Pete Walker- one of the leading names in Britsploitation- is a director whose style provided seventies British audiences with a much needed slap on the backside following his seminal flick House of Whipcord. Walker, who had achieved success with his brand of sexploitation, started to move away from his tried and tested formula into the arena of horror by the early to mid-seventies- a choice that would prove a wise move and set him up as a cult figure for generations to come. Prior to Whipcord, Walker had already started to make that move when he produced The Flesh and Blood Show (1972); a film that involved more flesh, less blood- a proto-slasher/gialloesque piece. The Flesh and Blood Show combined a whimsical plot with a strong British flavour- murder on a seaside pier, egg and chips for tea, and a large dose of T&A to boot- and while worthwhile, it can be argued, it does fail to hit the high notes of Walker’s later work in horror. With Whipcord, the tide started to turn. Walker enlisted the help of scriptwriter David McGillivray with this feature and between the two the first of four collaborative scripts was concocted; stories designed to shock audiences, cleverly crafted to deliver a heavy helping of social satire in with the blood and violence.
By the seventies the British film industry was at a turning point. Competing with television people were no longer venturing out to buy cinema tickets. Filmmakers needed an edge to draw in the crowds. Big studios such as Hammer were furiously trying to rework their formulas to accommodate the change, with other production companies following suit. People no longer wanted romantic period horror; relaxed censorship had opened the door for something else, something more lurid and far tastier. Walker’s bold approach meant he was the perfect candidate to exploit this opening and give the audiences what they wanted, thus making his work a very different animal to the bulk of classic British horror from around this period. His films were grimy, seeped in graphic violence and offered no haven of redemption or happy endings. House of Whipcord can be viewed as a turning point for this move- although there were hallmarks in his earlier work- this example can be viewed as Walker’s coming of age picture.
Penny Irving stars as the bubble headed French model Anne- Marie Di Verney, who, after meeting enigmatic stranger Mark E De Sade (Robert Tayman), sets out for an idyllic weekend in the country and ends up with a lot more than she bargained for. The model -who had previously been charged with public indecency and given a ten pound fine by the court for posing nude at an open air photo shoot- becomes the latest target for self-elected Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) and her bunch of cronies at an unofficial ‘jail’ in a quiet country location. Operating strictly outside the law, Wakehurst and her senile and blind husband, retired high court Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr), have concocted their method of obtaining justice in response to what they see as lenient British action by the courts. In an attempt to resurrect a draconian rule Wakehurst uses her son Mark to ensnare young women she believes can be reformed (read reformed as- tortured, incarcerated and then eventually hung). Aided in her quest by the ominous guards Walker (Sheila Keith) and Bates (Dorothy Gordon) it would seem there is nothing these victims can do, but bide their time, keep quiet and hope next time the gallows are erected, they will not be the recipient.
Central to the success of the film is a tight script and strong casting. Heading up the cast are Barbara Markham as the lunatic Mrs. Wakehurst and Penny Irving as the lead heroine Anne-Marie. The two are both highly capable in their roles, and Irving’s faux French accent adds in an innocent nature to her part. Markham gives her role a sense of blind madness that is chilling to watch- a woman who is cold, calculated and extremely dangerous when crossed. However, it has to be said one name among the cast steals the show- Sheila Keith as the sadistic guard Walker. Keith- who went on to star in four more roles for director Walker- was an underrated jewel in the crown for British horror. A talented and nuanced actress who brought with her a wealth of experience from the stage and screen which she put to good use in this her first horror film. It is easy to see why Walker returned to cast her time and time again. It cannot be understated the strong dramatic energy Keith imbibes into her performance. Keith demonstrates a rare talent that could have put her alongside the likes of Cushing, Karloff and Lee- had she had the opportunity to become more prolific, however the decline of the British horror industry at the time sadly put paid to that. As it is, it is moments like House of Whipcord that carry the extra delight of seeing Keith doing what she did best. Two cast members from Walker’s previous venture are carried over- Ray Brookes as Anne-Marie’s flatmate Julie’s (Ann Michelle) lover Tony, and Patrick Barr as the lamentable senile old Justice Bailey. Barr’s character- although holding a questionable past- is somewhat sympathetic, while Brookes puts in a decent turn in a lesser role to his lead in The Flesh and Blood Show. Flatmate Julie played by Ann Michelle adds a bit of seventies glamour into the proceedings, and Robert Tayman as son Mark E De Sade gives off a decidedly slimy air in his small amount of screen time. Finally Dorothy Gordon as secondary guard Bates provides a nice contrast to Keith’s powerful rendition of Walker. While both women are wickedly sadistic, it is Keith’s character that is running the show. Bates’ quaint country accent and slightly bumbling approach to her work sets up the power dynamic between the two perfectly.
It would be easy to mistake House of Whipcord as just another Women in Prison film. While it bears some common threads, this film transcends the basic WIP narrative into something far more. It is true there is nudity, whipping and women held against their will, but the film is not titillation for titillation’s sake. Instead the film projects something dark, resonant, and gloomy- opting for drama with a strong essence of the horrific and none of the overt lesbianism and erotic elements of some of the other prison set films of this period. On this basis House of Whipcord stands out as something memorable, haunting and one of the best examples of the period. Although slightly dated by today’s standards when reviewed against its peers, there is nothing quite like it from its time or place.
This release by Odeon appears to have the same print as the Region A release from Kino/Redemption, or at least had the same treatment. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and upgraded to high definition 1080p. A heavy handed approach to restoration has been avoided, leaving the texture, grain and detail all intact. What is left, as a result, is a great example of a film that has been faithfully restored. While some age-related flaws- such as dirt on the print- are evident, it is important to understand the over use of DNR processes on a film like this can be detrimental to the look and feel of the piece. Pete Walker films are gritty, and need to retain that tone to be appreciated in their original form. It is important to note, please do not for one moment read gritty as bad quality as it has to be said for a film of its type and age this is a marvellous restoration. The sound presented in Dolby digital stereo shows a nice balance, and depth, with no noteworthy age related damage evident.
Included here as an extra is a Nucleus Films documentary on the career of Pete Walker- Courting Controversy: An Insider’s Look at the Films in the Pete Walker Collection. This 37-minute feature focuses on the director and his career, and adds insights from both Walker and those who worked with him at the time. There is a director’s commentary for the main feature, featuring Pete Walker and his biographer Steve Chibnall. We also have the insightful featurette Sheila Keith: Nice Old Lady? Which celebrates the life and career of the underrated actress. The disc also comes with an analysis of the film in a presentation by James Oliver.
The disc is region free, and for those who missed out on the Region A locked version this Odeon release provides the perfect opportunity to pick up some classic British horror history, with a host of extras and a fabulous upgrade to blu-ray. A must for every cult horror film fan!
Check out the official Odeon site for more information here.