Pete Walker: Exposing Society’s Frightmares



A few weeks back, I watched a documentary on Arrow Video’s Mark of the Devil Blu-ray called Mark of the Times. Its thesis was that the 1970s shattered the antiquated model of British horror that had been defined by Hammer Films and similar production houses. British horror shifted away from the stuff of upper class nightmares and period settings to become grounded in a more relatable reality. Scenarios were constructed around younger, working class characters. That’s true of films like Fright, which saw babysitter Susan George menaced by an escaped mental patient, and Raw Meat, where a cynical Scotland Yard detective (Donald Pleasence) teamed with two University students to hunt cannibalistic murders in the London Underground. 

To maintain its relevance, horror changed with the times. It’s no surprise that British filmmakers embraced the rising counterculture phenomenon, exploring establishment disillusionment and the ever-widening break between institutional rat racers and those who rejected such notions.

Appropriately, Redemption Video/Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray box set, The Pete Walker Collection, Volume 2, gathers six of Walker’s films across five discs. Three titles are genre specific, but all the films are bound together by Walker’s mistrust and disdain for governmental incompetence, hypocrisy, and malevolence. This set gives you some essential Walker classics coupled alongside some lesser known, but equally fascinating films.

The most famous movie here is 1974’s Frightmare. Sort of the British answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was notorious for its graphic violence and was obliterated by critics (the Daily Telegraph labeled it “a moral obscenity”) at the time of its release. The story begins with Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith) institutionalized for cannibalistic murders in the 1950s, only to be released with a clean bill of health in then-modern day Britain. We learn right off that she was never cured, luring people to her isolated farmhouse for tarot card readings so she can kill them and continue her flesh-craving ways.

Her stepdaughter, Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), suspects that something’s wrong, but is preoccupied by Dorothy’s actual daughter, Debbie (Kim Butcher), who spends her nights raising hell with a pack of street thugs. It becomes clear not only that Dorothy shouldn’t have been released at all, but that insanity runs in the family.

Frightmare is likened to Texas Chain Saw Massacre because both films explore the dissolution of the traditional family unit. Here, it’s the sins of the mother that are foisted upon her family, providing irrevocable consequences for both young women. But Walker also takes a drill to the deinstitutionalization that occurred throughout the 60s and 70s, when mental health care was transitioned from psychiatric institutions to general hospitals. Was Dorothy released because of bureaucracy, or was it the result of ineffective treatments? It’s never made clear, but Walker’s criticism of ineptitude is.  

The theme of young people imperiled by a hypocritical establishment resurfaces nicely in Walker’s 1976 film, The Confessional (billed in this set as House of Mortal Sin). It’s an effective work that paints the Catholic Church in a fairly nasty light, ahead of any far-reaching news scandals. If Frightmare was a criticism of mental health care, delving also into the idea of familial decline, then The Confessional is Walker’s scathing depiction of dangerous sexual repression, illustrating how society protects those who subscribe to traditional institutions while punishing those who don’t.

When Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) visits a local church searching for a friend of hers, she happens into a counseling session offered by Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp). The priest is enticed by her confession, recording their conversation and latching onto her immediately. The priest annihilates everyone he perceives to be a “threat” to the young girl’s morals, exacting a killing spree consisting of some admirably creative deaths (poisoned communion wafers!). I wouldn’t categorize The Confessional as a giallo, but it’s certainly equipped with familiar elements.

In a lot of ways, The Confessional plays like a standard thriller, albeit one where the killer is able to evade suspicion thanks entirely to his vocation. We glimpse Father Meldrum’s dysfunctional home life in a subplot that harks back to Frightmare’s own crazy bloodline, providing us with a possible explanation for the priest’s franzied state of mind. This stuff takes a toll on Walker’s pacing, which works better on paper than it does in execution.


One movie that barely works at all is Walker’s 1972 slasher-in-training, The Flesh and Blood Show. It’s not a bad film, and it’s sort of fascinating to see just how wrong Walker gets it here. Maybe it’s difficult to view this through anything other than the prism of a modern slasher, but the movie fails to deliver on its maniac killer on the loose premise, rendering it a lesser Walker outing.

A shame, since most of the elements are in play: an oppressively dour location (a dilapidated theater house by the ocean), a sinister set up (a mysterious benefactor summons actors to an isolated theater for the rehearsal of a musical production), and a more than an ample dose of nudity, ensuring the movie delivers on at least part of its title (sadly, there’s very little blood).

But The Flesh and Blood Show isn’t consistently exciting. Burdened by a maudlin pace, and without the requisite tension and suspense that Walker would perfect in later films, it can occasionally be a minor chore to watch. This is the director’s second foray into genre filmmaking, and it’s certainly his least successful horror film in this set (although Redemption does retain the 3D climax, presented in both real 3D and anaglyph, for those of us with that set-up).

Walker uses this story to skewer theatrical drama and the stuffy minds that relish it. He fashions a rather lowbrow experience, stripping every female cast member down at some point, while showcasing characters who aren’t all that compelled by their work. And when the killer is finally revealed, it’s again the pretentiousness of drama enthusiasts that Walker tackles, with a killer who quotes Shakespeare while lamenting a failed marriage (another failed governmental confine).

The release includes two movies exclusive to this collection. While there isn’t a heck of a lot to analyze when it comes to 1968’s The Big Switch (also called Strip Poker), it has an interesting place in this thesis. Lethargic, even at 68 minutes, this early effort finds the director thumbing his nose at the sexual repression of the mid-to-late 60s, creating instead a potboiler of frequent sleaze and violence.  It isn’t all that compelling when compared to his later works, but serves as a fascinating starting point for those looking to analyze the director’s career.  

The other movie offered on this set’s bonus disc is Man of Violence, a talky 1971 heist thriller that revels in its own sleaziness. It’s not overly concerned with commentary, but manages to up the ante on Walker’s fascination with counterculture by highlighting a sexually liberated hero (villain?) who isn’t compelled to bed down along gender lines.

That leaves Home Before Midnight, a purposefully sleazy and provocative story of a 28-year-old London songwriter whose sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl becomes the topic of national controversy. Mike (James Aubrey) doesn’t know that Ginny (Allison Elliot) is an underage girl when they first meet, though he isn’t all that concerned with any such possibility once she proves willing to go all the way. When he learns the truth, he finds he can’t walk away so easily, cultivating further relations with the teenage girl. Once her parents discover what’s happened, they urge her to say that Mike raped her. Ginny likes Mike, but is conflicted because of her obligation to her parents. When she comes forward, Mike’s life is turned upside down.

As it sounds, Home Before Midnight is designed to push buttons through its salaciousness. Walker gives us an eyeful of Ginny several times in what feels like an effort to implicate us alongside Mike. And what is both interesting and challenging about this material is how sympathetic it is toward Mike, a guy who does nothing to stop a sexual relationship after learning his partner is below the age of consent.

Critics have said the movie takes his side because of this. And there’s a definite effort to keep this movie awash in shades of grey, but it hardly demonizes Ginny. Her sympathy is culled from a different place. She’s incredibly vulnerable, bending to the whims of her parents, and later the law, once the whole thing is taken out of her control.

Walker subverts expectations by ascribing blame everywhere, once again taking the parental, legal, and societal institutions to task. Ginny’s parents are more than a little odd (this is implied somewhere around the margins), and the sex life of her friends facilitates Ginny’s own desires. As the movie approaches its end, Walker even depicts a disturbing subset of the population who’re enticed by the happening. It’s evidenced through an obscene caller who finds solidarity in Mike where the violation of underage children is concerned.

Pete Walker isn’t afraid to hold a mirror up to the world, and that’s evident in each of the movies presented throughout this collection. This set might be something of a mixed bag in terms of film quality, but it’s more than a must have for those with even a passing interest in the director’s films, as well as those who would appreciate a bit more context when it comes to the hardening of a genre at a time when the world, and the people living in it, were changing. 

Matt Serafini writes horror fiction and spends much of his free time tracking down obscure slasher movies, ranting about them to whoever will listen. He also likes scotch, and, as such, hopes to find himself embroiled in a real-life giallo one day. Find him on Twitter @MattFini.

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Weekend: Sep. 19, 2019, Sep. 22, 2019

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