Streaming Pile: Pete Walker
At first glance I am perhaps an unlikely candidate for taking on a column about streaming. Often called a purist (as if it were an insult), I am not known for readily embracing new technology. I came to cell phones and Facebook very late in the game, and never to Twitter. And, it’s true, I want to snatch the Kindles from the hands of subway passengers, who not so long ago turned glorious actual pages, and torch them, Fahrenheit 451–style. (Though in this case the flames would preserve civilization, not end it.)
Yet somehow I have always been open to, even excited by, the idea of streaming films—to my TV, to my laptop only when absolutely necessary, but never to my iPhone (not that I own one; people who “watch” any movie on such miniature screens should also have their gadgets confiscated and burned!)—and I spend a fair amount of time scouring online to see what’s out there. So many Netflix subscribers whine that there’s “nothing” to watch, though what they mean, nine times out of 10, is that there aren’t enough recent mainstream offerings to choose from. But one of the true joys of streaming is to stumble into unexplored territory—be it films that haven’t just left theaters and are now easily accessible on DVD, or simply ones you never knew existed—and the chain reaction of addictive viewing those discoveries can often set off. (For example, a recent marathon of lesser Charles Bronson sent me down another, narrower back alley—nothing like a little rape-revenge for the holidays.)
Though newly available on Blu-ray (courtesy of Kino Lorber’s Redemption Films), a trio of intriguingly titled Seventies British Schlockers—House of Whipcord, Schizo, and The Comeback—first caught my eye when added to Netflix Streaming (image quality for all: very good). And thus began my one-weekend exploration of (s)exploitation maestro and self-proclaimed mischief-maker Pete Walker, during which I absorbed a total of seven of his films, ranging from good-bad to just plain bad, all with enough camp value and/or genuine shocks and unexpected visual flair to make them worthwhile curiosities. Walker, who is still alive but hasn’t directed a film in 30 years, certainly had a talent for making his lurid, giallo-like productions look far better than films with such limited budgets have any right to.
House of Whipcord
House of Whipcord (74) is an intriguing early example of torture porn, and as such, one that has surely provided inspiration for the likes of Hostel, in premise, and Martyrs, in its attempts to moralize extreme violence. Despite looking like a bloodthirsty rock star, a guy manages (on the first date!) to get a French model to accompany him to his mother’s country house—which in fact is more of a prison, where Mom and some disturbed accomplices take it upon themselves to punish “indecent” young women as a way of saving them. (This unfortunate girl’s crime: appearing nude in the name of art.) The film grows a bit tiresome, as these sorts tend to do; its most notable feature is the awesomely creepy Sheila Keith as a sadistic “warden,” in the first of four collaborations with Walker.
Schizo (76) stars Lynne Frederick as a cute young ice skater about to marry a real bore (John Leyton). In a hilarious bit of Seventies feminism she tells a friend that she still plans to work and that her husband will even support that decision, but in all subsequent scenes she seems to pass her time shopping, and admits she’s gotten lazy. But she’s also being stalked by a seemingly unhinged older man, who after seeing her wedding announcement in the newspaper begins showing up and leaving her gifts of bloody knives, etc. He obviously knows her somehow, and we are to assume he is the “schizo” of the title—the word does, after all, appear in very large type over a deranged-looking freeze-frame of him during the opening credits. But there’s more here than meets the eye, and revealing further details about this sometimes shockingly gruesome film would spoil the surprises in store.
The Comeback (aka The Day the Screaming Stopped, 78) begins not with a marriage but a separation. The male half of the failed union, an American singer living in England, who gave up a successful career for his controlling wife (and is played by cheesy Jack Jones, crooner of that godawful Love Boat theme song), is sent to his manager’s rental mansion to write some new lyrics in “peace.” Needless to say, nothing of the sort awaits him. The Netflix synopsis claims that he is haunted by his wife’s ghost—which would be a strange plot point indeed considering that he’s unaware she’s even been killed. (Early on she’s brutally sliced and diced by a scythe-wielding weirdo in an old-man mask and wig, and her body lies in their home unnoticed except by the maggots and rats that feed on her rotting flesh.) In any case, there’s definitely something strange going on in his new lodgings, which are overseen by two odd caretakers (one played by Keith), though he’s too blinded by a new love interest, his manager’s super-accommodating blonde assistant, to give his full attention. Which is probably fine because there’s no way he could have guessed what was coming—the film’s capper is one of the most amusingly absurd I’ve seen.
Die Screaming, Marianne
The only other film of Walker’s available for streaming on Netflix at this time is Die Screaming, Marianne (71), which, despite the title, is not a horror film. Beautiful Portuguese locations and slick direction aside, it is a practically thrill-free thriller that doesn’t live up to its psychedelic James Bondish opening credits that features Susan George as the title character go-go dancing in her bikini. George’s fetching body is also on display to good effect throughout, but it can’t save an often incomprehensible film that sees, among (too) many other subplots, certain corrupt members of Marianne’s family attempting to cheat her out of a huge inheritance that she’s set to receive on her rapidly approaching 21st birthday.
I then had to move on to Amazon Instant Video to watch 1974’s Frightmare aka Cover Up (price: free for Prime members; image quality: questionable, rent the DVD instead), the only Walker film I had previously seen—widely considered his strongest work—and 1969’s School for Sex (price: $1.99 rental/$4.98 purchase; image quality: quite bad; sound quality: even worse). The only value of School, an item from his earlier sex-comedy period, is to prove that Walker chose the right path by switching over to horror films. (Walker himself has no problem admitting just how awful this film is.) No joke, it’s about an incredibly stupid wealthy man who, after about the sixth time of being tricked into marriage and later alimony payment, realizes he can use his pathetic naïveté to his advantage by opening a school for training women to hook suckers such as himself—and get a cut of their gold-digging spoils. Superior on all levels, Frightmare is the most seriously disturbing of Walker’s films, and the one that provided Keith with her meatiest role, as the little old fortune-telling cannibal who’s beyond rehabilitation.
House of Long Shadows
More of a find on Amazon is Walker’s final film, 1983’s House of Long Shadows (price: free for Prime members; image quality: pretty good) and the one of two (with School of Sex) that remains unavailable on DVD. It’s good atmospheric fun and boasts a to-die-for cast—Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine together at last! Keith also appears, looking sinister as always, but unfortunately the film’s lead is a terrible Desi Arnaz Jr. playing a pompous writer who makes a $20,000 bet with his publisher that he can churn out a book like Wuthering Heights in just 24 hours, as long as he has a suitable atmospheric place where he can write undisturbed. He is sent to a supposedly vacant Welsh manor house but is faced with constant disruptions. He’s the kind of hero you hope will be killed off, but this film is one of Walker’s more playful efforts.
Once I’d exhausted the streamable titles, The Confessional and the three other available Walker films were immediately added to my Netflix DVD queue… where they will probably sit forever. Purist or not, I am living in the short-attention-span era, and by the time a DVD could arrive, I will surely have already moved on to picking through—clicking through?—the next pile of promising trash.