Completely mad, boring at times, a bit exploitative at times, ineptly-made, and dream-like. Redemption has re-released (oh my god...not because one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is in it, did they???) Killer's Moon, the 1978 U.K. horror exploitation number that has garnered a small but loyal following across the pond. Directed and co-written on the cheap by Alan Birkinshaw (with an assist on the screenplay from his sister Fay Weldon, for christ's sake), Killer's Moon is a tough call as a "good" movie, but it does have something going on in it that I found fascinating...although I'm not sure I can quite put down in words, exactly what that "something" may be. Plenty of extras here, but I'm assuming they're the same ones that were found on Redemption's 2008 release. A nice transfer helps.
The Lakes District, England. Mrs. Hargreaves, a fugitive from the road show company of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is leading her band of surprisingly well-endowed school girl charges―complete with thigh-high pleated plaid skirts and too-tight white blouses―to a choral concert when their coach breaks down in the woods. Their bus driver (Chubby Oates) isn't pleased with the prospect of trying to track down a hotel or welcoming rural cottage with darkness approaching, but once he lands the girls at a nearby mansion-turned-hotel, run by actress Hilda Braid, he lams it out of there. Too bad for Chubby, because there's a serial killer out there. More precisely, there are four killers on the loose in the woods, all of them escaped convicts/patients from a "cottage mental facility" where they were undergoing "dream therapy" via large doses of LSD. Tripping on acid but believing they're actually asleep, the loonies Mr. Jones (Peter Spraggon), Mr. Muldoon (Paul Rattee), Mr. Smith (Nigel Gregory), and Mr. Trubshaw (David Jackson), keep encouraging each other to act out their most violent psycho-sexual impulses...because that's what the doctors advised them to do. So of course the girls holed up in the hotel (played by Georgina Kean, Alison Elliott, Jo-Anne Good, Jayne Lester, and a certain Lisa Vanderpump from 90210), are easy prey for the rapist/killers, and it's up to nearby campers Pete (Anthony Forrest), who was nailing Julie (Jane Hayden), the first victim of the escapees, and his American friend Mike (Tom Marshall), to save them.
I've often seen references to Killer's Moon in other books and articles I've read about British horror films, but this was the first chance I had to see it. I must say that I anticipated something a little bit more rough, considering its inflated reputation, than what transpired on the screen. By today's standards, Killer's Moon would probably garner a PG-13 rating, not the notorious "X" it received when first released in the U.K.. In Britain, according to the director's comments on the bonus track here, one of the chief complaints about the movie was the schoolgirl-age of the victims; the sight of these supposedly young, young girls getting manhandled, raped, and killed was considered in extreme bad taste back in 1978. Seen outside that context, though (and frankly, I'm surprised the critics didn't see it this way, too), the supposed schoolgirl angle of Killer's Moon is probably the least resonant element of the movie. One of the killers may amusingly yell, "Of course it's a dream! And stuffed full of jailbait!" but none of the stacked actresses here look at all like teen high school girls; they don't act that young, either (clutching a teddy bear and acting dim doesn't cut it); and most importantly, we don't get to know them as dimensional characters. We can't fear for them, or experience their degrading attacks with an added level of moral repugnance based on their supposed age, if they don't look, act, or sound like teenagers. This is so obviously exploitation for exploitation's sake, with adult, good-looking actresses chosen to titillate male viewers, that one doesn't really invest too much outrage in the mayhem: it's far too openly and nakedly calculated.
With that potentially troubling element out of the way, how does Killer's Moon stack up, then, in the slasher/horror/sex fiend genre? Well... "okay" and "not," it would seem. Just from a mechanics aspect, Killer's Moon is surprisingly clunky―did Birkinshaw ever actually see a thriller or horror movie prior to attempting his own? Because you have to wonder such things when you see how he bungles even the most simple of spookums scenes (the bus driver's death is particularly hilarious...unintentionally). Now I know that a miniscule budget is often blamed for such haphazard results in these kinds of movies, but you can create suspense and dread without a dime if you know how to stage a scene, and direct it, and then cut it. That's a factor of directorial and editorial skill, not pounds and shillings. And most of the time, at least when it comes to the straight stalking and attack scenes, Birkinshaw seems humorously out of his depth.
Weirdly, though, and undeniably, that ineptness, along with the low budget, combine at times to create a sometimes hallucinatory disjointedness to Killer's Moon that's inexplicably quite pleasing. When Pete and Mike are discussing what happened to their ax, outside their tiny little pup tent, before they go into it and we discover it's a cavernous, bare set with some colored muslin draped across the back, it sets the viewer off-kilter immediately (just as so many viewers found when Ed Wood movies were rediscovered and his continuity problems created so many unexpected cognitive delights). Not all of this appeal is down to no money and Birkinshaw's inexperience; he clearly does know what he's doing in certain scenes, particularly when he's imitating his stated influence, Roman Polanski, or lifting from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (the rape scenes aren't played for laughs, and they clash uncomfortably against the comedy of the lunkhead escapees―Birkinshaw gets that part right). There's an effective scene where Pete is leading Mr. Jones away from two girls as they run through the midnight blue woods, with Pop Goes the Weasel on the soundtrack, that plays like a demented fairy tale, complete with Mr. Jones as the Big Bad Wolf giving Pete the slip to chase after the girls again. Throughout all the mayhem, the four escapees are constantly asking if what they're doing is a dream, and eventually, the viewer begins to wonder this as well, aided by (or perhaps come upon by accident) Birkinshaw's directorial touches.
That "what the hell am I really watching here?" feeling is amplified for the viewer by the oftentimes surreal dialogue, no doubt supplied in great part by Birkinshaw's sister, author Fay Weldon. Weldon, a talented, controversial "feminist" (to be fair, a description too narrow for the mercurial writer) with many credits to her name (the premiere episode of Upstairs Downstairs would be most familiar to our readers), undoubtedly came up with that completely bizarre exchange towards the end of the movie, where Agatha consoles a rape victim (...who turns out to be none other than Lisa Vanderpump, a gorgeous Jackie Bisset look-a-like who's a big reality star now on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills): "Look, you were only raped. As long as you don't tell anyone about it you'll be alright. You pretend it never happened, I'll pretend I never saw it, and if we get out of this alive...well, maybe we'll both live to be wives and mothers." If that's satire of the genre, it's bungled by Birkinshaw's flat-footed handling, and if not...well, it may not seem so bizarre or out of place when one remembers that Weldon was later quoted as saying in a newspaper interview, "rape isn't the worst thing that can happen to a woman if you're safe, alive and unmarked after the event." Genuinely askew, funny lines pop up all throughout Killer's Moon, contributing to the movie's strange, otherworldly feel. When bored Mike finishes with town bike Julie, he asks, "Was my performance lacking...it usually is." On the bus, when the girls begin to worry that something untoward may happen to them in the woods, one of the girls wearily states, "I just want to die and get it all over with." You may indeed feel the same when first watching Killer's Moon...but give it a few minutes and stick with it: it has left-field charms―unintentional or otherwise―that may surprise you.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.