There’s something unsettling about London on film in the 1970s. Streets appear a little too empty. What traffic there is flows freely, with cars slowing down to park easily so their drivers can reveal what’s concealed inside the boot. Police come across as particularly inept, and allow teenage gangs to run riot on their motorcycles. Teenagers in general tend to fall into two general camps in 70s horrors; the easy victims or the out and out nasties. It’s a bleak and creepy 70s landscape.
Creepier still if it’s a Pete Walker film. Frightmare was directed by Walker in 1974 and follows his similarly gruesome offering from the same year House of Whipcord. Like the earlier film, Frightmare leads the viewer down an increasingly dark and narrowing path, where no-one is saved and the viewer is left particularly aghast. Or all the 70s horror films, it is one of the most shocking.
Frightmare begins in the 1950s, where a lone figure (Andrew Sachs) is murdered at a run down funfair. Jumping to the present day, Edmund and Dorothy Yates (Rupert Davies and House of Whipcord’s Sheila Keith) are released from a mental institution. Apparently they are now cured of their irritating cannibal tendencies. So we can all rest peacefully. No, hang on a minute, this is a Pete Walker film…
If you’ve dared to watch the trailer, the film provides reassuringly melodramatic music to its horror, and as well as the London setting Walker uses a desolate but far from comfy farmhouse, where open fires provide easy access to red hot pokers. The nastiness of Frightmare will be no surprise for anyone familiar with Walker’s work. The director kept British cinema alive in the 1970s, although perhaps alive is the wrong word to use for a series of films generally dealing with some degree of bloodbath. Walker directed a series of successful films before retiring in the early 1980s. Rumour has it that he became a property developer. As well as horror films, Walker knocked out a series of mild sex comedies, the most well known probably being Tiffany Jones in 1973. He almost directed a movie starring The Sex Pistols, possibly more interesting than Julien Temple’s limp Great Rock and Roll Swindle. But we’ll never know. Walker’s final film was a brilliant swansong. The House of Long Shadows brought together Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, John Carradine and Christopher Lee.
Pete Walker creates an absurd world that is really beyond criticism, and his recent appearance at the BFI easily proves this. An amiable and eloquent gentleman, he comes across as something of an English Roger Corman. An exceedingly nice man who just happened to make horror films, there’s little point in digging too deeply into the meaning behind the flicks. The films, if you like this sort of thing, are just fun, and Walker is happy to admit that he stopped directing at a relatively early age simply because he’d run his course as a filmmaker. And, more to the point, how could you possibly top The House of the Long Shadows?
Walker’s cinema remains elusive and obscure, making him the truest cult filmmaker. His movies rarery, perhaps never, appear on television and are difficult to track down on DVD. So sadly many of his feature have escaped my attention, such as this intriguing looking film with the bizarre casting of the singer Jack Jones and the future Mrs Connolly Pamela Stephenson:
The Comeback looks fantastic, but I’ll have to make do with the trailer for now – that familiar deep voice telling me
Perhaps he is going mad. Or perhaps there is someone there…
This is a postdated entry as I’m currently away. And I have a bag of books with me to share with you at a later date … but I didn’t want to miss out on Halloween. So … here’s five random snippets with a spooky theme.
Often at this time of year the old records that suit the mood are sought out and dusted down. Monster Mash and Thriller are the obvious choices, although I have a preference for The Witch by the German rock band The Rattles. However, if you want something truly scary then you can’t do better than Kate Bush in particularly barking form.
Hammer films are back in production. I hear that Kate is available…
Obscure Film Trailer
There are many of these and I sometimes think that they exist in trailer form only, that nobody really went as far as making a feature length film. But they did … and this one features Donald Pleasence, an actor forever associated with Halloween.
Alfred Hitchcock strolling around the Universal studios backlot and talking about Psycho. This is a very strange little film, and not really in keeping with Psycho as you might remember it (I’ve never known how to take his pieces to camera). But it’s worth staying with his ramblings. And it’s interesting for anyone who’s ever visited the preserved set on the Universal tour.
Dark and Lonely Water
This used to terrify me as a child. Exactly what it was supposed to do. One of the fondly remembered British Public Information Films. Often the films were obsessed with dangerous driving and/or dangerous road crossing. Viewers also learnt how to deal with burst water pipes and were advised not to leave gates open when visiting the countryside. But this one is truly scary, warning of the dangers of playing near water…
Is that Donald Pleasence again?
And Finally, the Master…
A trailer that doesn’t really try that hard. It’s a great film nevertheless. Perhaps his most charming film is Dance of the Vampires from 1967, but as his life took such a tragic path I think the subject matter of his films in the following decade is inevitable …
Jack P came up with the idea to write a short story for Hallowe’en. I wrote two, both the product of sleepless nights and both written in the early hours. As I couldn’t decide on which to post, and as they’re both quite short, here’s both. Besides, I’m sitting here dressed as Dracula ready to scare some young kids and I’ve got to get going. Happy Hallowe’en…
Lock and Key
I slammed the front door behind me. I bolted it tight and drew the curtains. I turned out the lights and walked quickly into the kitchen.
I checked the back door. I locked the cat flap. I paused; there was a need to be systematic. Doors and windows had to be secured first. Smaller things came last, like catflaps. Like blocking drains and sinks.
I caught my breath. Checking that all the downstairs windows were closed, I hurried up the stairs.
I shut the bathroom and bedroom doors in the dark, feeling with my hands. I listened, and moved on. In my blindness, I stumbled on something. A small toy. It crunched underfoot and I fell, catching myself against the wall. I looked ahead towards the faint light from the box room.
I entered and closed the door behind me. I steadied myself as I held onto the side of the cot. The breeze ruffled my hair. I moved to close the window and noticed a shadow behind me. It was too late.
“Got you,” it said.
aviarium -i n. [an aviary]; also [the haunts of wild birds].
obsessor -oris m. [one who besets , haunts, or besieges].
obsideo -sidere -sedi -sessum intransit. [to sit down near]; transit. [to beset , haunt, frequent]; esp. [to blockade, besiege; to watch over, be on the look-out for].
pervulgo (pervolgo) -are [to publish , make publicly known; to make generally available; to frequent, haunt a place]. Hence partic. pervulgatus -a -um, [very usual or well known].
praesaepes (praesaepis) -is f. and praesaepe -is , n. and praesaepium -i, n., [an enclosure; a crib, manger, stall; a hive; a haunt, lodging, tavern].
remordeo -mordere -morsum [to worry , haunt].
That boy has never liked me. I know it must be difficult for him, me moving in with his mother, but there comes a point where you have to draw the line.
I knew that moving into the flat wasn’t going to be the smoothest of rides. Is anything? And I knew that he’s something of a cry-baby. The evening I arrived with all of my things he’d missed school because of that tooth. Ah, the tooth. There was an atmosphere I could have done without. I told him to stop pulling at it and that it would come out of its own accord. But of course he didn’t listen to me. I made things worse. Telling me to go to hell like that! I was already halfway into my new home.
His mother is too generous, she’s too understanding. He gets his own way far too often. So I didn’t think it unreasonable to bring a few house rules with me…
On the first day I had an important meeting at work; a visit to the university for a translation. But it all went badly that morning. I almost missed the train due to several I would say deliberate obstacles placed in my path. My papers had been rifled through, disorganised. Why had the towel fallen into the bath? Why were my suit trousers screwed up and on the floor? How did I manage to cut myself shaving so severely with a blunted razor? His mother put it down to the loss of my glasses, another incident in a string of mishaps that week.
Rushing for the station, I saw the boy watching me from the window. The day proceeded with a coldness about me. I returned to my new home. Things visited me that night.
On the second day I left with a – how shall I put it – tugging tiredness pulling at me. I had not slept well. The boy watched me again from the window. His mother had put it all down to my stressful day previously; I was over tired. And although prepared for that evening’s nightmares, they still came upon me with a shocking reality. The birds stabbed at me. I cried out.
The third day I barely struggled through. I did not go to work. I dared not stay at home. I moved from street corner to street corner, like a ghost. I visited endless tavern and drinking den.
But then it all came clear. The third night was a revelation to me. As I adjusted the bed clothes on the settee I noticed something. Carefully sewn into the inside of the pillowcase. It took me a while to pull it apart gradually in the half light. Something wrapped in a small cutting of blood soaked tissue.
I slept well for the rest of that night. I even crept back up to bed. But I was cunning, I wanted to fool the boy. I sleepily moved around the flat the next morning waiting for an opportunity. And I found one. The tooth. Ah, the tooth. The nagging loose tooth had worked itself looser and the boy couldn’t stand the discomfort any more. He’d worked it right out, a messy business. But there were tissues to hand. I caught him off his guard.
He’d seen what I’d seen. We’d read the same things, although – come on – he’s merely an amateur. I’d looked at my papers differently. They were still disorganised. There is more than one way to skin a cat. The boy was clever and he certainly caught me off my guard, but there’s always a better way. My spell’s best.
And now I continue to sleep softly. The screams in the next room don’t really bother me at all. And he will notice when I watch him. I can stop it whenever I decide to, whenever that may be. It’s my decision. He’ll never find it. I’ve drawn the line.
cogitatio -onis f. [thinking , conception, reflection, reasoning]; sometimes a particular [thought, idea or intention].
cogito -are [to turn over in the mind , to think, reflect]; sometimes [to intend, plan]. Hence partic. cogitatus -a -um, [considered, deliberate]; n. pl. as subst. [thoughts, reflections, ideas]. Adv. cogitate, [thoughtfully].
contueor -tueri -tuitus dep. [to see , survey, look at attentively];mentally, [to consider, reflect upon].
dispicio -spicere -spexi -spectum [to see clearly] , esp. by an effort; [to make out, discern, perceive; to reflect upon, consider].
recolo -colere -colui -cultum [to cultivate or work again; to resume; to set up again , rehabilitate; to reflect upon, to recall].
reddo -dere -didi -ditum (1) [to give back , restore]; ‘reddi’, or ‘se reddere’, [to return]; in words, [to repeat, recite; to reproduce by imitation, to represent, reflect]. (2) [to give in return]; hence [to answer; to translate, render, interpret; to make, render, cause to be]. (3) [to give as due; to pay up, deliver; fulfil]; ‘reddere ius’, [to administer justice].
referio -ire [to strike back , strike again]. Transf. [to reflect].
repercussus -us m. [reverberation; echo , reflection].
repercutio -cutere -cussi -cussum [to strike back , make rebound]; perf. partic. repercussus -a -um, [rebounding, reflected].
repulsu abl. sing. m. [by striking back , by reflection, by echoing].
‘Tis now the time for witches and black cats, ghoulies and ghosties. Darkness has fallen, the children are asleep, and I sit beside a crackling fire to reveal my list of top ten scary things…
Hammer House of Horror (TV series, 1980)
I remember this as being very scary. There are two episodes that really frightened me at the time. One of them, particularly Halloweeny, was about a witch from the past appearing periodically to torment a man in the present day. As you might expect, nobody believes him, least of all his wife who is quite upset about the scratches on his back! I watched it again when the series was repeated on good old ITV3 last year and it wasn’t as chilling as I’d remembered aged 13. So I’m picking another from memory that was called something like The Two Faces of Evil…
This one started with a family who pick up a strange hitch-hiker. He turns out to be a crazed maniac (I’ve never picked up a hitch-hiker in my life because of this) who causes the car to crash and for all the family to end up in hospital. The madman dies but the family all recover, although the wife begins to suspect that the dead man is really her husband while the man at home (who’s now acting slightly oddly) is an evil imposter…
Doctor Who (TV Series, 1963-1989, 2005 onwards)
From the old Doctor Who I remember The Sontarens scaring me. It was the Jon Pertwee era, and a story set in medieval times. Lots of medieval tomfooloery that wasn’t especially frightening, but an episode ended with the first glimpse of the Sontaren face. And then that music…and then, although scared, I was very excited as I waited for the following Saturday…
Later, in the Tom Baker era, The Brain of Morbius was very dark and disturbing. There is something very very nasty about a talking brain in a jar…
From the new series I found the episodes with the child in the gas mask very effective (The Empty Child). But my daughter finds Who too scary and won’t have it on. “There’s the fireplace”, I say, “position yourself behind it”, but she won’t listen. You can’t even mention Daleks or Cybermen in our house. We’re only allowed to watch Robin Hood. Bah.
M.R. James (Montague Rhodes James, writer of ghost stories, 1862-1936)
The BBC adapted many of James’ short stories for their Ghost Stories for Christmas series. A new film was made every year during the 1970s and repeated every Christmas well into the 1990s. BBC Four started to show them again a couple of years ago, made a documentary and have now revived the series, with a new adaptation being shown last year.
I was too young to see them first time round, but have lapped up the repeats and read the original stories. The ghost stories of M.R. James all share the same theme. The curious minded (one of the stories is actually called A Warning to the Curious), usually academics or archaeologists, uncover or steal something that is best left untouched. Causing something sinister to come after them…
My favourite, although made just before the BBC started A Ghost Story for Christmas, was called Whistle, and I’ll Come to You. It stars Michael Hordern as an eccentric old professor who finds a whistle by an ancient grave whilst on a walking holiday. He decides to take the whistle and… well you can probably guess that this turns out to be an unwise move. Professor Hordern ends up very haunted indeed. If you haven’t seen it please try to, and you’ll be surprised just how scary a ghostly figure and a deserted windy beach can actually be.
Worth catching: there’s a very scary 1950s film called Night of the Demon, which is based on a James story.
Tales From the Crypt (1972 film directed by Freddie Francis)
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine reminded me of this obscure, early 1970s horror compendium from the giants of such films, Amicus. He’d remembered seeing it in his youth and how particularly frightening one part of the film was which featured the actor Ian Hendry.
In Tales from the Crypt, several actors who you would expect to appear to find in such a film embark on a tour of some caves: the likes of Joan Collins, Nigel Patrick and Ian Hendry. Their hapless guide, played by Geoffrey Bayldon (would you let Geoffrey Bayldon lead you into some caves?), manages to lose all of them. They stumble on blindly and eventually enter a particularly cavernous part of the caves to come face to face with a sinister Ralph Richardson dressed as a monk. He proceeds to gleefully reveal to each of them the grisly fates that they are about to befall…
Ian Hendry’s segment is called something like Reflections on Death and is above average for such a film. He plays a man who decides to leave his family for his mistress, becomes involved in a car crash, walks away from the burning wreckage and returns to his former home to be greeted by screams of horror from his wife and children. He then visits his mistress, now blind, who tells him that he must be mistaken because her lover died in the crash. He glances down at a glass coffee table to see the reflection of his burnt face…
It’s genuinely creepy partly because Hendry plays the whole thing straight. The Amicus films also usually had modern settings, so we have modern flats with lifts instead of castles with staircases and this is also, somehow, unsettling. The music is also very good and conveys a genuine sense of unease.
The film was recently shown in a late-night slot and, thinking of my friend, I taped it and gave him the cassette. I wrote ‘Ian Hendry’ on the box and this was all it took; he looked at the tape and looked at me like he had just seen the reflection of a ghoul in a glass coffee table. He thanked me, but somehow I knew that he would never watch it…
Tales From the Crypt and other films from Amicus (like The Vault of Horror from 1973) took their stories from American horror comics. I remember a second-hand bookshop in Tooting Broadway that used to sell them. It was run by a man with a woolly hat and a beard who would have a specific section for the American horrors. This was a couple of years before 2000 AD came on the scene, so American comics were still miles ahead of the British ones. Always in full colour, with grisly drawings of corpses rising from graves to wreak their vengeance. Usually on their former employers, I seem to recall.
There was also a brand of comics with titles like Creepy Worlds and Eerie Tales which specialised in science fiction and horror stories. For some reason, they were only available to buy in seaside towns, so I always associate these scary comics with holidays and being scared in caravans and chalets.
The Wicker Man (1973 film directed by Robin Hardy)
When I first saw The Wicker Man I thought to myself “people dancing about on a Scottish island? That’s not scary!” but this film builds up splendidly to its shocking ending. Just in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal fully what happens, but this line still sends a shiver through me:
Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man…
Wicker Man urban myth: reels of the film are buried under a motorway somewhere.
Wicker Man truth: Christopher Lee always says this is the best film he appeared in.
Wicker Man no-no: the Nicolas Cage remake.
Wicker man argument I am prepared to make: The film’s ending is the scariest ever. No rescue and no way out.
The Blair Witch Project (1999 film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)
The most recent horror film that I’ve found scary. We lived on the edge of a wood at the time of its release onto video, which didn’t help. Like The Wicker Man, another no way out film.
The Woman in Black (stage play, 1988, adapted bt Stephen Mallatrat from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill)
A very effective play, which I went to see twice. Still running in the West End, unless I’m mistaken. There’s a bit where a ghost creeps onto the stage and screams, and the other actors scream, and you all end up screaming.
Tales of the Unexpected (TV Series, 1979-1988)
Roald Dahl would sit in his chair by the fire at the beginning, rather like I am now. His urbane introductions were always the most frightening part for me. Good old ITV3 are repeating Tales of the Unexpected as we speak, and they’re pretty dire to watch now, although the Dahl introductions are still very good.
Around the time that Tales of the Unexpected started, I was finally allowed to stay up late at weekends. I remember a season of horror films being shown on Saturday nights which ran through the whole Universal canon: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. A great introduction to horror, but this is about scary things rather than just classic horror films (which will give me an excuse to do a horror meme some other time).
Children of the Stones (TV Series, 1977)
Another TV series from my childhood. The most frightening thing about it was the music. A sort of unearthly, disturbing sub-human choir. I rented Children of the Stones recently on DVD when my wife and daughter were away for the weekend. I can honestly say that I found the music still scary.
There were a lot of creepy programmes on children’s television in the 1970s and many of them, like this one, were concerned with stone circles and all things pagan. Teatime terrors, which is very satisfying for a ten-year-old.
The Shining (1980 film directed by Stanley Kubrick)
This film has had such a profound effect on me that I can’t check into a hotel without thinking about it, and I can’t walk down a hotel corridor without thinking I’m going to hear:
Hello Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us, Danny. Forever… and ever… and ever…
That’s my Halloweeneememe then. Ten scary things, although I’ve just counted eleven. I’m sure it was ten to start with. How scary…
BBC Four are showing a new adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Haunted Airman tonight. Later there’s a choice between John Carpenter’s classic Halloween on BBC1 and the 1979 Dracula with Laurence Olivier on Channel 4. Silly, but notable for its Cornish location of the Camelot Hotel in Tintagel which I recently visited at the beginning of my Hallowe’en frenzy.
I forgot to mention my real life scary experience with Mr Burgess, the psychic plumber. Oh well, there’s always next year…