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.

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