(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Peter Collinson is one of the lost, potentially great cult British directors who never was, for various reasons (principally his death at a young age), and while Fright is a flawed piece of work, you can see and feel the influence it had on 1970’s exploitation cinema, particularly in Britain.

Collinson is best known for 1969’s legendary crime caper The Italian Job, but that is a picture which most people primarily associate with Michael Caine as a key cultural touchstone of the Swinging Sixties, not to mention the iconic Mini Coopers. Unlike other pictures of the period, 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, which first and foremost people would associate with Stanley Kubrick, Peter Collinson was a mere component of The Italian Job’s success in the eyes of many and found his talent as a helmsman overshadowed by the colour and style of that picture. Had things turned in a different direction, Collinson’s follow up might have ended up more anticipated as well as venerated.

As befits someone who was prone to experimentation, Collinson completely changes tack with Fright, a picture about as distant from the Europe-hopping caper of The Italian Job as you could probably imagine. Susan George as a teenage babysitter looking after the young child of middle class couple George Cole and Honor Blackman in a big, old fashioned house, who finds herself terrified and menaced by Ian Bannen’s escaped psychopath. Collinson probably didn’t realise it at the time but Fright is, unexpected, a British forerunner of the American slasher sub-genre in the broader horror context that would be mainstreamed and popularised by Halloween at the end of the same decade, before spawning a legion of imitators and sequels that would define 80’s horror.

Why, in that case, is Fright not better known within both the annals of cult, horror or British cinema?

The answer possibly lies in the execution which, in all honesty, is where Fright falls down.

Though it absolutely reflects the time period and the exploitative aspect of the story, Fright is decidedly pervy by modern standards, whether its Dennis Waterman’s young stud looking to crack George’s virginity or the consistent sexualisation of George in how she dresses and how she is treated by the men around her. This admittedly plays into the terror she feels across the picture, particularly when Bannen’s intruder—his psychosis making him believe she is Blackman’s character, his ex-wife— attempts to rape her, a scene Collinson films with a near excruciating ickiness that makes you feel uncomfortable rather than scared. This is perhaps the point but Fright, by the very definition of its title, is built on suspense that isn’t entirely there.

Part of it is down to George’s quite histrionic performance as a young girl who enters the house feeling uneasy and leaves positivity wracked with terror, but everything is played so directly and on the nose that Collinson doesn’t escalate enough tension within Bannen’s eventual arrival and his actions within the house. George would be better served in a similar role very soon in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. It doesn’t help that we keep cutting back to Cole & Blackman on a night out and while those two would be great to watch even reading the phone book, often Fright sees the escalation of suspense deflated thanks to jagged editing and awkward cutting away. It feels padded and lacking enough of a guiding hand behind the camera to make Bannen truly scary as opposed to unerring and strange.

This is where it differs from later films, particularly Halloween, that pulled this trick off in better style. Fright doesn’t seem to want to *be* a horror film, edging deeper into pure exploration, far more interested in sexualising George than playing on Bannen’s menace (despite his spirited performance as a complete loon) and turning him into a true movie monster. Halloween later externalised this force with Michael Myers, turned him into a silent, stalking menace, but Bannen’s crazy feels like he’s walked out of, as Kim Newman mentions in the extra content, a twisted version of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Fright has pretensions of being both exploration and a true character drama at the same time, and therefore ends up uneven as a result. You want it to be scarier and more thrilling and, well, it’s not.

Nevertheless, Fright is a worthy release from StudioCanal, even if the extras are scant – a conversation with Susan George recollecting making the film and a great conversation with film scholar Kim Newman who provides excellent context and history. Fright may not be a great picture but in the history of exploration horror and the slasher movie, it plays an unexpectedly important role.

★★1/2

Fright is now available on BluRay from StudioCanal.

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