In 1962, The Crystals sang, “He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be understood.” The Phil Spector production was a runaway #1 hit in the U.S., but peaked at #19 on the UK pop charts. I guess the Brits weren’t as receptive to the “rebel” concept? That’s where Pete Walker, UK arse-kicker comes in.
British director Pete Walker jumped from sexploitation to horror in the early 1970s, with the sole intention of stirring shit up. Lashing out at the stale state of 70s UK horror, Walker rebelled with a series of downbeat shockers, usually laced with social themes and a taste for the nasty. Unlike Norman J. Warren, another British director making his mark around the same time, Walker’s films are not mindless sewer romps. There’s an artistry to his work; fluid, studied camera movements project the gore and talented actors gurgle up through the grit. Walker’s work is an overseas pen-pal to the abrasive American underground of the mid 1970s. If Bob Clark sealed the envelope, then Pete Walker licked the stamps. Widely considered Walker’s most consistent film, Frightmare is a total blast.
Jackie lives in a flat with Debbie, delinquent little sister. Debbie’s got a flair for violence and getting her way. As the days fly by, Jackie finds it harder and harder to control her sister’s sass. But where is Jackie sneaking off to in the middle of the night? Why is she so secretive about her family? And where are mom and dad?! One thing’s for sure: you’ll never look at senior citizens the same way again.
Frightmare is a marvel of effectively layered techniques. It’s genuinely shocking (the climax/ending most prominently), embossed with slight social concepts (nature vs. nurture, failings of the justice system), and filled with terrific direction (intentionally abrupt edits, lively camera work). The script unfolds evenly as the film progresses, unveiling puzzles and building tension as each gory dilemma passes. As for the actors? Not a rotten egg in the bunch. That’s a key point too. The leads deliver deranged material that would fall flat in less-than-proficient hands (look at Norman J. Warren’s Terror for a stellar example). The combination of unquestionable creepiness and admirable intelligence adds up to a rare bird indeed. Frightmare is a horror film that retains the competency to derail you, even all these decades after its release.
Today, Pete Walker remains a little known name in the landscape of 1970s horror. Maybe Phil Spector was right. Then again, after witnessing a film like Frightmare, I couldn’t care less if anyone else in the world understands it. I’m just glad that I do.