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[ review by Darrell Buxton]
Set as it is in the seedy, tawdry backstreet world of strip clubs, tacky photo-shoots, and faded glamour which characterised parts of late 1950s London, COVER GIRL KILLER would have made (and indeed probably did make) an ideal bottom-of-the-bill companion to such contemporary productions as PEEPING TOM. Written and directed by Terry Bishop, one of the unsung kings of the British b-movie, it stars a pre-Steptoe Harry H.Corbett, billed in the end credits simply as 'The Man' but adopting a bewildering variety of identities, playing a clean-up crusader who resorts to murder as part of his one-man campaign to rid the world of smut. Aside from it being one of the few pre-PSYCHO body count movies, what is truly intriguing about this cheap little filler is the sheer loathing towards sex and violence expressed throughout, not merely via Corbett's proto-Whitehouse views but in dialogue asides by a number of minor characters, perhaps echoing the sentiments of the scriptwriter himself? Anyway, in that great exploitation tradition of having your cake and eating it, COVER GIRL KILLER manages to bury any stray morals beneath a mass of cheesecake and corpses.
The story centres mainly around the Kasbah Theatre, the sort of place bored businessmen visit for a glimpse of female flesh as a glitter-and-plumes-attired chorus performs numbers like 'The Showgirl With The Most On Show'. Corbett first appears as 'Mr. Spendoza', a Cosmo Smallpiece look-alike clad in regulation dirty mac, ill-fitting toupee and bottle-bottom spectacles, gazing intently at the photo of starlet 'Gloria Starke' on display outside the venue. He has arranged to pick up Gloria after that night's show, promising her that they are to meet a photographer for a late-night pin-up shoot by the Serpentine, with the promise of another photo-call at 10 a.m. next morning. "10 o'clock?" protests the aspiring model, "I shall be dead!". Cue shock cut to reveal her body, clad in a skimpy leopardskin bikini, by the banks of the river the following day.
June Rawson (Felicity Young) had shared a dressing room at the Kasbah with Gloria, and her boyfriend Johnny Mason (Spencer Teakle), an archaeologist (!), has recently inherited the rights to renowned girlie mag 'Wow!' from a rich Canadian uncle. Hoping for a serious career as a journalist, Johnny proposes shifting the focus of the magazine away from top-shelf friendly photos and instead recording the police investigation into Gloria's death within its pages. "Your readers will have to learn to read" spits June, only half-joking. Meanwhile, the doctor on the murder case reveals that Gloria died as a result of an injection of morphine under her thumbnail.
Back at Spendoza's apartment, we glimpse his wig and pebble glasses, now temporarily
removed, as he hurls a copy of 'Wow!' into his open fireplace. He then thumbs
through the current issue, featuring 'Miss Torquay' on the cover, and makes
arrangements to invite her to London. The police, meantime, have spoken to Mason,
who realises he may have bumped into Spendoza at the Kasbah the previous evening.
Questioning the reluctant publisher about the 'Wow!' cover girls, the police
discover that both the March and April models have also died in mysterious circumstances
- one being found dead in her bath following an overdose of sleeping tablets,
the other whisked away to Switzerland by a well-dressed admirer answering to
Spendoza's description and recently added to Interpol's file of unsolved murders.
The 'Miss Torquay' scene, featuring the lovely Christine Gregg as beauty queen 'Joy Adams', is perhaps the highlight of the entire movie, combining sex, death and cheese in perfect proportion. Spendoza has arranged for the hapless girl to attend a bogus modelling session at the Mirror photographic studio (as the police later remark, the sort of place where you hire studio time, bring your own model, and no questions asked ), supposedly to take part in an advertising campaign for 'Honolulu Sun Cream'. She chatters away, disrobing and emerging from behind a screen wrapped in just a towel, as Spendoza sets up the camera and assures her that the clients will arrive soon - but his attitude suddenly takes a change as he catches sight of her bare flesh. "I assure you, your nudity means nothing to me" snaps Spendoza, before accusing Joy of hypocrisy, nervous about wearing a skimpy costume here but "quite happy to exhibit your nakedness before the whole world on the cover of this filthy magazine". He advances menacingly towards her as pre-PSYCHO strings swell urgently on the soundtrack. Joy screams, the music stops and we cut to the illuminated 'Silence' sign positioned above the studio door
In a genuinely audacious development, a 'Mr. Fairchild' arrives at the police inspector's office, claiming that he knows the cover girl murderer. However, 'Fairchild' himself is merely another of Harry H. Corbett's guises! He spins a yarn about a 'William Spurling', to whom he rented a flat but who has now gone missing, leaving his apartment door open for Fairchild to find a burned copy of the 'Miss Torquay' issue of 'Wow!' in the grate. This ruse allows Corbett's latest persona to extend his mind-games with the law, as well as offering the opportunity for a tirade in his own defence when the inspector suggests that the killer, though clearly of high intelligence, may still be insane: "the borderline between what we call insanity, and a hyper-sensitive intellect, is not always very clear, inspector". He passes Johnny Mason as he exits, and Mason feels a sense of déjà vu. Johnny tells the inspector that, unsurprisingly, he cannot find models willing to appear on the cover of next month's issue, but the inspector has a plan in mind and so June agrees to appear on the (July, inappropriately) cover, in a bid to lure Spendoza to the theatre where the coppers can apprehend him. Once again, however, he foils their schemes in utterly fiendish fashion - under the pseudonym 'Spiller', he visits a dodgy Jewish theatrical agent, announcing that he is to produce a film based on the Cover Girl killings! This despite the fact that he abhors violence, as is made clear in his comment on how "sex and horror are the new gods" (purloined by Frankie Goes To Hollywood 25 years later). He plans to hire an actor sporting a long raincoat and pebble glasses, purportedly to play the killer in the non-existent movie but actually to be found lurking round the Kasbah at midnight in order for the police to blunder in and arrest the wrong fellow, leaving the way clear for Spendoza to claim June as victim number 5. Everything goes to plan, and with the inspector giving the third degree to a bemused jobbing thespian down at the nick, Spendoza confronts a lingerie-clad June and begins to choke the life out of her. Mason, having proclaimed the decoy's innocence, rushes to the theatre to save his girlfriend but is knocked out by the butt of Spendoza's pistol - regaining consciousness as the police arrive, he sees June has squirmed free and climbed a ladder to a suspended gantry high above the stage. Spendoza follows her up and fires a warning shot, but as the inspector keeps him talking, Johnny manages to loosen the ropes, sending the platform toppling to one side. Spendoza falls to his death and Mason leads June to safety.
Corbett made a career out of playing sympathetic losers in shabby environments, epitomised by 'Harold Steptoe' in the great BBC sitcom with Wilfred Brambell. Despite the grim locations here, his Cover Girl killer is cut from a different cloth entirely, a scheming genius, clearly mad (driven so by his puritanical obsessions?) but capable of Moriarty-like plots and ruses. COVER GIRL KILLER is also notable for anticipating the post-SCREAM nature of self-reflection, especially with the ingenious sequence involving the hiring of an actor to pose as the killer and the fabrication of a planned film version of the very events we are viewing. Highly recommended for anyone interested in tracing the roots of the stalk-and-slash subgenre, and extremely satisfying viewing in retrospect. The Mary Millington vehicle THE PLAYBIRDS (1978) is an uncredited remake, but stick with the original. For all you insomniacs, note that the movie has played frequently on late-night commercial t.v. in the U.K. during the past few years.
female:2 / male:1
1) Showgirl injected with morphine
2) 'Miss Torquay' attacked and killed during photo-session
3) Male falls to death from suspended platform
(two further murders are referred to in the
dialogue but are not seen, a model forced to overdose on sleeping pills and
another woman murdered in an unspecified manner in Switzerland)