“They said she was well again!”
Hey! Long time, no scares! I’m hoping to get back to doing Fear Flashback on a more regular basis, and what better month to start than Halloween! October. I mean October.
We’re doing a bunch of Stephen King stuff this month, and I do plan on one or two reviews of adaptations of his work, but to be honest I’m a little burnt out on King films having re-watched a bunch for some upcoming articles. So I’ll also be revisiting some old favorites, like today’s film.
This is one of those films I had never heard of before having it recommended to me. I have a movie also called Frightmare that my brother Scott gave to me as a gag gift. It looks terrible and I’ve never even opened the shrink-wrap on it. (It’s also known as Paranoid.) There’s yet another film called Frightmare from 1983 (aka Horror Star) that also looks to be pretty terrible. I haven’t seen that one either, though I remember thinking the poster looked like that of a kickass heavy metal band (it has everything you want in such a thing – skulls, snakes, knives and zombies).
Luckily, I also have a copy of the ORIGINAL Frightmare from 1974. This one is written and directed by Pete Walker, who also did House of Whipcord and House of the Long Shadows. I’m happy to report that this is a significantly better film than either of those subsequent versions appear to be. (Though, to be fair, I’m only going on reviews and trailers for those films.)
I still have a copy of the 2000 Euroshock Collection DVD that I bought for $2.97 at Bull Moose. It’s a bare-bones affair with nothing on the disk but the film itself. The picture quality is so-so, with many scenes appearing either washed out or too dark to make out details. Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version in March of (2014) and it looks significantly better (at least from the stills) and also includes a commentary track, featurette and interview. If you can find the Blu-ray, that looks like the way to go.
For streaming options it’s available on Flix Fling for subs. It can be rented at FlixFling and Kino Now and is available for purchase on those platforms as well as Amazon.
In 1957 a court commits Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental hospital for a series of horrific crimes. Eighteen years later they’re released, and Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage – Jackie – checks in on them from time to time. Unfortunately, she begins to suspect that her mom may be having a relapse…
Meanwhile, Jackie’s half-sister Debbie is behaving badly. She’s out at all hours of the night, egging her boyfriend into fights over imagined or invented slights and screaming epithets at her sister. Jackie’s new boyfriend, Graham, tries to intervene and help Debbie deal with her abandonment and parental issues, but Debbie knows a lot more than she lets on, and she may be very much her mother’s girl.
Wow. So, low budget to the extreme. Very 1970’s. Pacing is a bit weird and plot twists are telegraphed a mile away. And yet… there’s a lot more depth than I expected here. There’s commentary on family dynamics, particularly in blended families, and poor Jackie finds out just what it’s like to be the stepdaughter sometimes. There’s an indictment of modern psychiatry and the very idea that anyone with a mental illness can be ‘cured.’ It’s a crap stance, but an interesting one to explore in a horror context. There’s the idea that love can be an enabling force, a weakness that allows evil to grow.
And then there’s Dorothy. Sheila Keith is just amazing as the mother with an ‘appetite’ issue. She’s at turns violent, kind, wheedling, sneaky, open, fearful, manipulative and maternal. Sometimes all of these in one scene. She brings a depth and gravitas to the role without making Dorothy the least bit sympathetic. In one particular scene she uses a feigned weakness to turn Jackie’s father against her, and the look of sly, cunning glee on her face is genuinely disturbing.
Because Dorothy has indeed relapsed. And as she’s a psychotic cannibal, that’s very problematic. She’s placing ads in newspapers advertising tarot readings for the lonely and depressed. She’s got tarot cards, a unique ability to read the very lonely, and a power drill. And she’s going to use them all (plus a red hot fireplace poker).
Debbie, meanwhile, has started to show signs of the very same tendency. Soon the police are involved and Jackie and Graham race to try and help her. Unfortunately for them, Debbie already HAS help.
Cinematography is hard to judge, given the quality of the DVD, but it seems as though some thought has been given to lighting, anyway. Jackie’s apartment (and that of her friends) is bright, white and clear. Dorothy and Edmund’s farmhouse is dark and lit with firelight most of the time, and it seems to get darker as the film progresses. Acting is above average, with Sheila Keith being a standout, of course, and Rupert Davies bringing his traditional low-key gravitas. Deborah Fairfax and Kim Butcher, as Jackie and Debbie respectively, are not quite at their level – and Butcher in particular has a tendency to yell instead of emote – but they’re both charismatic and attractive. Paul Greenwood as Graham is a little too understated, but works well enough as the ‘good guy.’
The general presentation is that of an early 70’s exploitation film, but the skill of the filmmakers and the performances elevate things slightly.
The Bottom Line
I genuinely enjoy Frightmare. It can be a bit threadbare in spots, but the performances – particularly of Sheila Keith, who I just cannot praise enough – are quite good, the writing is above average for a horror film, and the ratio of plot/action/gore is good enough to keep things moving at a decent clip. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s a surprisingly good exploitation film.