Brighton-born independent director Pete Walker blazed a stylish and successful trail of mayhem through the flailing British cinema industry of the 1970s with a string of ‘terror’ pictures which delved further into the dark side of the human psyche than Hammer dared venture.
Beginning his filmmaking career in the early 1960s producing short ‘nudie-cutie’ films, graduating to sexploitation features, and soon spotting a gap in the market for grimy, gritty contemporary horror features, Pete Walker was a gifted director on an unashamed mission to provide cinema-going punters with the lurid thrills they wanted – as far as he was able given the constraints of British censors and slender budgets.
The son of flamboyant music hall comic Syd Walker, Pete was something of a showman himself, and delighted in playing the pantomime villain of the British film industry, outraging the moral majority – especially self-appointed guardian of British morals, Mary Whitehouse, and tabloid newspaper readers – with his oft-grisly, taboo-busting films. He once told Film Illustrated: ‘I don’t want people coming out of the cinema saying “what a lovely well-made picture”… the truth is that people don’t go to see lovely, well-made pictures.’ They may not have been lovely – it isn’t generally the first word that springs to mind when you consider Pete Walker’s films – but they were consistently well-made – and in contrast with much British movie-making at the time – highly profitable. What’s more, they still pack a punch today.
He hit his stride in the early 1970s, when he began to focus more exclusively on what he called his ‘terror’ pictures rather than comedy and sexploitation. Walker’s self-financed films (the profits from one would finance the next) bore the distinctive signs of an exploitation auteur. Shunning the now-hackneyed period settings of Hammer Gothic, Walker’s work was relentlessly up to date – sharply zooming in on a gloomy, grey, glum Britain, adrift in an austere, uncertain decade, the acid-tinged optimism of the 1960s an increasingly distant memory. Amidst the sex and violence, Pete’s films were shot through with bleak cynicism, and an uneasy air of disquiet. Short on happy endings, ambiguous in their political slant, and not suggestive of any easy answers, Walker’s best features reflected the awkward tension between permissiveness and repression in that fascinating decade, as youth and establishment collided, and often dwelled on the idea of corruption at the heart of seemingly respectable social institutions, like the Catholic Church, or the Prison Service. But these were no dreary political pieces; they were made to make money, and Walker optimised the exploitation content, working closely with excellent screenwriters including David McGillivray and Michael Armstrong. There was sex, there was repression, there was perversion, there was violence; but amidst all this bleakness, there were also Hitchcock-inspired flashes of sharp, dry, jet-black humour.
There are many lurid delights to savour in the Pete Walker canon. You might begin a whistle-stop tour through his back catalogue with Man of Violence (1970), one of his formative early works, a splendidly amoral gangster tale, where it’s hard to tell the goodies from the baddies. Described by Walker as a ‘Bogart-style spoof’, it was – of course – torn to pieces by critics at the time, but now fascinates both as a sleazy period piece and a piquant ingredient in the Brit-gangster melting pot that would shortly afterwards serve up Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971).
After that, why not move on to The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), an atmospheric, bloody multiple-murder whodunit set in a suitably spooky old theatre at the murky end of the pier – shot on location in Brighton – and starring a picture-postcard selection of young heartthrobs of the time: Ray Brooks, Robin Askwith, Luan Peters and Jenny Hanley. Who will survive? Who will snuff it? It’s splendid stuff, and as the title suggests, there’s plenty of flesh and plenty of blood.
Watch the trailer to House of Whipcord (1974):
You’re on to the bona fide classics once you get to House of Whipcord (1974), a remarkably moody, brooding, brutal prison drama. In this dreadful establishment, young women are punished for ‘permissive behaviour.’ Forced to swap their Carnaby Street gladrags for hessian tunics by unhinged, corrupt prison governor Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham), they receive regular whippings from the cruel wardress (played to perfection by gimlet-eyed Sheila Keith, who was a Walker regular). Oppressively shot on location in the Forest of Dean, creepy, chilling, pessimistic and relentlessly bleak, this is top-drawer Walker. It even impressed critics – eager to unearth allegories in his work – to Pete’s surprise and wry amusement.
You can’t go wrong with Frightmare (1974) either, perhaps Walker’s masterpiece, which gleefully combines lurid, critic-baiting cannibalistic thrills and gory exploits with a power drill (wielded by Sheila Keith, joined here by Rupert Davies), with a gently persuasive subtext about the ineffectuality of psychiatry. It was extreme stuff, as far as British cinema was concerned, and – as usual with Pete’s films – provoked some negative press. Of course, that’s the kind of publicity money just can’t buy, and the director made the most of it, plastering the bad reviews across his advertisements like badges of honour. ‘A despicable film,’ sniffed The Observer; Pete cheerfully whacked it on the poster in big letters, and another coachload of punters flocked to see it. The film remains the director’s personal favourite.
Watch the trailer to Frightmare (1974):
Corruption in the church is the theme of House of Mortal Sin (1975), particularly the perverse desires of nasty Catholic Priest Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp); it all ends badly, and no one is saved; while The Comeback (1977) features singer Jack Jones – playing a singer trying to revitalise his recording career – caught up in a bizarre murder mystery involving a highly Hitchcockian knife-wielding transvestite, who looks a lot like Norman Bates’s mum. It’s a gorily entertaining oddity indeed… they just don’t make ‘em like that any more, alas.
Watch the trailer to House of Mortal Sin (1976):
Calling it quits after shooting his most traditionally Gothic horror, The House of the Long Shadows (1983), which entertainingly teamed Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, John Carradine and the aforementioned Sheila Keith, Pete Walker gave up filmmaking and invested his money in property – notably buying a chain of cinemas in the Isle of Wight. Pete didn’t want to make films for the home video market, as he later confessed: ‘My love was the cinema. It was darkened auditoriums and shadows on a screen and shared experiences.’ Pete Walker’s love of cinema shines through all of his work; and the years have not diminished his finest features. Now, as then, when a Pete Walker ‘terror’ picture is playing, the auditorium is surely at its darkest.