I don’t know if I like this film: it’s well-acted
and may have some points to make about class privilege, selfishness and
truthfulness but it’s just so… unpleasant. There’s intimidation, forceful
role-playing, at least two rapes (apparently) and actual bodily harm and, in
the end, all for what? It’s a trial by endurance for one couple’s ill-founded
relationship but does she necessarily have to see the light after being forced
to get drunk and stoned and to have intercourse with two men who have invaded
Based on C. Scott Forbes’ 1964 play, The Meter Man
, the film was described by director Peter Collinson
as being about “…the horror that lurks in
the minds of men”
and self-knowledge. More importantly, it is by way of a
fantasy… what you see isn’t necessarily what you get and that is frankly
confusing as I don’t believe there was sufficient narrative skill deployed to
bring this across in spite of the excellence of the performers. I mean, Peter…
if you could only have given us a clue
|A rose between two 'orrible thorns|
But maybe he was over-ruled by a denouement re-write that
effectively just repeated the trick of the first three quarters leaving the
audience shaken but not necessarily stirred. Had they stuck to the original
plot, the relationship trajectory of the two leads would have made more sense
but as it is we’re left with a simpler, more visceral modern horror. The
English critics didn’t care for the film but it played very well in the US and
elsewhere… perhaps High-Rise Horror was a genre with more appeal in Manhattan’s
As the great Roger Ebert said in his review at the time: “This isn't an evil movie, and it's not an
example of the pornography of violence… "The Penthouse," quite
simply, is a pretty good shocker... It's a relief to find one that's made with
skill and a certain amount of intelligence.”
|Lights are on and there's almost nobody home...|
The film opens with two men approaching a twenty storey
block of flats, a light flicks on in the penthouse and they turn to each other
Meanwhile we discover that the light switch has been
turned on by Suzy Kendall who will likewise do the same to parts of the
audience (with thanks to Ian Anderson for that one). She plays Barbara, a shop
girl who is having an affair with a rich and powerful estate agent called Bruce
(Terence Morgan) who is at this moment struggling to wake up, lounging in their
bed whilst she makes him breakfast.
Their affair has reached the point when he needs to put
up or shut up and come through on his promise to leave his wife for the younger
model: he reassures Barbara but we’re not convinced especially as he has two
daughters and particularly given the look of sheepish duplicity on his face as
he cuddles his lover – physical contact substituting for emotional honesty.
|Bruce looks sheepishly at the emotionally-honest Barbara|
Meanwhile the two men have been climbing all of the
stairs in the building to reach the top… the lift is either broken or not part
of the fun and the building is empty save for those two at the top. One of the
men, Tom (Tony Beckley) knocks on the door and tells Barbara that he’s come to
read the meter. Now we don’t think Tom is a meter man, especially as he seems
oddly selective in the rooms he checks and, more importantly, hasn’t bought his
pencil. He wanders round the flat, not really looking and commenting, rather
inappropriately, about the man he finds in Barbara’s bed.
Tom’s strangeness is only the half of it as Dick (Norman
Rodway) arrives and, in addition to being very good at meter reading, also may
have that elusive pencil… There’s also a “Harry” of course, who is waiting in
the van or some such.
|The meter man arrives and sharpens his pencil|
Rodway and Beckley are superbly accomplished maniacs it
has to be said and work on an off-beat relationship to reality and each other
right from the start.
At first Barbara and Bruce just think them fools and respond
in the way you would to two children but when Tom starts sharpening his pencil
with a large pen-knife, the pennies begin to drop. We’re not sure what the two
interlopers want either, theft would be too simple and nowhere near unsettling
enough… no, they are here for something far worse: a good time.
|The penny drops...|
Dilly-dallying out of the way, Bruce is tied to a chair
and Barbara is forced to drink a pint of whiskey as a “party” is prepared… the
threat is fleeting and ever-present and both take turns in soliloquising their
increasingly terrified/intoxicated hosts. Tom tells a potentially revealing
tale about pet crocodiles surviving after being flushed down so many
indifferent toilets by uncaring owners; it’s an urban legend that was strong in
the seventies and probably says nothing about their motivations.
|The "party" gets underway...|
Barbara is now so lost in liquor and well-rolled joints
that she will do anything she’s told, first with Tom and then with Dick whilst,
horribly, Bruce is left helpless being ranted at by the other.
It’s at this point
you wonder how things can possibly end and, in fairness, so do Tom and Dick.
How can they leave after making such a scene and expect B&B to not tell the
Police? Bruce, by now showing a weaker character than his lover, swears he
won’t whilst Barbara is honest enough to say she doesn’t know.
Logically there cannot be any escape from these men but
then, as suddenly as they arrived they’ve gone… is that it? As Barbara and
Bruce look at each other with new eyes there’s a knock on the door and it’s
Harry (Martine Beswick)… apparently the boys’ probation officer…
|Barbara, Bruce, Harry, Tom and Dick|
is challenging and
occasionally harrowing viewing that touches our deepest fears about loss of
control and home invasions. It has the feel of more coherent work from Harold
Pinter or Samuel Beckett and it would be interesting to see the original play
and whether it was more overtly political.
Suzy Kendall does very well as the women wronged by all the
men in the story whilst Rodway and Beckley steal the show with their nervous,
stage-honed theatricality…. You really wouldn’t want to meet these two on a
dark stairwell let alone pushing in to check your meter reading.
The film is now very hard to find but in the right mood –
buoyant, optimistic, sunny day all round… it’s worth seeking out!
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