One of Peter Walker's best known and best remembered films, Frightmare gave the director the chance to really capitalize on his working relationship with oddball actress Sheila Keith and give her a starring role that fit her unusual looks and acting style perfectly. At the same time, Frightmare also stands as an excellent example of the type of darkly humorous and semi-satirical horror movies that Walker excelled in, the kind that weren't afraid to rub the viewers nose in the dirt a little bit or to give the establishment the big middle finger salute.
The opening scene introduces us to a woman named Dorothy (Keith) as she and her husband, Edmund (British horror regular Rupert Davies of Witchfinder General in his second to last role) are sent off to the local insane asylum after being convicted of eating a few of their friends. Their two kids, Debbie (Kim Butcher who would work with Walker again a year later in The House Of Mortal Sin before fading into obscurity) and Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) are left to their own devices with Jackie shouldering responsibility for the younger sibling. Fast forward years later and both Dorothy and Edmund, aged quite a bit, are being released back into society, having done their time in the bin and being found sane enough that the council in charge of such decisions has ok'd their departure.
With the older couple settling in to a new life in the lovely English countryside, you'd think that things would get back to some semblance of normality for the family but no, nothing could be further from the truth. Not content to move on, Dorothy still craves flesh and has Jackie bring her brains to feast upon on a regular basis and when she's not chowing down on those, she's trying to communicate with the dead via her Tarot cards. To make matters worse for Jackie, her younger sister seems to be following in mom's footsteps and as she gets older and brought back in to her mother's fold, her behavior becomes more and more erratic and aggressive. The only solace Jackie seems to have anymore, thanks to her insane family, is a man named Graham (Paul Greenwood who had a supporting role in Hammer's Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), who she really does start to fall for. Unfortunately for Jackie, however, she knows that she can't let Graham find out about what her family does, but her mother is getting so out of hand that it might not be long before he finds out the awful truth for himself.
As good as everyone else is in this film, Rupert Davis and especially Sheila Keith really do steal the show. They play 'crazy' with such demented enthusiasm and at times very chilling authenticity that you can't help but be pulled into their seriously messed up little world. Lest the whole plot of the film sound like a farce, rest assured that although there are very definite doses of dark comedy throughout the film, for the most part is played straight enough that the movie still manages to be quite unnerving when it decides that it wants to be, and again, Keith's performance is a big part of how the film manages to make this aspect successful.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Walker also makes sure that we know that as demented as this family is, they do love and care for one another in a way that isn't all that removed from the normal family dynamic that (hopefully) most of us knew in our younger years. The interaction between Dorothy and Edmund does come off as quite sincere, which adds a really unusual element of sympathy to a pair of elderly folk who really should be looked upon as the monsters that they are.
Walker's direction is sharper than usual here, as he paces the film really deliberately but doesn't slow things down too much at all. He uses the effective and sufficiently grisly gore set pieces as accents to the horror that comes out of the story, while the cinematography from Peter Jessop does a really good job of becoming more and more claustrophobic as the film reaches its dire and unholy conclusion.
Frightmare is presented in a decent 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. There are some scenes where the colors are flat and in a few darker spots the image is murky but for the most part the picture is pretty good. There is some mild print damage present in a few scenes as well as some grain but that's to be expected to an extent. The movie, even during some of the harsher moments is always watchable and the compositions look dead on in terms of framing. Not a perfect transfer, but a perfectly acceptable one none the less.
The film is presented in its original English language without any alternate language tracks, closed captioning options or subtitles. You've got your choice of the original 2.0 mono track or a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and both get the job done fine. Truth be told, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two different mixes. The 5.1 track does throw some effects at you from behind which adds a bit of atmosphere and it spreads out some of the music a bit but the differences are minor. Both tracks sound fine, no problems in the way of hiss or distortion to report and the dialogue remained clean and clear throughout.
Once again, the extras that were on the Anchor Bay UK DVD release of the film have been ported over for this Region One release. First up is an excellent audio commentary with director Pete Walker who is joined throughout the discussion by the director of photography that he employed for the shoot, Peter Jessop. There's a nice sense of humor between the two participants but there's also a lot of really good information in here as well. Walker is a bit of an eccentric character but he's got a lot of really great stories about this film and about his career in horror and exploitation in general. The two men cover casting choices and location shooting and there are some fun anecdotes about Sheila Keith's work on this film and her work on a few other Walker movies too. This track is definitely worth a listen for fans of the film or the director.
Rounding out the extra features are a really tiny still gallery and trailers for The Comeback, The Confessional, Die Screaming, Marianne!, The Flesh And Blood Show, Frightmare and The House Of Whipcord.
A twisted and completely enjoyable horror movie, Frightmare hits a lot of the right notes and does a fine job delivering some delicious black humor and a few genuine shocks as well. The Media Blasters presentation offers nothing new to those who own the import disc but comes recommended to everyone else interested in British horror movies.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.