The thing about pigeonholing the contents of The Pete Walker Collection as just so many examples of down-and-dirty Brit horror is that, generically speaking, they aren’t really horror films at all. Such a blanket label certainly fails to take into consideration the variety of genres Pete Walker assays over the course of these four films. House of Whipcord is a “women in prison” film with a particularly dour disposition. Despite its misleading title, Die Screaming, Marianne is a border-hopping, quasi-Hitchcockian thriller. Only the Psycho-riffing Schizo and The Comeback, with its “old dark house” scenario, contain material that warrants the horror designation. Even so, these films hew more to the mechanics of the suspense film than outright horror. In the end, Walker is more correctly classified as a purveyor of British exploitation fare in its manifold forms.
Walker’s films exemplify the sort of incoherent texts Robin Wood had in mind when he wrote Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. They’re fraught with ideological tensions, engendered in no small measure by the perpetual tug of war between the youth market’s bottomless craving for explicit depictions of gory violence and uninhibited sexuality and the filmmaker’s more conservative social agenda. Populated almost exclusively by negative archetypes ranging from corrupt authority figures to homicidal newlyweds, Walker’s films envision a world where madness lurks around every corner and only the guilty emerge unscathed.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, House of Whipcord concludes with its stage littered with corpses, the hapless victims of a kangaroo court presided over by a (quite literally) blind judiciary who considers young women little better than “depraved animals.” Elsewhere, the corrupt judge in Die Screaming, Marianne has made a fortune selling his verdict to the highest bidder. Schizo flips the script on Psycho by having a beautiful woman as its killer “ice queen,” goaded on by traumatic memories of the primal scene she glimpsed as a young girl. The Comeback is fueled, like House of Whipcord, by a seething hatred for permissive modern mores. Granted, this evident disgust serves as sufficient motive for murder in both; all the same, you get the distinct impression that the filmmaker detects more than a whiff of veracity in the deranged impulses of the films’ killers.
More often than not, sexuality is the battlefield on which these conflicting vectors of condemnation and commendation contest. Die Screaming, Marianne opens with intimations of a threesome between our heroine (Susan George) and two swinging Londoners, before segueing into a bit of buffoonery that finds her wedded to the wrong man. Later on, her half-sister, Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable), exhibits an unhealthy, borderline-incestuous interest in the judge (Leo Genn). True to its generic precursors, House of Whipcord suggests undercurrents of lesbian attraction between the all-female inmates and warders of its privatized penal colony. In Schizo, Samantha’s (Lynne Frederick) traumatic memories morph as her motives become clearer; an incident of violent rape turns out to be one of sexual humiliation at the hands of a devouring virago. The Comeback establishes the bisexual appeal of its pop singer protagonist (Jack Jones), and offers tantalizing glimpses (among abundant other red herrings) of female transvestitism.
Walker and screenwriters Murray Smith and David McGillivray demonstrate an interest in atypical narrative construction, as well as an informed knowledge of their genre predecessors. House of Whipcord utilizes a fake-out flashback structure that seems to liberate its heroine, Anne-Marie (Penny Irving), from Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr) and his unhinged wife (Barbara Markham), only to deliver her right back into their clutches upon its conclusion. (There’s also an amusing literary wink to be found in the name of the man who lures Ann-Marie to the penitentiary in the first place: Mark E. Desade.) There’s a tense, solidly constructed “fake assassination” ploy in Die Screaming, Marianne that owes a clear debt to Hitchcock. Midway through Schizo, we witness a séance of the Psychic Brotherhood that manages to suggest both Nicolas Roeg’s eerie Don’t Look Now and, more directly, the opening sequence of Dario Argento’s Deep Red, which came out the previous year.
Often flabby about their midsections, Walker’s films tend to shamble a bit; all four of them could stand some judicious trimming. On the other hand, Walker demonstrates an eye for striking visuals and his films benefit considerably from the jagged energy he brings to them. Aided by regular cinematographer Peter Jessop, Walker contrives some impressive in-depth compositions, a good bit of handheld camerawork, and even some sinuous tracking shots. True, the films don’t always quite succeed in the way Walker and his collaborators might have hoped. Sometimes they tip their twisty hands too early, or else refuse to pay off their narrative dividends. Notwithstanding all of that, there are ample pleasures to be gleaned from these nasty nuggets of low-rent exploitation fare.
Kino and Redemption Films' 1080p/AVC-encoded transfers look about as good as you could expect with titles of this age and limited budget: While a fair number of specks and scratches remain evident, clarity and color have been significantly enhanced, with The Comeback looking the cleanest and sharpest. Uncompressed linear PCM tracks are satisfactory, clear and clean despite the occasional hiss and crackle. Stanley Myers's scores fare well, as do Jack Jones's bouncy pop numbers in The Comeback.
Three of the films sport commentary tracks carried over from previous DVD editions. (Only Schizo lacks one, which is particularly unfortunate given its explicit engagement with the films of Hitchcock and Argento.) The track for House of Whipcord features Pete Walker and DP Peter Jessop alongside film historian Steven Chibnall. The other two tracks feature Walker and film historian Jonathan Rigby. All three are fairly entertaining (owing in large part to Walker's always self-deprecatory assessment of his own films) and informative, with Rigby covering a lot of ground when it comes to contemporary critical responses, often quoting relevant reviews at some length. Each disc contains a newly minted interview with Walker. The three that are title-specific are worth a listen; only "An Eye for Terror" (on the Die Screaming, Marianne disc) hovers at a disappointing distance over anything specific.
Depraved animals and diehard fans of British grindhouse films alike will want to add The Pete Walker Collection to theirs. Kino and Redemption Films have provided these titles with an exemplary Blu-ray package that's stacked with extras.