Fright (1971)

I’m going to make a phone-call myself, to the institution—then I’m going to come back here and tell you you’ve got nothing to worry about…”

 

[aka The Killer Is In The House aka Night Legs]

Director:  Peter Collinson

Starring:  Susan George, Honor Blackman, Ian Bannen, George Cole, John Gregson, Dennis Waterman, Tara Peter Collinson, Maurice Kaufmann, Michael Brennan

Screenplay: Tudor Gates

 

 

Synopsis:  Amanda (Susan George) travels by bus to the isolated country house of the Lloyds, for whom she is to babysit for the first time. Jim Lloyd (George Cole) is friendly and welcoming, but Helen (Honor Blackman) is nervous and obviously reluctant to leave her toddler son, Tara (Tara Peter Collinson). As Helen settles the child to sleep, Jim shows Amanda the house, explaining that they’ve only been there a couple of months. Amanda admits that she knew that already; that everyone in the nearby village knows everyone else’s business, and are always curious about strangers: an observation that causes Jim some perturbation. As they make small talk, Amanda tells Jim that she is a college student studying child welfare and psychology; while Jim, in turns, tells Amanda that he and Helen are having a rare night out. After Jim finally persuades the hesitant Helen to leave, Amanda re-locks the house and takes a look around the lower floor before making herself a cup of tea. Despite her earlier disclaimers to the Lloyds, she finds herself growing increasingly unnerved by certain noises around the house: creakings, and a tapping sound. She does not, however, realise that someone is watching her from outside the house… As they drive away, Jim wonders out loud if Amanda really knows everything about them, as her comments earlier implied. Helen turns this aside, reminding him wryly that they are supposed to be celebrating. Meanwhile, Amanda has just settled down to read when the lights go out, the odd noises intensify, and there seems to be someone outside—though this time there is an immediate explanation, as a sleepy Tara wanders into the room, and the doorbell rings. Amanda is exasperated to find her boyfriend, Chris (Dennis Waterman), at the door; she barely listens when he denies having been “creeping around the house”. A quarrel soon develops, with Chris accusing Amanda of imagining things as she continues to insist she saw someone outside. He then suggests that it was “Mrs Lloyd’s husband”, explaining that according to village gossip, the Lloyds aren’t married at all, and that Helen’s real husband is in an asylum after trying to kill her…

Comments:  History has not been kind to Fright, which is one of those films you have to work at treating fairly. After all, when it was released in 1971, it didn’t know that it was “a threatened babysitter movie” (though check out the Italian title of the film, below), or that it would go on to be considered “a proto-slasher”; nor that it was doing things that would at length invite invidious comparison with films like Halloween and When A Stranger Calls.

All that said, though it manages some interesting touches, Fright is certainly – even on its own terms – extremely flawed; and ultimately its importance is that other film-makers seem to have looked at it and figured out where they could do better.

 

Fright was produced through the short-lived Fantale Films, a partnership between producers Harry Fine and Michael Style and screenwriter Tudor Gates, and filmed at Shepperton Studios late in 1970. Though the company is best known for its involvement with the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”, Fright is a thoroughly modern psycho-thriller; though it distinguishes itself from its immediate competition, including Hammer’s “mini-Hitchcocks”, via a script that isn’t interested in playing mind games with the audience and a scenario that progressively becomes less about the terrorisation of its leading ladies than it is about the mental state of the person doing the terrorising. And this, in conjunction with the era’s rather leering attitude to sexuality, makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Fright begins with arrival of Amanda at the isolated country house belonging to Jim and Helen Lloyd, which we gather sits some distance from the nearest village, where Amanda lives. (She attends college, so the village must in turn have a larger urban neighbour.) We might not feel that the multiple locks on the door and Helen’s worried peer past the chain are anything untoward, but Amanda’s puzzled glance alerts us to a time and place where locked houses still weren’t the norm. The house is in fact Helen’s, having belonged to her late aunt; and she and Jim have only been living there a matter of months. As Amanda will later tell Jim, she already knows all that, village gossip having naturally interested itself with the newcomers.

Helen takes Amanda upstairs to introduce her charge—and we may as well get this out of the way right now: the child is played by a boy, and is meant to be a boy, though his name is “Tara”: he is Peter Collinson’s own son, Tara Peter Collinson, the name being one of personal significance to his father (who later built a house he called “Tara”, only to sell it to Keith Moon when he moved to the US; but that’s another story). It’s a curious thing: if this was a girl with a traditional boy’s name, no-one would bat an eyelid; but you can find any number of reviews out there that will tell you that the kid in Fright is a girl despite the dialogue saying otherwise—and despite the fact that he’s a boy.

 

The interaction between Amanda and Tara is one of the film’s better touches, and with good reason: Susan George devoted considerable time in pre-production to making friends with the toddler, so that he was comfortable in their scenes together.

(The onscreen Tara is put through the wringer over the second half of the film; and while his silence and placidity are perfectly welcome, they are also perfectly incredible.)

Furthermore, it is my belief that we have another cast member appearing in this film under their real name: when Tara is introduced he is sharing his crib with a lovely tabby and white cat called “Spooky”; and I’m willing to bet that was the Collinsons’ own pet.

This, as you may imagine, set me immediately on edge: I could be confident that nothing was going to happen to the kid, but with a pet in a film like this – particularly a cat – all bets were off.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one on edge: Helen violently overreacts to the presence of the cat in the crib, trotting out the old rubbish about cats smothering babies and generally embarrassing both Amanda and Jim.

She then calms down enough to introduce Amanda to Tara, explaining that Mrs Mann couldn’t come and that Amanda is going to take care of him. The boy is welcoming to Amanda, but what he really wants is Spooky back, though his mother puts him off. As she settles him down for the night, Jim takes Amanda back downstairs.

(And if anything dates this film more than Susan George’s mini-dress, hip-belt and calf-boots ensemble, it is Helen’s instruction to Jim, to show Amanda, “How the television works.”)

 

Some uncomfortable scenes follow, with Jim and Amanda making awkward small talk, and Helen dragging her heels over leaving the house at all. Amanda takes this simply as mother-nerves, and does her best to reassure her; while Helen presses on her the number of the Plover Inn, where she and Jim will be having dinner, before they finally leave.

Fright takes its first real misstep here. The film’s pacing is one of its issues: it’s only 83-minutes long, and yet it feels overlong, thanks to dragged out sequences such as the one that follows. In some ways, in fact, this story might have worked better as one segment of one of the era’s many anthology films; as it is, the need to pad out the main storyline significantly undermines the attempt to build tension.

So. We watch in detail as Amanda makes herself a cup of tea, finds a biscuit, plays with some of Tara’s toys—and gets increasingly spooked by some easily explainable noises. This is silly in itself – Amanda lives in a country village, and would hardly be bothered by a creaking door or some rattly plumbing – and it gets sillier still when, upon hearing a tapping noise outside, she not only goes out to see what it is, but screams hysterically—when she walks into a piece of flapping washing hanging on a clothes-line some six feet from the back door. So how did she not see it? And if you’re going to scream hysterically at that, where is there left to go?

Indeed, Amanda’s habit of not reacting proportionally to events, whether it be over- or under-, becomes increasingly problematic.

However—while all this has been (slowly) going on, the audience has been made aware that Amanda actually has got something to worry about: someone is watching her through the window…

 

Amanda finally settles down in one of the living-rooms—for some reason turning off the overhead lights, and leaving herself only a lamp to read by; and this backfires when the lightbulb burns out. (It sounds very much as if Susan George utters a soft, “Oh, fuck!” here; in 1971!?) She is fiddling with the light when she hears footsteps – and a door begins to swing open – and Tara wanders in, rubbing his eyes.

We get the first deployment here of something that will recur throughout the film, with accelerating flash-editing used to increase suspense and to create almost subliminal images: a technique that will be put to far more serious use later on than it is here, where it simply to build a false scare.

Though it’s not entirely false: there is a knocking outside, and a face at the glass. Amanda gasps in fear—but to her credit, does not scream—because she doesn’t want to frighten Tara. And then she gasps again, when the doorbell rings.

The child tight in her arms, Amanda reluctantly goes to the door, demanding to know who’s there? “Meeee,” says a sepulchral voice; then, more recognisably, “It’s me, Chris!”

(More recognisably not least because it’s Dennis Waterman. Viewers of the right age and background might get a giggle out of Fright’s credit title co-listing Waterman and George Cole, though as it turns out they don’t get any scenes together.)

Amanda is now exasperated on top of her fright, and refuses to open the door. “I suppose you think that was funny, creeping round the house, trying to frighten me?” she snaps at him, disregarding his hasty denials. Despite his pleas, about the cold among other things, Amanda leaves him out there until she has put Tara back to bed.

 

Meanwhile, Jim and Helen have arrived at the Plover Inn, and have drinks at the bar while waiting for a friend. Jim is still trying to cheer Helen up, though his choice of topics isn’t always the best—finally eliciting from her the slightly grim observation, “Why shouldn’t one celebrate a divorce?”

We cut back to Amanda and Chris, and—oh, dear: this is one of those infuriating movie relationships where you have absolutely no idea why two people are together. In this case, while it is clear enough what Chris wants from Amanda, apparently she hasn’t given it to him yet, and has no immediate intention of doing so; and apart from that, the two seem to have nothing at all to say to one another—or at least, this is what we get when Chris tries to make conversation:

Chris:  “I think you’ve got the most beautiful pair of Bristols.”

I’m sorry, I don’t care how small that village is: I refuse to believe that Susan George couldn’t do better.

But the pair’s discussion of their non-relationship takes an even more uncomfortable turn here, with this bit of contemporary wisdom:

Chris:  “You can’t stay a virgin all your life… If you’re not, you’ve got nothing to lose; if you are—this is your big chance.”

Nor do matters improve when Chris finally gets off the topic of sex: instead he describes in detail just how a decapitation effect was achieved in a movie he just saw – The Vampire Lovers, maybe? – provoking Amanda into once more accusing him of trying to frighten her.

(This is one of a couple of meta-moments in Fright: there’s a better one later.)

 

Amanda again brings up the face at the window, and Chris again denies it was him; but instead of them putting two and two together, this interchange leads first to the suggestion that Amanda is “imagining things”, and then into the backstory of Helen Lloyd—or as we learn now, not Lloyd at all: that she and Jim are not married, and that her real husband was institutionalised after trying to murder her.

This is almost the final straw for Amanda, who is by now really frightened; and she ends up in Chris’s arms, pleading with him to tell he was making all that up—and that it was him at the window. He says whatever she she wants to hear, being only interested in having finally gotten his hands on her; and when he starts unbuttoning the front of her dress, she lets him—chiefly, it seems, from a sense that – just by touching him voluntarily – she has committed herself, or at least led him on. However, her body language says clearly enough that she doesn’t really want it. She even whispers, “Don’t!”, but he tells her to shut up…

At the inn, Helen and Jim have been joined by their friend, Dr Gareth Cordell. The conversation starts out with Jim’s hopes of a job in Brussels, but soon shifts to someone called “Brian”. Jim comments impatiently that they’d agreed not to mention him, but Cordell smooths things over and encourages Helen to say what’s really on her mind.

Finally she asks him outright if Brian knows about the divorce and, if so, how it affected him, given his attitude towards her—which she categorises not as “love”, but “obsession”. She confesses her fear that the divorce may have “unhinged” him.

“He already is unhinged,” replies Cordell unhelpfully.

(By the way, it was not until the overhaul of the British divorce laws in 1937 that someone was permitted to divorce a severely mentally ill spouse, and even then it required a five-year waiting period; and not until 1958 that the provisions were loosened up from insisting upon “incurable insanity”.)

 

Back at the house, Chris has manoeuvred Amanda onto the couch. She is participating willingly enough, it seems; though she stops him when he tries to slide his hand up her dress; and when the phone rings, she wrests herself out from under him with a rapidity that speaks of relief.

It’s Helen, of course, checking in. Amanda has to fight to keep Chris quiet, leading to a disjointed conversation and increasing Helen’s nervousness; but she is finally assured that everything is fine.

During this, we have been cutting away to a low-toned conversation between Jim and Cordell—the latter, we now learn, Helen’s doctor as well as a friend. Jim vents here, muttering that he has, “Tried to make allowances”, but that Helen is, “Bloody impossible sometimes”—that there are occasions when, “Brian is there, all the time.”

As a character Jim is not well-developed – basically he’s a plot-convenience, to get Helen out of the house – and he doesn’t exactly endear himself to the viewer here; but we need to be fair. We understand progressively that he has walked into Helen’s situation with his eyes open, despite her ongoing emotional and psychological issues, and has been there through her recovery and the legal process of divorcing her institutionalised husband. And there’s one more critical point: when we first see Jim he is hanging over Tara’s crib with an expression of deep affection on his face—a moment given great significance by the later revelation that Tara is not his child.

On the other hand, Tara’s age acts as a measure of the compressed timeline of Helen’s situation—and the unreasonableness, not of Helen’s failure to “get over” the trauma in her life, as she keeps being told, but of the demands being made upon her by the men. There is a definite sense that their insistence is less about her well-being than their convenience.

 

We might also be inclined to wonder whether it was something between Helen and Jim that triggered Brian’s attack in the first place.

We cut back to Amanda adjusting her clothes, and using Chris’s stupid behaviour during the phone-call as an excuse to throw him out. He goes, but delivers various shots at her on the way—including, “And it wasn’t me looking in the window, either!”…which she takes as Chris crying wolf. A few more insults either way, and Amanda slams the door in his face. She then goes upstairs to check on Tara.

Chris doesn’t leave immediately. Instead he lurks in the garden—staring up at the windows, where Amanda’s outline is thrown against the blind as she poses and primps in front of a mirror. Chris is enjoying the show when, nearby, a cat begins yowling—and then he hears footsteps.

Suddenly, a hand seizes him by the throat. A savage attack follows…

Inside, Amanda turns on the TV (which has to “warm up”), finishes tidying herself—and spins around with a gasp as a scream issues from the corner of the room. She quickly pulls herself together—and sits down to watch Plague Of The Zombies

Back at the inn, Helen feels the need to explain her telephone-call home—and confesses that she felt something was wrong; that someone else was there. This prompts some impatient sighing from the men; while Cordell starts lecturing her about her fixation with Brian, telling her that he always will be “present” if she allows it; but that she should treat the situation as if Brian had died. “He’s extremely paranoiac as well as homicidal: they’re never going to let him out,” he adds, a speech that’s probably meant to be reassuring.

 

Helen tells him that she knows that he is right – knows it intellectually – but—

Cordell cuts her off, and then changes the subject—encouraging Jim to ask her to dance: “Give her a laugh,” he urges. “Give us all a laugh.”

Alas, he’s not wrong. It is one of this film’s weaknesses that both George Cole and Honor Blackman seem too old for the parts they were playing (both were in their mid-forties); and our perception of this is only heightened by the sight of Jim and Helen, in their best 1971 middle-class togs, getting down on the dance-floor of the Plover Inn to “hip” music: not one of Fright‘s better-judged moments. (Nor do things improve when Cordell cuts in.)

Meanwhile—the person who has in fact been lurking around the house all night, and peering in the windows, now walks up to the front door and rings the bell.

Amanda assumes it’s Chris come back, and gives him a verbal without opening up—and then tries to block out the repeated rings by focusing on the terrified screams coming from the TV.

Eventually the film ends, though the rapping noise from outside doesn’t. Amanda walks across and jerks back a curtain—and, seeing the face of a stranger, screams.

She dives for the telephone, ringing the Plover Inn – not the police – and demanding to speak to Helen, who by now is (thankfully) slow-dancing with Jim. A waiter calls Helen to the phone; but Amanda has only time for one frantic, “Mrs Lloyd—!?” before the line drops out—the wire cut.

 

Back at their table, both men pish Helen’s insistence that the caller must have been Amanda, and that there must be something wrong at home; Cordell going so far as to call this, “The kind of thing I was talking about”; and, further, telling Helen that her “panic” is “irrational”. Finally, he announces his intention of making some phone-calls, to prove to her that Brian Halston is still safe in his institution for the criminally insane…

There is, I suppose, a certain sour satisfaction about both sets of patronising males, with their lectures about “imagining things”, being so thoroughly wrong; not that it does the women any good…

At the house, definite sounds of someone trying to break in around the back send Amanda to the front door, to try and make a run for help in the other direction—but when she opens it, she finds Chris propped up there, battered and bloody, though not dead.

He slumps forward into the vestibule as Amanda screams—and at this moment, a strange man rushes in, telling Amanda he heard her scream and asking if she needs help?

And Amanda, who has so far screamed hysterically at everything from the washing on the line to her boyfriend’s shocking reappearance—who has twice seen someone watching her through the windows—does not react to his presence. She pays no attention to the stranger’s explanation of himself as “a neighbour”, though she knows very well the Lloyds have no neighbours. Instead she pours out a gasping, fractured version of her situation—looking to the stranger for help.

Really?

 

But the improbability (to put it mildly) of Amanda’s behaviour pales beside what we might be tempted to call Fright‘s “Halloween moment”. Putting aside the fundamental question of how, exactly, Brian escaped from his maximum security facility (presumably Broadmoor)—where did he get those perfectly fitting clothes? And how did he get to the house? And most of all, how did he know that this is where Helen is living? These questions are never answered; we don’t even get a, “He was doing very well last night!” hand-wave. (Brian obviously knows the house quite well, but that doesn’t answer the rest.)

On the other hand, to Amanda’s desperate plea that they get Chris to a hospital, the stranger tells her apologetically that he has no car, and anyway doesn’t drive—which might or might not be true.

Anyway—Brian finally interrupts himself to tell Amanda that it’s no use anyway: that Chris is dead…

As they tear along the road home, Jim and Helen snipe viciously at one another—he still trying to insist that Brian could be anywhere, she sneeringly agreeing that they need to be rational and not panic.

It is at the height of this fight that we learn how close Helen came to death at her husband’s hands—and that having, as he supposed, killed her, he then tried to kill himself—and the baby.

At this point what we might call the inevitable happens: Jim has been drifting to the right on the narrow country road to try and overtake the truck they’re caught behind, only now to find another car coming straight at them. He swerves desperately, running the car off the road. They’re not hurt, but the vehicle becomes mired in the mud.

Fright makes various missteps along the way, but perhaps its most infuriating is now introduced in the form of a group of chronically incompetent policemen. Though they are not, thankfully, intended to be funny, these scenes almost prefigure the police subplot of The Last House On The Left.

 

I’m not sure what was going on here: whether the film-makers were making a point about the state of British policing, or whether this is just a painfully artificial way to let events at the house play out; but either way it turns tension into impatience.

Thus—when Cordell tries to report the fact that a homicidal maniac is on the loose, and that people are in danger of their lives, he runs into the brick wall of a stolid police-station sergeant, intent only upon cups of tea and the correct spelling of ‘psychotic’, who refuses to lift a finger until the paperwork is done.

Meanwhile, a sobbing Amanda is being comforted by the kind stranger—who, when he turns her face to his, doesn’t see her at all, but Helen…

Ian Bannen’s performance as Brian Halston is hard to quantify. At times he goes over the top, giving us very much an unconvincing “movie madman”: but there are other times when he hits the mark and succeeds in putting the viewer inside Brian’s delusions—and at those moments, he is probably the best thing in the film.

The manner in which it handles itself from here separates Fright from most of the films that followed it. Though Amanda is the one in imminent danger, it is never about her: it is always about Helen; and what happens, does so because in Brian’s sick mind, he has confused the one with the other. Increasingly, he sees Helen—and a Helen who behaves as he wants her to: a delusion that deepens and intensifies because of Amanda’s eventual decision that the only way she can save herself, and Tara, is by playing along.

Though the purpose to which they are put becomes increasingly distasteful, Peter Collinson’s direction and the film’s cinematography and editing, particularly the use of reflective surfaces, do a remarkable job in illustrating exactly what is going on in Brian’s mind. In the scenes that follow we get repeated intercutting of Amanda and Helen – Susan George and Honor Blackman enacting the same scenes in very different ways – in a manner that conveys not merely Brian’s psychosis, but the yawning gulf between the world of his twisted imagination and the appalling reality of the women’s experiences.

 

Cordell, meanwhile, has made it into the presence of an inspector, but he displays little more interest in taking action, though he does order a patrol car out to the house. The men are still arguing the point when we learn that there has been a casualty along the way: a woman waiting at a bus stop has been attacked and strangled. At this, finally, the inspector orders out a gun and ammunition, and a supply of tear-gas.

At the house, the penny has finally – very belatedly, we’re inclined to feel – dropped for Amanda; and though she longs desperately for escape, she accepts her responsibility with regard to Tara—and determines to put herself between Brian and the child whatever the personal cost.

It is from this point that Brian loses all grip on reality, and address Amanda only as “Helen”… She in turn goes along with it, to the extent of insisting that she – Helen – does love him; only then Brian expects her to prove it…

This scene is disturbing on many different levels—not the least of them how many commentators on Fright don’t seem to realise what’s going on here, or anyway don’t consider it worthy of remark.

But what we have here is not only a rape scene, but a rape scene that completely absolves its rapist—because in Brian’s mind, as we are very clearly shown, he isn’t raping Amanda, he’s having consensual sex with Helen.

Brian’s delusion is fed and fostered, no doubt, by the fact that Amanda does not fight him—but it is rape all the same. The reason she doesn’t fight is that they are in the baby’s bedroom.

 

The screenplay having placed Amanda in this situation, we have to ask ourselves why earlier, it first dragged in, but then danced around, the question of her virginity. Presumably this moment is why there is no outright declaration, though the implication is ‘yes’—not least because the film generally seems to support Chris’s contention that if she isn’t, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t have sex with him. (Except that she doesn’t want to…which is of course no reason at all, right?) And with this, it is hard to get away from a sense that Amanda is being punished here for her refusal to put out; particularly when Brian begins unbuttoning her dress exactly as Chris did.

(And she will fail to re-button it for the rest of the film—with Susan George repeatedly framed in a way that forces us to look at her cleavage, her bra barely covering her nipples. Charming. There’s nothing I like better than staring at a rape victim’s breasts…)

And overarching all of this is the fact that Susan George went straight from Fright to Straw Dogs—and consequently spent most of her time onscreen during 1971 participating in scenes that too many people fail to realise, or refuse to accept, involve rape.

Brian falls asleep afterwards, giving Amanda the chance to pull herself together and lift Tara from his crib. As as she creeps downstairs—

—Chris regains consciousness, pushing back the coat with which Brian covered him.

Amanda takes so much time over the silent unlocking of the front door that by the time she looks around, Brian is behind her, Tara’s hand in his. The door is open but again Amanda stops: she kneels, urging the child to come to her; pleading with Brian to let him go—even as the toddler calls him daddy. The tense moment ends with Amanda snatched up into Brian’s arms—but she can take it no longer: “I’m not your bloody Helen!” she shrieks at him as she screams and struggles.

 

All Brian sees, however, is that Helen is inexplicably upset with him. As the hysterical Amanda searches helplessly for another route of escape, Brian begins to lose it too, his violent impulses overtaking him. He finally grabs her, yelling at her—just as Chris lurches forward, a heavy bit of sculpture in his hands. His timing is out, though—and Brian finishes off what he started in the garden.

Amanda scoops up Tara and dashes for the door. She even makes it outside—only to stop dead, blinded by the headlights of the police car that has just pulled up, and hesitating just long enough for Brian to catch her and force her back into the house.

The police car disgorges the unhelpful desk-sergeant from the station—the way in which he blurts, “What the hell – !?” alerting us to the fact that, until this moment, he still didn’t believe that anything was really wrong.

He begins knocking on the front door and demanding entry, while sending his two subordinates to look for another way in. They have only rounded the corner before, through a window in which he has smashed a hole, Brian howls at them that if they try it, he will kill both Amanda and Tara. The sergeant decides, reasonably, that they can’t handle this alone: the three withdraw and call the station.

And just at that moment, Jim and Helen arrive. As he peers through the broken window, the fog briefly lifts from Brian’s mind: “It’s her: it’s Helen!” he exclaims delightedly before turning to Amanda and inquiring conversationally, “Have you met my wife?”

But in turning, he finds Amanda disobeying his order to stay where she is, and in a moment is consumed by violent rage. He hurls a heavy object across the room at her which, when she ducks, shatters a mirror. Brian then arms himself with a large shard of glass—and we get Fright‘s signature moment, perhaps its one touch of genuine brilliance: an extraordinarily composed shot, with Brian reflected in the shard, and the angle of it replacing Tara’s face with his own.

Cordell, the inspector, and the armed response “team” (a single officer with a revolver) now pull up in another car. Cordell immediately gets back to doing what he does best, patronising Helen; while the armed officer shakes his head over the shot he’s being offered through the window. (It looks pretty straightforward to me, though goodness knows I’m no expert.) The men debate the gas-gun, but are afraid of hitting Tara by accident.

Brian then begins calling out to his wife – “Helen! Helen! Helen! Helen!” – in a wailing, desperate voice from which she recoils with all the horror of memory.

At this point, Cordell insists to the inspector that he is Brian’s doctor, which is not what we were told earlier (though it makes his interaction with Helen and Jim less unprofessional), and he is allowed to have the first go at talking him down. At the first sound of his voice, Brian withdraws from the window and huddles against a wall in a tight, shaking knot:

Cordell [soothingly]:  “We only want to help you, Brian—everyone here.”
Sergeant [muttering]:   “I’d like to get my hands on that bastard!”

But Brian refuses to come out—insisting instead that Helen come in to him…

The inspector takes over at this point and, in spite of Cordell’s warning not to provoke him, his clipped official words drive Brian out of his despair into a psychotic rage that ends with Amanda and Tara pushed towards the window, the glass shard held to both their throats. Brian offers to let them both go, however, if Helen will come in and talk to him.

Which she insists upon doing—despite the concerted male effort to stop her. “It’s my baby,” she argues, unanswerably.

 

The police give Helen a gas-bomb and instructions on how to use it before they let her go. They try to negotiate an exchange, Amanda and Tara to be released first, then Brian to come out with Helen; though Amanda’s despairing cry makes her opinion on how things are likely to play out quite clear.

Brian here takes Tara away from Amanda, leading him across the room – and over Chris’s dead body – to a corner near the door. Intriguingly, not only does the child know who Brian is (again speaking to that compressed timeline), but in spite of everything he evinces no fear of him—instead sitting comfortably in his arms and kissing him; even announcing confidently, “You won’t kill me.” So presumably he doesn’t remember the last time he saw his father, or at least doesn’t understand the significance of it. Likewise— “Mum,” he says calmly, when Brian leaps to respond to Helen’s knock.

“Oh, you bloody fool!” cries Amanda as Helen enters. “Now we’ll never get out!”

And sure enough, Brian immediately locks the door again, waving away Helen’s protest and arguing with unexpected logic that, as long as he has Tara, he knows Helen will always come to him…

Helen follows Amanda and tries to play along, but in her haste to convince Brian that everything is fine and to get her hands on Tara, she fumbles and drops the gas-bomb.

Brian is outraged by this evidence of her betrayal—and another of the film’s indelible moments follows: “I love you!” he cries passionately—and strikes Helen savagely in the face.

She falls across Chris’s body, screaming in both pain and shock, only to be dragged up again by her hair. As Brian screams abuse at her, he hurls the gas-bomb across the room—accidentally triggering it. Brian doesn’t notice: he already has his hands on Helen’s throat…

 

And Amanda, presented with this opportunity, hesitates; fails, we almost have to say. Instead of taking decisive action, she slashes at Brian’s face with the glass shard—saving Helen, yes, in the immediate sense; saving herself, as she takes the chance to dash outside; but after all that, leaving Helen – and Tara – in Brian’s clutches.

(There are a couple of odd, arty touches in this film. Brian’s cut is foreshadowed in the early scene of Amanda in the kitchen, where she notices a doll with just such an injury; while she also dances with Tara’s teddy-bear, exactly as Brian later forces her to dance.)

Brian follows Amanda out of the house, Tara in his arms and the shard at the boy’s throat—so holding the police at bay. It is Helen staggering after him, crying out for him, that stops him. His mood shifts, as it always does, from homicidal violence to pathetic devotion: “Helen, darling!’ he murmurs. She reads this correctly and, forcing a broad smile, suggests that they take Tara and go—and assuring him, as he casts wary glances at the police, that as long as he is with her, he will be all right; that they will be together again, the three of them; just as long as he lets her take the baby…

And he does.

Slowly, very carefully – so carefully that Brian does not realise at first what is happening – Helen starts to back away. Staring after her in a puzzled fashion, Brian assures her he would never have hurt her – of course not – he loves her – and just then a shot rings out.

But it’s not the police marksman: it’s Amanda.

And while this creates a fine dramatic moment—it also makes no fricking sense. Not practically, and still less psychologically.

 

Whether Fright really intended to criticise contemporary British policing or whether its foot-dragging cops were just there to pad out the second half of the film, neither explanation excuses this climax. The marksman certainly doesn’t cover himself in glory, granted; but even so, I doubt he would have been guilty of just leaving his gun lying around where some random civilian could pick it up—and least of all given that he may still have been called upon to take Brian down.

But it’s Amanda’s behaviour that we really have to question—and if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go off on a tangent before I address it.

(A spoiler-filled tangent, so beware if you haven’t seen the films bolded below.)

While the roots of the slasher film stretch back to, at least, the 1930s, what we now call the Final Girl is a much later development—with women expected to stand around and scream and wait to be rescued, rather than rescuing themselves. Not just Final Girls themselves, but their evolution, is one of my infinite areas of interest; and the clear, step-wise manner of it – and the push-back against it – is quite fascinating.

Take, for instance, Miranda Grey in the 1965 version of The Collector: she’s not a Final Girl in the current sense, but she has to fight a psychopath; and she fails because she hesitates to finish him off when she has the chance (a detail that goes back to the novel, of course). Then take Sally Hardesty from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: closer to an actual Final Girl; but while she does save herself, all she does is scream and run, with no real thought of fighting back (not unreasonably). In Halloween, Laurie Strode does fight back—but Dr Loomis has to finish the job. Alice Hardy is one of the first to finish off her antagonist, in Friday The 13th…but she’s fighting another woman; and though Ginny Field is a most splendid Final Girl in Friday The 13th Part 2, her boyfriend keeps butting in.

 

It was, in other words, literally decades before a woman was “allowed” to just take care of business on her own.

And I have to wonder if some aspect of this was what dictated Amanda’s behaviour here. When Brian is attacking Helen, he has his back to her: she has the clearest possible shot at him and all the justification in the world, in not just her own situation but Helen’s imminent danger. She could have stabbed him with that shard of glass – or cut his throat – or she could have cracked him on the head with any of the room’s heavy objects – but all she does is cut his face.

And if she can’t bring herself to do it then, why do it when the crisis is over?

I think what we have here is the revelation of another form of film-maker’s reluctance surrounding “acceptable” female behaviour. They were okay with Amanda shooting Brian from a distance—but they couldn’t accept her getting her hands dirty.

Personally, I think a climactic scene inside the house that allowed Amanda both her own payback and to rescue Helen and Tara – particularly after all she suffers to protect the latter – would have been a lot more satisfying. And made a lot more sense.

What we have instead is Amanda flashing back through all the horrors of the night; though her last words are, “Oh, Tara, I’m sorry!”

Though often a difficult film to watch, Fright pays at least a few of its dues by giving Susan George and Honor Blackman co-top billing. Rightly so: the two women carry the weight of the film between them—and are treated brutally in return. This is a rare time we find Susan George playing both “good” and “nice” (you could draw a moral from that, if you were so inclined); and though I think Honor Blackman was miscast, she has some fine moments once Helen gets out from under the men telling her how to feel about her situation, and particularly in the “alternate” Amanda / Helen scenes—in which, of course, she plays completely against her character in the rest of the film. Ian Bannen is certainly memorable, but his performance is mixed; while the other male characters are pretty negligible (another way that Fright aligns itself with the slasher movies to follow).

Visually the film is often striking, with the touches already mentioned and an interesting use of light and colour; while the alternating scenes, though their content is hard to take, are very cleverly constructed. However, the pacing issues and certain poor choices work against the success of the film which, while dragging things out, still manages to leave too many questions unanswered.

Weirdly enough—the film that I keep thinking about most in comparison to Fright is one that overtly has absolutely nothing in common with it: Rocketship X-M. In reviewing that film, I made the point that its odd mixture of elements, its refusal to do what later films have taught us to expect, are what makes it interesting—and worthwhile. Its very gaps and inconsistencies are where other film-makers found inspiration.

So it is with Fright. The film is likewise flawed, though not negligible. It’s not a slasher movie, or even one about a threatened babysitter, as we now understand such terms; nor is Amanda a modern Final Girl. But hints of all those elements are there—threads ready to be teased out of their framework and then rewoven into other, and often better, films.

Footnote:  Despite the yowling in the garden, I’m pretty sure the cat gets away unscathed. Phew!

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12 Responses to Fright (1971)

  1. RogerBW says:

    Thanks for this expanded review, and my goodness, that Italian poster put of context definitely makes it look more like “they annoyed the babysitter and now they’re gonna PAY”.

    These days “show her how the television works” might be making a comeback, at least round here – “show her how to fire up the projector and mini PC that’s linked to the fileserver in the basement”. We don’t have a mere television… 🙂

    Regarding the virginity thing: a female friend of mine who was around in the late 1960s points out that all of a sudden one of the main excuses for a woman not having sex with any man who asked (“I don’t want to get pregnant”) had been taken away, and it took a while for other generally-accepted excuses to replace it.

    Thinking of this with a modern sensibility, I would definitely expect it to end with a blood-spattered Amanda who’s had to abandon all civilisation and restraint in order to defeat Brian hand to hand, and now has to try to find her way back from this bestial behaviour to normal humanity. Shooting someone is less visceral, and – not wanting to get political – is easier to do because you don’t have to work yourself up to it; you don’t have the evolutionary safeguards that make it quite difficult to beat or stab someone to death or serious injury, you’re just squeezing a piece of metal (and you may instead break down afterwards when you see the results).

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    • lyzmadness says:

      You understand now why I didn’t particularly want to spend several days dwelling on it. 🙂

      But I do think it’s historically important and an excellent if unwelcome depiction of where the mindset was at the beginning of the decade that birthed the slasher movie.

      “I don’t want to get pregnant,” was always a euphemism for, “I don’t want to.” A woman not wanting to was never considered a valid reason for her not to do it anyway—and that’s pretty explicitly played out here.

      The ending just doesn’t play right. If we’re doing modern sensibilities, then Amanda should have been out the back being wrapped up in blankets, treated for shock, and bundled into an ambulance. But as it is, there’s no back-up, no paramedics, no thought that a policewoman at the scene might be a good idea. She leaves the house and no-one pays any attention to her. (Which still doesn’t explain how she got hold of the gun.)

      There’s a toggling between fight and flight that feels artificial. Yeah, I’ll accept the not-drawing-blood argument; but I see no reason why she shouldn’t have hit him. And thinking about it, I’d’ve done this: she could have whacked him over the head, saved Helen and Tara – and herself – been out the door with them—then stopped and gone back to finish the job—successfully or not.. You could have the police storming in and then stopping to gape at what she’s doing—or pulling her away. According to taste.

      As is, “dirty hands” still seems like the main stumbling-block.

      “show her how the television works” might be making a comeback

      I actually did think that! 😀

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      • rtpoe says:

        How the 21st century television works:
        “We have this cable service, so all their usual channels are available. We also subscribe to this streaming service; here’s how you can access it. And if you have an account with this online channel, you can access it through the TV, too….”

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  2. Michael Heath says:

    “Helen starts to back away…” Is she a proto-Final Girl too? Honor Blackman kinda seems like the type.

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  3. dawn says:

    I always love your movie posters. They often give a hint of the better movie that this one MIGHT have been.
    “The evil that no one in THIS world can explain” – in what world can someone explain this evil?
    I read that the little boy in The Shining didn’t realize that it was a horror movie until he was much older, due to what he was told at the time (being protected by the rest of the cast). I hope they did something like that for this little kid.

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    • lyzmadness says:

      I always like the story about Linda Blair and the overly-concerned journalist re: The Exorcist—“It’s only a movie, you know.” 😀

      Doubtful that he was old enough to understand the story. It’s obvious that he was very comfortable with the other cast members—BUT—his failure to react at all when, for instance, Susan is clutching at him and shrieking in his ear did make me wonder if he’d been sedated somehow. But maybe they just did it one shot at a time with promises of reward he stayed perfectly still.

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  4. Bruce Probst says:

    > (By the way, it was not until the overhaul of the British divorce laws in 1937 that someone was permitted to divorce a severely mentally ill spouse, and even then it required a five-year waiting period; and not until 1958 that the provisions were loosened up from insisting upon “incurable insanity”.)

    Actually a plot point in one of Agatha Christie’s novels: the murderer has fallen in love with someone, but he’s already married to a woman who has been institutionalised — so he can’t get a divorce (and of course there’s no question of just living with the woman he now loves). So he plots to kill his wife and the small number of other people who know that she’s his wife (the latter people preventing him from just committing bigamy).

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    • lyzmadness says:

      Yes, indeed, very familiar with it. 🙂

      Like

      • dawn says:

        Is that ‘Murder in Three Acts’? The American version gets rid of the wife entirely, and has the murderer be the one who’s mad (and only the dead doctor knows). I read the British version years ago, and was puzzled when I read the American version.
        It was probably changed because there was no similar law in America, and the reasoning behind the murder wouldn’t have made as much sense. I think the British version is much better.

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  5. ashimbabbar says:

    Concerning that divorce law, I believe – but it should be checked – that as in Victorian times it was pretty easy for a husband to have his wife declared insane it was meant to prevent the obvious trick of having her committed, keeping her money and marrying another…

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    • lyzmadness says:

      It was appallingly easy to get someone committed at the time and a lot of inconvenient wives were disposed of that way; though technically the reason you couldn’t divorce someone who was mentally ill is because they were considered not responsible for their actions and therefore incapable of knowingly transgressing. This was particularly cruel on women whose husbands were violent because it took away one of their very few grounds for divorce.

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