History is the ultimate judge of everything and film is no exception. One director whose work history has been very kind to is British director Pete Walker.
Walker was actually the son of music hall star Syd Walker. His first job was as a comedian at a strip joint in Soho (!) He also made 8mm ‘glamour shorts’ before making full length (pun not intended) softcore films at the end of the 60’s with titles like School For Sex, Cool It Carol and Four Dimensions of Greta.
But it was in the 70’s that Walker turned his attention to exploitation films and primarily the horror genre.
House of Whipcord is one such film and was made in 1974. This is a lurid movie with an equally lurid title. It concerns specially selected women who were judged to be far too liberated and sexually free and are thus thrown into a mysterious correction facility so that they would receive punishment for their wicked ways.
The film exposed the huge gulf within British society at the time- on one side were those who embraced the progressive changes Britain was undergoing regarding women’s changing roles that empowered and liberated them from simply being mothers and housewives. On the other side those who were more traditional and conservative. They were angry at the new permissive society and were the kind of people who wrote venom-filled letters to the national newspapers whilst spewing bile behind their net curtains. A figurehead for these people can be seen as Mary Whitehouse and her ‘Caravan of Light’ who campaigned against everything and wanted offensive and ‘corrupting’ films to be banned (Mrs Whitehouse would come into her own in the next decade during the Video Nasties moral panic), television programmes she didn’t approve of (the watershed was introduced because of her campaigning) and even pieces of poetry that didn’t meet her outdated moral standards (the publication Gay News was disbanded after she took them to court over a poem they published regarding Jesus and one of his foot-soldiers).
House of Whipcord is a genuinely brilliant piece of exploitation and horror that holds up a mirror to what was happening in society at the time. Britain was still so repressed that it was easy for mavericks to break boundaries and challenge taboos. In fact, there were those who at this time who were delighting in poking holes in the more archaic elements of society. Punk was just around the corner and tellingly Walker was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a documentary about The Sex Pistols. This was only cancelled because the band split up before the film could be made.
House of Whipcord is also a fantastic addition to the Women In Prison subgenre. It feels like Within These Walls on steroids. There are also elements of Kafka’s The Trial thrown in for good measure. This is highlighted by the shadowy figure of Judge Bailey who lays down the law within the facility but whose laws are completely unclear. This is an authoritarian nightmare that still feels all too real.
Special mention needs to go to the cast. Celia Imrie starred in the film at the start of her career and she speaks about the movie at numerous points in her autobiography. She makes it sound like the film was a cinematic shocker that she starred in when she was young and needed the money. However, you get the feeling that she is kind of proud to have been in such a production with it almost attaining a kind of ‘cool’ status.
Barbara Markham is spectacularly unhinged as Head Warden Mrs Wakehurst who turns from measured to biblically psychotic in an instant (witness the sequence in which is lurches at her husband wielding a knife whilst screeching ‘If thine eye offends thee, PLUCK IT OUT!’)
An actress who would be cast by Walker in a total of five of his film and stars here is the magnificent Shelia Keith. Her portrayal of sadistic warden Walker is as cold and brilliantly extreme as Markham’s is. Think of Vinegar Tits from Prisoner Cell Block H but much more extreme.
The next of Walker’s films that stands out for me is Frightmare also from 1974. In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present-day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is of course not! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.
The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and feigned madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15-year-old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.
Walker’s film goes to the darker places that other horror films of the age wouldn’t have dared to. Frightmare has enough deprived goings-on to have even the most jaded of horror fans salivating with glee.
There’s also a playful pop at the more respectable films on release at this time and what Walker thinks of these- Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of the arty farty Blow Up- and for good reason. Why watch that when you could be watching (or even starring in) a Pete Walker film?
Another facet of Walker’s work that I love is that his films capture the world in which they’re filmed in and feel like beautifully filmed time capsules. The fact that a certain demographic was lapping up films like Walker’s with a healthy section of the cinema-going public loving all things horror and exploitation was also very revealing of the time. The drive-in and 42nd Street audiences weren’t just confined to America during this time.
There’s also a fantastic strain of black humour at play within the film with events sometimes becoming so extreme that they become surreal and darkly funny. This reminds me of the dark comedy that rears its head during the endings of both Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver. Within Frightmare, this reads as completely intentional with an almost vaudevillian Grand Guignol tone during certain scenes.
Again, Keith features and plays the role of the cannibal housewife Dorothy resplendent with pale palour and red eyes. She attacks each character she takes on with such unbridled zest and zeal that her presence feels an essential part as to why Walker’s films are so noteworthy. Walker talked about working with her saying-
“Sheila Keith was a lady who lived a quiet life with her dogs and her cats and came into work to do, brilliantly, whatever was asked of her. She was like your nice old aunt who would serve you cucumber sandwiches before ripping into a dismembered limb – without complaining.”
I honestly think that Walker and Keith make for one of cinema’s great director/actor partnerships in much the same way De Niro and Scorsese or John Waters and Divine do.
Another Walker favourite of mine is Schizo made in 1976. Figure skater Samantha is just about to get married but we see that a former partner of her mother is travelling to London from the North East to seemingly stalk her.
The film feels ahead of its time as issues that are more widely spoken about now such as stalking, voyeurism and obsessive behaviour directed towards a single person hadn’t been tackled in film before. All of these concepts and dysfunctional attributes would have been new and revelatory to audiences back then in much the same way as those introduced to audiences watching Hitchcock’s Psycho (crossdressing, multiple personalities) or Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (celebrity stalking, obsessive fans) for the first time.
There are also questions as to who the stalker is, why he’s stalking Samantha and what role she has in all of this. There’s a huge sting in the tale and I’m certainly not going to spoil any of this here.
More than with any of Walker’s films before or since, Schizo really captures the time and locales it’s set in with London being beautifully captured in the year that, ironically, punk was about to explode. Just as punk marked an explosion not just within music but also within other art forms, Walker’s films can be seen as part of that movement.
Walker actually thought there were no subtexts to his films but was pleasantly surprised by what he saw when he reinvestigated his work. He said-
“But recently I had to record commentaries for the DVD releases so I saw the films for the first time since making them, and you know what? They’re not as bad as I thought. But searching for hidden meaning . . . they were just films. All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief.”
But there is meaning and subtext to be found in all films whether this is intended by the screenwriter and/or director or not. Walker and his screenwriter David McGillivray and their views on the British society of the time are there for all to see and marvel at throughout their work.
Walker’s last film was made in 1983 and was his most polished movie to date, the big-budget House of Long Shadows which cast horror royalty Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee all in the same picture. After this film, Walker retired from making films and instead set about restoring old cinemas.
Boxsets of Walker’s films have been released but curiously, only in the US. It’s time for 4K restorations of his work for Blu ray releases in his home country. It’s time for the outstanding back catalogue of this amazing auteur to be finally recognised and released in the UK. Walker’s work documents a secret history of a time in British cinema that was gritty, forbidden and utterly intoxicating. I think the BFI would be the best company to issue these releases and tout Walker as the major force he truly was within the British film industry even though he may have been frowned upon by others within that industry at the time. And if the BFI do release his films then they should also show a retrospective at the NFT for good measure.
That’s not asking too much, is it?