Unless you’re a hardcore horror and sleaze fan there’s likely no reason you’d know the name of British director Pete Walker. He is an independent director-producer who worked predominantly in the ’60s and ’70s. While he started his career with softcore comedies like
Scary old people are not a horror trope unique to Pete Walker, surely. The notion of an elderly person committing murders or using black magic has been around for hundreds of years. But it isn’t merely that the sadistic villains of Walker’s movies are olds. It’s that they represent a generation unwilling to give up control. They cannot allow their ways and values to be “corrupted” by a sex-crazed, dope-smoking youth. We see this kind of thing nowadays with octogenarian politicians clinging to their elected power like insects trapped in tree sap. They can claim to worry about moral deterioration, but it’s really just fear that they’ve become obsolete.
In order to discuss these movies properly, I’m going to get into some plot spoilers. If you’d like to watch any of these movies, the entire Pete Walker collection is currently streaming on the Arrow Video app.
The Flesh and Blood Show
The first of Walker’s “golden” period is 1972’s
About halfway through the film, the gang go to a cafe for breakfast and see an older gentleman who says his name is Major Bell (Patrick Barr). He says he’s a big fan of theatre, even did some acting in the army, and asks to come by to watch rehearsal. Eventually, we and the actors learn he’s actually Sir Arnold Gates, an actor who disappeared 15 years prior after allegedly killing his wife and her lover, both actors in his production of
Gates has, as you may have expected, completely cracked, both from the indignity of his wife’s affair, and the guilt surrounding his crimes. He hired these new actors to relive his glory days, as it were, killing any he finds to be too outwardly sexy. While later slasher movies would make promiscuous young women the victim of the killer, Walker’s movies make that the direct focus. It’s because this old man is a cuckold and it’s implied impotent—both literally, and by no longer being the It-actor/man—that he goes on his murderous rampage.
House of Whipcord
A recent nude photoshoot where the producers didn’t get a permit results in Ann-Marie’s arrest for indecent exposure. Though the courts only made her pay a 10 pound fine, Wakehurst believes she got off light. Adding to the utter charade of this horrible place, Wakehurst’s elderly, now-blind lover, a judge (Patrick Barr again), presides over the girls and passes judgment. Little does he know, however, that Wakehurst has no intention of “rehabilitating” any of them. Instead she tortures, terrorizes, and eventually hangs them for even the most minor of infractions.
While whipping nubile young women is a case of exploitation cinema at its most obvious, Walker clearly wanted to add subtext and a deeper sense of irony. He opened
House of Mortal Sin
This level of hypocrisy and puritanism run amok continues in Walker’s 1976 movie
Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) is a young woman who goes into a church confessional hoping the priest on the other side is a friend of hers named Father Cutler (Norman Eshley). It’s not, however; it’s an older priest named Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) who pressures Jenny into confessing what’s troubling her. She’s having issues with her boyfriend, who’s a bit of a cad, and who convinced her to have an abortion recently. Though Jenny leaves quickly, Meldrum becomes fixated on her and begins to stalk and kill any men he believes have hurt and corrupted her.
This is, of course, boils down to Meldrum’s own repressed sexuality. A thread in the film talks about how archaic the practice of priest celibacy is, reflected in Father Cutler’s attraction and eventual clandestine relationship with Jenny’s older sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). Meldrum is, in his way, the flipside of Mrs. Wakehurst, wholly obsessed with young women. But whereas Wakehurst punishes the girls for their indiscretions, Meldrum aims to protect the girl’s purity, which he believes others in her life are corrupting.
Jenny tries to tell any and all authorities about Father Meldrum, but nobody believes her. She’s just a naive and confused young woman, after all, and this is a respected man of the cloth. He’s doing all of this for her own good, and soon she’ll learn gratitude. In the movie’s most shocking finale, Father Cutler discovers the truth, and even catches Meldrum red-handed after murdering Vanessa. But rather than turn him in, he allows Meldrum to get away with it, to save the Church from the indignity of a scandal. It’s so enraging because you know things like this really have happened, and continue to happen. Walker just put it in the middle of a horror movie.
In between his two
The pair have a 15 year old daughter named Debbie (Kim Butcher) who was in an orphanage until recently. As far as she knows, her parents died. Now that she’s out of the orphanage, Debbie takes up with a biker gang and gets into increasingly violent skirmishes. This is, obviously, to the chagrin of her older half-sister Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), who has taken her in. Jackie is Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage and a new man she’s dating, Graham (Paul Greenwood), is a psychiatrist who believes he can help Debbie. If only Jackie would tell him her family history.
As the movie goes on, we find out that the real history is Dorothy is a murderer and cannibal who used her ability to read tarot cards to lure younger people into their country home to kill and eat them. Pretty gruesome stuff. And despite the authorities believing both she and Edmund are cured, it doesn’t take long for Dorothy to go back to her flesh-drilling ways. Once the already sociopathic Debbie learns her parents are alive, it’s a real homecoming worthy of that chainsaw family in Texas.
Walker and Old People
In Pete Walker’s films, as we’ve seen, it’s the older generations destroying the younger. These movies spoke to the young people of the time, who were obviously the target audience. As a countercultural reaction to the death of the ’60s, Walker shows in graphic detail the resurgence of conservative, buttoned-up, puritanical WWII generation who are not prepared to go quietly into that good night. When young people are evil murderers in his films, it’s always because they are related to the older killers.
In Pete Walker’s cinema, the corrupting influence is not drug-taking and free love, it’s always the repressed parental or grand-parental figures who find that activity repulsive. As an independent exploitation filmmaker, he knew he had to put blood and flesh on the screen, but in each case, he does so with a great deal of political and social satire. The elderly generations, he warns, tongue in cheek, would rather kill us all than admit they’re past their prime.