Frightmare (1974)


I need to start by declaring that for me Frightmare is a top ten movie but I understand that it may not be to everyone’s tastes. This is also probably a good point to talk about vibe and style.

Some horror movies have a vibe and style. Krampus is a glorious example of a great horror movie with wonderful vibe and style. Friday the 13th (1980) is a glorious example of a great horror movie with NO vibe and style. Sure, we all love F13 but if take out the deaths it is filmed like any other Eighties comedy, drama, or thriller, except that every so often someone dies. Frightmare, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was released about the same time, has a decidedly grim vibe and it looks gritty.

Genre-wise I’d guess I’d call it a “British cannibal psycho horror exploitation drama” movie from the Seventies. I’m going to do my best, and no doubt fail, to be vaguely critical about this love of my life. Here’s the basic set-up, see what you think …

In a black and white flashback we see the climax of the trial of Edmund and Dorothy Yates, a couple charged with cannibalism in 1957. As the final sentence is read out the Yates hold hands and we fade to black. Cut to full color modern day and it’s seventeen years later. Jackie is a twenty something working girl in 1974 London trying to keep her job, have some kind of a love life, and keep her wild-child stepsister Debbie under control. Things appear to be looking up when Jackie starts dating Graham, a medical student studying to become a psychologist. Unfortunately for Jackie the police making inquiries after Debbie gets involved with some bad boys and does some bad things. To add to her drama Jackie has to sneak out at night to meet her dad, the recently released Edmund Yates, and her step-mom Dorothy, to keep tabs on them while trying to keep the truth of their murky past from her young charge Debbie. It all starts to unravel for Jackie when Edmund shares with Jackie his fears about Dorothy’s behavior and Debbie demands to know what Jackie is being so secretive about.

So the stage is set for some fun times but before you hit “Play” I should point out that the foundations of this movie are planted firmly in B-Movie territory. I would suggest that in order to enjoy it one needs to be prepared to cut it a little ‘expectational slack’ going in. It is an indie film made with no massive budget, no state-of-the-art special effects, and no star power. What Frightmare does offer though is a sharply written and paced script and a delightfully deviant career defining role for Sheila Keith.

Before director Pete Walker offered her the role of Dorothy Yates, Sheila was a respected but unassuming TV character actor best known for playing people’s friendly Aunt, Nanny or Grandmother. She blew all her previous roles into oblivion with her depiction of wicked, conflicted Dorothy. Being a classically trained actor she didn’t lower herself to just wild eyed scenery chewing, but instead offered an accomplished portrayal of someone who is able to feign soft insecurity when needed while being able to instantly flip into a cold and deadly predator. No serious critic of horror films has ever anything less than praise for her performance, and with good reason. She owns every scene she is in and plays ever second for all it’s worth.

As Frightmare was set in the current day in London in 1974 it also has the added bonus of being a wonderful time travelogue of the more realistically lensed sights and sounds of London in the Seventies. It’s retro-tastic.

Frightmare is also interesting historically because it was a UK horror film from the Seventies not released through Hammer. By 1974 Hammer was in decline. It was churning out cheap and cheerful movie versions of successful Britcom TV shows of the day while desperately trying to find success with retreads of past glories (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell) and hopeful crossover attempts like the patchy martial arts horror movie The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which is only good when Peter Cushing graces the screen with his presence. Hammer simply had nothing much to offer after the cinematic on-two sucker punch of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Frightmare was released one short month after TCM was released on the other side of the globe so cannot be viewed as a quick attempt to cash-in. Cannibals aside further comparisons with TCM would be unwise as this was not the UK’s answer to TCM, rather it was a take on similar themes released at a similar time. This is not the nerve straining rollercoaster ride that TCM delivered. Frightmare is deviant, gritty, and decidedly British.

Is Frightmare gory? Hmmmm. A better question may be is Frightmare gory enough to work? In the same way that TCM suggested far more than it showed, and was really successful with it, Frightmare suggests a lot and also shows what it needs to.

So Frightmare is not for everyone but for those who dare Frightmare has the wondrously warped Sheila Keith as Dorothy Yates plus a fantastic performance from Rupert Davies as Edmund Yates. Both Deborah Fairfax (Jackie) and Kim Butcher (Debbie) are incredibly easy on the eye, especially wandering around in their undergarments in the privacy of their London flat … as you do. The script fairly zips along and the violence is lean and mean when its on the screen.

I unapologetically give Frightmare top marks because, for me, it’s everything I want from an indie British horror film made in the mid Seventies. I’ve watched it a bunch of times and it’s always a pleasure. In fact, after all this typing about it, I think I’ll watch it again.

10 out of 10

Hero: Sheila Keith (of course).

Two word review: Frightfully good.

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