"THE OLD BAILEY, 1957. A HUSBAND AND WIFE ARE COMMITTED TO A MENTAL INSTITUTION FOR SICKENING CRIMES .
THE PRESENT DAY. JACKIE CONFESSES TO PSYCHIATRIST FRIEND, GRAHAM, THAT SHE IS WORRIED ABOUT HER DELINQUENT SISTER. SHE ALSO HAS OTHER PROBLEMS, BUT DOESN'T MENTION THESE. AT NIGHT, JACKIE DELIVERS MYSTERIOUS PARCELS TO AN ISOLATED FARM HOUSE. THE ELDERLY COUPLE THAT LIVE THERE HAVE RECENTLY BEEN RELEASED FROM AN ASYLUM. THEY ARE HER FATHER AND STEPMOTHER .
SECRETLY, JACKIE'S STEPMOTHER HAS NEEN ADVERTISING HER SERVICES AS A FORTUNE TELLER AND REGULARLY INVITING LONELY YOUNG PEOPLE TO THE HOUSE. THE TAROT CARDS ALWAYS SPELL OUT DEATH, BUT CAN NEVER DISCLOSE THE BIZARRE TERRORS OF THAT GRUESOME , DESOLATE HOUSE. "
Jackie is a woman with her hands full: not only is her 15 year old half-sister, Debbie (Kim Butcher), a "bloody delinquint", uncontrolable and surly, but she also harbours a dark family secret. Jackie leaves her house at night and reluctantly sneaks to the isolated farmhouse where her Father, Eddie (Rupert Davies), and her Stepmother, Dorothy (Sheila Keith), live; bringing with her, wrapped in a brown paper parcel, the thing that Dorothy craves.
Jackie is purposely keeping from Debbie her nocturnal outings. Debbie, who's so wayward, was kicked out of the convent where she had been sent when she was 'orphaned', is seemingly unaware that her Parents are alive, if not particularly well. Back in 1957, Eddie and Dorothy were commited to an asylum after a murder spree where Dorothy killed, mutilated and partially ate six victims whilst working as a tarot reader in a suitably desolate fairground (we see one victim (Andrew Sachs, soon to find eternal fame as the hapless Manuel in TV's FAWLTY TOWERS), left with a gaping head wound after a session with her, in a black and white prologue. The presiding judge had, in his summing up, said, "In 22 years on the bench I have not come across a more sickening or disgusting crime ...", before, rather than sending the pair to the gallows, has them comitted to an insane asylum until they are fit to take a place in society again.
Seemingly, they have been judged to be of no further threat and have been released, but Jackie and Eddie (who did not take part in the crimes, rather acted as a clean up man, in an attempt to keep his beloved wife from prison) are more than a little concerned that Dorothy may be heading for a relapse; the blood dripping parcels (which we never do find out what's inside, but have to come to our own conclusions - it seems that the Father and Daughter are allowing Dorothy to think she's been giving human body parts to placate her) but may not be enough anymore.
As Jackie tries to juggle her family ties, and as Debbie continues to go off the rails as she is implicated in the murder of a barman and becomes more and more suspicious that Jackie is keepping something from her, enters Graham (Paul Greenwood), the hapless love interest, who happens to be a practising psychiatrist whose good intentioned meddling only makes things much, much worse.
Meanwhile, Dorothy has dug out her tarot cards once again and is luring a procession of strangers to the farmhouse, where she offers a reading where future always holds the 'Death' card ...
FRIGHTMARE is a very different type of British horror movie. Pre-empting the cutural time bomb that was Punk by several years, Walker and screenwriter David McGillivray's film is a delicious exercise in nihilism and taboo breaking. On it's release they actually used the largely negative and generally apoplectic soundbites the film garnered from outraged critics on the film's promotional material; the posters screamed, "Frighteningly well made ... a moral obscenity!" (The Telegraph) & "A despicable film!" (The Observer). Courting controversy was obviously Walker's aim; the idea being that the bigger the headlines the bigger the box office, this reverse publicity had certainly worked in the past (and has worked since). The irony, though, was that real life attrocity - the IRA's then current bombing campaign - actually stopped the droves from attending.
Although Walker was a self-avowed business man first, he was was determind to kick against the pricks. His earlier film, the twisted women-in-prison flick, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (also 1974), was also a heady brew of not only establishment baiting but twisting the thorn in the side of the liberal media, too. With FRIGHTMARE his biggest bugbear is with the practice of psychiatry; the germ of the story coming from tales of people judged to no longer a threat to society being released and then going on to kill again. Certainly, Graham's misplaced confidence in his profession and the power of psychoanalysis is no match for power drills and meat cleavers weilded by an old lady with a crazed blood lust, and he pays the ultimate price.
And, it is the fact that it is an old woman who is the 'boogeyman' here that is perhaps Walker and McGillivray's masterstroke. Earlier in the film we see the delinquincy of youth (Debbie rides with a violent biker gang) and the respectability of middle class suburbia (Jackie and her friends sip wine at a dinner party), as things, perhaps, should be, but the fact that Grandmotherly Dorothy is also a homicidal maniac upsets the apple cart totally. Certainly, the best thing about FRIGHTMARE is Sheila Keith, who gives an incredible performance as a woman descending into madness and utter depravity. Her face is like shifting sands, one minute playfull (her dotty old lady meanderings about the "little animals" who visit her would be almost endearing where it not for the fact that it is probably symptomatic of the turmoil below), then fearful, then twisted into hatred and peverse pleasure. It certainly is an eye-popping sight to see her, in her matronly threads and shock of white hair, advancing on a victim with a flaming poker or with her face splattered with blood as she harvests a corpse with a screaming electric drill.
FRIGHTMARE is often, unfairly called the British A TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (also 1974); it's also often dismissed as an imitator of Tobe Hooper's seminal film. However, despite the - on the surface at least - similarities, it is incredibly unlikely that either Walker nor McGillivray would have even been aware of it when they were making their film, as it did not get shown in Britain until 1976. Also, Walker's film is by far the more visceral; a gory treat compared to the surprisingly lack of blood and guts actually on show in Hooper's film.
FRIGHTMARE certainly seems dated and is admittedly a little rough around the edges in places but it still packs a wallop, even today, and comes highly recommended as what is very possibly Walker's finest film. And, as a final treat, is topped off with an ending which, on first watching might seem a little abrupt, but is in-fact chilling, unexpected and deliciously cruel; which was to become something of a trademark for its director.
Finally, it's worth pointing out the reason why Walker's film recieved the confusing title of FRIGHTMARE II in the States, the reason being that when the film finally came out on video another film - Norman Thaddeus Vane's 1982 supernatural slasher flick, THE HORROR STAR, had already been renamed FRIGHTMARE, so, to try avoid confusion (although it probably just added more) it was renamed to look as if it was a sequel to Vane's film.
BODYCOUNT 7 female:3 / male:4
1) Male seen with gaping hole in side of head
2) Female killed (method unseen)
3) Male body found with eye gouged out
4) Female run through with red hot poker
5) Male repeatedly jabbed in face with pitchfork
6) Male discovered dead and mutilated
7) Female presumed dead