heavier focus on sex offset by a relationship that has been made deeply unhealthy by the repression of sexual desire over a long period, and a narrative which foregrounds puritanical attitudes towards sex through the words and deeds of its chief antagonist, a priest.

House of Mortal Sin (1976)

Returning to his old stomping ground after entering the priesthood, Father Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley) has a chance encounter with a former friend, Jenny Welch (Susan Penhaligon). Jenny is in the process of opening an antique shop with her sister, Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). Jenny and Vanessa live in a flat about their shop, and when Bernard reveals that he has no place to stay, Jenny suggests he should move in with them for the time being. At the same time, following an argument, Jenny’s boyfriend, Terry Wyatt (Stewart Bevan), is in the process of moving out of Jenny’s space.

One day, Jenny wanders into a Catholic church, looking for Bernard. She doesn’t find him but decides to give confession. She tells the priest that she had an abortion; in response, the priest, Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp), asks increasingly prying questions about her sex life with Terry. When Jenny exits the church, she leaves behind her keys; and using these, Meldrum, who in reality is a murderous maniac, visits Jenny’s flat whilst Jenny is out. There he encounters Jenny’s friend Bob (John Yule). Believing Bob to be Jenny’s boyfriend Terry, Meldrum attacks him brutally, throwing boiling water from a stovetop kettle into his face. When Jenny returns home, she finds Bob unconscious. (Meldrum has fled the scene.) Bob is hospitalised.

The next day, Meldrum telephones Jenny and tells her that he has her keys, which he claims she left in the church. He invites her to come to the presbytery to collect them. There, she meets Meldrum’s housekeeper, Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith). Brabazon is responsible for caring for Meldrum’s elderly mother (Hilda Barry); but each time Meldrum leaves, Brabazon treats the old lady cruelly.

house of mortal sin - pete walker

Meldrum plays for Jenny a recording he has made of her confession, hoping to blackmail her with its contents (the revelation that she had a secret abortion) into becoming his ‘pupil’ at the presbytery. Jenny tells Vanessa and Father Cutler about the recording, but when they confront Meldrum he plays for them another, seemingly innocent recording of his case notes, suggesting that it was this that angered Jenny. When Meldrum kills Terry, Jenny struggles to find anyone who will believe her claims about the sinister behaviour of the murderous priest.

Made a couple of years after the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) spawned a slew of horror films focusing on the priesthood, House of Mortal Sin is also somewhat similar to Robert Hartford-Davis’ 1972 film The Fiend (aka Beware My Brethren). Hartford-Davis’ picture focused on a fundamentalist group named ‘the Brethren’, led by Patrick Magee’s charismatic Minister. Inspired by the Minister’s puritanical sermons, youthful Kenny Wemys (Tony Beckley) – a Norman Bates-alike who lives with his overbearing mother – embarks on a killing spree, murdering young women whom he perceives to be immoral. The similarities between The Fiend and House of Mortal Sin are self-evident, and both films take aim at the hypocrisy of the Church – though, in Walker’s film, the murders are committed directly by a man of the cloth, Father Meldrum. When Jenny tries to expose Meldrum’s wicked ways, by telling Vanessa and Cutler of the recording Meldrum made during confession, Meldrum plays for Vanessa and Cutler a different, far more innocent recording of his case notes. ‘She’s a disturbed girl’, Meldrum tells Cutler, ‘who is still in what I believe is termed a “state of shock”’. Given Meldrum’s position as a priest, both Vanessa and Cutler believe him and begin to doubt Jenny’s sanity, thinking that she might be paranoid.

House of Mortal Sin opens with a young woman, Valerie Davey (Kim Butcher), returning home to her parents’ house. She goes to her bedroom and packs her things; her parents hear her cry out, and discover she has fallen to her death from her bedroom window. In her room, pages from a Bible are shown blowing in the wind that enters the room from the open window. Through this symbolism, the film’s mise-en-scène connects her death to her association with Meldrum – something which doesn’t come to the foreground of the narrative until much later in the film.

house of mortal sin - pete walker

House of Whipcord had ended with a quote from Deuteronomy 25:1, delivered via voiceover: ‘If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee’. As noted in the discussion of House of Whipcord above, Walker has suggested that the film was informed by his Catholic school upbringing and how this heightened his awareness of the hypocrisies of the Church and the self-righteous. House of Mortal Sin tackles this motif in Walker’s collaborations with McGillivray more directly, taking as its central point of focus Christianity – specifically, Catholicism and the repression (and desublimation) of desire.

Father Meldrum’s ‘problems’ stem, it seems, from his sexual repression. The narrative slowly makes it clear that Meldrum ran into the priesthood at the behest of his mother, in response to both his murderous impulses and a relationship in his youth with Miss Brabazon. There’s the hint of a festering Psycho­­-like Oedipal complex behind Meldrum’s actions, Meldrum’s once overbearing mother now stripped of her mobility and voice by the ageing process. ‘You guided me away from temptation, into God’s service’, Meldrum tells his invalid mother, ‘But I need your help again, mother. The old temptations, they’ve returned. They’ve been growing for some time’. In the years since, Brabazon has refused to leave Meldrum’s side; though their relationship is not sexual, Brabazon is clearly devoted to Meldrum, telling him that she followed him int the Church ‘because I was happy to share your house even if I couldn’t share your bed’.

Where in Frightmare, Edmund was Dorothy’s ‘enabler’, in House of Mortal Sin the gender roles are reversed and Brabazon enables the murderous Meldrum in the enactment of his murderous fantasies, also helping him to cover these up. In her role as Miss Brabazon, Sheila Keith is again a delight. She wears an eyepatch and spectacles for much of the film; towards the end of the picture, she removes the eyepatch to remind Meldrum of her deformed eye socket, which caused her to be ridiculed as a child. It’s subtly suggested that the manner in which Brabazon was mocked and bullied by her peers has led her to become deeply cruel in adulthood. Her cruelty manifests itself in her encounters with Meldrum’s ailing, decrepit mother, who Brabazon taunts verbally and physically: for example, by force-feeding her a cup of tea. (‘He’s gone out again, I’m afraid’, Brabazon threatens Meldrum’s mother at one point, ‘You’re all alone again… with me’.)

house of mortal sin - pete walker

The murders that Meldrum commits are suggested to be a form of desublimation. His victims are those labelled by him as immoral. He pursues Jenny after she wanders into his church, looking for Bernard, and decides to give confession. During this scene, Meldrum listens patiently as Jenny tells him that she had an abortion. But his questions become increasingly intrusive and focused on Jenny’s sex life, actor Anthony Sharp investing them with a quiet sense of desperation. ‘I want to help you’, he pleads, trying to urge her into giving him more details, ‘You must let me try [….] Together we will seek God’s help’. Jenny is clearly unnerved but, having not given confession since childhood, seems willing to give Meldrum the benefit of the doubt.

When Jenny visits the presbytery the next day, to collect her keys, she is unaware that it was Meldrum who attacked Bob. Meldrum speaks to Jenny with the officious rhetoric of the pious. ‘Think of the spiritual rewards we will find, Jenny’, Meldrum tells her, trying to persuade her to return to the presbytery for ‘guidance’: ‘This man, he’s corrupting you. Let me show you the way to true happiness [….] I have many pupils, you know, and I always quote them a line from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 22: “Be sure your sins will find you out”’. Meldrum plays for Jenny a recording he has made on cassette of her confession, hoping to be able to blackmail her into becoming another of his ‘pupils’ – like Valerie, whose death we saw in the film’s opening scene. ‘You have no right’, Jenny protests. ‘I have every right!’, Meldrum asserts, ‘I was put on this earth to combat sin, and I shall use every available means to do so [….] You cannot survive without me’.

In each of Walker’s collaborations with McGillivray, we find characters who know how to use language and rhetorical strategies to manipulate the listener, and to achieve their own ends. In House of Whipcord, of course, we have Wakehurst and Bailey, who use the rhetoric of the law to justify their cruel treatment of the girls in their ‘house of correction’. In Frightmare, Dorothy uses language to present herself to Edmund as helpless and regretful. Frightmare also features prominent use of discourse associated with mental health professionals, the value and sincerity of which Walker mocks. This is particularly evident in the conversation Graham has with Matthew Lawrence, whose declaration that Dorothy and Edmund are ‘as sane as you and I’ is undercut immediately by a cut to Dorothy and Edmund trying to hide the body of one of her victims. Here, in House of Mortal Sin, Meldrum uses the rhetoric of the Church to justify his voyeuristic recording of Jenny’s confession, and his use of murder to eradicate those whom he perceives to be sinful.

house of mortal sin - pete walker

It’s clear that Meldrum gains a voyeuristic thrill in recording Jenny’s confession, and we may safely presume that he has recorded numerous confessions – perhaps all of them. ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’, he tells Jenny, unaware of the fact that his quoting of this passage from the Book of Numbers is deeply ironic. (By the end of the narrative, Meldrum’s sins have indeed ‘found him out’.) Through Meldrum’s actions, we might also be reminded of another quote by a clergyman: Reverend Sydney Smith’s assertion, in his 1809 article against the Society for the Suppression of Vice, that ‘Men, whose trade is rat-catching, love to catch rats; the bug-destroyer seizes on his bug with delight; and the suppressor is gratified by finding his vice. The last soon becomes a mere tradesman like the others’.

Certainly, Meldrum applies the tools of his trade (the priesthood) in stamping out perceived immorality. The first moment of onscreen violence in the film (leaving aside Valerie’s death in the opening scene, which takes place behind closed doors) is against Bob, prowling over the shoulder shots depicting Meldrum entering Jenny and Vanessa’s shop, then climbing the stairs before hurling the pot of boiling water over Bob’s head. (The staging of this moment, with its use of over the shoulder shots communicating Meldrum’s point-of-view, resembles the scenes of murder in a number of Italian thrillers – particularly those of Dario Argento, such as 1970’s L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – whilst anticipating the use of prowling point-of-view shots in later American slasher movies.) Later, when Terry confronts Meldrum in the church, Meldrum attacks Terry with a thurible, swinging the lit incense burner by its chain at Terry’s face… again… and again… and again. Meldrum also dispatches Valerie’s mother, who makes contact with Jenny and seems about to spill the beans on Meldrum’s depravity, by use of a poisoned wafer which he places in her mouth at Holy Communion.

Again, the film offers an intergenerational conflict similar to those found in House of Whipcord and Frightmare; here, the contrast between young Father Cutler and the older Father Meldrum enables the script to construct a dialogue between a liberal and conservative understanding of the priesthood. Fairly early in the picture, Cutler and Meldrum engage in a conversation about celibacy and the priesthood, Cutler telling Meldrum about a Belgian Cardinal who has raised the question as to whether the vow of celibacy is still relevant in the modern era. Meldrum dismisses the ideas of what he terms this ‘renegade Belgian Cardinal’. ‘Don’t you think the need for celibacy, especially today, isn’t all that relevant?’, Cutler presses. ‘Relevant to what?’, Meldrum responds, ‘Relevant to increasing permissiveness in society, is that what you mean?’ ‘Times change’, Cutler reminds Meldrum, ‘and we must change with them’. ‘By whose orders?’, Meldrum questions. (The Belgian Cardinal under discussion is presumably Leo Joseph Suenens, who fought to modernise the Catholic church in the 1960s, including a call for the Church to reconsider its position on marriage and celibacy.) Eventually, Father Cutler’s dissatisfaction with the Church and the manner in which it is held in the past by priests like Meldrum, compounded by Cutler’s budding relationship with Vanessa, leads him to walk away from the priesthood.

house of mortal sin - pete walker

Walker’s terror pictures are known for their ambiguity, Walker both revelling in and questioning what he represents on screen. This is perhaps what gives them their complexity. Walker has said that his personal outlook is largely conservative, but regarding the ambiguity of his films’ message, he has said that ‘You must never let your audience know which side you are on’[9]. Nevertheless, despite this, in House of Mortal Sin it seems fairly clear which side of the fence Walker sits on vis-à-vis the Catholic Church and the question of modernisation. Though he breaks his vow of chastity and ultimately leaves the priesthood, Father Cutler is utterly sympathetic; Father Meldrum, on the other hand, maintains his vow of chastity – and arguably, that is part of his problem – but is a degenerate murderer. As another priest, Father Duggan (Mervyn Johns), tells Cutler, when Cutler asks for his advice, ‘If you stayed on [as a priest], you’d be a hypocrite – and we have enough of those as it is’. Duggan also adds that, ‘Maybe next year or the year after, our Church will become enlightened. Then we may see you again’.

With its depraved priest and setpiece killings, complete with prowling point-of-view shots, House of Mortal Sin feels very much like a precursor to the slasher films that would become increasingly popular following the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978; though perhaps House of Mortal Sin was as much influenced by gialli all’italiana (Italian-style thrillers) featuring murderous priests, such as Aldo Lado’s Chi l’ha a vista morire?/Who Saw Her Die? (1972), as it was by The Exorcist.

Ultimately, House of Mortal Sin is anchored by a seemingly throwaway line delivered by Brabazon. After killing Terry (in the church, with the thurible), Meldrum takes the body into the graveyard and buries it in a freshly-dug grave. He enters the presbytery, wet, with dirty shoes. ‘You should wipe your feet if you’ve been to the graveyard, Father’, Brabazon says, ‘You’ve trailed mud into the house’. Perhaps all three of these films – House of Whipcord, Frightmare and House of Mortal Sin – may be regarded as parables about the trailing of mud into various houses (the penal system, the family, the Church).

Walker and McGillivray’s collaboration would continue with Schizo, released towards the end of 1976. The premise of Schizo was Walker’s: he wanted to make a ‘surprise picture’ in response to the influx of US-made slasher films and gialli all’italiana/Italian-style thrillers[10]. Walker’s intention was to make a thriller whose story wasn’t overshadowed by the key setpieces, and in playing with audience sympathies for the protagonist he ‘wanted to tell the ultimate lie’[11]. McGillivray, however, ‘loaded the idea of it’, and the film marked the end of their working relationship[12]. The finished picture is a rather different film to the other Walker-McGillivray collaborations – a Hitchcockian thriller more in line with the earlier Die Screaming, Marianne and the later The Comeback. But that is a story for another time…


Sources:

[1] ‘An Eye for Terror, Part 1’ (Elijah Drenner, 2012). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of Die Screaming, Marianne.
[2] ‘Slasher Serenade’ (Elijah Drenner, 2012). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of The Comeback.
[3] ‘Flesh, Blood and Censorship’ (Elijah Drenner, 2014). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of The Flesh and Blood Show.
[4] ‘Perversions of Justice’ (Elijah Drenner, 2012). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of House of Whipcord.
[5] See https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/101088
[6] ‘Perversions of Justice’.
[7] ‘For the Sake of Cannibalism’ (Elijah Drenner, 2014). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of Frightmare.
[8] ‘For the Sake of Cannibalism’.
[9] ‘Perversions of Justice’.
[10] ‘My Sweet Schizo’ (Elijah Drenner, 2012). Included on the Redemption Films Blu-ray release of Schizo.
[11] ‘My Sweet Schizo’.
[12] ‘My Sweet Schizo’.

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

PhD,MA,BA(Hons),PGCE,FHEA|#Writer: https://pajlewis.contently.com|Community #Photographer|#Filmmaker @ http://grimnirpictures.co.uk|Film/Lit/Photo #Lecturer|#Cinephile

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