Throughout the many fine extras and commentaries in this collection, director Pete Walker is repeatedly asked to consider the serious themes of his filmography. His answer is always the same: “All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief.” This, of course, sounds like the standard denial of authorship, and the truth is that it would take a bit of mischief making in order to place Walker among the pantheon of true auteurs. Walker was, first and foremost, a craftsman, working in the British commercial cinema of the 1960s and 70s, where most film directors were considered guns for hire. Walker stood unique among his contemporaries by financing nearly all of his films by himself. The truth is that outside of Russ Meyer or George Lucas, few filmmakers can lay any claim to authorship on Walker’s level. The buck literally stopped with him. Outside of budgetary limitations and commercial requirements, what you get in these eccentric films is very much what Walker and his collaborators intended. While it’s hard to hold Schizo up to the artistic scrutiny of Psycho on a basic level both filmmakers worked within their own confines in order to make their own mischief – a few hours of fun for the audience.
The four films that make up The Pete Walker Collection range from 1971’s Die Screaming, Marianne! to 1978’s The Comeback. In between those rather disparate works, you get the two films upon which much of Walker’s notoriety is based, 1974’s House of Whipcord and 1976’s Schizo. Both of those films were written by the much underrated David McGillivray, and one can see how this collaboration was the most fruitful for Walker. The sense of mischief and fun that Walker often spoke of can be found in their purest form in these films. Not that the content onscreen was fun, but rather the feeling of putting the audience through a powerfully manipulative and scary series of situations that expressed the sly wit of the creators. In all of Walker’s films, there is the sense that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Dramatic construction or the well made play be damned. These films present a world of chaos where death is just a scene away.
The first film in the collection, Die Screaming, Marianne! , is a thriller, not a horror film. From its pulpy title to its multiple twist endings, the film is a late attempt to challenge Hammer Films’ Hitchcock-lite thrillers at their own game. Hammer based most of these films on the classic Diabolique template, but outside of a handful of decent entries, the films basically became a tiresome series of melodramas, with characters engaged in a motiveless shell game in which the most important thing was the concealment of the climactic secrets.
Marianne! stars Susan George as the title character who is on the run from her former life as a go go dancer in Portugal. She is really on the run from her father, “The Judge” (Leo Genn), a mysterious criminal figure who lives in exile in a Portugese hacienda with Marianne’s incestuous half sister Hildegarde. Turns out that Marianne is the heir to her dead mother’s fortune, and the Judge wants to get his hands on it, even if Marianne has to die screaming.
Despite the lurid title, Die Screaming, Marianne! is not a fast paced thrill ride. Rather, it is a quiet laid back film that takes its time to lay out its characters and story. While not the best film in this collection, it’s a decent story, well told by Walker, with some fine performances. Be clear, though – this is definitely not the film that Walker is best known for. There is little that is shocking, or even absurd, within the film. This is the kind of film that is not the work of artistic mischief. There isn’t a smirking devil hiding behind the curtain here, just waiting to drop a safe on your head. Die Screaming, Marianne! is a crime story, well photographed in nice locations and with a certain time capsule quality. A certain datedness comes with all of Walker’s work as each film was made to be as contemporaneous as possible. So this is as much London circa 1971 as The Comeback is London circa 1978. It’s one of the added pleasures of his films these days, as each film allows one to sort of drift back into another time and place that feels genuine.
The next film in the collection is 1974’s House of Whipcord. Here, we have a genuine “Pete Walker” film. The simple plot involves the terrible experiences of a beautiful young model (Ann Michelle) who is taken prisoner and subjected to psychological and physical torture in a strange private prison devoted to cleansing “immoral women”. Enraged by the actions of Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed guardian of British morals, Walker and David McGillivray decided to take her conservative ideas to their logical extreme.
Basically a women-in-prison flick, House of Whipcord sets itself apart by being dramatically insane. The script clearly expresses the mischief of its authors, in that surprise and shock seem to be the guiding principle. That said, the film is not incoherent on the level of a Jesus Franco film. On the contrary, House of Whipcord is dominated by a very strong, despairing mood, and the simple story is carried out with all the craft Walker brought to his more conventional thrillers. An added bonus is the sly performance of Sheila Keith as the “warden” of the private prison. Keith was one of Walker’s regulars, and she, more than anyone else, seemed to “get” just the precise tone these films required.
The third film in the collection is Schizo, from 1976. This is a work of total madness, and, in many ways, my favorite of the collection. It’s a film which is easy to mock as being “bad,” or “so-bad-it’s-good,” or any of those damning phrases which supposed cult film fans like to label wild and crazy pieces of cinema. There is nothing bad about this film except that which the filmmakers intended. Schizo is meant to be a lurid ride of a film. In many ways, it can be seen as an attempt to anglicize the Italian giallo. Like the films of Dario Argento, Schizo is worthless from a dramatic point of view. This is not a piece of literature; it’s cinema. The plot makes little sense, except to act as a clothesline to a series of crazy murders and left field twists. It’s meant to be as funny as it is scary or suspenseful. But most importantly, it is meant to be experienced.
The final film in the collection is 1978’s The Comeback. Originally and more effectively titled The Day the Screaming Stopped, this is probably Walker’s most obvious and straight “horror” film. It’s an old dark house story about an American singer (Jack Jones) who moves into a large estate in order to record some new and hopefully more successful songs. Soon he discovers that he is being haunted by his ex-wife’s ghost. This film covers a lot of obvious ground, while at the same time exhibiting a certain absurdity in its essential premise. The film feels like a vehicle for a pop star rather than a straight film, only the story is taken much more seriously than you might expect. The initial problem for me was the casting of Jones, and this may not have had much the same effect at the time – but when I see Jack Jones, I’m just waiting to hear him croon the theme from “The Love Boat.” It makes it very hard to take any of the film seriously.
Going back to the original camera negative for each of these films, Kino Lorber and Redemption Films could not possibly present a more dazzling image for this Blu-Ray collection. Each film looks as colorful and as eye popping as they must have on original release, and, contrary to previous releases, returns the films to their correct aspect ration of 1.66:1. This is an absolute triumph of a transfer that is not likely to be improved.
The sound quality is fine throughout. Most of Walker’s films were recorded in Mono, and this has been adapted very well to the Blu-Ray mix.
This is where Kino Lorber and Redemption Films really went all out. The collection comes with a massive amount of extras for each film. Die Screaming, Marianne! comes with an audio commentary with Walker moderated by Jonathan Rigby, which has been ported over from the previous Anchor Bay release, and a short new interview with Walker, An Eye for Terror, Part 1, which more or less covers the director’s career in perspective, rather than focusing on Marianne. Walker discusses his self-financing, and the fact that this meant that each film he made was like opening a new business, the stress of which he believes will take years off his life. According to Walker, directing is a young man’s game.
The extras accompanying House of Whipcord follow the same pattern, by including the old Anchor Bay commentary track featuring Walker with director of photography Peter Jessop and Walker biographer Steven Chibnail, while a new interview with the director, Perversions of Justice, offers a broader overview of the making of the film.
Schizo comes with a new 12 minute interview piece titled My Sweet Schizo, but no commentary track. The interview piece covers many details about the film, and discusses screenwriter David McGillivray’s reluctance to go with the film’s essential premise.
Finally, for The Comeback, again we have the previous Walker commentary carried over, while a new 13-minute HD video featurette, Slasher Serenade, features Walker and Jones looking back at the making of the film. Jones’ new hairstyle makes him look a little like Jim Carrey’s rendition of the Grinch, but he is very charming and good natured, and his memories of working on the film are quite clear. He is a man who seems to be filled to the brim with anecdotes, and he shares his fun of working with Walker and Charlie’s Angels star David Doyle along with his fans’ shocked reactions to his use of the “F” word in the film.
This four film collection package is probably the best way to effectively spread Walker’s films throughout cineaste circles. Not everyone will want to own Die Screaming, Marianne!, but as the fourth title in a collection with House of Whipcord, it’s a nice addition. If you are a fan of Walker, then this Blu-Ray set is an instant buy. I would say, however, that this would be worth owning if you are a fan of horror cinema in general. What this collection presents is a time capsule to a period and style of British Horror cinema that cannot be found anywhere else. It is not available on Standard Def DVD, and what Kino Lorber and Redemption Films have done for Walker is not likely to be improved upon.
– By Brian Holcomb