Crazy Crones and Blood-Stained Sadists: The Horror Films of Pete Walker

Words by Paul Grammatico

In the 1980’s, Mary Whitehouse, a staunch supporter of purity of what people could peruse in their own home with arrests of video merchants and artists in the wake of this moral panic. Ironically, in the 1970’s there was a British independent director by the name of Pete Walker who was infamous for his low-budget, graphic, and sadistic horror movies that, despite not being in the 72 videos that were deemed video nasties, troubled British censors. Walker delved into many genres such as erotic, detective, and thrillers. As it is the Halloween season, I will make my attempt to rank Mr. Walker’s horror films from the worst to the very best. Note that your results may vary. Let’s begin.

7. The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)

An acting troupe is invited to come to an isolated and desolate seaside theatre. The show rehearsals are directed by Mike (Ray Brooks) who desperately tries to keep his actors together as they mysteriously disappear one by one. As they rehearse, an elderly resident Major Bell (Patrick Barr) befriends the thespians, and a secret is revealed as it is discovered that the actors haven’t disappeared but have been murdered.

This film has an interesting set-up, but the story has various plot holes, and the reveal is very drawn out and predictable. Despite the weaknesses of this film, it shows an early glimpse of Walker’s competence and flair for directing.

6. Schizo (1977)

William Haskins (Jack Watson), a strange and intimidating ex-convict, attempts to disrupt the wedding of figure skater Samantha Gray (Lynne Frederick) and businessman Alan Falconer (John Leyton) by placing bloody knives and other strange items around various locations that she frequents. Samantha fears for her life as she claims to see Haskins menacing her at every turn, but things aren’t quite what it seems for the newlyweds as perception is not always reality.

This story becomes a bit too forced and Walker even confessed that the film didn’t work as he attempted to “out-hitch Hitchcock”. The performances are very good with a strong nod to Stephanie Beachum as Alan’s friend Beth. Jack Watson is deliciously creepy as the supposed psycho.

5. The Comeback (AKA The Day the Screaming Stopped) (1978)

The film follows long-retired musician Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) who is now estranged from his wife Gail (Holly Palance). Gail visits Nick’s flat and reminisces on the life they had. As she decides to depart, she is summarily hacked to death by a sickle-wielding killer clad in an old woman mask covered in a shawl.

As Nick tries to move on with his life by recording a new album, he moves into a countryside manor at the behest of his manger Webster Jones (David Doyle), he meets the housekeeper of the manor Mrs. B (Shelia Keith) and the gardener Mr. B (Bill Owen). As he begins a new relationship with Webster’s secretary Pamela Stevenson (Pamela Stevenson), his work becomes sidetracked as he is haunted by fever dreams and strange noises and various other oddities throughout the manor.Pete Walker does a great job with a strong story of Nick Cooper who is played very well by Jack Jones who performed the theme song for the American television series The Love Boat. This film has a strong Giallo/proto-slasher type feel as a masked killer murders Gail and Nick’s best friend Harry (Peter Turner). Shelia Keith and Bill Owen are wonderfully witty and unnerving in turns. Ms. Keith will make a return in many of Walker’s films.

4. House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Young Writer Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) makes a $20,000.00 bet with his publisher that he can write a similar tale to Wuthering Heights in 24 hours. To provide this atmosphere and complete privacy, Magee heads out to a deserted manor house that his publisher arranges for him to write his manuscript. The manor is not deserted as advertised as Lord Grisbane (David Carradine), his daughter (Shelia Keith), his sons Sebastian (Peter Cushing) and Lionel (Vincent Price) along with Magee’s publisher’s secretary Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood). If this wasn’t enough of a full house, they are greeted by a man named Corrigan (Christopher Lee) who is a potential buyer of the manor.

Magee becomes distracted and ensnared into the Grisbane’s family drama and their brother Roderick, who, after killing a young village girl when he was 14, was imprisoned in one of the bedrooms on the second floor. After 40 years, the Grisbane’s have returned to the estate to release Roderick from his room, but Roderick has come for revenge, killing off the inhabitants one by one, leaving Magee and the rest of the residence in extreme peril for their lives.

A Golan/Globus Cannon release, this horror/comedy with an all-star horror cast has a combination of American and English actors. As these heavyweight horror thespians strut their stuff, we get a feel of a haunted manor story where horror abounds. Along with these horror elements, it does provide room for some levity and ends with a surprising twist.

3. Frightmare (1974)

In 1957, Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy (Shelia Keith) Yates are convicted of murder and are committed to a mental institution. They are released seventeen years later and reside in an isolated farmhouse. Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund’s half-daughter from a previous marriage secretly visits them in the cover of darkness in order to deliver a strange and possibly blood-soaked package to suppress a strange urge that Dorothy possesses. In addition to her stepmother’s strange behaviour, Jackie tries to control her half-sister Debbie (Kim Butcher) and her delinquent behaviour which is exasperated by her motorcycle gang boyfriend Alec (Edward Kalinski).

When a string of murders take place, we realise what Dorothy’s urges really are as Jackie and her psychiatrist boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood) make every attempt to curb Dorothy’s psychosis. A taut horror/thriller that drove British censors crazy, this film sports an outstanding performance by Shelia Keith as the demented stepmother, Pete Walker direction is terrific as he utilises the small claustrophobic spaces of the farmhouse with precision as there is tension and peril at every turn.

2. House of Whipcord (1974)

A trucker picks up a frightened, disheveled, and abused young woman. Through a series of flashbacks, we go back to where it all started.

A French model Anne-Marie Di Vernet (Penny Irving) meets a mysterious stranger Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman) at an art gallery where she is the focus of a photograph that invites ridicule upon her. He invites Anne-Marie to his isolated country estate to get away from the controversy. Mark drops her off not at the country estate, but an illegal prison where Margaret (Barbara Markham) the warden of this prison and Mark’s mother takes Ann-Marie captive. Ann-Marie is brought to trial in a private court and charged as a “depraved female” and “that the London courts are too lenient”. She is taken into a cell with the other female prisoners. Each prisoner is given three “demerits”. With each demerit, the punishments become more severe with torture, whippings, and even hangings. Anne-Marie teams up with the other prisoners to escape their containment and to notify her friends and the local authorities.

This is, without a doubt, one of Pete Walker’s better films. It is rife with crazy crones, a senile patriarch, and plenty of prison eroticism. Coupled with the sadism and plenty of full-frontal nudity, this is a film that the British censors would have no doubt confiscated at any video rental outlet. Pete Walker creates a fantastic atmosphere that is teamed up with very strong story elements and gives us a delicious sense of dread that there may be no escape from this institution of horrors.

1. House of Mortal Sin (1976)

A young woman commits suicide by jumping out her second-story bedroom window. Her father and mother are distraught seeing the young woman’s half-written suicide note and an open bible.

The scene shifts to Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) who is having problems as her boyfriend Terry (Stewart Bevan) packs up and leaves the flat that they were living in. Looking for solace along with a sympathetic ear, Jenny finds out that her friend Bernard (Norman Eshley) has become a Catholic priest and is working at the local church. Jenny goes to the church and goes to the confession booth, thinking that Bernard will be on the other side of the confession box. It is not Bernard but Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp). Jenny confesses to Meldrum that Terry forced her to have an abortion. Meldrum goes on a rampage of “divine justice” by brutally assaulting Jenny’s friend Robert (John Yule) at her flat, believing him to be Terry.

As Meldrum’s blackmail, obsession, and murderous rampages continues, it is up to Jenny, Robert, and their mutual friend and landlady Vanessa (Stephanie Beachum) to stop Meldrum’s religious reckonings.

While House of Whipcord gets the nod for its terrific atmosphere, Anthony Sharp’s fantastic performance as the psychotic Father Meldrum puts this film at the pinnacle of Pete Walker’s works. Mr. Sharp not only chews on every scene he’s in, but he also literally rips pieces of the scene and ingests it heartily. He plays Father Meldrum perfectly as a man whose exterior exemplifies a man of power and control while his interior is rife with chaos and insecurity.

Pete Walker is up to his clever direction, creating some intriguing and, at times, terrifying scenes within Meldrum’s presbytery and inside the church. This film is filled with wonderful set pieces, shadows of dread, and a delectable denouement as the film ends.

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