Thursday, November 19, 2015

HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974)

House of Whipcord begins on a rainy dark night somewhere in the English countryside. A beautiful but obviously distressed young woman is stumbling along a roadway. She almost collides with a parked truck and when the driver helps her inside he discovers that the poor girl has been beaten terribly with a whip. As the good Samaritan sets off to find a hospital the film flashes backwards in time to show us how this woman has come to be in this awful state.

We find French émigré Ann-Marie (Penny Irving) at a trendy art scene party in London where she is a minor celebrity because of her recent arrest for public nudity. Although the public indecency was done as part of a modeling job she is a little ashamed of what happened and even the lauds of her friends can't cheer her up. Lurking at the party is Marc (Robert Tayman), a handsome young man who takes her mind off her troubles and asks her out on a dinner date. At dinner Marc is charming but also demonstrates a hidden dark side when he frightens Ann-Marie with a closed-eyes game of tactile distress. This should have warned the lonely girl off but she seems to need some kind of relationship and so dismisses the incident. When Marc declines her offer of spending the night at her place she is surprised when he instead asks her to join him the next weekend to meet his mother in the country. Ann-Marie's roommate and fellow model Julia (Ann Michelle) is concerned about her friend but wishes her well on her trip. Julia has her own problems and is preoccupied by her married boyfriend's insistence on delaying leaving his wife.


The trip to Marc's mum's home is a good deal longer than Ann-Marie had anticipated, and when they finally arrive she's ushered into the gated and locked compound of an old jail. Immediately the girl is divested of her clothes, her luggage and her dignity as she is brought before an elderly blind judge. She's informed that she has been found guilty of flouting public decency for her public nude display. The judge explains that they have set up this private house of corrections for the public good. Their goal is to hold people responsible for crimes that the permissive English courts punish too laxly. Strict moral uprightness is their objective and the only solace offered in this prison is a Bible placed in each small cell. The newest convict has the situation explained by her cellmate, another girl imprisoned on moral charges. The jail is looked after by only three older women; there are five other inmates and discipline is harsh. First offense merits a stay in solitary, the second infraction results in a beating with the titular whipcord, and strike three... you're out. Execution by hanging is the ultimate penalty and one that every single inmate has somehow met so far. The place is run by Mrs. Whitehurst (Barbara Markham), an obviously insane woman obsessed with morality and tormented by her past. She blames all her life's failures on the loss of her position as governess of a real prison years before — a loss having to do with the death of a female French inmate much like Ann-Marie.


While only two other women are employed as jailers, their care in dealing with the prisoners has made escape impossible. They seem just as deluded as Mrs. Whitehurst if not as mad, and at least one (Sheila Keith) appears to be a lesbian with a streak of sadistic self-hatred. Sadism turns out to be the rule of the place as we learn that Marc is Whitehurst's illegitimate son whose sadistic tendencies are encouraged by dear old mum. Not only is Marc used to lure wicked ladies to the trap but also once mother fixates on Ann-Marie he entices her to make an escape attempt. This leads to her quickly making strikes one and two with little hope of ever seeing the outside world again.


This is a surprisingly good film. Its low budget never interferes with the story and even manages to add a sense of malice to the proceeding at times. This is a fine example of meager means used effectively to make a solid movie. House of Whipcord sets itself up with a wink at the audience when it opens with a text passage decrying the fallen moral state of modern society. Anyone that thinks this is to be taken literally will be sorely and amusingly disappointed. The film is an attack on the simpleminded moralism of those who would wish to impose their views on society with poor Ann-Marie as an example of the folly of putting religious judgments into law. Ann-Marie is clearly a naive young girl searching for comfort and trying to find her way when she is abducted and tortured. She feels embarrassed by her actions and is a far cry from the kind of evil creature of lust that the self-appointed court is set up to punish. Of course, the fact that this system only seeks to punish women is the classic form of condemnation strait out of the Old Testament Bible. Remember, it was always the women who were stoned to death for adultery, not the men. This Biblical view of forcing women to act as scapegoats for all sin shows up in Whipcord starkly as the moralists don't even consider going after the male photographer who took the nude photos. Punishing men is never even considered by the jailers, as if Eve were the only sinner and her punishment the only concern. The system set up by this small coven of moralistic outlaws is, sadly, exactly the kind of religiously intolerant thing I see calls for every other week to this day. That director Pete Walker and his writers were seeing this type of moronic hypocrisy in swinging London is not as shocking to me as it is to notice that we are currently in another up cycle of the same thing now in America. With this kind of dark story is a downbeat ending any surprise?


I've only seen a few of director Walker's films but I've been surprised by their high quality. Especially here, he shows not only an eye for interesting ideas but a strong visual flair too. His shot composition is often clever and the film is very well edited with a remarkably fine story flow. In the last half-hour of the film Ann-Marie's roommate Julia begins a search for her and the juggling of these two narratives is handled brilliantly. The film never feels rushed but it moves very well. This is journeyman craftsmanship on display in a way that makes many more recent horror films look both poorly conceived and sloppy. I look forward to working my way through Pete Walker's films in the future.

3 comments:

Nick Rentz said...

Which other Pete Walker movies has you seen?

Rod Barnett said...

I've only seen three others - Die Screaming Marianne (OK, but nothing I'd revisit), Schizo (which I can't remember very well) and HOme Before Midnight (fascinating).

Nick Rentz said...

I've seen House of Whipcord, Schizo, and The Comeback. I liked them in that order too.