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Retro Review: FRIGHT (1971) and STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (1972)

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FRIGHT
(UK - 1971; US release 1972)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by Tudor Gates. Cast: Susan George, Honor Blackman, Ian Bannen, John Gregson, George Cole, Dennis Waterman, Maurice Kaufmann, Michael Brennan, Roger Lloyd Pack, Tara Collinson. (PG, 87 mins)

British filmmaker Peter Collinson graduated from television work in the mid-1960s and quickly scored a pair of box office hits with 1967's THE PENTHOUSE and the 1969 Michael Caine heist favorite THE ITALIAN JOB. His career was generally considered that of a busy, genre-hopping journeyman, routinely cranking out two movies a year until his death from lung cancer at just 44 in 1980, shortly after the release of his final film, the William Holden/Ricky Schroeder drama THE EARTHLING. Collinson didn't live long enough to see his work reassessed (considering his career trajectory, it's easy to imagine him pulling Michael Winner/J. Lee Thompson duty for Cannon in the '80s had he lived), but time has been kind to initially dismissed films like his vividly atmospheric, giallo-esque 1974 take on Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS. After the success of THE ITALIAN JOB, Collinson made the lighthearted 1970 mercenary actioner YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL with Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson before returning to the UK for a pair of British thrillers with 1971's FRIGHT and 1972's Hammer-produced STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, neither of which attracted much attention at the time beyond drive-ins and grindhouses (STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING didn't even find US distribution until 1974). Both have recently been released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory (because physical media is dead) and both have become favorably regarded cult films that show a definite auteur consistency in themes and style, especially if evaluated in conjunction with THE PENTHOUSE and Collinson's similar but far sleazier 1974 hunting humans/survivalist thriller OPEN SEASON, a film that's been MIA on home video and has become virtually impossible to see in an uncut and/or watchable print (both THE PENTHOUSE and OPEN SEASON involve an adulterous couple being terrorized by three psychos).






Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS wasn't the only 1971 film to feature Susan George enduring a harrowing night of terror in a remote British country house. George stars as Amanda, a college student who fills in as a last-minute substitute babysitter for the three-year-old son (Collinson's own son Tara) of the Lloyds--Helen (Honor Blackman) and Jim (George Cole)--who are going into town for drinks and dinner. Helen seems distracted and nervous when Amanda arrives, and is quick to snap at Jim and hesitant to leave the child with Amanda. Once they're gone, Amanda hears all sorts of strange sounds, most of which can be chalked up to the house being very old. A figure outside turns out to be her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman), who incorrectly assumes this will be the night virginal Amanda decides to go all the way. She kicks him out of the house after an argument, and he's immediately pummeled in the face by an unseen assailant. Meanwhile, at the restaurant, the Lloyds are joined by friend Dr. Cordell (John Gregson), who's also the psychiatrist overseeing the care of Brian Hillston (Ian Bannen), Helen's ex-husband and the father of the child, who was locked up in a nearby insane asylum after trying to kill them. Dr. Cordell gets an emergency call at the restaurant notifying him that Hillston has escaped and hitched a ride with a truck driver who's been found dead. At the same time, the phone line at the Lloyd home goes out and Amanda answers a knock at the door: it's a badly-beaten and near-death Chris being helped in by Hillston, who identifies himself as a neighbor who lives down the road.


What follows is less a suspense thriller and more an exercise in squirming discomfort, as the easily-agitated and severely unstable Hillston keeps hallucinating that Amanda is Helen and that he just wants their family to be together. He even tries to force himself on young Amanda in a scene that feels like Collinson is test-driving the more brutal and sadistic sexual assaults inflicted on Cornelia Sharpe's character by vacationing Vietnam vets and all-around creeps Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, and Richard Lynch in OPEN SEASON (Sharpe later married high-powered SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON producer Martin Bregman, and one long-rumored theory regarding OPEN SEASON's disappearance is that Bregman had it buried because Sharpe was embarrassed by it). Like OPEN SEASON's "Casting Shadows" by John Howard, FRIGHT opens and closes with a haunting theme song, in this case "Ladybird" by Nanette. Collinson brings an intriguing sense of style to the proceedings, whether it's a big pre-De Palma split diopter shot or his recurring use of reflections--in mirrors, windows, the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, and, in the film's most memorable shot, a sweaty, wild-eyed Bannen seen in a knife-shaped shard of a shattered mirror that he's holding up to George's face.  Bannen's performance grows more unhinged and downright feral as the film goes on, and George acquits herself well as an impressive proto-scream queen, but FRIGHT is most notable as perhaps the earliest example of the "babysitter-in-peril" thriller, several years before HALLOWEEN and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS would set the standard. Scripted by Tudor Gates (DANGER: DIABOLIK, BARBARELLA, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS), FRIGHT is more concerned with establishing a foreboding sense of dread rather than going for outright scares, and it probably shows its cards too early in the way Blackman's Helen is so agitated from the get-go, but it's of definite historical value to fans of both babysitters-in-peril and Susan George.




STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING
(UK - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Peter Collinson. Written by John Peacock. Cast: Rita Tushingham, Shane Briant, Tom Bell, James Bolam, Kayta Wyeth, Annie Ross, Clare Kelly, Harold Berens, John Clive, Tommy Godfrey, Mavis Villiers. (R, 96 mins)

Collinson quickly followed FRIGHT with the Hammer production STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, one of the most unusual and structurally ambitious thrillers to roll off the legendary horror house's assembly line during their 1970s decline, an unjustly maligned period that really deserves some reconsideration. Hammer spent most of those last years trying to find ways to stay relevant in the changing times, often lacking confidence in their product and leaving good movies like CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES to either languish on the shelf or be subjected to poor distribution. STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING opened in the UK in July of 1972, but it wouldn't hit US screens until August of 1974, courtesy of the short-lived B outfit International Coproductions, who also released FEAR IN THE NIGHT, another discarded, two-year-old Hammer title, around the same time. A somber, downbeat slow-burner that's even less inclined to traditional "scares" than FRIGHT, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING finds Collinson using a disorienting, cross-cutting editing technique that establishes an overlapping, flash back-and-forward time element that feels very European and is almost aggressively off-putting until you pick up on its rhythms. The pieces of the puzzle start to fit and you see how the style, which initially seemed overly gimmicky, serves the narrative and helps establish the mindset of the main character. To put in more updated terms, it feels like a cross between that familiar Steven Soderbergh technique and the early work of Alejandro G. Inarritu until it settles into a standard linear plot structure after about 25 minutes.





STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING is a film that would be ideal for a politically-charged remake today, one that might have a heroine whose conservative or even patriarchal upbringing results in her being the kind of person she is. Rita Tushingham (A TASTE OF HONEY) stars as Brenda, a intensely socially-awkward and emotionally-stunted young woman with aspirations of being a children's book author. Brenda lives with her concerned mother (Clare Kelly) and lies to her about being pregnant, thus leading to her impulsive decision to leave dreary Liverpool to go to London in an absurd, fairy tale quest to find a man to take care of her and her baby. In truth, she's not pregnant but hopes to be, and once in a London with a depressing social scene that feels like everyone's trudging through a mod hangover, she finds a job at a trendy salon and rents a room in a house owned by promiscuous co-worker Caroline (Katya Wyeth). Brenda immediately has her eye on Joey (James Bolam), but is heartbroken when she goes out to get cigarettes for him only to return and hear him having sex with Caroline. Going out for a walk, she finds a dog and sees its owner looking for it. The owner is Peter (Shane Briant), who bumped into her outside a store sometime earlier and never gave her a second glance. Liking what she sees and wanting to win his affection--and finding Peter's address on the dog's collar--she takes the dog home, bathes it, and returns it to his flat the next day. What the viewer knows and what Brenda doesn't is that Peter has killed a series of lovers, the most recent being an older, clingy, alcoholic woman (jazz singer Annie Ross) that he kept locked in a room. Brenda, so desperate for a man, doesn't bat an eye when he immediately invites her to move in, rechristens her "Wendy"--the name he gives all of his eventual victims--and essentially "auditions" her, saying that if she can cook, do the chores, and keep a clean house ("Cleaning up is a woman's job...there isn't a woman around, so I don't do it"), he'll give her the baby she wants.


Peter Collinson (1936-1980)
It's a perversely uncomfortable scenario that would probably cause Vulture and the AV Club to break out in hives if they watched it today (it's easy to imagine a remake with a female character raised in the kind of old guard culture where women remain subservient to men). Peter's homicidal mania is driven by an aversion to beauty, and he has genuine feelings for Brenda/"Wendy" when she's the plain and frumpy doormat who came knocking at his door with his dog. But when she gets a makeover that boost her self-esteem, he feels the need to extinguish her newfound beauty and confidence. He eventually keeps her prisoner in the flat when her mother comes to London and files a missing persons report, which attracts media attention along with the missing Caroline, who showed up at Peter's door looking for Brenda after finding the dog's collar in her old room, was told Brenda was out, was invited in by Peter and was never seen again. Like FRIGHT and the later OPEN SEASON, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING opens with, you guessed it, a haunting, depressing theme song in "Straight on Till Morning" performed by Ross, and while it's mostly a dread-soaked character piece, it culminates in one of the most terrifying and unsettling sequences in any Hammer horror film, with Peter locking Brenda in a room and forcing her to listen to the tapes he's recorded of all of his murders, while he crouches on the stairs, hugs the railing, and sucks his thumb. Tushingham is excellent in a difficult role (look at the character through the lens of 2019, and it's a legit question that Brenda might be on the spectrum), and an androgynous-looking Briant, another young actor who, like Ralph Bates, was being groomed for a future in Hammer horror that just wasn't meant to be (though he did co-star in DEMONS OF THE MIND, CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL), wisely underplays Peter, which makes his actions and his behavior even more disturbing. Decidedly not for all tastes, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING is a thriller that really sneaks up on you, and it offers even further evidence that there was more to Collinson than simply being a jobbing journeyman and that the alleged creative decline of Hammer in the 1970s was largely a myth.



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