Family feeding frenzy: FRIGHTMARE (Pete Walker, 1974)

The British Daily Telegraph called this movie a “moral obscenity”, or perhaps that was their mission statement. The trailer (above) is a hoot, offering the warning

Of course, these ‘small segments’ which are the only ones they dare show are the most gruesome parts of the movie. If you’re coming for the gore, just watch the trailer. But Frightmare has a lot more to offer than just slasher-fare. It is a British film, which is pretty refreshing in itself, as the British tend not to make a lot of cannibal films, sadly. Among the best are Revenge of Frankenstein, and Death Line. The Brits like to analyse their cannibals, find behaviourist explanations of their eating preferences. This film is in that tradition, but with some nice variations.

The film was variously titled Frightmare, Cover Up and Once Upon a Frightmare. Released in 1974, it was directed by Pete Walker, who spent the 1970s battling the censors with a string of gory movies, which didn’t set the box offices alight, but eventually became cult classics, particularly this little cannibal thriller.

 The story starts with a shy young man (Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel from Fawlty Towers!) asking to be allowed into a trailer-home, from whence we know he will not be departing.

He’s not from Barcelona…

Then we see a very cranky judge sentencing Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental institution; he had hoped to send them to the gallows, but unfortunately there was this medical report…

Seventeen years later, Dorothy (Sheila Keith from Ballet Shoes) and Edmund (Rupert Davies from The Spy Who Came in from The Cold) have been deemed officially cured, and live in an isolated farmhouse. Dorothy ate at least six people in 1957, while her husband was convicted as well, having faked insanity in order to remain with his wife, although in reality he had not been involved in her murders. But that’s all in the past, says Dorothy, who now is just a harmless old pensioner. Dorothy has taken up hobbies, including needlepoint, and the use of power tools.

In the current day (well, 1974) Dorothy is back to her old tricks. She lures lonely and friendless young people to her home, promising tea and tarot card reading, at which she is deadly accurate, as the session always finishes with the same tarot card.

Then there’s the kids – Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage, who seems relatively normal, and Debbie (Kim Butcher), Dorothy’s actual daughter, conceived shortly before Dorothy was committed to the asylum; Debbie has never met her parents. Debbie is only fifteen but rides with a violent bikie gang and has apparently inherited her mother’s appetite for human flesh. She initiates a fight in which her boyfriend and his gang beat to death a barman, who had refused to serve her because she was under-age. The bikie gang flees when witnesses arrive, but Debbie stays, and carries off the body. Jackie meanwhile is delivering packages every week to her step-mother. They bleed, and they turn out to be the brains of some unfortunate sentient animal. She buys them at the butcher (oh the horror!), pretending she has been hunting humans, as a good step-daughter would, but Mum is not fooled – she wants human brains. Probably likes the way they come pre-scrambled.

Edmund tells his daughter that Dorothy has started up her old gustatory habits, and shows her a corpse in the back of his boss’ Rolls Royce to prove the point. If you have a chauffeur, you might want to dash outside now and check the boot (trunk) of your Roller. We’ll wait for you.

Jackie’s boyfriend is, conveniently, a psychiatrist, who searches out Dorothy’s case history. As a girl, the chief boffin says, she had a pet rabbit who, during the Great Depression, her family decided to kill for food. Traumatised by the consumption of her beloved family member (of the furry variety) she “twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable.” She started catching small animals and eating their brains, then started on larger ones, of the sapiens variety.

“It was the only case of cannibanthropy on record in this country. Pathological cannibalism. There were a couple of cases in the United States, almost unheard of anywhere else.”

Now we’re just getting silly, in a way that would embarrass Manuel and Basil. For a start, there is no such word, and if there were, it would just mean someone who cannibalises humans, which is somewhat redundant. Pathological cannibalism didn’t exist in 1974? In the country that birthed Jack the Ripper less than one hundred years earlier? Only fifteen years earlier, Tom Burns had killed, molested and eaten (more or less in that order) two little girls in the town of Barrow in Lancashire. But it’s an interesting observation that in less than fifty years ‘pathological cannibalism’ has gone from almost unknown to a regular headline for the yellow press.

Jackie confronts Debbie about her wild, wild ways, then tells the cops where to find the (partially chewed) body of the barman. Debbie and her boyfriend head to the country home to, you know, meet mum and dad. Find out a bit about the old folks.

It’s a touching reconciliation of mum and daughter, even when mum takes a pitchfork to the boyfriend.

Look, it might have been horrifying and gruesome in 1974, but maybe we’ve all become hardened by watching cannibal movies or the TV evening news. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a measly 55% but, to be fair, it is highly watchable and, being a British production, the character actors are superb, particularly Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith.

The daughters are also more than just the gorgeous young teens that seem to swarm in slasher films. There is conflict between the older Jackie who feels responsible for everyone, and the younger Debbie, who lives for kicks (and a bit of flesh). Jackie represents the delusional nature of modern social customs, which see humans as defined by being other-than-animal, and so she is happy to buy the brains of cows or sheep (socially acceptable) in order to fool her step-mother (socially awkward), but horrified to find the older woman preferring the real thing (socially unacceptable). I’m sure most cannibals (and zombies) would think she is delusional: a brain is a brain.

The fascinating part of the movie for me is the main antagonist, Dorothy, the (unfortunately rare) female cannibal. Cannibalism remains an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and women have not yet won equality in number of perps or number of victims, and they probably even earn less flesh than men. I liked that Debbie, who had never met her cannibalistic mother, was already eating bartenders, disproving the expert psychiatrists who had blundered in releasing Dorothy, and before that misinterpreted her cannibalism as an unfortunate response to the eating of her pet rabbit. Debbie adds nature into the mix, offering support for a kind of genetic cannibalism, almost a wendigo syndrome, something that runs in families, like the Finnish family in Bloody Hell, or the Parker family in the Catskills. Frightmare was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which of course became the quintessential family-cannibal movie.

Anyway, Dorothy is a superb villain, a mixture of Arsenic and Old Lace and Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered three women to make soap and teacakes in wartime Italy. Sheila Keith portrays at one moment a frail old woman, broken by years in an asylum, and the next a cackling serial killer with an electric drill and a flaming poker, both of which she plunges into various victims. Her husband has the role of the weak, supportive spouse, he is Mrs Lovett to Dorothy’s Sweeney Todd. Simon Flynn on the Peter Cushing tribute website called her “the most memorable woman the horror genre has ever seen.” Amen to that.

You can get the movie at Amazon or you might find it on Youtube – currently the full movie is showing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJj_ir8vi2I

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