Homey Horrors

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

A recent viewing of two British films, “The Corpse” and “Revenge,” led me to an interesting query–are these films noir mislabeled as “horror,” or are they ancestors of the current trend that situates horror not in the realm of the supernatural, but rather in the horrors that people inflict upon each other?

“The Corpse” filmed in 1969 by Viktors Ritelis from a script by Olaf Pooley was done a disservice by its American distributors who re-titled it “Crucible of Horror,” which would certainly lead audiences to expect something other than an edgy, home-grown variation on Henri-Georges Cluzot’s “Les Diaboliques” in which a mother and daughter, tormented beyond endurance by a sadistic patriarch plot to rid themselves of Daddy Dearest via a poisoned nightcap. What seemed a perfect crime soon unravels as the corpse appears to be exceptionally lively–neatly remaking the bed on which it was slain, making telephone appointments–and who deposited it in a crate neatly addressed to the family’s London home? The frantic pair dump the tied-up crate into what appears to be a disused mine–only to have Pops re-appear at the finale presiding over a deadening morning breakfast with his once-rebellious daughter now broken in spirit and his wife staring insanely into space.

The film was impeccably acted with Michael Gough and Yvonne Mitchell as Mr. and Mrs. Eastwood, Simon Gough (Michael’s real-life son) as Eastwood’s smarmy son and Sharon Gurney as Eastwood’s defiant daughter. The horror here lies not in Gough’s disappearing and re-appearing corpse but in the apparently indestructible code of Victorian repression that he imposes on his “loved ones.”

Sidney Hayers’ “Revenge,” also released as “The Inn of the Frightened People” is an entirely different animal. Far from the surreal parlor-tricks of Ritelis and Pooley, this one is firmly in the sweaty no-holds-barred tradition of British crime films. Brit noir regular Kenneth Griffith plays a seedy loner suspected of molesting and murdering little girls. Ray Barrett and James Booth are two grieving fathers of his victims. When Griffith is released by the police for lack of evidence, Booth is inclined to throw up his hands in helpless dismay, but Barrett and Booth’s young adult son favor a more active approach. They are all in favor of kidnapping Griffith, holding him prisoner in the cellar of Booth’s public house and forcing a confession out of him. From that point on, nothing goes smoothly for the hapless trio. An interfering German shepherd complicates their kidnapping of Griffith, its barking allowing a neighbor time to I.D. Booth’s van, back in the cellar, the trio pile on Griffith a little too enthusiastically, assuming that they have killed him. Now they think they have a corpse on their hands. Things get worse when they find that the badly-beaten Griffith is not in fact dead. Now if they let him go, they will be held for kidnapping and assault–and any confession that they might get from him would be useless. Booth is stuck with an unwanted “guest” as one by one his wife and his older school-aged daughter both discover why daddy doesn’t want folks going down into the cellar. In the end, Barrett the instigator bails out when things get too dicey, Booth’s growing paranoia and drinking causes him to loose his daughter, his wife and his son, and the papers suggest that Griffith was, in fact, innocent. Now the po-faced Booth must confront the poor bastard that he’s beaten, chained and threatened with death. Apologies are in order, he draws him a nice warm bath, fetches some clean clothes, even cooks the man breakfast and goes to get him a box of chocolates–which is when he learns that the second suspect has been released and Griffith is indeed the child-murderer. (An earlier sequence in which Barrett and Booth’s son visit Griffith’s house only to discover a cobweb-festooned bedroom in which he keeps a mock-up of his dead mother signals to the audience that he is likely the culprit–as does a later scene in which he becomes hysterical as he is forced to watch Booth’s son make love to his step-mother.)

Hayers directs a heart-stopping scene in which a schoolmate of Booth’s daughter–not knowing that the girl has fled her home and is with relatives–comes by to walk her to school and encounters Griffith sitting alone in the family kitchen. He starts the scene very quiet and friendly, then we see the madness gradually bubbling to the surface as he prepares to attack the child. Booth returns in time to exact the ultimate revenge, repeatedly stabbing the murderer of his youngest daughter (and undoubtedly further traumatizing the child-witness), then, with his life in ashes, he phones the police to surrender himself.

If “Revenge” is to be considered a horror film at all, the horror arises from the toll that a single act of “street justice” exacts from its perpetrators. Booth’s life falls apart. His son’s relationship with his girlfriend is destroyed, the hidden attraction between the son his much-younger stepmother surfaces, and the heretofore easy-going publican turns more and more animalistic as a pair of police dog his every step and his family implodes around him. Like Sidney Lumet’s similarly-themed “The Offense,” the film suggests that the only thing worse than a child-molester is a person who takes it upon himself to kill one.

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