Monday, 30 April 2018

Crime and punishment... House of Whipcord (1974)

Ah, now… this is one of those films that sounds worse than it is; it’s a clumsy title and even the opening dedication "… to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment"… doesn’t necessarily give the game away, at least for some over-earnest reviewers. Director and story writer Peter Walker was deeply opposed to the misuse of authority and what he saw as an ever-widening gap between the establishment and most of (permissive) society. Like many of his films, House of Whipcord was very successful and its more sensational elements – frequent nudity, sometimes excruciating cruelty and pretty women in prison – all but obscured its message.

The version I saw was probably an edited version and it seems odd for a film featuring such actorly talent as Ray Brooks, Patrick Barr and Barbara Markham in such sensationalist fare. Both Brooks and Barr were to feature in Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (which has far more of the former than the latter) and his films are well made overall in spite of clear budget constraints. He creates real atmosphere and tension with stories that are indeed more “terror” (his preferred descriptor) than horror and more sin-full than sinning (just about). They’re engaging and characterful even if not all of the performers are of the quality of the aforementioned.

Sheila Keith
 The film’s structure is also quite unusual beginning not quite with the end but with a pivotal moment in the narrative that we assume could be the end – for good or bad. An exhausted young woman is running through woods in a desperate search for someone to help her. She’s covered in bruises and is wearing a thin blue dress… she’s picked up by a lorry driver (Ivor Salter) who takes her in his cab and finding her almost unable to communicate, heads off to get her help.

Then the story really starts as we find a group of young adults who are enjoying a “permissive” existence. Julia (Ann Michelle – Vicky’s sister) is having an affair with a man, Tony (Brooks) who is either married or in a long-term relationship; he is weighing up leaving his partner for Julia. Her flatmate, Ann-Marie (Penny Irving, famous for several Top of the Pops/Hot Hits LP covers as well as Are You Being Served) is French and a model who is not averse to nude work (Irving herself made numerous appearances on page three of the Sun and Mirror…).

Permissive society in action
At a party to celebrate something, there’s a large black and white shot of Ann-Marie topless being arrested by a policeman at a protest. The others agree it’s a great bit of agitation but the model herself is less impressed by their celebrations. She slinks off for some introspective browsing and meets an intense young fellow called Mark (the unblinking Robert Tayman) who appears attentive and agrees with her unease about the protest shots.

She agrees to see Mark again and whilst they have an agreeable meal he plays a trick on her by getting her to close her eyes whilst he pretends that an ice cube is the cold cutting edge of a knife. He laughs at her horrified reaction but charms her over at the end… we’re not convinced.

Ann Michelle and Penny Irving
 The story focuses a lot more on Ann-Marie and Mark at this point with Julia and Tony very much in the background – also atypical working from Walker. Mark whisks Ann-Marie off in his smart sporty Aston Martin to stay with his parents somewhere out West; he drives too fast and is pretty mean and even when Ann-Marie spots a ring with the name Mark E. Desade on it, she dismisses it… but we know. Well, we’ve read the film’s title for a start.

Eventually they arrive at Mark’s family pile and an imposing pile of granite grey it is too. He leads his girl into the building and leaves her with two officious women: Walker (Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon) quickly change the atmosphere for Ann-Marie and a few slaps and being forced to strip soon make her realise that this is not quite the weekend she’d been expecting… She’s locked up in a cell with another girl, Claire (Judy Robinson) who is too terrified to speak and very weak.

An ice "slice" from Robert Tayman
Next Ann-Marie is hauled up in front of the establishment’s head Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) and an old blind judge Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr): this is a private prison and they have decided to punish her for her crimes of lax morality. She’s quickly sentenced and told that she will have three chances with punishment getting more severe each time.

It’s pretty horrible stuff and not at all titillating: Walker’s lustful glances at her new young prey are unsettling and the punishment beatings are grotesque all the more so for being heard more than seen… it’s the atmosphere that Walker builds that creates the tension and this film is more disturbing than many a more graphic modern horror.

Naturally Ann-Marie tries to escape and she, naturally, gets punished for it. Mark re-appears and her last hope disappears as this is no misunderstanding; he is part of it, sent out to lure “amoral” young things into mummy’s deranged world. Still… she makes plans with the other girls (including a young Celia Imrie) to escape the place for good.

Barbara Markham and Patrick Barr
Meanwhile, Julia has finally realised something’s wrong – despite Tony’s re-assurances and sets out to track down her friend… and that’s when things start to ramp up and the pace changes more into action and some quite shocking scenes.

Dusty verdict: House of Whipcord is certainly no generic “women in prison” film and has a lot to say about intolerance, man’s inhumanity to woman and the hypocrisy of those who enjoy their vengeance on young wrong-doers. The punishment just does not fit the crime and that’s the point; today we see this more and more with social media junkies baying for blood and relishing every twist and turn…

It's atmospheric and the unusual narrative keeps you anxious especially given strong perfromances from the jailors and captives - Penny Irving in particular.

The film is now available on Bluray after long years in the VHS dungeon. Available from Amazon of course.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Doctor, what…? Doomwatch (1972)

Pollution, industrial waste, the ecology, even global warming… none of these things are new and there were plenty of programmes in the 1970s that dealt with what were then emerging concerns. There was an episode of Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who series, The Green Slime (“the one with the maggots”) in which the impact of waste was shown to have potentially lethal implications for the environment in general and Man in particular so much so that his assistant Jo (the eternally ace Katy Manning) leaves in the end to go on an environmental mission with her new fella to the Amazon.

Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis had both worked on Doctor Who having co-created the Cybermen and other science-horrors (they were both scientists too) and were to become the writers on the TV series of Doomwatch which ran for 24 episodes in the early 70’s.  This film was aimed at transferring that success on-screen and was based on elements of the series.

Directed by Peter Sasdy and with Clive Exton re-working the TV scripts, it featured familiar themes of pending environmental disaster and the shame of it was and is, that their sci-fi is fast becoming our reality…

Doomwatch is a British ecological watchdog group whose mission statement kind of speaks for itself: the big hand is ticking towards midnight and scientists need to provide as much early warning to a wilfully deaf establishment.

Doctor Del Shaw (the always-excellent Ian Bannen) is an investigator sent to the remote island of Balfe to investigate the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. There’s something sinister on the island, people are more than usually untrusting of strangers and are positively grumpy about questions and helping with enquiries, from PC Hartwell (Percy Herbert) to the priest (Joseph O'Conor) all give Doctor Del the bird and with desperate menace too.

Ian Bannen
The one bright spark is the attractive blonde improbably teaching at the village school, Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson) who is also staying at the only guest-house in the community. Naturally, as the only two outsiders, she and Del are drawn together without ever actually… you know… but they could. But like the others, Victoria is guarded even though she can see that Del is only a scientist trying to help.

But Balfe, stands alone and want to keep its secrets mostly because it feels it is being punished… Del starts his investigations, overlooked as he takes sample on the beach and in the midst of a fight in the pub over still unspoken tensions.

Del reports back to HQ, TV series regulars Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul) and Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend) are there along with Simon Oates as Dr John Ridge, clearly the man for action sequences later in the film.

Judy Geeson
As it becomes clear that the waters surrounding an island have been contaminated by chemical dumping, so too is the impact on the people who eat fish caught in those waters. It has not only changed behaviours but also physiology and, seeing this as God’s punishment, the community try to protect their own and to drive strangers away.

As strange split evolves in the action, with Del’s remarkably quick trips back to base mixed in with often tense encounters with the desperate folk on the supposedly remote island. You can’t really have both – he could escape/call for help anytime… but it doesn’t really matter as the plot is moved along.
The team dive and find illegally dumped barrels of waste in a Royal Naval zone and following the trail from the disbelieving Admiralty establish a private company has been in charge of this… See, even in 1972, public sector responsibility, handed over to private business undermines the whole process…

Dusty verdict: Doomwatch was a good series that – actually – wasn’t even ahead of its time: it was spot on then and sadly part of a movement that failed to gather enough momentum over the next half century.  Changes have been made and two-generations later, we are far more concerned with pollution and whether or not it is just too late…

The film has good performances from a strong cast – notably Geeson and Bannen. The Villagers are great too with everyone from Shelagh Fraser as Mrs. Betty Straker, Norman Bird as Brewer, the conflicted copper and even a young James Cosmo (Game of Thrones and so many more!) as Bob a local fisherman.

You also get George Sanders as an Admiral and Geoffrey Keen as irresponsible industrialist Sir Henry Leyton… as well as great location work at Polkerris, Cornwall and even Battersea Heliport in London.

It starts off like a hammer horror but there’s no mass slaughter just a tragic secret which, optimistically, the Doomwatch team tries to solve and help. Let’s hope that attitude hasn’t been lost.

Doomwatch can be purchased from Amazon and other retailers and most of the TV series is also available. The Truth is out there…