The Cult of Horror Screenwriter David McGillivray (Part One)

*contains spoilers

When you mention the screenplays of David McGillivray (1947-), you must mention in particular the films of director Pete Walker (1939-) in the same breath. And also mention the films of Norman J. Warren (1942-).

Screenwriter David McGillivray

All three started off in the British sexploitation film business but gravitated for a time into horror movies, creating films which broke with the Hammer horror Gothic period pieces and were in some cases entirely original.

Screenwriter McGillivray made four horror films with Walker and they were House of Whipcord (1974), Frightmare (1974), House of Mortal Sin aka The Confessional (1975) and Schizo (1976). Then McGillivray worked with Warren on a couple of horrors entitled Satan’s Slave (1976) and Terror (1978).

Director Pete Walker

I haven’t yet read McGillivray’s memoir and instead concentrate on other interviews as not to colour my view. I’m only a judge as a passionate and I hope positive reviewer. The book is on order.

What is interesting about McGillivray and Walker’s films is their mischievous content and in three of them, the delightful use of actress Sheila Keith whose almost plummy voice adds an extra dimension to her mainly murderous characters.

I don’t know how quickly McGillivray wrote most of his screenplays – it has been mentioned less than a fortnight in one case – but two came out in 1974.

Director Norman J. Warren

Yes, they are pulpy exploitation, but oh, what beauties, as they never go over the top with gore and despite with what could only be described as being tasteless subject matter – they are tastefully done.

They are exploitation art of the cult variety.

Poster for Pete Walker’s Cool it Carol (1970)

McGillivray is a Londoner who was one of the youngest film reviewers in Britain at one stage. He interviewed Pete Walker after seeing his film Cool It Carol! (1970) and this led to him writing screenplays for the director. McGillivray has always been anti-censorship and as a self-confessed pornographer, his horror films pushed the boundaries in terms of horrific script content rather than sex and nudity.

“The censor still doesn’t like sex and violence,” said McGillivray, noting especially together.

The first three horror movies he made for Walker appear to have been based on story ideas Walker passed on to McGillivray. He admits that Walker paid him “peanuts” and that for House of Whipcord, he was paid the sum of two hundred quid or pounds.

House of Whipcord (1974) poster

He describes House of Whipcord as “not a bad adventure story” and it is the only film of his that he can bear to watch. McGillivray also said that all the mad couples in his movies were based on the couple from the Bryan Forbes (1926-2013 multiple sclerosis) movie Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). A classic black and white, try to dig it up.

House of Whipcord is tongue in cheekily described as a film that is dedicated to those disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who would wish to see a return to the use of corporal and capital punishment.

The House of Whipcord is for those who want a return to the noose… and others

Of course, any viewers of that sort probably wouldn’t be going to see a horror movie, unless they took a perverse pleasure in the proceedings. Those “disturbed” people of the day included one Mary Whitehouse (1920-2001) a conservative activist against the permissive society and social liberalism. She would rather see a film like House of Whipcord banned than be caught dead in its audience. Not that the poor old girl necessarily would have liked hanging and flogging brought back to Britain as she seems to have had a preoccupation with sex. But there were those who did wish so. In fact, there were entire generations brought up on hanging before it was abolished in the 1960s who missed the procedure.

Mary Whitehouse didn’t like the smut which prevailed in Britain on tv and in the cinema

“Who did that to you love?… He deserves to swing for that, whoever he was,” says a truck driver to a physically tortured girl he picks up on a country road one dark and stormy night at the beginning of House of Whipcord.

Pete Walker’s The Comeback (1978) trailer

Oh, the looney dimensions of this film in which those who inflicted the wounds on the young woman weren’t necessarily men… and not only that, they belong to an “institution” which carries out floggings and hangings for the slightest misdemeanours as if all for the public good.

House of Whipcord was born in a time of social upheaval in Britain. The Conservative government had passed an Industrial Relations Act which caused chaos and there was the coal miner’s strike of 1972 which led to battles with the police. The IRA were letting off bombs in Britain as well.

The Battle at Saltley Gate in 1972 was part of the social upheaval in Britain

“Life was indeed grubby,” reflected McGillivray of the 1970s in one interview, perhaps also talking about the Soho strip club and cinema scene as well.

The film jumps from the stormy night back to the beginning of the girl’s story. She has been given a small fine for appearing naked in public… and certainly by the way she dresses and the people she hangs out with, she could be identified as having “lax morals”. And she is targeted. Sadly, she is not very bright, as she is picked up by a stranger who threatens to slash her face with a piece of ice… all in good fun! He takes her to the countryside where she is left in the care of two wardens at this “institution”. They are played by the incomparable Sheila Keith (1920-2004) and 1950s actress Dorothy Gordon (1924-2013).

Sheila Keith gave a star-making turn in House of Whipcord as a warden

After being stripped of her clothes as well as her near impossibly high and multi-coloured platform shoes… The wardens demand her to wash all over “or someone will do it for you” which is followed by an ominous organ key sounding.

“I’m going to make you ashamed of your body…,” says Keith to the girl. “I’m going to see to that personally.”

We have no idea what she is going to do at this stage of the movie but we soon learn that it will probably be with a cat-o’-nine-tails.

There’s nothing like a bit of flagellation!

When McGillivray was given the treatment for House of Whipcord, Walker said: “Finish this script by the end of next week.” In it, Walker had built in the corporal flagellation scenes “to excite his audience” according to an interview with McGillivray.

Writer and director were obviously pushing the envelope and they succeeded in creating an ingenious horror which almost has a ‘do not touch’ sign on it for those with the most conservative morals without making themselves look a bit silly for criticising the film in the first place.

You didn’t expect a television set and running water, did you?

Sheila Keith’s star turn as the whip wielding Walker had her appear prominently again in the director’s Frightmare and House of Mortal Sin. Have you also noticed that her last name is the same as that of the director?! With the director himself almost flogging the girls is part of the genius of the finished product. Sex and violence subliminally applied.

The senile judge at the institution is actor Patrick Barr (1908-85), who was in Pete Walker’s earlier Flesh and Blood Show (1972), and the governor is named Margaret Wakehurst, a riff on conservative politician Margaret Thatcher as well as Mary Whitehouse. She is played well by Barbara Markham (1910-83), who was a famous elocution and voice coach. She taught Meryl Streep to speak with an English accent in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

Barbara Markham as the insane governor of the ‘institution’

The judge is there “to pass… proper sentence on depraved females of every category with whom the effete and misguided courts of Britain today have been too lenient…”

Great stuff! No teevee and chintz curtains at this place!! In fact, if you steal a slice of bread, you could be hanged, like one poor girl. It was her third offence.

Pete Walker’s first horror The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) trailer

Yes, this is a “proper house of correction” and the thrill of House of Whipcord is its absurdity and yet also the fact that such places exist in the world in countries which are not so “civilised”.

As a friend who watched the film said: “I wonder if there really is places like that?”

There’s no wondering as House of Whipcord has its place in the classic horror universe despite a real lack of gore. Sure, there’s nudity, hanging and floggings… and it’s nice to see the criminally insane – or just slightly deluded – being able to find employment especially in the private sector… It’s just lucky this girl has a friend who cares enough to try and find her… And when this girl of lax morals does escape that stormy night, the truck driver takes her back to what seems to be the nearest hospital or clinic which is the prison.

House of Whipcord (1974) trailer

It just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a seemingly respectable façade. Something House of Mortal Sin would delve into. House of Whipcord is a meeting of the public and the private… in many more ways than one!

The typical member of the middle-aged public, the truck driver is pro-hanging anecdotally.

“I do not intend to enter a discussion of that kind,” says governor Margaret Wakehurst earlier in the film when accused of murder.

A kind truck driver in more ways than one

‘Kind’ is also the surname of the truck driver. ‘Of that kind’ being the type who helps his fellow man, an everyman, working class, yet conservative when it comes to the treatment of serious criminals as opposed to those who steal a slice of bread… But I am getting into a discussion ‘of that kind’!

Otherwise, revel in its conservative characters and their outrageous behaviour. May I have permission to kill, is the question raised in House of Whipcord, as the governor gets the senile judge to rubber stamp her plans to hang her prisoners. It drives her further into insanity, of course: “… animals… and laughing at me, all of them,” she says in a monologue that proves she’s quite mad.

The video nasties campaign in Britain in the 1980s seemed vengeful

Poor Mary Whitehouse. I wonder if she was aware of this movie? McGillivray has helped forge an incredible up yours to the conservatives while they were watching and unable to retaliate… Because writer and director were not in the wrong on their level!

It was several years later when Margaret Thatcher took her revenge on the exploitation film industry when she cut funding to the homemade British films and the quota system. Add to that the video nasty debate which saw VHS tapes of certain movies banned from sale and it seemed for a time the governess in House of Whipcord had won. Yet, justice rang out and almost all those movies are released uncut on disc in current day Britain.

Margaret Wakehurst…. I mean Margaret Thatcher helped kill the low-budget film industry

McGillivray’s second movie with Walker, Frightmare, starts with a couple being sentenced by a judge in the late 1950s. They miss out on the death penalty for their crimes and they are instead committed.

“You shall remain in that mental institution until there can be no doubt whatsoever that you are fit and able to take your place in society again,” says the judge.

Frightmare (1974) poster

Walker is being mischievous again with the criminal system although from the other side of the argument. This one beginning with the fact that perhaps that couple should’ve been hanged or locked up for life. As Frightmare poses at the beginning… the couple, who are butchers, could be freed!

Sheila Keith stars in Frightmare

Throw in an underage girl, cannibalism and a driller killer before it became fashionable… Frightmare has another great performance by Sheila Keith.

The film starts off with the underage girl instigating an once punch attack on a barman who wouldn’t serve her, at the hands of her bikie boyfriend. It ends with a total bashing.

Meanwhile the ‘hero’ of the piece is possibly the wimpy psychiatrist in the movie. He wears glasses and is embarrassed by his profession.

Pete Walker’s Die Screaming Marianne (1971) trailer

Frightmare contrasts the violence of the streets with that which occurs behind closed doors in demented middle-class family suburbia. Between these extremes is the world of dinner parties and friends coming together happily. The fifteen-year-old underage girl who links all three of these worlds together making her a lynchpin for a story which is again, artfully exploitative and another classic.

Perhaps it really is just a nightmare

The subject of caring for a family member with a mental illness is also exploited to the max as it asks us whether in some extreme cases it must be left up to government institutions to care for those who are just too sick to take their place… who are at risk of getting sick again. Or is it due to government cut-backs that they are being released unsupervised?

“I have a feeling that she’s really trying to make us believe that she really is better,” says the mentally ill woman’s husband played by Rupert Davies (1916-76 cancer). Keith is the wife.

Vincent Price and executive producer Tony Tenser on the set of The Witchfinder General

This woman talks of headaches and the “other place”, while her visiting daughter – or possibly step-daughter – drops off bloody parcels wrapped in butcher’s paper and hopes: “you won’t be needing these parcels for much longer.”

Oh, the hassle of dealing with unwell aged parents who possibly eat brains!

Frightmare is the shortest film of the four McGillivray did with Walker, with a running time of less than ninety minutes – but it is the richer for it. And Tony Tenser as executive producer is on board, which shows that the best was made of the distribution of this film in terms of its horror content.

Back with her friends, Keith and Davies’s daughter admits that life is getting her down as she works as a make-up artist for what appears to be a film studio. She applies wounds to the characters while we suspect her mother applies the real thing. It’s a great contrast of normal and abnormal and the real and unreal coming together into one.

Our possible hero is the psychiatrist in House of Whipcord

Mother gives tarot readings but not very nice ones as she selects victims in her own home.

Meanwhile House of Whipcord is playing onscreen at a cinema as our hero the psychiatrist gets involved with the older daughter… But he will soon prove how absolutely useless he really is.

I guess that’s what the film is saying and that is in some cases when faced with evil, psychiatrists are simply naïve or impotent. And that the younger generation can be unreachable too. And, also, that the bad seed may be passed on from generation to generation.

“How could you be so cruel…”

“Am I well, dear. I don’t understand…,” says mother as played by Keith.

“Have you started again?,” her family asks.

“…How could you be so cruel,” says mother.

It could all be a comedy of manners as we never really know what simmers below the surface in real life or behind closed curtains.

“Can’t I have any interests?,” says Keith plummily and about to burst into tears as her tarot cards are being taken away.

What does lay behind the façade is true violent witchcraft, paranoia and just plain criminally insane mental illness and they all meld together in McGillivray’s screenplay which is brought to life so well by Walker.

Lobby card for Frightmare

Is madness hereditary? Even if a child is not brought up by mad parents? The underage girl in the plot is suspected of interfering with corpses in almost the worst possible way – something “more than murder”.

Yes, mummy still likes to drill holes into people in preparation to eat their brains it would appear… And after being called “quite mad” at one tarot reading that ends in psychosis, Keith shoves a red-hot poker into a paying customer. It’s not the first.

Mummy is handy with tarot cards and red hot poker playing

“She twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable,” says a doctor who knows the case from the 1950s. Apparently, Keith’s parents ate her bunny rabbit during The Great Depression after it died. “They’re completely cured… as sane as you or I.”

Davies apparently helped his poor wife cover up the crimes and so he was committed too.

Frightmare says keep cannibals, especially pathological ones locked up… which I suppose is the right thing in retrospect… and keep an eye on their children.

She’s also handy at drilling holes in people’s brains

No wonder there is a stigma to mental illness and the film surprisingly makes the distinction between being a bit depressed or disturbed by dysfunctional families and being criminally insane. It is to be applauded for that.

Frightmare was the first Pete Walker film I ever saw and I sought out his other films as a result. I don’t mind smutty movies but I was brought up by parents who wouldn’t allow us to watch Benny Hill. We could watch Benny Hill at grandma’s place though. As a result of my upbringing, I prefer McGillivray’s horrors.

Frightmare (1974) trailer

But don’t get me wrong as I watched Caligula (1980) as a teenager, which really isn’t smut. Perhaps that’s why I’m so disturbed. And I also loved the Carry On movies. There was no real release of Confessions of a Window Cleaner which was before my time anyway and that film cleaned up at the British box office the same year as McGillivray’s first two Walker films.

Frightmare’s freeze frame of Davies watching as one of his daughter’s murders the other turns into a film negative image as the voice of the judge’s verdict has also been overturned. It’s one of the great underrated exploitation horror endings.

Father Rupert Davies endures the horrific ending of Frightmare

Frightmare was not the hit that the filmmakers hoped it would be. Whereas House of Whipcord was one the year’s success stories, Frightmare was released at the time of a major string of IRA bombings. Probably as a result of this, people stayed away from the cinemas.

McGillivray and Walker take on the Catholic church in PART TWO

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