01 October 2014

(1974)

As '70s exploitation filmmakers go, Pete Walker was one of the savviest and more intelligent. All he ever wanted to do was “create a little mischief.”

Reviled in the 70s as a creator of exploitative trash, Walker has become somewhat of a cult figure over the last decade, as film scholars – somewhat prompted by the likes of Tarantino and his encyclopedic knowledge and love of off-the-grid celluloid—delve into his relatively small catalogue of film and realize the man has something of value to contribute to an undervalued aspect of British film history.

Exploitation films, by their very definition, openly exploit sensation, tap into societal zeitgeist, and generally lay bare the lurid, cinematic trends of the day. However, Walker did it with finesse.

In 1971, he tortured the lovely Susan George in Die Screaming Marianne, the same year Sam Peckinpah put her through her paces in Straw Dogs. In 1972, he terrorized a group of actors at a seaside theatre in The Flesh and Blood Show.

In 1974, he directed Frightmare, and in 1978 he completed his other classic, The Comeback, starring singer Jack Jones and Pamela Stevenson (best known in Britain for BBC 2 comedy, Not the Nine O’Clock News, and being the partner of the great Scots comedian, Billy Connelly).

For 1983's House of the Long Shadows, his last film, the director put together a heavyweight horror crew with John Carradine, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee and let them loose in an underrated haunted house romp.

Despite all those other schlock masterpieces, I keep coming back to Walker’s 1974 contribution to the ‘women in prison’ genre, House of Whipcord. It had one of those tantalizing film posters which I saw as a young teen (growing up in a sexually repressed Ireland), that got my heart racing and my imagination fired.

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The movie must have been playing as a double bill somewhere in one of the sticky-floored theatres scattered around Dublin of the 70s. Call me sick (as many do), but the lurid illustration of actress Penny Irving scantily clad, mouth open in a silent scream, staring through the circle of a leather whip, really sealed my fate as a lover of exploitative junk. I knew by the poster it was a movie I wasn't supposed to see.

It was years before I saw House of Whipcord, yet it did not, and still does not, disappoint. Starting with a flash of lightening and sheets of rain (we are in England after all), a sack clad young woman staggers into view and approaches a parked truck, the driver asleep at the wheel. As the good, mutton-chopped, salt of the earth Samaritan (Mr. Kind) helps the young woman into his cab, he tries to gain information about where she came from.

Deciding to head to London to get her to the police, the driver sees she is badly bruised and has bloody lash marks across her back. The camera zooms in on the wounded girl’s mouth as she screams with pain. Freeze frame on a close-up of her distressed face, all grain and gray as her scream blends into the soundtrack.

Titles: Wonderfully gothic script over a jazzy, 70s style, exploitation soundtrack by Stanley Myers (The Deer Hunter, The Comeback and Schizo), while in the background we are treated to prison bars and the menacing shadow of a noose.

In a flashback, we find our injured girl is Ann-Marie Di Verney (played by English actress and page 3 model, Penny Irving -- complete with terrible accent), a French model, and Bridget Bardot lookalike, who has just become a publicity sensation after being photographed nude in Hyde Park. At a party, she meets the broody and darkly enigmatic Mark E. (Desade, we find out later) played by Robert Hayman (Vampire Circus and Moon Zero Two), decked out in his best vampire chic, white frilly shirt. Ann Marie’s friend, Julia (a very sexy Ann Michelle from Virgin Witch) seems dubious about this hurried relationship, which she discuss with her boyfriend, Tony (quirky Ray Brooks). He doesn’t see the problem. Typical man.

The story shifts into gear as Ann-Marie heads to the country to visit Mark’s mother, who appears to live in a walled, gothic fortress in the middle of the country...miles from nowhere, where the wind moans across isolated fields. Ann-Marie soon realizes she has become the prisoner of a sadistic warden and a half-deaf and blind judge, who have taken it upon themselves to be the voice of moral authority, deciding both punishment and prison term for the immoral women detained within the walls of the abandoned prison.

A little nudity, not much blood, and no harsh language are on offer here. That may seem like poor exploitation, but I assure you, there is much more at play here.

With House of Whipcord, Walker has created an underrated satire that lashes out against the moral conservatives and purveyors of decency in an era and country still acting out its sexual liberty and flower power ethos, while the conservative 'establishment' looks on with disgust.

Even the menacing warden, Margaret Wakehurst (and Mark's 'lover/mother' -- we're never quite sure) played by Barbara Markham from John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday, is a thinly disguised Mary Whitehouse, the social activist and hater of social liberalism who, in the 70s and 80s, campaigned stridently against the loose morals of the British nation.

Thanks to the damp, dark, and grainy cinematography by Peter Jessop, we are treated to muted, battleship grays and dirty whites of the gothic prison where the girls are held captive, put to the whip for stealing food, and hung after their third breach of the rules. Authority figures, like the stern and fascist Walker (“I’m going to make you ashamed of your body.”) are pooled in dark shadow, giving them grotesque features and cruel eyes, rendering them down to sadistic archetypes.

The hyperbole here has a point. Create caricature to aid satire. Walker is making a political statement, trying to rile and provoke attention, as well as exposing a bit of flesh, of course. You have to expose a little flesh.

Walker's lurid masterpiece is a stern indictment of societal institutions (religion, politics, and marriage come under attack here), and how their repressive ideology attempts to trap and mute us -- most particularly our sexuality and freedom of expression. Screenwriter David Gillivray, also responsible for Schizo, packs in the ironic dialogue, which is always worth a sardonic smile or two.

Performance-wise, we border on the melodramatic, but we are talking gothic here, so it's to be expected. Sexy Ann Michelle works well as Ann-Marie's suspicious friend having an affair with unhappily married Tony ("It's like a prison at home."), played with comic charm by Ray Brooks.

Sheila Keith (Frightmare) does her best torture-loving, lesbian-inclined, Isla, She-Wolf impression and deserves the moniker of British horror icon. Robert Tayman's sexuality jumps off the screen as he lays his honey trap for the poor girls who populate the House of Whipcord.

Whipcord, despite its low budget and exploitative grounding, is still very effective and remains eminently watchable and deserved of its cult status.

Walker no longer makes movies. Instead, he refurbishes old movie theatres in Britain and, as he says in a 2005 interview from the newspaper The Guardian, he doesn’t miss being an "uninvited guest to the British film industry."

His "kick, bollock and scramble" style of feature production has seen the sun set on its heyday. In fact, Walker gave up filmmaking in his early forties because he "felt the cries of outrage begin to wane." And that's why we love Walker; he insisted on provoking a reaction from both the viewer and the establishment.

He got his wish. Nearly 40 years later, we're still talking about Pete Walker.

Garvan Giltinan is an ex-pat Irishman living in America for nearly 20 years. He teaches high school as well as Film classes in Reel Violence and Noir at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He has written for such websites as The Harrow and Exploitation Retrospect, and several of his short stories have been published in graphic novel form as part of the Eagle Award-nominated series Sancho: Twisted Tales of Terror. Giltinan has two novellas (The Irishman and Way Out Bloody West) and one novel (Wayne Talisman’s Long Bloody Night), available through Amazon.
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