Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Frightmare (1974)

... aka: Cover Up
... aka: Frightmare II
... aka: Once Upon a Frightmare

Directed by:
Pete Walker

Family responsibility. Some have it. Some don't. Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) definitely falls into the former category. In fact, what she has to deal with on a daily basis is going to make most people feel like they've got it easy. In 1957, Jackie's parents - father Edmund (Rupert Davies) and stepmother Dorothy (Sheila Keith) - committed crimes so heinous that both of them landed in a mental institution for fifteen years. In the meantime, Jackie's been saddled with the legal responsibility of raising her kid sister, Debbie (Kim Butcher). Now fifteen years old, Debbie is like most teenagers and a defiant of the boundaries and rules set down by her guardian. She refuses to get a job, refuses to go to school, refuses to come home at a decent hour and has been running around with a bunch of violent punks that the police are always after. Unlike most impressionable teens who happen to fall in with a bad crowd, Debbie isn't a follower. She herself is in very much in on the "action" and instigates much of it, including getting revenge on a bartender who refuses to serve her because she's underage by telling her none-too-bright pseudo-boyfriend Alec (Edward Kalinski) that the barman called her a "tart." The gang then waits outside until the place closes and beat the guy up.





As if dealing with delinquent Debbie wasn't enough already, Jackie also has to cater to her parents, who've been released from the asylum and are living a low-key life in a country farmhouse. Dad Edmund begins to think mum Dorothy might be falling back into her old ways again. Since her "old ways" involve murder and cannibalism, you can see why he's become alarmed. Up until now, he and Jackie have been trying to pass of parcels of animal meat for human meat (actually brains), but Edmund has begun to suspect that Dorothy's caught on to them... and he's right. While he's away at his chauffeur's job, Dorothy's been luring lonely or troubled women to their home with an advertisement for tarot readings. Once they get there, she murders them, cannibalizes them and keeps their corpses stored in the barn. Edmund is weak and complacent; totally and hopelessly devoted to his wife to the point of covering up for her crimes, feigning derangement just so that he'd get locked away with her and even helping her to lure victims. While he may not be the one who's actually committing the murders, he's clearly not right in the head either.





Under the circumstances, Jackie is trying to live as normal life as possible. She has a social circle and works as a make-up artist at the BBC. Through friends, she meets and then begins dating Graham (Paul Greenwood), a psychologist. Once he learns that she's been lying to him and seems to be living a double life, and he hears about her troubles caring for Debbie, Graham decides to step in to help (whether Jackie wants it or not). Using his connections in the medical field, he's privy to confidential information about Jackie's parents and what they did to get locked away for so long, so it all finally starts making sense. Meanwhile, Debbie is being investigated for the death of the barman she and the gang beat up (the body is stored in a locked building in the hood of a car). Has young Debbie somehow inherited criminal / psychotic tendencies from her deranged mother?





Frightmare has a lot going for it, but there's mild disappointment in knowing that with just a few tweaks in David McGillivray's script this could have been a great film instead of merely a good film. It begins strongly by centering its horror around a put-upon young woman bearing the emotional and financial burden of a troubled, disturbed family but then seems to put the daughter character on the back burner to concentrate its energies on more formulaic stuff, such as Dorothy's killing spree and Graham's investigation into the Yates family (which reveals little new information). The film just seems to run out of ideas after about an hour and then slowly lurches toward its grim conclusion.

That said, this an otherwise well-made movie with fine technical credits and mostly effective performancs from the cast. Best of all, it boasts a very memorable character in Dorothy, a truly cunning and sneaky psycho. She uses every weapon in her "frail old lady" arsenal to manipulate those around her and deflect attention away from her depraved activities. Dorothy's an expert at playing the victim card: Everyone always gangs up on her and takes everything away from her, she suffers from migraines (which conveniently only become a problem when suspicion is cast upon her), she can't even see her beloved youngest child and, of course, she's oh so lonely out there in the country by herself. The role is superbly played by Keith, whose performance alone bumps this up a point in its rating.





Upon initial release, the reaction to Frightmare was spotty. A few recognized it as being a well-done horror film while the majority wrote it off as trash in very bad taste. In an extremely rare instance of honesty in advertising, the poster for this film reflected the mixed response and included barbs such as "horrendous," "despicable" and "a moral obscenity," flipping these negative critiques into something oddly inticing by inviting audiences to "Judge for yourself." It was a surprisingly forthright yet effective campaign.


In the early 80s, American VHS distributor Prism decided to re-title this film Frightmare II so it wouldn't be confused with one of their previous releases (1981's FRIGHTMARE, which was filmed - and played many theaters - as "Horror Star"). That naturally only made things even more confusing.

★★★

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