Every Bank Holiday, every Christmas break, you’ll be painfully aware of Peter Collinson’s most successful film as a director – the Italian Job. Like William Girdler (Grizzly, The Manitou), he died way too young and left behind a fascinating body of work far more compelling than that which he is best known for. One of those interesting titles, from Collinson, is Fright a 1971 British horror film about a young babysitter (Susan George) who is psychologically tortured and threatened by Ian Bannen.
Set in one of the many strikingly gothic manor houses that tattoo the English countryside, we are introduced to Honor Blackman (Helen) and George Cole (Jim), a married couple who have brought in Amanda (George) to babysit their 3-year-old so the pair can have a night out. Before leaving, Blackman shows that she is antsy about something and very protective too, with her unbolting the numerous heavy locks on her just as heavy front door. True to the genre that would later be referred to as Home Invasion, there are a series of moments and noises in the night that upset and unnerve the young babysitter. One of those distractions comes in the shape of a young Dennis Waterman (no, he doesn’t sing the theme song) who turns up hoping to have sex with the lonely babysitter. It doesn’t really go his way, does it ever for that archetype? And eventually turning up on the door is Ian Bannen – the biological father of the baby who just so happens to be a violent criminal who has escaped from an asylum. What follows from that point on is the aforementioned mental torture and threats at the wrong end of an obnoxiously long and sharp slither of glass.
The first major takeaway from Fright (1971) is just how strong a cast Collinson has at his disposal and all of them are good. Credit where it is due, this is no late-career pay-cheque gig, they all give there all, of which further credit has been given to the young lead who never lets the side down as the sole member of the main cast who wasn’t a heavyweight. There aren’t many extras on this studio canal disc, but what it lacks in quantity it makes for with quality brought by the perennial face of British horror – Kim Newman.
Newman helps bring real context, especially from the perspective of acting. Apparently, this era of British terror had a lot of projects in which the sting in the tale revolved around the slowly unfolding mania of an acting giant, and while that may position the film as a tad more derivative than it plays – it creates a context for some of the actor’s creative decisions. Bannen, in particular, is pushing for 11 with his character flip-flopping between uncontrollable power and his affable bread and butter of a stage actor. The early moments, in particular, in which we are finding out how bad this man’s violent tendencies are and when we see him brandishing that aforementioned shard of glass, we don’t know what he is capable of. After the film finishes, I can say that Fright isn’t particularly violent outside of Dennis Waterman getting beat up, during, however, Bannen’s unpredictability keeps you guessing. It’s the same sense of danger in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a horror all-time great whose promise of violence is far more potent than that it delivers.
There is only one major problem with Fright and that is pacing. If this was an hour-long and didn’t leave the confines of the house and its grounds, this would probably have gone down in history as one of the progenitors of the home invasion movie – away from the end of that spectrum inexorably tied to rape (last house on the left). Unfortunately, it runs for a few minutes shy of 90 minutes and cuts away from the house at regular intervals to the club where Honor Blackman, George Cole and their therapist friend, John Gregson, are. The narrative goals of these scenes make sense, they sow the seeds of discontent and elevate the tension. Knowing how paranoid and anxious Blackman is making us worry about the safety of George. However, in actuality, this may well be the most British 1970s thing ever committed to celluloid. Fair enough, at the time it represented how the middle classes socialised, now, it’s so goofy it plays like a parody. Place that “goofy parody” next to the genuinely tense time spent at the house and you have a weirdly balanced film. As much of a criticism as that is, right here and now, marking a film down for being a social byproduct of the time it was made in feels like an awfully shallow way a review. Instead, take away the lesson that classically trained theatre actors can tap into the true meaning of suburban fear – When a Stranger Calls (1979) being another classic example.
FRIGHT (1971) IS OUT NOW ON STUDIO CANAL VINTAGE CLASSICS BLU-RAY