BBFC Classification: 18
Director: Pete Walker
Starring: Barbara Markham, Patrick Barr, Sheila Keith, Ray Brooks, Ann Michelle, Penny Irving, Dorothy Gordon
In a decade where the US ruled supreme when it came to horror/exploitation movies, 1974’s House of Whipcord shines brightly as a example of a British film that can easily stand up against the onslaught of American genre pieces from the era. Not that the film is a big, glorious blockbuster or a groundbreaking masterpiece, because it is neither of those things, but what it does do is evoke the sex and sadistic violence that the American movies were dealing in but with a very gloomy and very British sensibility that not many other films from the time really offered. By 1974 Hammer were on their last legs and Amicus weren’t far behind, and in director Pete Walker (Frightmare/House of the Long Shadows) we had a genre director who, whilst not having the inventiveness or radical ideas of his American contemporaries such as Wes Craven or George A. Romero – by his own admission, these were just films to be taken at face value and nothing else – did at least have the cojones to go where Hammer didn’t dare and mix things up a bit.
French model Ann-Marie Di Verney (Penny Irving – The Comeback) meets the charming Mark E. Desade (do you see?) at a party and agrees to go to his country estate after her former boyfriend humiliates her by displaying a nude photo that he took of her. Upon arrival Mark (Robert Tayman – Vampire Circus) disappears and Ann-Marie is greeted by Bates (Dorothy Gordon – Hobson’s Choice) and Walker (Sheila Keith – Frightmare), two stern figures who inform the frightened French girl that she is now a prisoner charged with the ‘crime’ of showing off her naked body.
Desperate to escape, Ann-Marie is brought before the blind and senile Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr – Octopussy) and his partner Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham – The Lady Vanishes), a couple who believe that the law courts don’t provide proper justice and run an old asylum as a private prison for those they feel deserve harsher punishments than what the law dishes out. However, Bailey believes the institution is a proper correctional facility and is unaware of the extent of Mrs. Wakehurst’s cruelty and the brutality of Walker and Bates, and not long after Ann-Marie’s friends Julia (Ann Michelle – Virgin Witch) and Tony (Ray Brooks – Carry On Abroad) come looking for their missing friend.
Ostensibly a women-in-prison film, House of Whipcord has very little in common with The Big Bird Cage or The Big Doll House except for the notion of having women locked up and occasionally being naked. Instead, the film bears the Pete Walker trademarks and themes of strict authority figures going up against reckless youngsters and delivers it all in a very grim and poe-faced way, although it must be noted that the film’s bleak outlook only serves the creepy atmosphere and is in no way a negative thing. There are moments of sly humour, mostly from Ray Brooks as Tony delivering quips as Julia realises that Ann-Marie has been missing since the party, and those lines do offer a slight counter from the oppressiveness of the institution but they are sparing and pitched exactly right without detracting from the main thrust of the story.
What really makes House of Whipcord so memorable is the performance by Sheila Keith as Walker, the most sadistic of the guards. A jobbing character actor for most of her life and usually cast as a pillar-of-the-community type or an elderley relative, Keith relished the chance to play against type and gives a powerhouse performance, varying from sly, knowing glances to out-and-out viciousness as Walker makes sure that the rules of the institution are obeyed at all cost. Keith was cast in several more of Pete Walker’s films and became something of a notable name amongst British horror fans before her death in 2004, her final appearance being in Steve Coogan’s Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible, but her role in House of Whipcord must have made an impression as any stern female prison guards appearing in films or on television after this all resembled Walker. For proof just watch any episode of Prisoner Cell Block H featuring Maggie Kirkpatrick as Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson – the resemblance is uncanny.
The other performances are all good, the most notable being Barbara Markham as the insane Mrs. Wakehurst (whose first name is Margaret, a reference to Margaret Thatcher it has been said, although it has been suggested she is also a parody of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse), and Patrick Barr as Justice Bailey (a take on Lord Longford, although, according to writer David McGillivray this was never intentional), whose creaky delivery perfectly encapsulates the old-fashioned ideals that the character believes in but also serves to wind up Mrs. Wakehurst with his inability to move on from the past. The one weak link in the cast is Penny Irving, whose constant bleating in a fake French accent is nothing short of awful, although one gets the impression that she wasn’t hired because of her acting abilities.
This digitally remastered edition of the film looks pretty good, the picture tidied up noticeably from previous versions but still with enough grain to retain its original grittiness. The film also manages to achieve that washed-out look in its exterior shots that so many modern films adopt but in this case that is how it is supposed to look without any modern trickery to try and degrade it, and it’s all the better for it. The violence may not be as shocking as it once was – lot of it is dished out off-camera with only the aftermath shown on-screen – and it’s not as graphic as other films from the era but House of Whipcord does have a black heart and nasty tone that easily makes it more enticing than the multitude of ultra-violent sexploitation trash from the US that became the same old thing over and over. Rarely seen outside of the UK and hugely underappreciated in it, House of Whipcord should be compulsory viewing for anybody who says they have an interest in exploitation films and is a decent alternative to the schlocky and safe material that Hammer and associated studios were churning out at the time.
Special Features: Audio commentary with director Pete Walker, DOP Peter Jessop and academic Steven Chibnall, Courting Controversy: An Insider’s Look at the Films of Pete Walker featurette, Sheila Keith: A Nice Old Lady? featurette, film overview by film blogger James Oliver.
UK Release Date: 26th May 2014