Monday, 26 May 2014

House on Straw Hill (1976)

Warning! This review is a fair bit spoilerish.

Infamous for being the only British film to suffer the wraith of the DPP making it on their 72 list of video nasties even to make it to the final 39 to be successfully prosecuted in 1983, 'House on Straw Hill' (a.k.a. ‘Exposé’) was available uncut on VHS very fleetingly up until this point. Banned in the UK until 1997 cuts had to be made to get it passed by the BBFC and it was not until last year with a Blu-ray/DVD release from Severin Films that an uncut version was finally made available again. This is the cut you want as in its censored form a fair bit of the tension is lost with the 51 seconds that was trimmed. Apparently, the original camera negative was discovered in a barn somewhere in rural England that was used along with two prints to create an uncensored version. The original title ‘Exposé’ is a bit of a head scratcher as in the story there is no subject of an exposé nor does it feature a character of an investigative journalist. ‘House on Straw Hill’ is a much more suitable title considering the actual setting is a house on a hill called Straw Hill and it is even referenced in dialogue. It is also the title the uncut version has been released under.

The movie itself while never going to live up to its notoriety, which is often the case with many of these 72 titles to have unjustly found their way on to that ridiculous small minded list, is still an intriguing psycho sexual thriller and is certainly one of the better made so called “video nasties”. Its art house approach rubs up comfortably with its more exploitative leanings that entail graphic depictions of slasher like brutal murder and sexual deviancy and it is easy to see why it caused such a stir upon its original theatrical release in 1976. At the time, it was rightfully deemed controversial and while not worthy of making the DPP’s shit list its later video nasty label in the 1980s helped only to enhance its reputation. This is the same for many of those films on that list most of which were bottom of the barrel filmmaking that was far from deserving of it and would have otherwise been forgotten about. Thankfully, this is a decent affair and its spotlight as such and recent home re-release plucks it from obscurity bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

Terribly dubbed here with an English accent Euro cult veteran German actor Udo Kier plays Paul Martin a paranoid, arrogant and pompous novelist. He has just met success with his first erotic book but sufferers from a bad case of writer’s block and has psychological problems having disturbing hallucinations of bloody murder while working on its follow-up as he resides in a rented secluded cottage in the countryside of England. Under pressure from his publisher, he sends his girlfriend Suzanne (Fiona Richmond) away in an effort to focus better and hires a typist Linda (Linda Hayden) to type up his dictation. Paul and Linda are hassled by a couple of young men after he picks her up at the local train station in which he beats them up. Paul thinks he has seen Linda before and asking her if they have met she replies no. When at the cottage, we see she has a photograph of Paul in her suitcase and a framed one of another man she places on the pillow of the opposite side of the bed she is sleeping on to which she masturbates over.

Later after finishing a dictation session, picking up a copy of Paul’s first novel Linda asks him whom the dedication is to in the inscription. Paul turns his head looking out the window of the study and says that it is a friend then quickly takes the book away from her putting it on the typewriter table. When Linda goes for a walk in the cornfield just outside the cottage Paul goes up to the room she is staying in, and goes through her things finding the photo of him. While outside as Linda lies in the cornfield touching herself probably turned on listening to Paul’s dictation of his latest sex novel she is watched by the two men who were harassing them before. As one of them points a rifle at her, the other rapes her but she seems unfazed by it and is possibly enjoying it. When gently grabbing the shaft of the rifle she manages to take it and shoots the two men. Hearing the rifle fire Paul quickly runs back downstairs to the study room and pretends to be reading his manuscript as Linda looks at him through the window smiling. Paul continues to hallucinate, tries it on with the mysterious and strange Linda but she refuses his advances, Suzanne comes back and events spiral into a nightmare of murder and sexual depravity.

Despite her dislike of the movie due to it not being what she set out to make as it turned out to be something outright sleazy to what she was expecting the sultry and voluptuous Hayden is the stand out from the cast. Her character lacks depth but it is purposely written this way as her aura of mystery makes her an enigma that keeps the viewer curious throughout. This and the use of her sexual demeanour as power to weaken people is what make her a compelling antagonist. Linda just turns up after applying for the job having “worked with a novelist before” and questions are immediately raised about her. Paul thinks he has seen her before and she has a photo of him and another of a man she pleasures herself to. She does not seem to mind at all being raped as if her preceding playing with herself as the two men look on (although unbeknownst to her) was somehow her calling for it to happen. When she takes the rifle away from one of them, it is with such ease as if the firearm is a phallic symbol like she is gently stroking the man’s penis as he is under her spell weakened by her sexuality and she takes his manhood away from him and ends his life. This scene not only signifies Linda’s overt sexuality that empowers her but also advances the flimsy plot determining how the climax of the film plays out.

Paul Mason (Kier) is an extremely unpleasant unlikable character. It is often a problem when there is not a relatable protagonist to sympathize with in a narrative but here it serves a purpose to the mystery and instead of rooting for him, we long for him to get his comeuppance. The payoff comes when he is shown to be the talentless shitbag that he really is rather than suffering a case of writer’s block. He spends the entirety of the running time up his own arse with a self-inflated sense of his own impotence being rude to people and if the pretentious tripe that he spews when dictating to Linda is not a big enough clue for you then I do not know what is. “Then Angus' tongue started its slow exploration darting here arousing there playing on Anna like a virtuoso… Anna's legs slowly at each caress urgently moving demanding she was wet with anticipation" ETC. Seriously, Linda is supposed to be turned on by this crap. At least a better writer than Stephenie Meyer though.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned terrible dubbing mutes Udo Kier’s performance. If you are familiar with his work then you will know that his German accent is partly what defines the actor. I can understand that writer and director James Kenelm Clarke (or maybe the producers) may have wanted a more authentic English accent given the setting that the character is a native of but a script rewrite to make him a German or even an Austrian residing in England would have been easy to do and far more effective. As a result of this dubbing decision, Kier’s turn comes across as rather stiff. Richmond’s part in all of this is a non-role as she is just there as a sexual object although ineffectual as one because she is not in the least bit sexually appealing appearing as some odd orange looking thing due to far too much tanning. Even when Linda seduces Suzanne before sealing her fate it is nowhere near arousing. At least though the startling imagery of Paul’s harrowing hallucinations that turn out to be manifested by guilt and the nastiness of the two grisly murder set-pieces make for some real eye candy encapsulated in a dreaded atmosphere thanks to the moody cinematography of Dennis C. Lewiston with uncredited work by Phil Meheux and a downbeat score by Steve Gray.

‘House on Straw Hill’ is far from perfect, there is a distinct lack of plot and sympathetic protagonist, Udo Kier’s performance is sabotaged by the atrocious dubbing, Fiona Richmond fails to be attractive and her lesbian sex scene with Linda Hayden is disappointingly lacklustre because of it. However, the presence of Hayden and the mystery surrounding her character, her use of sex as a weapon, two effective sequences of horrific imagery, and a couple of gruesome set-pieces with all of this encased in a sombre atmosphere, make it well worth investigation.

***1/2 out of *****

Dave J. Wilson

©2014 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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