"American rock star, Nick Cooper (Jack Jones), returns to England after an absence of six years. Despite his marriage crumbling he decides to resume his career under the guidance of manager Webster Jones, a man of fickle loyalties.
Unknown to Nick, his wife Gail has also returned to England and has been brutally murdered by a squawking woman-like creature at the penthouse that was once the marital home. Nick's manager finds him an isolated country house and while there he comes across the putrefying corpse of his ex wife ..."
Imagine if FREDDY VS. JASON (2003) had included country superstar Shania Twain as its feisty female lead. Or how about Bing Crosby being asked to appear in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) or some other 1940s Universal monster fest? Weird, unlikely suggestions, huh? Well in the late 70s, director Pete Walker managed to pull off such a casting coup. The man who had single-handedly re-defined the nature of the British horror film, hauling it roughshod out of Castle Karnstein and into your high street, suddenly found himself working with the world’s major middle-of-the-road singing star, at the centre of his latest cheap and cheerful gore extravaganza!
Virtually forgotten today, Jack Jones was enormous at the time he was hired to topline THE COMEBACK. In the U.K., his popularity with the Radio Two audience was second-to-none, and rarely a morning would pass without Terry Wogan or Jimmy Young spinning a Jones disc or two. Sell-out gigs were attended by a fanatical fanbase, too old for the Bay City Rollers, too staid for punk rock, but looking instead for the housewives’ choice, a clean-cut, well-presented fellow with a decent voice and songs where you could hear all of the words. How Jones came to accept THE COMEBACK as a vehicle for his thespian talents remains one of the great mysteries of the movies - indeed, fans at the time were utterly baffled, and the pages of Film Review were filled with letters from Jack’s admirers, delighted for the chance to see his celluloid likeness at their local Odeon but appalled at the gruesome content of the movie itself!
Walker’s cast was unusually stellar - either his production spiel had been particularly convincing, or he caught everyone’s agents on an off-day, as he was able to assemble perhaps the most striking gathering ever seen in a British exploitation thriller. Having passed up the opportunity to use a young American model named Kim Basinger, he instead selected up-and-coming Aussie blonde Pamela Stephenson (who within 12 months would be one of the biggest names on British television as a member of the ‘Not The 9 O’Clock News’ team); the Jones character’s music publisher was to be portrayed by David Doyle, red hot at the time and recognised worldwide as ‘Bosley’ from t.v. smash ‘Charlie’s Angels’; and as the elderly couple ultimately revealed as the murderous villains of the piece, Walker regular Sheila Keith was paired with none other than ‘Compo’ from long-running BBC comedy ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’, Bill Owen. Indeed, Jones’ role had nearly been offered to Ringo Starr (still smarting from his own failed rock-horror outing, the 1974 vanity project SON OF DRACULA) and Cat Stevens (who indicated his feelings towards the genre a couple of years later by refusing permission for his song ‘Moonshadow’ to feature on the AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) soundtrack!).
Walker had dragged the orthodox, cosy concepts of British terror up by the bootstraps with the unforgettable David McGillivray-scripted trilogy HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, FRIGHTMARE (both 1974) and HOUSE OF MORTAL SIN (1975) - McGillivray’s establishment-baiting screenplays had seen authority figures and bedrock institutions ridiculed amid a welter of bloody violence the like of which our industry had never witnessed, and Walker revelled in cranking out these tales of urban depravity at the rate of roughly one per year. However, the duo’s latest offering SCHIZO (1976) had been something of a critical and commercial flop, so Walker turned back to a former writing partner, Murray Smith, to attempt a revival in his fortunes. Smith had authored Walker’s sexploitation epics COOL IT CAROL! (1970) and FOUR DIMENSIONS OF GRETA (1972), but he had a way with a thriller too - one of his other Walker credits was the Susan George woman-in-peril saga DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE (1971), and he was just beginning to make a name for himself as one of our top t.v. scribes, having created the Don Henderson series ‘Strangers’.
Singing star Nick Cooper (Jones) is billeted at a country mansion (“the kind of place where you’d find Lon Chaney playing the organ”) during the recording sessions for his new album, his first for six years since his semi-retirement after marrying his wife Gail. However, recent marital problems resulting in separation have led Nick to seek his muse once again. Unbeknown to Nick, Gail has arrived in Britain before him, intending to empty his expensive penthouse flat of its more desirable items - but while at the fashionable warehouse conversion, she is brutally attacked and slain by a frightening hag-like figure wearing a crocheted shawl and wielding a lethal scythe. The corpse is left to rot (Walker frequently cuts back to remind us of its progressional state of decomposition, ultimately revealing Gail’s face being gnawed away by a huge rat!) while we concentrate on activities at the rural retreat. Nick’s recording sessions are seemingly a success (we hear one track entitled ‘Traces Of A Long Forgotten Tune’ which, to these ears at least, ought to have been forgotten!), and he’s struck up a healthy relationship with his publisher’s secretary (Stephenson), but his nights are tormented by the sound of anguished female cries, hideous cackling laughter, and the odd months-old mouldering body materialising before his disbelieving gaze during the small hours. Smith’s script throws in more red herrings than you’d find in a Russian trawler, with suspicion falling initially on Nick’s U.K. contact Harry, obviously a rum ‘un judging byhis salacious comments on the shape and size of Pamela’s breasts, before shifting to Webster (Doyle) following a decidedly nutty interlude in which we see him posing in a kimono and applying eye shadow and lipstick!
Nick is eventually driven right over the brink when one of his nocturnal excursions to the bowels of the house bring him into contact with that old genre staple, the head in the hat box (a particularly grim specimen, this - it’s his ex-wife, complete with a bunch of pre-Fulci maggots crawling around her eye sockets). After a brief stay in hospital (nurse: “it says that if you should waken while I’m on duty, I should tell you tactfully what happened”; Jones: “Well, what happened?”; nurse: “You went nuts!”), Nick returns to the mansion, only for the truth to finally be revealed - the elderly couple have been plotting revenge against him for causing their daughter, an obsessed fan, to commit suicide on hearing the news of his wedding. Sheila Keith goes into overdrive here, delivering perhaps her dottiest, most demented rant, accusing Jones of lewdness and ‘foul contortions’ before Owen bursts in, clad in the killer’s shawl and wrinkled mask, only to mistakenly hack his wife to pieces in what Forrest J. Ackerman would surely refer to as ‘an axe-ident’. And that’s the lot, apart from an atypical supernatural coda where Nick seems to catch a glimpse of his wife at an upstairs window before departing the scene for good.
THE COMEBACK may fail to live up to its title in terms of Walker’s directorial career, never quite reaching the heights of his incendiary mid-70s work; the bland Jones hardly cuts the predatory ‘Hammer Of The Gods’-like figure the script suggests (indeed, it’s most disconcerting to hear him use the word ‘fucking’ a couple of times and referring to a friend’s fatal overdose), and one wonders why the psychotic pensioners put him through such an elaborate charade rather than taking their longed-for revenge as soon as he arrived at their home. Stephenson looks bored and lifeless, the music business angle barely intrudes in the way it should, and there’s a very silly moment involving dead flies diving lemming-like through the keyhole of Jones’ apartment! However, the murders are gory and well directed (especially the opener - our first sight of the killer’s ‘mad old lady’ get-up is seriously pants-wetting), Stanley Myers’ score mixes the conventional and the experimental to clever effect, and above all, Sheila Keith provides her trademark brand of total malevolence, even investing a nothing line like “perhaps I could spread the butter for you?” with bone-freezing undercurrents.
BODYCOUNT 4 female:3 / male:11) Female hacked up with scythe