Dorothy Yates is sure one unhinged old biddy, but in Judge Bill Gibron's estimation, her constant cannibalistic craving is not enough to salvage this scattered British horror film.
Far beyond a nightmare
Jackie Yates is a young British bird with a major problem—her teenage delinquent sister, Debbie. This out-of-control crumpet likes to run with the local biker gangs and beat up barmen just for kicks. Unfortunately, her wicked ways are catching up with her and the police suspect she may be an accomplice to murder. This is the least of Jackie's quandaries, though. She is also dealing with her parents, Dorothy and Edmund, who've recently been released from a two-decade stay in the local asylum. It seems that nearly 20 years ago, Dot enjoyed murdering people—and eating them—and Ed went along as a loving, devoted partner in crime. Now the State has certified them "sane," yet Jackie is concerned that her mum will go back to her slaughtering and skin snacking. When a young psychiatrist takes a liking to Jackie, he becomes mixed up in this family imbroglio, but he'd better not peek too hard at the skeletons in the closet. They have the potential to cause a Frightmare that can last a lifetime.
Frightmare is a very frustrating movie. It wants to be an intense, no-holds-barred look at a loony who loves long pig (human flesh), but can't quite get itself out of the fish-and-chips firmament of proper British etiquette. Though it's bloody enough and loaded with atmosphere and invention, this unusual U.K. offering still pales in comparison to its American cousins. There is just something so curt, so stiff upper lipped and undeniably genial about the English that it's hard to imagine them as twisted psychopaths. Oh, sure, the standard Hollywood riff for villains is to give them a clipped British brogue, all the better to insinuate that there is some manner of malevolent genius locked inside their often deranged ideals. However, when everyone speaks like an Oxford professor, it goes from terrifying to twee. You can tell that genre stalwart Pete Walker was mining the same cannibal conceit as Toby Hooper did with his Lone Star masterwork The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He even has his own outrageous Leatherface in the slightly askew Dorothy Yates/Sheila Keith. Giving a performance that is destined to endure her to millions of macabre fans, she is one of the few viable reasons to watch this otherwise scattered shocker. Walker may be playing with the precepts of the psychological thriller, but he doesn't give us enough to get deeply involved with the people in peril.
Indeed, one of the key reasons we find ourselves frightened by horror films is the notion of vicarious identification. If we care for the characters or can easily see ourselves in their place, then we allow the plots precariousness to jangle our own nerves. Similarly, if we completely believe the threat at hand, if there is no metaphysical escape for the audience during a particularly nail-biting sequence, the fear factors are dramatically increased. Frightmare fumbles this facet of the fright flick, providing us with an insufferable teenage twit, her uptight and whiny sister, and a sad-sack psychologist who resembles a member of the skid-row version of The Goodies. Still, we are supposed to see the film through their eyes, to experience the terror as violence betrays the manic mental illness that drives the deaths. You can tell that Walker wants us to view the mayhem as mythic—he holds the camera on images meant to inspire the depraved (the movie's minimal gore) and the defiled (full on shots of blood-spattered faces in full homicidal glory). With nothing as a counter to all the carnage, however, Frightmare finds itself without a stable center. Instead, the movie shifts wildly in tone and temperament until we're not sure if we're watching an exercise in slasher surreality or just another installment of the standard kitchen sink cannibal drama.
Still, there are reasons to give this mid-1970s scarefest a spin. As mentioned before, Sheila Keith is amazing as Dorothy Yates, the lady who longs to lunch on other members of the human race. Her face may resemble an albino Don Vito and her mannerism a mix of wicked witch and Miss Jane Marple, but when she drives a hot poker through a gal or gives a bad-ass biker dude a pitchfork in the eye, she elevates her standing as a certified horror icon. Had the movie stayed solely on Dorothy, her life pre-institutionalization (she apparently worked at a carnival as a tarot card reader), and her ever-present desire for a little forearm fricassee, we'd have a weirdo winner on our hands. Instead, Frightmare fidgets too much, giving us unnecessary romantic interludes, several sequences of suggestion and hinting, and a finale that fails to deliver on everything that's come before. Nothing is ever resolved here—the police aren't involved when they're needed, the husband's motives are made confusing and clichéd, and the delinquent sister with a split personality suddenly becomes a major component of the killing. As with so many movies made in the '60s and '70s, censorship keeps us from getting to the heart—and brain—and spleen of the entire flesh feasting aspect. Frightmare's not afraid to spill a little vein juice to get its jollies, though. If Walker had wined us and dined us a little more, providing players we could react to and root for, this would be a much more enjoyable entertainment. As it stands, it's a single, sensational performance wrapped up in the routine.
Shriek Show, as part of its Pete Walker Collection, has given Frightmare a fresh coat of perverted paint. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is not pristine, but it's not just some VHS dub either. The transfer appears taken from original stock elements—there are even a couple of obvious editing mishaps and a few flashes of damage along the way. A previous Image release of the film on DVD (as part of their Euro Shock Collection) offered an open-matte version of the print. Walker always intended for the far more cinematic cropping, so this DVD represents the director's true wishes. Going along with the video revamp is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the film's soundtrack. Frankly, there is not much difference between it and the original mono presentation. Certainly, the speakers offer up a few spatial spooks and the atmosphere that Walker strives for is far more ambient in the multi-channel choice. Still, this is not the sonic super sizing many cinephiles would want.
As for bonus features, the sole supplement worth mentioning is the full-length audio commentary by director Walker and his cinematographer Peter Jessop, moderated by author and professor Steven Chibnall. Dealing with everything from the cameo appearance of a future Fawlty Towers star to how Sheila Keith "kept" in character, this discussion contains a wealth of information on how Walker made his movies. Occasionally lapsing off into oddball behavior, Walker still gives us production details and personal anecdotes, all in a genuine, jovial manner. While the photo gallery and trailer offer minimal pleasure, the alternate narrative track offers a tantalizing glimpse of moviemaking in the mid-1970s.
It's such a shame then that Frightmare isn't more menacing. Sure, it's a mad bit of moody macabre, featuring a fine fright performance at its center, but it just can't get the rest of its bits and pieces together to craft a complete whole. Instead, this is a movie that feels like many divergent parts pushed together in hopes they would make a singular shocker. Sadly, it's more of a mocker.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Full-length Audio Commentary featuring Director Pete Walker, Cinematographer Peter Jessop, and moderator/professor Steven Chibnall
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