Wednesday, 26 May 2010

House of Whipcord (1974)

Women-in-prison movies were one of the exploitation movie staples of the 70s, but Pete Walker’s 1974 production House of Whipcord is a women-in-prison movie with a difference. The prison in this film is not a real prison but a private institution, and the people running it are totally and comprehensively insane.

Ann-Marie (Penny Irving) is a young French model working in London who meets a rather nice young man at a party. He invites her to his parent’s country house at the weekend. It’s not quite what she expected. He abandons her there, and she’s received by a rather burly and mean-looking middle-aged woman who looks a lot like a prison warder. When Ann-Marie is ordered to strip and shower and then don a prison uniform she realises she really is in prison. But what was her crime?

She soon finds out. As a model she has posed for nude photographs, and for this heinous offence she is to be imprisoned indefinitely.

Back in the 1940s Mrs Margaret Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) had been one of Britain’s youngest prison governors. Her career had been cut short by the death of one of her prisoners, a Frenchwoman named Christine Hanson. She had been having an affair with a judge, Mr Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr), who happened to be head of the government’s prisons commission. He had been able to shield her from any criminal prosecution but was unable to prevent her from being dismissed from the prison service.

Bailey had left his wife, and he and Margaret had become social outcasts. This eventually led them to come up with a crazy scheme for exercising private justice. They bought an old gaol and started running it as a secret private prison for wicked women. They are both terribly disturbed by the permissive society of the 70s and they are determined to take a stand against it. They’re firm believers in both capital and corporal punishment, and they’re both completely insane. Perhaps Ann-Marie should have taken closer note of her date’s name - Mark E. Desade.

The old couple’s ideas on how the criminal justice system should be run would have been considered a little on the extreme side even in the Middle Ages but they’ve gathered around them a small circle of fellow believers - mostly ex-prison warders whose inherent sadism has caused them to be dismissed from the official prison system.

Ann-Marie turns out to be a much tougher person that she looks. She is determined to escape and to help the other unfortunate inmates to escape as well. Mrs Wakehurst takes an instant dislike to her and pretty soon has convinced herself that Ann-Marie is really Christine Hanson, a prisoner whose death in custody had led her to Mrs Wakehurst’s disgrace way back in 1946.

Most women-in-prison movies of this era made at least a token effort to include some political comment, as a way of justifying the copious nudity and violence that were the basic ingredients of the genre. House of Whipcord is slightly unusual in that the political comment is rather well done and actually works. The script is intelligent and the acting is generally quite good.

Penny Irving gives a reasonably good performance. Ann Michelle is also quit good as An -Marie’s friend Julia who goes looking for her after the model’s disappearance. Patrick Barr and Barbara Markham are convincingly psychotic, and Robert Tayman is extraordinarily creepy as Mrs Wakehurst’s son Mark E. Desade.

There are more than enough exploitation elements to please exploitation movie fans but as is the case with most Pete Walker movies there’s a clever and provocative little movie hidden in there as well.

I can’t make any judgment on the technical merits of the film since the picture on the DVD I saw was so incredibly dark. It was a second-hand copy but I’m told all existing prints of the movie look like this so I’m not going to blame Image Entertainment for that.


Shaun Anderson said...

A very important British horror film! Walker has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, thanks in large part to a series of auteur based academic reassessments. This is that rare exploitation flick that actually collapses and fails without an understanding of/or consideration of the political element.

dfordoom said...

Shaun, I think House of Whipcord is the most impressive of the three Pete walker films I've seen. Although Frightmare and Die Screaming Marianne were pretty good. I need to see more of his movies.