“What terrifying craving made her kill… and kill… and kill…”
Director: Pete Walker
Cast: Rupert Davies, Sheila Keith, Deborah Fairfax
Synopsis: Edmund and Dorothy Yates are freed after fifteen years in an asylum. Edmund covers up for his wife who is a murderer and a cannibal…
Frightmare is the kind of movie that could only have come from the warped world of Pete Walker, the director of such other British exploitation movies as The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and House of Whipcord (1974). Although he wasn’t the greatest filmmaker in the world, Walker was definitely ahead of his time, mining a rich vein of dark horror that earned him no fans amongst contemporary film critics but plenty at the box office. Having said that, Frightmare wasn’t particularly successful on its original release, although this could have been down to the fact that Britain was in the midst of a concerted IRA bombing campaign at the time, and so the last thing the British public wanted to see was some mad old woman chopping up any sad and lonely people unlucky enough to seek her out for a tarot reading.
The mad old lady is Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith) who, together with her husband, Edmund (Rupert Davies), has just been released from a mental asylum in which she was incarcerated seventeen years before for murdering and eating the chap who would become Manuel in Fawlty Towers (Andrew Sachs — Are You Being Served?) and assorted others. Apparently Edmund doesn’t share his wife’s cannibalistic urges, but feigned madness so that he could be close to Dorothy as she underwent treatment that supposedly led to her complete recovery.
Yeah, right. Try telling that to the lonely girl who responds to the ad offering tarot card readings that Dorothy placed in Time Out and ends up covered in straw in the barn in the farm on which she and her husband live. Quite what they’re doing living in a farm down South while Edmund works as a chauffeur for a London stockbroker is never explained, but then neither is the reason why Dorothy acquired her taste for human meat. The fact is, it’s not really important for the purposes of the film. Walker and screenwriter David McGillivray clearly aren’t interested in the whys-and-wherefores, they simply want to get to the core.
Anyway, although the recently-mad Mrs Yates and her husband haven’t been apportioned any kind of probation officer or care in the community nonsense, Edmund does have Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), a daughter from a previous marriage, who’s been visiting the farmhouse in the dead of night with parcels of raw meat in a futile attempt to halt the worrying signs that Dorothy’s getting the human-munchies once again. She has to sneak out of the house at two in the morning because she’s trying to hide Dorothy’s release from her daughter Debbie (Kim Butcher), a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent who, unknown to Jackie, is starting to display the same murderous tendencies as the mother she’s never met. The trouble is, the raw meat clearly isn’t working — and mother’s thirst for human flesh is growing stronger.
Frightmare provided relatively unknown TV actress Sheila Keith with the opportunity to create a memorable addition to the stable of British horror characters, and it was a chance she grasped with relish. Dorothy Yates switches from a kind of frail helplessness to hulking aggression in the blink of an eye, using cleaver, burning pokers and pitchforks to murder her victims – before setting about them with a power drill for some reason, leering with wild-eyed madness as she does so. Because of her height and frame she often looks like a man in drag here, which only adds to the creepy nature of her character. Walker might even been able to make more of the inherent creepiness of the story had he possessed the backing a studio like Hammer, but Frightmare is a product of Walker’s own production company, and its lack of budget is sometimes apparent. The quality of the acting is variable, even though the cast boasts a number of familiar faces from 1970s British TV (Paul Greenwood, Fiona Curzon, Tommy Wright, Michael Sharvell-Martin), and while the storyline doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny, it’s clear that Walker and McGillivray don’t really care — they just want to deliver the scares. They also manage to come up with a terrifically ambiguous final shot.
(Reviewed 4th April 2014)