January 18, 2013

Retro Active: FRIGHTMARE (1974)

by Nick Schager


[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Jessica Chastain-headlined scary- mother thriller Mama.]

Psychosis is inherited in Frightmare, as is a hunger for human flesh. Pete Walker's under-sung 1974 gem (also known as Cover Up) is a Hammer Horror-ish like- mother/like-daughter tale of madness and murder, detailing the strange case of Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith), a couple who in 1957 London is sentenced by a judge to a mental hospital for six killings. The ruling is that they shall remain locked up until they're fit to re-enter society—which they supposedly are fifteen years later, thanks to a mental health system that appears to have absolutely no ability to differentiate sanity from insanity. Free to roam again, they hole up in a remote cottage, where they're regularly visited by grown daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), who brings Dorothy strange parcels that leak on the table, and who covertly discusses with Edmund whether mother has caught onto the ruse they're apparently perpetrating on her. Dorothy's wacko eyes make clear that, whatever subterfuge is underfoot, she's more aware than she lets on, but Jackie doesn't initially notice, too busy is she dealing with younger sister Debbie (Kim Butcher), a rabble-rousing teen delinquent who believes that their parents are dead, and who spends her evenings causing trouble like tricking biker beau Alec (Edward Kalinski) into beating the living pulp out of a local barman.


All of this greatly interferes with Jackie's attempt to begin a romance with Graham (Paul Greenwood), a good-natured psychiatrist who becomes increasingly interested in investigating Jackie's family's past. If there's a giant plot hole to Frightmare, it's that Jackie's interest in caring for Dorothy makes no sense, given that the woman is so clearly out of her gourd, not to mention incapable of being successfully rehabilitated. Yet setting aside that bit of nonsensicality, Walker's film is otherwise a chilling piece of efficient horror, wielding close-ups and color to potently unnerving effect. Walker's preference for tight shots of his characters' uniformly interesting and creepy faces creates a sense of dawning terror, as in a dream sequence in which Jackie imagines being accosted by her mother in a train compartment, blood dripping out of her parcel and her mouth until Jackie screams and the camera rotates upside-down to suggest spiraling fear and madness. Meanwhile, his use of crimson reds create an atmosphere of pervasive danger, though Walker's color scheme is also subtly sly, misdirecting viewers by coating certain characters in hues that imply innocence and harmlessness.

Frightmare At the heart of Frightmare is a surprise that, for the alert viewer, will hardly come as much of one, and yet Walker's stewardship—which also involves handheld shots that exude jangly energy—keeps the action taut and lively. Looking into the real story behind Jackie's parents, Graham discovers that they were put away not just for homicide, but also because Dorothy was eating her victims, and Edmund was less a stab-happy sidekick than a devoted husband enabling his wife in order to protect her. Graham's snooping makes him strangely interested in helping Debbie, which immediately marks him as a dupe who's bad at his job, because one glance at the fifteen-year-old's face is enough to make clear that she's off her own rocker—a fact confirmed early on, when she zealously joins Alec and his mates in viciously beating the barman. Debbie's petulant outbursts to Jackie, however, strike everyone as just average acting-out misbehavior, and thus Jackie turns most of her attention to Dorothy, who—in secret—has begun luring victims to her cottage via tarot card reading advertisements, and then dumping their bodies in the barn, where it's easier for her to power drill them to pieces, cackling and licking blood splatter off her face as she works.


That image is one of Frightmare's finest, thanks in part to the magnificent Sheila Keith, who warps her little-old-lady features to express lethal sadism. Keith makes Dorothy's sickness seem like both an irresistible compulsion ("I had to do it. I had to, I had to, I had to!" she tells Edmund after being caught relapsing) and a pastime she has no interest in discarding. Her turn meshes nicely with that of Butcher, a pretty blonde with a Satanic glint in her eye, and though Fairfax and Davies are only adequate in their respective less-than-lunatic roles, they don't interfere with the film's slow, inexorable descent into craziness, which peaks once it becomes clear that Debbie knows that mum and dad are still alive and kicking, and Graham decides to interject himself into this warped family drama. The final kicker may make less sense from a logical standpoint than simply from a B-movie-twist one, but in its final moments, full of ominous staircases and cuts to empty, mutilated eye sockets, Walker's film does convey, with delicious malevolence, that a cannibalistic appetite isn't just hard to sate—it's hard not to pass down to your kids as well.

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Posted by ahillis at January 18, 2013 8:54 AM