I've said it many times before that the slasher movie evolved from a vast melting pot of films from around the world – and here we have that most curious of things: an English giallo. Well, it's not really a giallo as such, but it would be fair to assume that the film makers had one eye on Italy when they concocted ASSAULT.
|The woods are alive with the sound of screaming in ASSAULT|
Similar to a number of schoolgirls-in-peril films out of Europe (THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968) and LA RESIDENCIA (1969) for example), the action in ASSAULT orbits an exclusive school – naturally filled with 20 year olds playing 15 year old girls in pink miniskirts (a rather surprising uniform!). One of them, Tessa (Lesley-Ann Down), takes a shortcut through the woods at the end of the day and is chased by an unseen (and seemingly omnipresent) assailant in scenes reminiscent – but predating by almost a decade – those of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and the backwoods slashers that followed. Cornered under the legs of a massive electricity pylon she is raped and left for dead.
Tessa survives but is left mute and almost catatonic by her experience. So much so that kindly Dr Lomax (Greg Laurenson) struggles with her rehabilitation, as he attempts to tease the identity of her attacker out of her. Months later, another girl at the school takes the forbidden shortcut through the woods and again falls foul of the mystery assailant after a lengthy chase. However, this time he progresses to murder. Meanwhile, the school's young art teacher Julie West (Suzy Kendall) is ferrying some of the girls home (in that most British of cars, the Morris Traveller!) and becomes concerned about the whereabouts of the missing student. She drives them all into the woods to look for her, but becomes literally stuck in the mud. By chance, glancing through the rear window she sees the black-gloved killer leaning over the body of the schoolgirl; his eyes appearing to shine in the car's lights and his identity hidden by what appears to be a mask and a view obscured by water spray on the window.
|Suzy Kendall was a woman-in-peril-in-demand after her role in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, which may explain how she landed the lead role in ASSAULT|
With the murderer still at large, Julie becomes the star witness at the inquest, but her testimony is doubted when she describes the killer as looking like the devil, as he was bathed in a red glow. She is pursued home by a pushy reporter (Freddie Jones), who tries to get her to sell her story but she refuses. However, she has a change of heart and meets him at the offices of the inspector dealing with the case (a rather aloof turn by Frank Finlay) to lay down a bluff plan to flush out the killer by pretending she will reveal his likeness via a painted portrait in the next week's papers …
And this is where ASSAULT begins to unravel. Not completely – it is still a relatively enjoyable whodunnit – but it is clear that the film was hardly put together with much thought. Kendall – hot off her role in Dario Argento's international hit giallo THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) – is saddled with illogical character development (it is never explained why she suddenly goes from frightened sparrow to uber Nancy Drew at the drop of the hat and therefore putting herself firmly in the firing line). Also, if the killer was wearing a mask why would he be fooled into thinking she knew what he looked like? However, in perhaps the film's most ludicrous moment, Lomax and Julie are sitting in traffic bathed in the red glow of the car in front's brake lights when Lomax suggests that is maybe why the killer appeared to glow red like a devil in the woods. Like, duh! … In a rare sensible move, after she is called by the killer pretending to be one of the girl's parents suggesting a rendezvous in the woods she brings in the police and nearly captures him – but she is almost strangled by those black-gloved hands whilst hiding under a tartan blanket in the back of a van. The killer is also one of those cinematic baddies that keeps a jar of poison helpfully marked POISON on the bottle. I wonder if you can pick those up in Boots?
|Those black leather gloves make their way over from Italy ...|
ASSAULT almost all but abandons its salacious schoolgirls-in-peril approach during its middle section, as the police plod and Julie conspires to ensnare the killer. However, the film is surprisingly sleazy – even if it pales with regards to some of its Italian cousins (and it looks decidely gentile compared to the next year's British schoolgirls stabbed in the vagina giallo showstopper that is Massimo Dallamano's WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE (1972)). Quite apart from the protracted blouse-ripping, the sleaze is typified by Tony Beckley's lecherous turn as the frustrated husband of the prim woman who runs the school. We see him fondling the legs of one of the girls in the library and glimpse a brief flash of his pornography collection. He even confesses to the police to being the killer (he isn't) – when he admits he raped the girls, albeit just with his eyes. I doubt the school would pass its OFSTED inspection! Of course, Beckley went on to similar territory in the next year's FIEND and will be best known to slasher fans as the killer in Fred Walton's WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979).
Whilst ASSAULT regularly mis-steps through much of its middle section, it does succeed in a spirited – if characteristically daft – denouement where most of the main characters chase or are chased around the woods in the dark like some nocturnal BENNY HILL routine. This includes the now bug-eyed killer and the suddenly recovered Tessa, who somewhat unfairly looks like she's about to go through her trauma all over again. The film ends – with a nice touch of symmetry – under the towering electricity pylon from the original assault.
ASSAULT was announced in June of 1970 and was shot that summer. Made for a relatively meagre budget of around $550,000 it was described as Variety as “unpretentious action”. It was actually based on the 1962 suspense novel THE RAVINE by Canadian female novelist Kendal Young.
|ASSAULT was promoted as an EXORCIST knock-off on its release in the United States not the psycho-thriller it really was
It is arguable as to whether THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE influenced its making beyond the casting of Suzy Kendall, Argento's film wasn't certificated by the BBFC until after ASSAULT had started rolling and was released in the States around the same time (but it was already a box office smash in Italy after its February release in 1970). However, of course, the Italian gialli and the German krimi were popular throughout the 1960s – something that can't have escaped the notice of film makers in Britain coming off the post-PSYCHO cash-in cycle.
Suzy Kendall – by all accounts a rather reluctant star – went on to film the gialli TORSO (1973) and SPASMO (1974) in Italy, before vanishing from acting and the public eye after 1977.
The film features a brief role for future 70s pop star David Essex – here as a Hell's Angel looking for tissues for his girlfriend's nosebleed and who meets an untimely fiery end in a chemists.
Director Sidney Hayers made a number of cult classics, and his best film was probably the superlative supernatural tale NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962). He also directed the Joan Collins starring violent REVENGE the same year as ASSAULT before being consumed by television work.
Bizarrely, ASSAULT got a belated release in the US in 1974 under the misleading title IN THE DEVIL'S GARDEN. The throwaway comment about the killer looking a bit like Satan in one scene was enough for the film to be repackaged as an EXORCIST cash-in on a double bill with Jean Brismée's Belgian-lensed THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE (also 1971)! The pairing was popular enough for it still to be playing until 1977 – and then under different titles (SATAN'S PLAYTHINGS and VAMPIRE PLAYGIRLS respectively) as late as 1982! It was eventually released to video in the States under the THE CREEPERS.
female:1 / male:3
1) Female strangled
2) Male found dead
3) Male killed in explosion
4) Male electrocuted