Saturday, July 11, 2009

Drills, Thrills, Myths and Migrants: Pete Walker's Cool It Carol! (1970) Pt. 1

Beginning in 1967 with the wonderfully-titled I Like Birds and concluding with 1983's House of the Long Shadows, starring Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the films of Pete Walker have made a fascinating if often overlooked contribution to the history of British cinema. Other notable titles in Walker's oeuvre include 1972's The Four Dimensions of Greta, the first (and last, sadly) three-dimensional sexploitation-detective-gangster-thriller and 1974's Frightmare. This film tells the story of a family bedevilled by guilt, madness and cannibalism. Along the way Frightmare also explores the failure of psychiatry as well as the way in good intentions do not always guarantee results. Finally, as the following trailer for the film demonstrates, the film also includes some fascinating performances, most notably from the glorious Sheila Keith. 

Writing in Making Mischief: The Films of Pete Walker Steve Chibnall makes the following observation:
There is nothing everyday or ordinary about Frightmare […] It owes a considerable debt toPsycho in its atmosphere, execution and camp morticians’ humour, but it goes beyond Hitchcock in the depth of its scepticism towards psychiatry, and the irredeemable pessimism of its vision. It exudes precisely the mood Paul Schrader attributed to classic film noir, a sense of ‘all-enveloping hopelessness’ (Schrader, 1972). Its themes are violence, insanity, fate and the matriarchal family and it pursues them like Leatherface with a chainsaw. [i]
1974 also saw the release of what is arguably Walker’s most famous film, House of Whipcord Whipcord tells the story of a private prison whose aged governors are appalled by the moral laxity they see taking hold of British society and decide to impose their own sentences on ‘prisoners’ they consider tobe guilty of permissiveness and promiscuity. Despite its apparent pandering to the most obvious of all exploitation film-making concerns, sex and violence, the film is actually far more significant. As a brief aside, it is worth noting that the so-called exploitation film tends to encompass a number of generic strands that would obviously include horror, sex and science fiction. This would be the standard view and British exploitation films tend to have horror and sex as their primary motivations but the history of exploitation cinema also includes other categories such as blaxploitation, kung fu films, biker movies and women-in-prison films, to name but a few.Obviously British blaxploitation films were non-existent but many of these other categories were very much alive during this period. Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1971), for example, tells the tale of a gang of British bikers who get their kicks selling their souls to the Devil, committing suicide and coming back from the dead to terrorise shopping precincts in the Home Counties.

Going slightly further afield, Hammer Studios sought to rejuvenate their standing in the domestic market by joining forces with the famous Shaw Brothers studio from Hong Kong and releasing in 1974 the glorious The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. Returning to House of Whipcord, Walker’s contribution to the women-in-prison sub-genre, Steve Chibnall continues his discussion by suggesting that the film is permeated ‘with the same stench of moral decay as the public life of its time’ and as he continues:
When exploitation film-makers claim redeeming social value for their product it is usually a sign of bogus posturing, a self-interested ploy to escape the censor’s knife. Only a few of these films actively seek to change the conditions from which they profit, but almost all represent, in some way, the world in which they were made. Only the rarest of them capture an essence of their age with the allegorical precision of House of Whipcord.[ii]
As is perhaps evident from the tone of Chibnall’s claim, the process of re-evaluating Walker’s films has already begun. Yet, his importance to the history of British cinema is still considerably underestimated. Leon Hunt, for example, includes Walker’s films in his examination of the period but detailed discussions of the film themselves are understandably limited by Hunt’s more pressing desire to contextualise them within what he calls new ‘understandings of class, sexuality and ‘Britishness’ through a variety of critically disdained texts.’ In this way, Walker’s films are bound up in a broader discussion of Richard Allen’s Skinhead novels, Benny Hill and Glam-Rock.[iii] 
The work of Chibnall and Hunt is significant, however, because other more exhaustive accounts of British cinema from the same period tend to completely overlook the director. Alexander Walker, for instance, in his two books on the British film industry during this period, Hollywood, England and National Heroes, completely ignores Walker.[iv] The same thing happens with Amy Sargeant’s recent critical history of British cinema, published in 2005. In the case of Sargeant this is particularly disappointing because, as she claims
What this book is not is a history of box-office hits. […] I am more concerned here with interpreting and resuscitating the films themselves than with reiterating the sometimes ossifying academic debates which have accrued around them. I want to convey a sense of why – or, sometimes, why not – British audiences valued and enjoyed them (what they looked like, sounded like and felt like), of the circumstances in which they were experienced and why they continue to be worth watching now. [v]
Though I am disappointed by Sargeant’s omission of Walker’s films from her history I do share her concern for interpretation and resuscitation and in this way I now want to consider why I consider Walker's films to be so interesting.
Interviewed in 1997 Pete Walker professed a love for the films of Jacques Tourneur. He also admitted to enjoying the showmanship of Alfred Hitchcock and suggested that the films of Luis Buñuel had also had an influence on his work. Here, however, I want to concentrate on the relationship between Walker and Tourneur.[vi] At first glance there appears to be very little to be gained from comparing the finest of Tourneur’s films – 1942’s Cat People, for example, 1947’s Out of the Past, or 1957’s Night of the Demon – with the finest of Walker’s. Nevertheless, there are some interesting parallels evident between the two directors, especially in the areas of product differentiation, critical reception as well as certain similarities in viewpoint and approach. Like Walker, Tourneur’s career covered a variety of generic forms and this tended to result in his obvious ability being overlooked. As Chris Fujiwara suggests, in a sentiment that is equally applicable to both directors, this has led to Tourneur’s directorial achievements remaining, for the most part, underappreciated and misunderstood. The result of this has been the usual tendency to praise Tourneur’s films as ‘quintessential genre pieces rather than as personal works.’[vii] This last point is debatable but it is certainly interesting because this same tendency has come to characterise the reception of Walker’s films, albeit in a usually more derogatory way. However, the comparison between the two directors extends further than just in terms of their critical reception. Walker and Tourneur also share certain basic thematic concerns that help to influence the style and content of their films. As Fujiwara continues:
Tourneur’s ‘themes’ are conceptual oppositions between whose terms his characters seek to define themselves, boundaries that are simultaneously or fluctuatingly real, imaginary, and symbolic: the boundaries between […] living and dead, between health/sanity and sickness/insanity, […] between law and crime […], between male and female.[viii] 
Of course, such a list of oppositions is not simply the sole preserve of Tourneur and his films. Nevertheless, as Fujiwara interestingly suggests, in a statement that is equally applicable to Walker, ‘Tourneur’s special territory is the space between these poles’ and we might understand this space in the following ways:
1. This space becomes the site for a persistent exploration of the antagonisms and misunderstandings aroused by cultural difference.
2. Characters located within this space become embroiled ‘in doubt, guilt and moral ambiguity’.
3. This space also becomes the place where conflict and anguish are experienced having been generated by the reaction between two seemingly different cultures. [ix]
Extending the logic of this argument to the films of Pete Walker allows us to develop a sense of the ‘special territory’ Walker can be said to explore in his films. For example, his horror films persistently explore the boundaries between health/sanity and sickness/insanity, as well as between law and crime. Also, and perhaps more obviously, Walker’s films also explore the boundaries between male and female. Furthermore, and making this idea of opposition even more attractive as a basis for further discussion, Chibnall makes the following observation:
Walker’s films of the early 1970s contain a growing sense of cultural crisis and disunity […] They obsessively refer to the threat posed to new permissive lifestyles by a vindictive and morally bankrupt older order and its repressive institutions, but they are far from being political tracts advocating free love and the counterculture. Instead Walker almost gleefully depicts his times as an age of moral dissolution in which hypocrisy is challenged by a hedonism which is only slightly less repellent. [x]
This idea of a ‘special territory’ to be found between conceptual boundaries becomes the perfect template for a fresh and fruitful investigation of Walker’s films, beginning with Cool It Carol!. 
[i] Steve Chibnall, Making Mischief: The Films of Pete Walker (Guildford, FAB Press, 1998), p. 143.

[ii] Chibnall, p. 119.

[iii] Leon Hunt, British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (London, Routledge, 1998), p. 2. In the revised edition of his seminal survey of British horror David Pirie does include Walker but limits his discussion to two of Walker’s films – House of Whipcord and Frightmare – and cannot find the room to do much more than offer the suggestion that they might be better understood as satires rather than horror films. David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema (London, I.B. Tauris, 2008), pp. 199-200.

[iv] See Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties (London, Harrap, 1974) and Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties (London, Harrap, 1985). 

[v] As Amy Sargeant claims in her introduction:
I am disposed to regard the integration of British cinema in a larger cultural map as one of its strengths and an enormously fruitful area for enquiry. The hybridity and eclecticism of British cinema should be deemed a virtue rather than a vice.
Amy Sargeant, British cinema: a critical history (London, BFI Publishing, 2005), pp. viii – ix.

[vi] Chibnall, pp. 24-26.

[vii] Chris Fujiwara, 
Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 1-2.

[viii] Fujiwara, p. 3.

[ix] Fujiwara, p. 6.

[x] Chibnall, p. 10.