Though undeniably trashy and exploitive, as well as overlong, House of Whipcord (1974) shows some intelligence in its depiction of self-appointed vigilantes running a secret prison in Britain's Forest of Dean. It has all the familiar iconography of both the women-in-prison genre popular in the '70s (lesbian guards, scenes of torture and attempted escapes, etc.), with elements tossed in from The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil, and other films in which the use of sadism and torture is rationalized by supposedly pious authority figures.
"Page 3" model Penny Irving stars as Ann-Marie Di Verney, a blonde model herself, picked up by a lorry driver in the middle of nowhere, beaten and in a state of total exhaustion; in flashback we learn Ann-Marie's story. Some time before she had attended a party with friends Tony (Ray Brooks) and Julia (Ann Michelle) where Ann-Marie meets a handsome but mysterious man going by the improbable name Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman). Though Mark acts strangely - living up to his namesake, he tricks Ann-Marie into thinking he's cutting her face with a steak knife - she nevertheless agrees to accompany him to the country so that he can introduce her to his parents.
At the lonely estate, a former county prison it turns out, Ann-Marie is separated from Mark and abruptly tried for moral turpitude (she having posed nude in public) by a doddering, blind "judge," former High Court Justice Desmond Bailey (Patrick Barr), and sentenced to his privately-run women's prison, a "rehabilitation center" with no connection with the outside world. Admitted by the judge's insane wife, Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) and two sadistic guards - childless, cruel Bates (Dorothy Gordon) and cadaverous sadistic lesbian Walker (Shelia Keith, very creepy) - Ann-Marie can do little but try to survive until a chance for escape presents itself.
Like a lot of cheap British films from the 1970s, House of Whipcord plays like it was made by intelligent people working below their abilities and writing down to what were perceived as audience demands of the time. In this increasingly intolerant society of goofy vigilante "Minutemen" and so-called Reverend Fred Phelps, the idea that a small group of crazy people could for years secretly imprison, torture, and murder women in the name of morality is oddly believable. Of course, the reality is that people are for months at a time handcuffed, tortured and starved in ordinary apartments and houses, just a few feet from normal neighbors completely unaware of what's going right next door.
Perhaps accidentally, perhaps by design the filmmakers realistically show wide-eyed Ann-Marie stroll right into the thick of it before fully comprehending what's happening to her, like cattle to the slaughterhouse. The film's effectiveness isn't its over-the-top scenes of sadism but rather its chilling casualness. Unaware of what's happening, Ann-Marie is instructed to take off her clothes and put on a uniform, and she obliges them with only the slightest hesitation. The guard's casual inhumanity is rather unusual compared with other films of the period (the hysterical Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS to name one), and much more realistic. Spoilers Rather impressively, near the end when all hell breaks loose, Mrs. Wakehurst and the guards react much more like Nazis at the end World War II when the concentration camps were liberated.
All this effectiveness is undermined by an oddly structured script that follows one character for most of the film, only to abruptly change gears near the end to protagonists we know or care little about. Unfortunately, Penny Irving is totally inadequate as Ann-Marie, whose thick, often impenetrable French accent makes her sound like Herve Villechaize's kid sister ("It eez danjairous, no?"), and a classic example of why Hammer and other British studios casting models in leading roles more often than not dubbed their voices. She doesn't ruin the film, but the effect is rather like casting Zsa Zsa Gabor for the lead in Midnight Express.
Video & Audio
Media Blasters/Shriek Show's DVD of House of Whipcord greatly improves upon the old Image "EuroShock Collection" disc from 1999. That was a poor full-frame transfer, this is 16:9 widescreen (at 1.77:1) and looks pretty good, though the day-for-night scenes are still too dark and murky and possibly not timed correctly, as the brightness levels of these supposedly nighttime scenes varies quite a bit. The original mono is supplemented with a 5.1 remix but no subtitle options.
Extras include an Audio Commentary that can be accessed only through the Set-Up menu, an enlightening interview with producer-director and co-writer Pete Walker and DP Peter Jessup, conducted by Steven Chibnall, author of Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker.
Also included is a full-frame Theatrical Trailer and a Photo Gallery limited to VHS and Beta video box art.
A better-than-you'd-expect tale of hateful people operating under the radar of society, House of Whipcord isn't exactly a fun night out at the movies, but above average for this sort of film.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.