Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Frightmare (1974)

Pete Walker’s Frightmare is trashy, exploitative, gory and tasteless, but it’s also undeniably a very effective (and very dark) piece of horror cinema.

The movie opens with a flashback to 1957, with a couple (Edmund and Dorothy) being committed to a psychiatric hospital after a series of gruesome and horrific crimes (which we later learn include cannibalism). Then we’re back to the present day. The psychiatrists have decided that a complete cure has been effected and that the couple are ready to be released into the community. They take up residence in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile their fifteen-year-old daughter Debbie is being raised by Edmund’s daughter by an earlier marriage (Jackie). Debbie is well on the way to being a fully fledged juvenile delinquent, and her boyfriend is violent and out-of-control as well.

Jackie is barely holding things together, and things go from bad to worse when the police arrive on her doorstep wanting to question Debbie about the disappearance of a night-club bouncer who was last seen being brutally bashed by a gang of teenagers. A grisly discovery in the boot of a car soon follows. Meanwhile Dorothy is dealing with her boredom by luring lonely troubled souls to the farmhouse for tarot readings. They are never seen again. Is Dorothy really cured after all? Can Jackie’s nerdy but well-meaning psychiatrist boyfriend solve Debbie’s behaviour problems?

This is a movie that offers nothing at all in the way of comfort or hope for humanity, and it displays an unrelenting cynicism towards those institutions (the police, the justice system, the psychiatric establishment) that claim to be able to keep us safe and to maintain some kind of order. The triumph of chaos and evil is taken for granted.

Walker gets remarkably potent performances from his cast. Sheila Keith as Dorothy is loveable and dotty and terrifyingly insane. Rupert Davies as Edmund is tortured by conflicting loyalties, a man trapped in an impossible situation for which he can find no solution and no escape. Kim Butcher does a fine job as Debbie, resisting the temptation to overplay her hand. And Deborah Fairfax as Jackie, the only relatively sane and likeable member of the family, is sympathetic even when her actions are disastrously misguided.

The gore isn’t really overdone and it does serve some purpose although it’s probably not really necessary. The acting, the writing and the directing work successfully enough to convey the terror without the gore. But in 1974 it was undoubtedly commercially unavoidable, and it gives the movie an unpleasant edge that adds to the intended atmosphere of horror and general unhealthiness.

Not exactly pleasant viewing but an excellent example of mid-70s British horror that packs a real punch.

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