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March 18, 2014

Pete Walker: Two Feasts of Flesh

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The Flesh and Blood Show
Pete Walker - 1972

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Frightmare
Pete Walker - 1974
both Redemption / Kino Lorber BD Region A

What I find most interesting about Pete Walker is the fact that he entered and left filmmaking pretty much on his own terms. For a career that spanned only fifteen years, Walker certainly knew how to leave a lasting impression, "rattling the cages", as he puts it in one of his interviews. The history of exploitation cinema has always been about films with questionable subject matter, And for Walker, his films are more about subject than style. Be that as it may, the home video revival of his films provides an interesting look at a chapter of British exploitation films.

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As others have pointed out, The Flesh and Blood Show" shows more flesh than blood. For some of us, there is no complaint when the film begins with two young women in bed, and someone is knocking on the door. The woman who answers the door is not the one in the nightie, but the one without any clothing at all. This is the kind of illogical story telling I can, ahem, get behind. On the other hand, I wish Walker had made the actor appearing in a 1944 flashback get an era appropriate haircut. And while having a child in the same room as her adulterous mother with her lover in naked coupling makes for compact storytelling,
thornier questions arise.

A group of young actors and a director are contracted by an unknown, and never seen, producer, to create an improvised show at an abandoned seaside theater. The place is huge, dark, with a maze of staircases and underground passages, with an assortment of odd costumes and props. Sleeping in various parts of the theater, the lack of anything resembling proper accommodations does not deter these young thespians. Mysteriously, several cast members disappear, only to show up dead.

The highlight is a flashback that can be seen in 3D either with special glasses, or for those with a 3D television. I saw this sequence flat, which worked out fine. It's in black and white, and for the first couple of minutes I thought I was watching footage that actually was part of a 1940s B movie. I was jolted into the 70s when an actress bared her breasts. The action takes place during a performance of Othello, with some real adultery played against the adultery imagined by Shakespeare's Moor.

In the supplemental interview on The Flesh and Blood Show, Pete Walker states that he was not influenced by any filmmaker. And while there is nothing stylistically about this film that might be similar to anyone else, I have to think that Walker and/or screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy, must have been familiar with George Cukor's A Double Life. That 1947 film starred Ronald Colman as an actor who increasingly confused his offstage life with his onstage performance as Othello. And this may be pure coincidence, but Shaughnessy once served as an assistant to British filmmaker Thorold Dickinson, whose most famous film, Gaslight, was remade more famously by George Cukor.

In his interview, Walker states that he showed more flesh than blood based on the current demands of the exploitation marketplace. For someone like myself who enjoyed 70s exploitation movies for that reason, I didn't mind a bit.

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For all the fuss about Frightmare at the time of its original release, the film is fairly restrained with most of the blood and gore offscreen. Those with an appetite for more graphic horror are better off with something by George Romero or Lucio Fulci. This story about an older woman, whose taste for murder and cannibalism remain unabated following fifteen years in a psychiatric hospital, has been beautifully presented on the Blu-ray disc. As it stands, the images on the film's poster might actually be more disturbing than what is seen in the film, although those more curious may keep their fingers on the freeze frame button.

At its heart, Frightmare is really about unconditional love and the desperation of lonely people. Dorothy Yates lures her victims with tarot readings, uncanny as is revealed later in the film, but always with the same future. Also revealed are some family secrets. Beyond the more lurid aspects of the story is a family tragedy of a daughter who inadvertently sets herself up as a victim, an ineffectual husband who ultimately surrenders to the demands of his wife in the name of love, a second daughter takes after her mother, and the woman whose special needs dominate this family.

The disc includes a brief interview with Pete Walker, commentary by Walker and cinematographer Peter Jessop, and a short profile of actress Sheila Keith, whose performance here was the peak of several collaborations with Walker.

And how appropriate it is that the younger daughter, Debbie, is played by an actress named Kim Butcher!

Posted by peter at March 18, 2014 08:16 AM