This November the Barbican Centre has been paying homage to one of the very few independent UK exploitation directors. With an active career spanning almost 10 years, director Pete Walker churned out 16 low-budget, provocative and explicit films in the 1970s-80s, releasing them into a political climate far different from today’s anything-goes new millennium era. As programmed by Josh Saco AKA Cigarette Burns, the House of Walker season at the Barbican has showcased some of his most “fondly” remembered films including Frightmare, Cool it Carol! and House of Mortal Sin.
On the Cigarette Burns blog, you can read this excellent study of Walker’s life and career as written by Dr Steven Gerrard, Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture. He situates Walker’s rise to the position of mischief-maker-in-chief against the backdrop of a Britain where the free-love of 1960s had been replaced by daily IRA bombings and strikes. It was a hard time for the British film industry with American money fleeing, and British horror itself at a crossroads with Hammer struggling to find new hits after the heydays of Dracula and Frankenstein, and Amicus was faring no better. But there was a space opening up here for directors who could work fast and cheap. Exploitation horror, with all its transgressions, was set to become a breeding ground for new, talented directors who benefited from a slightly more relaxed British Board of Film Censor. As Gerrard writes: “this is where exploitation filmmakers like Pete Walker, the best exploitation film director Britain ever produced, came into their own to produce challenging, exciting, raw, graphic horror films that critiqued Britain’s eroding social system like never before.”
Walker who was born in 1939 and had spent time in American and Britain acting and helping out on films in various minor capacities before setting up a small photography studio at 71 Beak Street, made his first film, I Like Birds, in 1967. It was aimed at the ‘dirty mac’ brigade and featured plenty of busty beauties. The film was released as the lower half of a double bill with the Hayley Mills vehicle, Pretty Polly and made a lot of money. His next film, Strip Poker (1968) also showcased gangsters, flesh and violence. With his production company Heritage Films, Walker went on alternating between these kinds of sex and gangster films, eventually making a fortune with the seedy Soho-set Cool it, Carol! in 1971, But it was with his 1972 film, The Flesh and Blood Show, that he began to build a reputation as a craftsman of provocative “terror” films, many of which were created in partnership with writer David McGillivray.
House of Whipcord from 1974 fits into this “terror’ period of the Walker filmography, films designed to rub the establishment (and many more) up the wrong way. Before the Barbican screening of the film, Pete Walker himself was joined by actor and film historian Jonathan Rigby to discuss his films and career on stage.
As for House of Whipcord, Saco is quite right to call it “one of Walker's finest moments, the film that really secured his place in cinematic history”. This was Walker's first team up with writer David McGillivray and his second foray into terror territory: though not terror of a supernatural nature. House of Whipcord is not a ghost story or a slasher pic, it is instead a two-fisted, disturbing, yet also blackly funny assault on the justice system and the climate of cultural policing as practiced by self-appointed moral guardians such as the late Mary Whitehouse. It was made on a low budget of just £60,00, which it quickly made back after it opened to near-universal condemnation from the mainstream media.
The story sees young, naive French model Anne Marie (Penny Irving), having recently wrapped a nude shoot with the London media set, coaxed to an ominous country house by the mysterious Mark De Sade (sadly she doesn’t spot the foreshadowing in the name). Anne Marie thinks the country house is where Mark’s family resides, but it is actually a former prison (a strikingly creepy, real-life high-walled jail in the Forest of Dean) which has been converted into a makeshift off-the-books penitentiary run by the puritanical tyrant Mrs Margaret Lakehurst (Barbara Markham, in a full-bore performance that comes off like a terrifying fusion between Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher). Technically Wakehurst, a former prison warden in the official state system, is running this secret prison in concert with her husband Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr), a former judge, but he is shown to be blind and mentally feeble, easily manipulated by the fanatical Wakehurst. The whole point of the prison, as Anne-Marie discovers to her horror, is to deliver kangaroo court justice to females judged to be corrupting society through their loose morals. In short order, Anne-Marie is sentenced to fire-and-brimstone punishments: reduced to a diet of bread and water, stripped, flogged, and forced to read and memorise the bible. Chief architect of these torments is the severe, platinum blond female guard Walker (an eerie turn from Sheila Keith).
Over time it becomes clear that this prison “system” is shot through with rank hypocrisy, not least in the sexual desires that are obviously bubbling under the surface. Guard Walker’s reactions towards Anne-Marie, who is frequently in a state of undress before her, betray a mix of lesbian lust and related self-disgust that it is easy to imagine feed into the violent, sado-masochistic chastisements. At one point, in one of the film’s most intriguing and disturbing scenes, Walker caresses Anne-Marie’s bloody back as she lays weakened on her cell bunk, following a flogging which she herself inflicted on the girl. As for Mrs Wakehurst, she is revealed to be driven just as much by resentment of her ostracisation from the British prison system, following the death of an inmate in her care, as by any sense of a higher purpose to cleanse society. Her ineffectual husband is clearly just providing a fig leaf of judicial probity for her to justify her actions, he can’t even read the death warrants she shoves in front of him and thinks they are release orders. She almost murders him at one point. Though there is a sleazy vibe to the film, with plenty of bare female flesh on display, this is also a surprisingly complex allegorical demolition of Britain’s conservative cultural pillars.
Pete Walker on his life and career:
On looking back at his filmography.
I suppose at the time I was the ‘king of exploitation’, but everyone is making those kind of films now. Look at Martin Scorsese, he is making those kinds of films: look at The Wolf of Wall Street. I saw it, loved it, but I came out of the screening feeling so envious. In my day you were constantly looking over your shoulder at the censor, and the Unions as well; the Unions controlled the country when I was making films prolifically. But it was the censor that you looked over your shoulder at all the time really.
On being called a mischief maker.
Certainly the movies I did with McGillivray, we that is how we started. We would start with a blank sheet and ask “how can we rub them up the wrong way?” before we even knew what the film was about.
On bringing social issues into his films.
Well, you needed that. But what is strange is how for certain periods my films have been considered really left wing, and then later really right wing! Its true! This film you are about to see - there were accusations that it had a “nasty right wing bias”. Well, judge for yourself.
On his theatrical background (his father was a famous music hall comedian, his mother a vaudeville gaiety girl).
From a very early age I thought it was my birthright to be in showbusiness. So that is what I did; I came to London at age 15, two pairs of dirty socks, a comic and 30 shillings in my pocket, and started as a standup comic. It was the last days of variety theatres, they were closing down fast as commercial TV was starting to come in. Instead ofter normal variety shows they would run American Burlesque shows, girls standing at the back of the stage, starkers. So these were kinds of shows I was in, and I guess that influenced my career.
On 1972 and his move into “terror films” with The Flesh and Blood Show.
Well, it was boredom really. There was a limit to what you could do with sexploitaiton films really. For one thing you were limited with censorship as I brought up before. But, honestly, it is very boring! Sex to watch is boring! Its wonderful to participate in, but not to watch; its awful. There was no job satisfaction honestly in making these movies. I suppose it was fine if you were making comedies, but even then we had the censor, John Treveylan (head of the BBFC), who didn't want humour and nudity together. So it was very difficult to construct anything, and so you ended up with films like School for Sex, where you tried to get as much nudity in as you could, but weren't able to given the censors who would cut all out. So I moved.
House of Walker at the Barbican
1st Nov – The Comeback
8th Nov – House of Mortal Sin with David McGillivray & Kim Newman
15th Nov – Cool It Carol with Matthew Sweet.
22nd Nov – House of Whipcord with Pete Walker & Jonathan Rigby
29th Nov – Frightmare with Jonathan Rigby