Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Flesh and Blood Show

1972
Dir. Pete Walker

A group of actors rehearsing a play in an old abandoned seaside theatre are menaced by a homicidal maniac.

When it comes to British horror cinema, writer/director/producer Pete Walker is often sorely overlooked. Beginning his career making mischievous soft-core sexploitation movies, Walker would later progress to deliberately antagonistic, subversive and antiauthoritarian shockers such as Frightmare, House of Whipcord and House of Mortal Sin. Amongst the bare breasts and splashy gore of these films were scathing social commentaries on British institutions such as class, family and the legal system. Unapologetic, violent, exploitative, strangely thoughtful and always anti-establishment in their outlook, Walker’s later films were controversial, not only because of the extreme content, but also because of their reflection on the darker, seedier underbelly of British society. Walker’s first tentative venture into the horror/thriller arena came with Die Screaming Marianne, featuring Susan George as a young woman on the run from her father, a corrupt judge. However it was with The Flesh and Blood Show that the director would really take the plunge into the murky depths of shock-cinema…

Unravelling as a sort of proto-slasher flick, The Flesh and Blood Show exhibits a few traits of the then still-to-be-established subgenre, such as its cast of sexed-up, nubile young people, the isolated location and the lurking killer ready to off the vestiphobic cast one by one. There are also several red herrings and shady characters that could well be capable of carrying out the grisly deeds. Like so many slasher films after it, Walker’s film follows a Ten Little Indians who-dunnit format; it is also rather gialloesque in its unveiling of the killer and his/her motives, as their obsessive psychosis stems from a past misdeed which they are doomed to relive over and over. When the film was first released, the flashback depicting the original crime was conveyed in 3D.



The most successful and frankly irresistible aspect of Walker’s film is the setting. The majority of events play out in an old run down theatre at the end of a pier. The establishing shots of the location are immensely moody and really articulate its remoteness and isolation in a small, misty, out of season seaside town. Inside the theatre await long shadowy hallways that disappear into pitch blackness. The sounds also provide an unsettling atmosphere. A low wind moans through the draughty corridors, water drips constantly from old pipes and ancient floorboards creak under the weight of the dark secrets enfolded within the building. Unfortunately a lot of the action is hard to follow because the location is so dark, and matters become confusing as it’s is hard to differentiate between the various characters as they tentatively, and in the case of the women, usually nakedly, explore the vast, spooky confines of the building.

Alfred Shaughnessy’s screenplay exhibits a number of slyly reflexive tendencies which initially toy around with what is real and what is not. The opening scene sets the precedent as a young naked woman answers a knock on her door in the middle of the night to a man with a knife in his chest. When she responds by screaming he proceeds to fall about laughing as it’s revealed he is an actor who has just finished working on a horror film and was playing a joke on her.



While Walker does get a number of things right – the creepy setting, the spooky atmosphere, the grim tone and the intriguing premise, The Flesh and Blood Show soon stumbles around as unsure and confused as the characters in the dark theatre. The script meanders and breaks any tension it has mustered. While writer Shaughnessy takes the time to establish the characters and Walker layers on the moodiness with a trowel, it’s all quite wasted by a convoluted plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. With a little tightening up; the script could have been really sharp and shocking. The pacing is also rather uneven and any suspense generated by certain scenes in which characters wander around in the dark unaware of the danger they’re in from a heavy-breathing psycho is eroded by too many other moments in which they stand around and discuss how creepy the theatre is, rehearse their play, take off their clothes, go out to the town to get coffee or complain about the chilliness while wearing very little. Much talk of Theatre Group 40, the mysterious company that summoned the actors to the theatre, is sadly unexplored until the end.

While The Flesh and Blood Show may provide mildly exploitative entertainment, for a film with a title such as this, there’s too much flesh and not enough blood, and the overwhelmingly creepy locale and premise is sadly wasted. Still worth checking out though for fans of Walker’s later, more bloodily realised titles.

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