Proto-Slashers: Looking at the flicks that paved the way for Halloween and the heyday of slasher movies.
While babysitting, a young woman is stalked by a psychopath who has recently escaped from a mental hospital. That’s the basic plot for the 1971 Brit horror flick Fright starring Susan George, who would later go on to co-star with Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs. Sounds suggestively similar to the premise for Halloween, though Fright beat Carpenter’s masterpiece to the screen by seven years. The fact is, other than the desire of both films’ psychos (and both films’ directors) to play cat and mouse games with their victims, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. It’s interesting, however, to see what two very different filmmaking teams can make of a similar starting point.
In Fright, a babysitter (George) arrives at a large, stately and isolated home. We are introduced to the parents as they prepare for a night on the town, then we meet their annoying toddler. The couple exchanges many meaningful glances and dialogue that suggests something is wrong, while never defining what that might be. The wife, Honor Blackman (a.k.a. Pussy Galore from the James Bond flick Goldfinger) is extremely nervous and not at all sure about leaving her son with George. Her husband, however, convinces Blackman that everything will be fine, and the couple eventually leaves. Tension builds slowly as George is spooked by noises, creepy dolls, screaming teakettles, and wind-blown sheets(!), and the director, Peter Collinson, plays games with the audience by startling us with faces through windows, suggestive camera angles, and the inevitable red herring or two. One of those red herrings takes the form of George’s sorta boyfriend who arrives to seduce the babysitter, only to be sent packing.
Left again on her own to care for the sleeping child and to watch Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies on TV, George is once more interrupted. A plot point that I’ll omit so as to not spoil it leads to the arrival of Blackman’s’ ex-husband who is also her son’s biological father. He also happens to be our psycho-on-the-loose. Slowly, George begins to realize that this helpful stranger is not so right in the head, and she takes steps to protect herself and the child.
Fright is a fun, sometimes tense, and frequently creepy thriller that is definitely a product of its era and its country of origin. Coming across like a made for British TV thriller at times, the movie can seem overly “polite”, and it’s a slow build. This, however, gives the audience time to connect with the characters and the film time to build suspense. The meaningful looks that characters exchange, and the dialogue heavy with innuendo about potential threats seem dated, but the film’s director injects some of his trademark nastiness into the proceedings that lends Fright a welcome uncomfortable air. For example, Collinson’s film adds a sexually threatening element that is absent from Halloween, and in Fright, there is a more tangible concern for the safety of the child George is caring for than there is for the kids under Jamie Lee Curtis’ watch in Halloween. And though this sort of thing can be deadly in breaking the tension in some films, Collinson make excellent use of parallel action as he cuts back and forth between the babysitter in peril and the couple out on the town as all the characters slowly learn what’s going on (This also gives viewers a look into the sordid way middle-aged couples got down in the early 70’s, wickedly dancing to unbelievable organ music). Finally, Fright’s psycho, as played by Scottish actor Ian Bannen (Waking Ned Devine; yes, I know it’s Irish), is effective, though sometimes over the top by today’s standards. He is, most importantly however, as threatening as his character is unpredictable.
The film’s talented director, Peter Collinson, is probably best known for the original version of The Italian Job, though he made a couple of other notable thrillers — The Penthouse, and for Hammer, Straight On Till Morning. He also directed an unfortunate remake of the Proto-Slasher classic The Spiral Staircase. Collinson died of lung cancer in 1980.
Fright was released on a terrific Region 1 disc by Anchor Bay in 2002. Though it’s OOP, it can still be found online for an incredibly reasonable price. Definitely worth checking out for viewers with patience, an appreciation for early 70’s thrillers, and slasher fiends interested in the roots of their favorite sub-genre. Come back, Susan George! The movies need you!