First released in Great Britain as Exposé and in the United States as Trauma, the now-titled House on Straw Hill (1976) is an extremely minor, muddled erotic thriller with slight horror movie elements, and notable only as the lone British film on the original list of "Video Nasties" compiled by the Department of Public Prosecution. Severin Films' new Blu-ray presents it "totally uncut & uncensored for the first time ever," all but rescuing it from the brink of unsalvageability, all of which is a good thing. But the movie is hardly a lost genre classic.
What is genuinely impressive is the feature-length documentary that accompanies the first 3,000 copies: Ban the Sadist Videos! (2006), an extremely detailed and intelligent examination of the Video Nasty movement. The Blu-ray I received made no mention of this anywhere on the packaging; rather it was simply tucked in as a third disc along the Blu-ray and DVD copies of the main feature. A standard-def DVD, it compliments House on Straw Hill nicely, and indeed is far more interesting.
The unambitious but exploitative thriller is about a pretentious and paranoid best-selling first-time novelist, Paul Martin (German actor Udo Kier of Andy Warhol's Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, his voice dubbed here), who hires a secretary-typist to whom he can dictate his follow-up novel. Would you go to work for Udo Kier at a remote, lonely cottage?
The woman, beautiful Linda Hindstatt (Linda Hayden), is very sexually active to say the least, masturbating within minutes after arriving at the rural cottage (not a hill, straw or otherwise) that Paul has rented for the task. She simultaneously flirts with and spurns the advances of Paul, he recently estranged from his voluptuous girlfriend, Suzanne (Fiona Richmond).
He's troubled by strange visions of slit wrists, a bloody bathtub, plastic gloves, and something like a home break-in. She, on the other hand, casually takes a stroll in an adjacent field, masturbates some more only to then be raped by two youths (Karl Howman and celebrated stuntman Vic Armstrong), eventually shooting both as they finish. She leaves their bodies and returns to the cottage as if nothing had happened, unaware that one of the men has (barely) survived his wounds. The film turns on a highly predictable twist I won't reveal here.
The film isn't really a supernatural horror film but rather a cheap knock-off of Straw Dogs (note the title similarity). Unfortunately, the resulting unsavory work more closely resembles soft-core porn than Sam Peckinpah's intelligent if highly controversial 1971 thriller. Kier's novelist is singularly unreal, he immodestly speculating his work "may even be in line for the Pulitzer Prize!" while dictating a laughably flowery manuscript: "She played Anna like a virtuoso with a Stradivarius … a great, wonderful catharsis of lust." It's akin to the Bad Hemingway Contest and other literature parody. Or maybe Hustler's hilariously over-the-top erotic fiction.
The flat looping of Kier's voice by an unidentified actor hurts, but so does the fact that neither he nor Linda are interesting or sympathetic characters, though Hayden is unquestionably quite beautiful and Fiona Richmond, the wife of director James Kenilm Clarke, isn't exactly chopped liver herself. But House on Straw Hill is merely a crass exercise in sex-horror with only its explicit sex scenes holding any interest today.
Video & Audio
In Severin's defense, they've done a fine job restoring House on Straw Hill, whose original camera negative was in bad shape and apparently cut in any event. A disclaimer preceding the film notes this reconstruction primarily utilizes an uncut 35mm print most of the time, with an inferior print and the original negative sourced here and there. This results in big fluctuations: most of the film looks pretty good, but at other times inferior, damaged elements with dicey color are utilized. The results are noticeable but never distracting in any substantive way. The English mono audio (no alternate audio or subs) is acceptable.
What makes House on Straw Hill Highly Recommend is that limited edition extra feature, Ban the Sadist Videos!, a two-part made-for-video feature running under two hours. Written and directed by David Gregory, the show explores the history of the Video Nasty and the movement, led by conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, to pull, cut and/or ban explicitly violent videocassettes and prosecute wholesalers, distributors, and even private collectors selling and trading tapes.
The documentary might easily have made Whitehouse and her supporters a target of derision while serving as an excuse for a clip show of unrelenting blood and gore, but the film is too good for that, evenhandedly presenting both sides of an extremely complex issue. Moreover, the film digs deep in examining the societal, economical and political nuts and bolts driving the Video Nasties movement in the first place, how arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement was, and how eventually a solution was devised that mainly served the financial interests of BBFC rather than the moral fiber of ordinary citizens. Though specifically a UK problem, it delves into broader themes of great interest for moviegoers worldwide and it's one of the best documentaries of this type I've ever seen.
Also included, on the Blu-ray, is an audio commentary with director Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston; a video interview with actress Linda Hayden (who hates the film and regrets doing it); and a trailer.
House on Straw Hill is recommended only to hardcore ‘70s horror film buffs, but Ban the Sadist Videos!, again limited to the first 3,000 copies sold, nicely balances everything out and deserves to be widely seen so, all told, Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.