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When the British government cracked down on supposedly obscene and violent video product in the early 1980s, a horror movie called House on Straw Hill was made historically relevant by earning a top slot on the original 'banned' lists. Severin Films' video release of the once-notorious 'video nasty' presented a difficult video restoration problem. As the film had been severely edited for theatrical release in various countries, no perfect original long-version printing elements existed. The company decided to go forward with their partial restoration before the elements deteriorated further. One partly damaged pre-print element was combined with a couple of battered screening prints to fill in a missing scene here and there. As the company prides itself on releasing superior quality pressings of genre films often lost to terrible quality transfers, the new disc carries text disclaimers, explaining the variances of the presentation on view.
I'm happy to report that the screening experience is in no way harmed by the jumps in visual quality. Problem footage does stick out, but it is good to see what was an essentially lost feature, intact once more.
Filmed on a verdant rural estate, House on Straw Hill is a non-supernatural re-run of Elio Petri's strange horror item about an artist who seeks A Quiet Place in the Country but instead finds madness and killings. Writer Paul Martin (Udo Kier of the Warhol-Morrissey horror films) seeks a fresh start to get past a writer's block. The secretary he hires, Linda (Linda Hayden of The Blood on Satan's Claw has a strange attitude -- she provokes Paul sexually but refuses his advances. Not only that, when two men rape her in a field, she kills them both and doesn't even tell Paul of the experience. The housemaid Mrs. Aston gets in Linda's way, with unpleasant results. Worked up by Linda's presence, Paul invites his amorous girlfriend Suzanne for a visit, and the real bloodletting commences. Why is Linda doing this? What are those creepy plastic gloves all about?
At first glance House on Straw Hill is a sex-horror item with little reason to be than to present a shocking series of sex scenes and sex killings. Clearly influenced by Sam Peckinpah, the filmmakers stage a gang-rape similar to the ordeal undergone by Susan George in Straw Dogs, but with less emotional motivation and little empathy for the victim. The sex scenes are voyeuristic and subsequent killings emphasize bloody wounds on nude bodies. Only at the finish are we told the rationale for all the mayhem, prior to the expected annihilating conclusion. Young Udo Kier holds the screen well as the smoldering writer; Kier always looks as if some darkly obscene thought is brewing behind his staring eyes. His role is completely re-voiced, unfortunately. The German accent is gone but so is a lot of Kier's personality.
The film might be a waste if it weren't for the chemistry between Kier and his costar Linda Hayden, whose acting in the central role provides a much needed mystery angle. We know the secretary Linda is up to something, and her ambiguous reactions keep us guessing. That out-of-the-blue gang rape and double murder certainly sets her up as a dangerous item, it's just that we don't know if she's a victim or a maniac.
Filmed completely on location, House on Straw Hill maintains a feeling of being in a specific place. James Kenilm Clarke's direction is of course obvious in the sex scenes, but his camera angles and other choices at least add a feeling of immediacy to the exploitative circumstances. The movie never looks cheap, either. A sweeping crane shot near the conclusion raises the level of drama a little higher, as it rises above a victim fleeing into a broad field. It functions like shots in Bonnie and Clyde and Dirty Harry, when a crane mounted camera suddenly goes UP to take a God's-eye view of the scene.
Director James Kenilm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston have interesting backgrounds. Clarke was attached to actress Fiona Richmond, who he directed in at least two more exploitative movies, hoping to make her into a sex star. Smedley-Aston has an enviable background as an editor (The Loved One, Performance); Straw Hill was his second producing effort after putting together José Larraz's highly successful Vampyres.
House on Straw Hill might have been lost among 101 other mid-seventies' attempts by producers to make the next Last House on the Left or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The general strategy must have been to stack a bloody murder epic with more girly-nudie footage. As would be expected the film was released for various markets under multiple titles and slightly different (or radically shorter) cuts.
The 'historical' angle enters when uptight Brits incensed over the unregulated distribution of exploitative videos used the radical rightward shift in English politics to introduce 'video nasties' laws that banned films and imprisoned the businessmen that sold them, along with mom & pop rental proprietors. Straw Hill was lumped in with The Driller Killer and the The Evil Dead as abominations responsible for turning youth into society-terrorizing punks & pervs. It was repression plain and simply, and it only made excessive horror more popular. As Mr. Natural said, "Twas always thus."
Severin Films' Blu-ray + DVD edition of House on Straw Hill looks good about 75% of the time, reasonably good 20% of the time, and interestingly screwed-up for the remaining 5%. None of the quality shifts affect our enjoyment of the show, and in fact add to the aura of a forbidden, taboo screening opportunity. The worst is some apparent water damage in which colors on screen fluctuate. But the image is always sharp and stable. Severin spent a couple of weeks assembling a complete transfer Frankenstein-style from three 35mm sources, and House on Straw Hill looks darn good considering.
Producer Smedly-Aston and director Clarke provide a full commentary, going into the show in detail. They talk a lot about the cheapness of the shoot, and regret the re-voicing two of their leading characters. When it comes time to talk about the sex scenes, they sound like boys amused by their own naughty games. Their main star Linda Hayden appears in a new interview. She absolutely hates House on Straw Hill but recalls her days as a Hammer attraction and in Piers Haggard's superior The Blood on Satan's Claw as happy times. Her career self-appraisal begins with a few quick remarks about the freedom of her early years -- she'd never let her own daughters run around as she once did. Ms. Hayden comes off as a lady, a serious actress and a candid interviewee. A trailer is also included.
Horror fans will want to know that the first 3,000 release copies of House on Straw Hill will contain a third disc with the documentary Ban the Sadist Videos, which appeared only in a UK release of a 2005 Anchor Bay box of banned horror titles. Totaling about a hundred minutes, the shows were directed by Severin's David Gregory. Through interviews with the UK video distributors, salesmen, and rental proprietors that prospered in the early years of home video, Ban uses prime TV and film footage to document the rise of the 'video nasty' ban. The well-meaning reformers can't help but come across as biddies and bluenoses leveraging Margaret Thatcher's conservative revolution. The disorganized, ill-applied ban's absurd rulings wer grossly misinterpreted by the police. Example -- VHS tapes of Apocalypse Now were confiscated because its title shares a word with the banned Cannibal Apocalypse. Eventually the right-wingers found a way to force video distributors to pay the censor to put their films through an often prejudicial and arbitrary approval process.
As the 'video nasty' phenomenon is a remote topic for us porn-and-gore-sated Yankees, Ban the Sadist Videos has a high special interest factor. It also explains where all the rabid 40-something English horror fans came from, the ones that slurp up every
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House on Straw Hill Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.