While notorious British filmmaker Pete Walker got his start making cheap sexploitation films, it's his horror movies that are best known as they had a tendency to be rather controversial with little regard for social taboos of the time. His first horror film, or more realistically his first thriller, was Die Screaming Marianne, a decent first effort that entertains but fails to fire on all cylinders such as better known efforts from the man like The Confessional which are teamed up with more established classics from his filmography, Schizo and House Of Whipcord for a Blu-ray debut through Kino and Redemption Films. Here's a look at the four movies that make up this collection, each one housed on its own disc with its own extra features...
House Of Whipcord:
Walker's attempt to take on the women in prison movies that have proven popular throughout the years, House Of Whipcord sounds more salacious than it really is but it still manages to pack an exploitative punch if not necessarily for what it shows but at least for what it infers.
Set in what was at the time the modern day of 1970's England, we meet up with a pretty young woman named Ann-Marie (Penny Irving), a fashion model who falls for a dashing young man named Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman). This soon proves a mistake, however, as Mark's insistence that she accompany him to a fancy looking mansion out in the middle of nowhere turns out to be a successful attempt to get an immoral woman like Ann-Marie locked up! That's right, this is no regular mansion, it's basically a prison for women deemed unfit for society by those who run it, they being Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr) and Mark's own mother, Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham).
Shortly after she's put into captivity, poor Ann-Marie is judged and found guilty of lewd behavior, sentenced to imprisonment indefinitely until such a time arrives that she can prove herself sufficiently pure of mind, body and soul as to be fit for release. Some of those who claim to be so pure, however, have got skeletons in their own closets...
While tame compared to films like the Ilsa pictures or the women in prison movies made by director's like Jess Franco and Joe D'Amato, House Of Whipcord is still strong enough to work. A very obvious lashing out against the conservative right who no doubt saw Walker as immoral in much the same way that the judgmental types in charge of the house see Ann-Marie, the film is well paced and nicely shot but what really makes it work are the performances. Barbara Markham steals the show as Mark's mother, whipping and abusing her way through the inmate population with way too much glee on her face, while Irving makes for a completely sympathetic (and, it must be said, very beautiful) leading lady. Sheila Keith, who worked with Walker on Frightmare, is also here and does a fine job playing one of the prison guards.
The film is unapologetically grim, it makes no false pretenses or apologies for what it is and it spits in the eye of social mores. It's a mean spirited, nasty picture that shows off solid direction on Walker's part and makes good use of a fairly clever script. Yes, the exploitative elements are all here but there's more emphasis on angry social commentary than on whippings and exposed breasts.
Directed by Walker in 1976, the film begins when a popular figure skater named Samantha (Lynne Frederick, who was at one time married to none other than Peter Sellers) is announced to be engaged to her fiancÚ, Alan Falconer (John Leyton). While most would be happy for the couple, a strange older man named William Haskin (Jack Watson) is anything but. We see him glare after reading the newspaper article on the impending nuptials and then pack himself a giant knife and board the first train to London where the ceremony is to take place.
Upon his arrival, Haskin basically starts stalking poor Samantha. She knows he has something to do with her past and the death of her mother but her memories of that early age are fuzzy at best. He shows up at the side of the road, he shows up at the wedding reception, he shows up in windows and he eventually shows up face to face - but what is his connection to Samantha and why is he going to so much effort to get to her? This certainly isn't going to be any good for her marriage!
Very obviously influenced by Hitchcock's Psycho (something which Walker admits to in the extra features) albeit with a good bit more bloodshed and nudity, Schizo takes a bit of time to get going but picks up nicely around the half way point. The film also pulls from the Italian Giallo films that were popular at the time, mixing up some mildly psychedelic moments and trippy camera work during a few key scenes to help build some atmosphere and tension and doing a great job of working in the picture's interesting soundtrack into the action.
Performance wise, we're also in pretty decent shape. Lynne Frederick is lovely and quite charming in the lead, doing a good job of translating her character's obvious and understandable breakdown on screen into something we can sympathize with. Watson steals the show as the killer, however, smearing his face against a window or skulking in the shadows with a knife. He's sweaty and creepy and a little perverted - all the better, considering who he's supposed to be in the movie. The film, however, does have one obvious flaw and that's that the twist is given away in the very title of the movie. As such, we know pretty early on where this is all going - but getting there is still a good time, thanks in no small part to the creative murder set pieces and the presence of a few lovely naked ladies.
Die Screaming Marianne:
The film starts off with a fantastic go-go dancing scene in which Marianne (the lovely Susan George of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs) shakes what the good Lord gave her to the sounds of some fuzzy garage rock. She's a dancer who works in Portugal where a gang of tough guys are chasing her down. When she meets up with a British gentleman named Sebastian (Christopher Sanford of Clive Donner's Old Dracula) and he offers to take her back to his place, a safe distance away in London, she accepts and the two begin a romantic relationship together.
Soon enough, Sebastian proposes and Marianne accepts his offer. She's got her own motives, however, and when she messes with the wedding certificate to botch the wedding replacing Sebastian's name with that of Eli (Barry Evans best known for the goofy English sex comedy, Under The Doctor), the best man, it becomes obvious that something is up. It all ties in to a scheme in which Marianne's father (Leo Genn of Walker's seminal Frightmare and A Lizard In A Woman's Skin), a judge of dubious moral standing, is attempting to swindle some money out of a Swiss Bank Account to which only Marianne has access to. Her father has long reaching ties and won't let family relations get in the way of scoring the cash and so he sets into motion a sinister plan to get Marianne back to Portugal, whether she likes it or not.
Full of a few red herrings and interesting bait and switch attempts, Die Screaming Marianne is a decent thriller even if there are a few too many loose ends for its own good. The plot is a little predictable in spots but the ending works well regardless and Walker paces the film fairly well, ensuring that even when the movie isn't necessarily good, it is at least interesting. The highlight of the film is George's lead performance. She's a complete sexpot in the film and easy enough on the eyes that she's able to carry herself well here, even if her performance isn't as good as some of her other work. The rest of the cast seems to sleepwalk through the picture, not coming across as particularly good or particularly bad, though Leo Genn is fun as the sinister father of our shifty female lead.
Those expecting the excess of some of Walker's better known and more notorious efforts are likely to be disappointed in Die Screaming Marianne's lackluster levels of sex and violence and at times the movie does feel very restrained when compared to more gratuitous fare such as Frightmare or The Flesh And Blood Show. On the other side of the coin, however, the movie looks quite good and features some great seventies mod culture oddities such as the go-go dancing opening and the swanky, posh, colorful sets used throughout the movie.
An American rock and roll star named Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) hasn't released a record in six years and as such, it's time for him to make his comeback. In order to do this, he heads off to England where he holes himself up in a creepy old house where he'll have the peace and quiet he needs to create his latest and greatest musical masterpiece. What Nick doesn't know is that shortly after he left his American abode, his ex-girlfriend (Holly Palance - yep, Jack's daughter!) was chopped up into bloody little pieces by a maniacal killer dressed up like an old woman.
Once Nick arrives in England he's met by the sexy Linda (Pamela Stephenson), the secretary of his manager, Webster Jones (David Doyle who is instantly recognizable from Charlie's Angels). The two hit it off in more ways than one and despite some glares and passive aggressive comments from Jones, they start to fall for each other. Once he starts really getting into his work at the house, things start to get weird for Nick. The hired help, an elderly couple who go by Mr. And Mrs. B (Bill Owen and Sheila Keith respectively) seem innocent enough on the surface but they just might be up to something sinister if the voices that Nick starts hearing are anything to go by. The more time he spends there the stranger it gets when he starts seeing his ex-girlfriend's corpse wandering around the building and when most of the people Nick meets wind up dead, you just know there's something seriously wrong here...
From the opening scene in which Holly Palance gets chopped up through to the shock ending, The Comeback is a fast paced movie that, despite the goofy premise and at times rather obvious red herrings, proves to be quite a bit of fun. It isn't an intense psychological thriller or a thinking man's horror film, it's a slasher with some possible supernatural overtones that plays around with a few themes of mental instability and terror. Throughout the movie it becomes obvious that someone or something is trying to drive Nick insane, it doesn't take us long to figure that out, the fun comes in trying to guess who it is and what their motive could be. After all, everyone loves a rock star, right? With Palance's corpse wandering around though, is it all in his head or is someone really pulling some strings behind the scenes, making life difficult for him?
The film benefits from a few excellent murder set pieces and some grisly gore effects that take things a little further than you might expect them to. The case is also pretty interesting, it's a lot of fun to see David Doyle pop up in this one as he's so often associated with the character of John Bosely from Charlie's Angels. Jack Jones is fine in the lead, and it's interesting to note that he was the son of Allen Jones and that he also showed up as the lounge singer guy in Airplane II: The Sequel. The highlight of the film in terms of the casting however is seeing Pamela Stephenson in various states of undress. She's not only a gorgeous woman but she's also quite good in the movie, using her doe eyed innocence and natural good looks to charm the pants off of Nick pretty early on in the film. She has an interesting chemistry with him on screen, it's a shame that they didn't work together more and that she didn't get more film work (most of her appearances after this film was made were on various television shows, most notably a stint on Saturday Night Live though she did show up in Superman III and Mel Brooks' History Of The World Part One).
The four features are presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed as follows:
House Of Whipcord: 1.66.1 widescreen
Schizo: 1.78.1 widescreen
Die Screaming Marianne: 1.66.1 widescreen
The Comeback: 1.85.1 widescreen
All four films have been transferred from the original negatives and are presented in their proper aspect ratios offering significant improvements over previous DVD releases. Detail is strong and color reproduction is good throughout. Some minor print damage is present in all four films, usually early on in the films but popping up throughout - but none of it is seriously distracting or irritating. As has been the norm for the Kino/Redemption titles, these are more or less transferred 'as is' and not heavily restored but the elements used appear to have been in very good shape over all. Schizo looks a bit soft and fuzzy early on but clears up once we get past the opening credits, the other three are more consistently crisp. Regardless, Walker fans should be pretty pleased with the way that this set has turned out...
Each of the four films in the set is presented in English language LPCM Mono. There are no alternate language options supplied nor are there any closed captioning or subtitle options provided. As far as the audio quality goes, these movies sound just fine for what they are. Things may be a little on the flat side here and there but that's simply age related limitations in the source material showing through. Dialogue is generally pretty clean and easy enough to follow and the score's generally sound good as well, particularly in Schizo and The Combeback, which make better use of music than the other two movies.
House Of Whipcord:
The extras for the first film start with the commentary track from Walker who is joined by the film's director of photography Peter Jessop and biographer Steven Chibnall. Carried over from past DVD releases, this is a solid track with Walker doing most of the heavy lifting and Chibnall more or less keeping him on topic. Walker addresses the themes and ideas that make this more than just another women in prison movie while also discussing some of the film's technical issues with Jessop offering his insight along the way.
There's also a brand new interview here with Walker entitled Perversions Of Justice and while it may repeat some of the information in the commentary, it's nice to see Walker as well as hear him as he's got a good screen presence and a very amiable way of going about explaining his motivations and relaying the history of his work that's endearing and interesting. Rounding out the extra features are trailers for The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne! and The House Of Whipcord.
The only extra on this disc of much interest is a good twelve minute interview with Walker entitled My Sweet Schizo in which the director talks about writing the film based only on a very rough concept. He talks about the sex and violence in his movies, about what works and doesn't work so well in this picture, about the cast members he had on board for this project and how horror films have more or less gone mainstream in recent days compared to how they were viewed when he was still active in making them. Rounding out the extra features are trailers for The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne! and The House Of Whipcord.
Die Screaming Marianne:
The biggest and best of the supplements on this third disc is another commentary track, again carried over from the previous DVD release, with director Pete Walker, moderated by Jonathon Rigby. Those who have heard Walker's commentary tracks before know him to be an intelligent man with a great, dry wit and this proves to be the case with this track as well. He details the history of the production, the trouble he went through getting the film made, the casting decisions and more in addition to talking about what it was like to work with Susan George at the time. It's an interesting and enjoyable discussion that is both educational and entertaining.
An Eye For Terror, Part 1 is the name of the new featurette on this last disc and it allows Walker to talk about how and why he got into the horror movie game when he did, what the reception to his work was like at the time and how he feels about some of these movies in hindsight. Rounding out the extra features are trailers for The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne! and The House Of Whipcord.
Jonathon Rigby, author of the book English Gothic, moderates a commentary with Pete Walker himself and he proves to not be at a loss for words when discussing the film. He covers pre-productions aspects like wrangling up the cast and the shooting locations as well as budgetary issues. He provides us with some fun anecdotes about some of the performers and gives us a few 'what might have been' moments when he talks about some of the original casting choices and locations that he had in mind for the film before he ended up with the cast we see here. This is a pretty interesting commentary and fans of the film or of Walker in general should find it quite enjoyable.
This disc also features an interview with Walker, entitled Slasher Serenade and running just over twelve minutes. Here Walker covers the origins of the picture, the casting of the film and the writing process as well as a few other items of note. Jack Jones also chimes in with his thoughts on the movie. Rounding out the extra features are trailers for The Comeback, Die Screaming, Marianne! and The House Of Whipcord.
The Pete Walker Collection is pretty much essential for anyone with an interest in the director's output. While he's made better films than the four collected here (and those are hopefully coming to Blu-ray sooner rather than later) this quartet holds its own and provides plenty of entertainment value. On top of that, Kino's boxed set offers up the films in the best quality they've seen on home video so far, and with a few new extra features as well. Highly recommended.
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.