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Pete Walker, auteur: 'House of Whipcord' (1974)

'House of Whipcord' (1974)
Heritage Ltd.

The auteur theory, first put forth by François Truffaut and his pals at Cahiers du Cinéma, later refined by American film writer Andrew Sarris, maintains that the director is the primary author of a flm. While making a movie is essentially a collaborative undertaking, with many moving parts, the theory asserts that the director's vision rules, especially if the director in question is a visionary himself, rather than just another studio puppet, slumming mercenary, or by-the-numbers hack.

Alfred Hitchcock. John Ford. Howard Hawks. These were the filmmakers most often used as examples of true auteurs. They all made their films for major studios, working with larger budgets, making "prestige pictures" more often than not, with famous movie stars in the lead roles. But each of them had their own authorial voice.

Meanwhile, on the low-budget, B-movie side of the tracks, there were maverick filmmakers who also fit the description of the true auteur, perhaps even more so than their more celebrated counterparts. In America, Samuel Fuller made B-pictures that seethed with his unique brand of passionate intensity and muckraking sensibilities, mixing hard-hitting social commentary with dimestore psychology in films like "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss." Sexploitation master Russ Meyer may have been making cartoonish fantasies for the raincoat crowd, but, perhaps more than any other filmmaker in cinema history, remained 100% true to his vision of "big bosoms and square jaws." Again, living definitions of the true auteur.

Towards the end of the 1960s, as the decline of the British film industry was just getting up to speed, there emerged a filmmaker who embodied the spirit of the true auteur. A filmmaker who wrote, produced, directed, and often financed his films. A man with a singular persistence of vision, even if that vision was one of pure exploitation. His name: Pete Walker.

Walker made his mark as a filmmaker with 1969's nudie sex comedy "Cool It Carol" a/k/a "The Dirtiest Girl I Ever Met," the heartwarming story of a boy (Robin Askwith, looking like the bastard offspring of Mick Jagger and Brian Jones) and a girl (the oft-unclothed Janet Lynn) who leave their small town to move to London, where the boy pimps out the girl as a nude model and prostitute. The film provoked outrage when, at the end of the movie, the couple leave the evil city and return, sadder but wiser, to their old country life. This was unheard of, because such naughty behavior had always led to the characters' being punished or killed off, which was the unwritten law when it came to depicting "deviant" lifestyles onscreen. Somebody had to pay for it, usually with his or her life.

Walker began to hit his stride as an auteur with 1972's "The Flesh and Blood Show," which sought to please audiences who wanted both sex and violence in the same film. After a bit of a stumble with his next project, 1973's "Tiffany Jones," a comic strip adaptation starring Anouska Hempel (who had also starred in Russ Meyer's worst movie, "Blacksnake"), Walker made what will stand as his crowning achievement as a filmmaker: 1974's highly unpleasant and very, very British horror "House of Whipcord."

Beginning with the inscription, "This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment," the film starts with a flash-forward of Ann-Marie, a young model played with a school play-quality French accent by Brit actress and Page 3 Girl Penny Irving, taking refuge with a truck driver after surviving a horrible ordeal.

After the credits roll, we are back in post-Swinging, glam-era London, when the swinging really got going. At a party, Ray Brooks ("The Knack...And How to Get It"), starring in his third consecutive Walker film, tells of a publicity stunt gone wrong involving the French model and a bit of public nudity. After paying the fine, he laments that it was all for naught: the client's name didn't make the papers. As the party progresses, the model falls under the spell of an evil-looking dandy name Mark E. DeSade (get it?), who charms her with creepy talk, and the next thing you know, they're off to meet mummy at the family estate.

One problem: the family estate is actually a private penal institution, dedicated to punishing women of "lax morals." One minute Ann-Marie thinks she's about to meet her future in-laws, the next she is being strip-searched by prison matrons Walker (Sheila Keith, as Frau Blucher from "Young Frankenstein" taken to another level) and Bates, the sad cockney lesbian henchman (Dorothy Gordon). Anne-Marie gets taken to a cell, where she meets her traumatized, Kurt Cobain-lookalike cellmate Claire (Judy Robinson). At Ann-Marie's "arraignment," we are introduced to the villain of the piece, Mrs. Wakehurst, played by Barbara Markham, the most mannish woman in the history of British cinema, a mash-up of "defender of public decency" Mary Whitehead and the pre-PM Margaret Thatcher. The nominal man in charge is Justice Bailey, who is blind (Get it? Blind justice!) and increasingly senile, who rubber stamps death orders thinking they are release papers.

Nazi-like atrocities, whippings, and hangings ensue, as well as cruel turns of plot, courtesy of Walker and screenwriter and sleaze veteran David McGillivray, that have been borrowed by such modern-day directors as Rob Zombie (in "House of 1000 Corpses") and Eli Roth ("Hostel"). Walker's film endures less for inspiring torture porn and more for its unrelentingly grim depiction of the baser instincts of the British Empire. Walker cleverly made the English audience complicit in the degradation of poor Ann-Marie and her fellow inmates. Since the Brits have a natural antipathy towards the French, he knew they would more likely tolerate the cruelties inflicted on that character. Twisted, but brilliant nonetheless.

Don't expect the usual women-in-prison tropes of lingering shower scenes and girl-on-girl action. This one is all about the cruelty.

Of course, Walker never copped to having any kind of political or philosophical agenda. In a 2005 interview with "The Guardian," ol' Pete said that when he "had to record commentary for the DVD releases, I saw the films for the first time since making them, and you know what? They're not as bad as I thought. But searching for hidden meaning...they were just films. All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief."

Highly recommended for fans of '70s sleaze, and people who, upon the death of Maggie Thatcher, bought "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead" on iTunes.

"House of Whipcord" is currently streaming on Netflix, and can be found in a nice anthropomorphic transfer on DVD from Redemption Video.

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J.M. Dobies, Austin Classic Movies Examiner Facebook Page

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