August 14, 2015

Fright (1971)

"Young babysitter Amanda arrives at the Lloyd residence to spend the evening looking after their young son. Soon after the Lloyds leave, a series of frightening occurrences in the gloomy old house have Amanda's nerves on edge. The real terror begins, however, when the child's biological father appears after recently escaping from a nearby mental institution."

As I've been watching a few films containing outstanding portrayals of nutters recently, it would be remiss of me if I didn't say something about Peter Collinson's "Fright" (also known as "I'm Alone and I'm Scared" in America).

Although I'm one of those people who would argue until I'm red in the face that the plot of "Fright" paved the way for "Halloween" (1978), I have to admit that John Carpenter probably had no idea of this film's existence when he made his slasher classic. Psychos escaping from asylums and seeking revenge was nothing new in the horror genre even in 1971, but whereas John Carpenter added a few supernatural abilities to Michael Myers, "Fright" (scripted by Tudor Gates) deals with a much more human and sympathetic villain.

"She's a sensible girl. She won't be frightened."

"Fright" is almost a film of two distinct halves due to focusing first on Susan George as babysitter Amanda and then eclipsing her performance with the late Ian Bannen as nutty Brian. When I say "almost", it's because Susan George in her skimpy lilac mini-dress absolutely carries this film from beginning to end.

Obviously this isn't just a story with two actors such as "Sleuth" (1972), but the others are little more than supporting roles. Honor Blackman does her best to act paranoid as Helen, Cockney geezer Dennis Waterman tries to be Amanda's desperately horny boyfriend Chris, and George Cole as Jim is, well, just the same slightly amusing George Cole as he ever was. There's nothing wrong with any of their performances, and none of them are merely two-dimensional bit parts, but as I said, this is Susan George's vehicle most of all.

"From now on, the world is your lobster."

Since I wasn't really alive at the time that "Fright" came out (1972 in the USA), I have absolutely no idea about what the critics' reaction was to it. If you compare "Fright" to "The Exorcist" (1973), it's obvious that horror movies really increased in nastiness in little over a year. I know that it's like comparing oranges with apples, but "Fright" seems like a throwback to a much tamer world of horror movies. The fact that it contains some quite brutal violence and lots of screaming yet still retains a PG certification does little to persuade me otherwise.

I suppose there's just something a lot more cosy about British horror movies which the censors didn't pick up on, plus most British filmmakers didn't often go for gritty realism until much later than their American equivalents. Consequently, "Fright" is full of well-mannered Brits all saying "please" and "thank you", although on one occasion Susan George lets a lovely four-letter expletive out, and there's never any doubt in your mind that this is a horror movie.

"I wrote the theme tune, sang the theme tune..."

If this was an American horror, Susan George's cussing would have one of those annoying clich├ęs which would set her out to be either morally or mentally unstable. In "Fright", not only is our heroine very much a prototype for the even more foul-mouthed Margot Kidder in "Black Christmas" (1974), but you know that she isn't an innocent dumb blonde with a pretty face. It makes her character real.

Of course, Susan George is a fantastic piece of flawless eyecandy (or "tottie" as we Brits say) as well as being a feisty final girl. I really don't know a lot about her as an actress, but I do know that she was footballer George Best's girlfriend at one point, was married to Simon MacCorkindale, loves horses, and also starred in the infamous "Straw Dogs" (1971). If she ever looked more beautiful in a film than she did in "Fright" then I want to see it.

"Here's Brian!" doesn't have quite the same ring to it really.

Once creepy Ian Bannen turns up, however, Susan George is almost pushed completely out of the limelight by his acting prowess. Although he's not nearly as good in "Fright" as he is in "The Offence" (1972), there are some obvious parallels between the way Ian Bannen plays Brian and the suspected paedophile Kenneth Baxter.

Maybe it's because he does a trademark mumbling thing every so often, but Ian Bannen really gets under my skin (or on my last nerve). I know it's wrong to speak ill of the dead, but there was just something very sinister and menacing about Ian Bannen in every role that I've ever seen him in. He was probably a lovely man in real life though, and weirdly, that shows through too in the scene with his screen son (Tara Collinson) which looks improvised rather than scripted. I even felt a little bit sorry for nutty Brian because he's more to be pitied than blamed.

I really don't have anything else to say about "Fright" other than recommending that you watch it. Yes, it's a little bit dated now but not in a bad way. It's not really very scary or exciting either when compared to modern slashers, but it still has some effectively tense scenes.

Trivia lovers will note that the two stars of ITV's "Minder", George Cole (who played Arthur Daley) and Dennis Waterman (who played Terry McCann) were both in "Fright" eight years before their famous partnership. Oddly though, they have no scenes together.

Also watch out for a couple of self-aware "meta" moments which pre-date the "Scream" series by a quarter of a century.

R.I.P. George Cole, OBE. He died at the age of 90 on August 5th, 2015.

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