The Cult of Horror Screenwriter David McGillivray (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

McGillivray and Walker followed the film up with House of Mortal Sin. It’s reported by the writer that Walker was a lapsed Catholic who hated the religion and as a result he wanted to cause a lot of controversy. The true fact is he was almost spot on in the end about the Catholic church and its past attitudes to its own crimes.

House of Mortal Sin aka The Confessional (1975) poster

Originally called The Confessional, I prefer the title House of Mortal Sin as it ties up with House of Whipcord while still having more than a subtle poke at the church.

It starts with the suicide of a girl for no apparent reason as the pages of a Bible flutter in the breeze from an open window the girl has just jumped from. The church is instantly implicated by the Bible.

Anthony Sharp sets back the reputation of the Catholic church… or will there be a cover-up?

Another original story by Pete Walker, it’s an early film to deal with the evils of the Catholic church although it doesn’t go into the sexual abuse side of things. It does also point out that there are good priests as well as bad and it is because of the celibacy rule that more good ones leave the church rather than join it.

Anyway, it’s the bad ones we have to worry about and in this film, it is actor Anthony Sharp (1915-84 natural causes) in his only starring role on film. Also featured in the cast is Susan Penhaligon (1949-), Stephanie Beacham (1947-) ‘and’ Sheila Keith in a less prominent but important role in the film.

Susan Penhaligon shouldn’t have gone to confession… or had an abortion

Penhaligon goes to the Church of the Sacred Heart where a copy of the Catholic Times hangs beside the door. She knows one of the priests there from school days who was looking for a place to room and she is there to offer him accommodation. She goes inside the church as the mother of the dead girl laments outside. She then goes inside the confessional but its Sharp who asks probing questions about her last affair which ended badly.

“How long was it since you were last intimate?,” asks the priest, indecently.

Believe it or not, there are good priests like the one played by Norman Eshley

Meanwhile, the right priest, played by actor Norman Eshley (1945-), is with Beacham at Penhaligon’s flat, who says: “There are things wrong with the church but every job has its problems.”

It cuts back to Penhaligon who talks about her having an abortion… a mortal sin that could send you to hell?

Soon priest Sharp is stalking her and mistakes a man she is with as possibly the ex-boyfriend who treated her badly. As Penhaligon steps out for cigarettes, bodily harm is inflicted on her friend by a priest whose face we don’t see – but it has to be Sharp.

Sheila Keith has a funny eye in House of Mortal Sin

Penhaligon then goes to Sharp’s presbytery where he obviously hopes to get more gory details from her as a young teenage couple leaves in tears. There is something not right about this place where the priest lives and the house of mortal sin could be any house… But with Sheila Keith as housekeeper you have to wonder. Penhaligon is there because she’s left her keys in the confessional and just wants them back.

“I was put on this Earth to combat sin,” says Sharp, who tape records his confessions, much to Penhaligon’s shock.

Modern day advertisement for House of Mortal Sin

Keith’s performance as the housekeeper is a restrained one for most of the picture and she seems to have a hold on Sharp who listens to Penhaligon’s voice over again on his recorder.

The question of the relevancy of celibacy is brought up in 1975 and I’m sure it came up long before that. I guess priests with no families are cheaper for the church coffers. At least Sharp’s character is not raping choirboys.

“I know you killed her,” says the mother of the suicide who found that her daughter was pregnant but the counselling priest would send her home in tears every night. Sharp is definitely the worst kind… an interfering priest. And there’s a murder this time, definitely by Sharp and with various complications.

The Devil’s Doorway (2018) trailer

House of Mortal Sin is beautifully shot. Walker as a director was at the peak of his game. There’s even a theme in the movie about elder abuse and perhaps some of the reasons why people do it. Poor Sharp could have done without celibacy and that is at the core of the movie’s beef with the church. Paedophilia is conspicuous by its absence but I think the writer thought we’d take that into account anyway when talking about churches, sadly, in general.

“I want her… of course, it’s wrong but I can’t control it,” says Sharp to his senile mother who is kept in the attic and tortured by the housekeeper.

That a man can love a woman before he commits himself to God and Christ seems to be a conflict that can’t be resolved… in this movie at least without committing murder! And the film is also an indictment of churches using senior officials as guidance counsellors of secrets others don’t know, especially when they have no psychology degree. And even if they did, they may be used in the wrong hands.

Pete Walker was obviously a sacred heart betrayed by the Catholic church… like many

House of Mortal Sin is once more a Walker epic at over a hundred minutes. As a fan of action-packed horror and adventure, I can see why this film is undervalued as it is steady and meditative. Perhaps it suggests a karmic religion is better. It is this which defines McGillivray’s screenplay along with the natural dialogue. The writer, incidentally, hates his own dialogue in nearly all his films.

That Sharp’s priest would resort to blackmail is not surprising… But meanwhile Eshley’s good priest plans to resign over his growing love for Beacham in a scene with actor Mervyn Johns (1899-1992), in his last movie, as a high Catholic official. Johns tells him he can still do the church’s good work in another occupation. It is one of the most life-affirming lines to be found in a horror screenplay and a short but great scene.

Mervyn Johns and dummy Hugo in the classic Dead of Night (1945)

By the end of the movie, things don’t work out for most of the characters…

“Love and understanding,” says housekeeper Keith about what was lacking in her relationship with Sharp as they were once possibly lovers until his mother had him go into the church. Throughout the movie she has been wearing glasses with one eye shaded. She finally rips off the glasses and reveals she is “the one with the funny eye” ever since an operation as a girl went wrong and thus made her unworthy of attention.

Stephanie Beacham is victim to Anthony Sharp’s misguided priest in House of Mortal Sin

That it all climaxes on a stormy Sunday night is probably lost on most viewers as the murder and heresy seems to ring out from God in the very air. It all combines into a satisfying horror conclusion.

Perhaps the key line in McGillivray’s script is near the very end: “Yes,” says Sharp “that is what we must both do… we must cover up our involvement with the minimum of scandal.” It’s the good priest he’s talking to. “The lord will forgive us for preserving the honour of our church.”

When cover-up meets reality

And it is through the secrets between the priests which keeps them and the church together. That and the secrets of the confessional. And Sharp burns Eshley’s resignation as Sharp’s mother and housekeeper lie dead. And so it seems the murders in this film are not as outlandish as the murders in House of Whipcord or even Frightmare.

“I’m always drawn to things I shouldn’t be enjoying,” said McGillivray in an interview. “It’s a young person thing.” He also said that really he wanted make “nasty horror films to give people a scare… It’s not Oscar winning stuff but its passable.” I think they’re better than that.

House of Mortal Sin (1975) trailer

The last of the McGillivray/Walker films is Schizo. It was the film where the writer and director had a fallout “big time”.

“I think I know best, which is stupid,” said McGillivray of the bust up, “I’m impossible to work with.”

McGillivray gets credit for the film although how much is his or that of writer Murray Smith who goes uncredited for rewrites in the finished product after McGillivray left the project I don‘t know.

The exploitative Schizo (1976) poster

It is reported that writer and director differed on the plot. It is a standard slasher plot to a degree and this differed from the previous three films which seemed to have some sort of quality message beneath or as a part of the exploitation. Still, I count it as a part of the McGillivray horrors and its quite good. Except the title is today probably a bit politically incorrect in terms of mental illness.

“Just a nutcase,” says Lynne Frederick (1954-94 undetermined) after receiving an anonymous phone call from Jack Watson (1915-99). She is the Ice Queen, an ice skater who has just married… and Watson who we think is the schizo of the title has left a large knife or small machete caked in dried blood next to her wedding cake at the reception. Watson is some down and out character who we surmise could possibly be her father.

Poor Lynne discovers a bloodied knife left to cut her wedding cake

With actress Stephanie Beacham, a regular of Pete Walker and Norman J Warren movies of the future, breathing heavily down the phone as a joke, poor Lynne seems to be being stalked.

Dare I say, McGillivray has helped produced another horror epic at just under 110 minutes but well over the 90-minute mark of such trifles.

Jack Watson had a role in The Wild Geese (1978) random trailer

“He’s my mother’s lover,” Lynne finally admits about this stalker as she goes into flashback as a seven-year-old into exploitation territory with her naked mother and Watson arguing before he stabs her mother to death.

We then realise Lynne is talking to actor John Fraser (1931-) while on a couch in psychiatric style. It’s a very well-handled sequence. Fraser is certain that the wedding set off certain hallucinations in Lynne but we know better… or do we?

Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick were a loving couple for a time

Frederick was the widow of actor Peter Sellers (1925-80 heart attack) and I liked her limited talents in the Cornel Wilde (1912-89 leukemia) directed No Blade of Grass (1970). She was also in another very good Apocalyptic type movie about ants gaining incredible intelligence entitled Phase IV (1974).

No Blade of Grass (1970) trailer

It’s sad that British roses must wither and die and she made only one more film after Schizo, the highly criticised Peter Sellers ‘comedy’ The Prisoner of Zenda (1979). Sellers’ daughter said in interviews that she didn’t think Lynne terribly bright but Sellers’ children remained bitter because she received his fortune upon his death. But I digress.

There is finally another murder in Schizo, that of Fraser by an unknown assailant in black gloves with a knife.

The beauty about this slasher is that it is so believable as though a part of everyday life. I guess the best slashers are. At least they’re not teenagers being killed one after another which became the norm in the American version of the slasher from the late 1970s onwards.

Frederick earns a mini-Scream Queen title for her role in Schizo and perhaps Phase IV

House of Whipcord was so outrageous it almost doesn’t beggar belief and yet that’s what makes McGillivray’s first epic such a wonderful classic of almost politically correct non-political correctness. Well, at least, for some. It is the reason why the first three movies are all still relevant today. While they are obviously 1970s ‘products’ they are also so absorbing with their longer running times, a couple of them especially, that they transcend exploitation and deserve the title of horror exploitation art.

Phase IV (1974) trailer

I mention the title might seem exploitative but McGillivray has admitted he likes one-word titles such as Psycho and Frightmare. He loved Tarantula (1955) as a kid. Schizo takes the Psycho title to an extreme exploitative level.

Schizo has a psychic element to it, with Lynne turning up to a spiritualist reading at the local hall, something which leads to the psychic woman’s bloody death at the hands of a blunt instrument before being thrown under a bus. Is Watson still stalking? Or is it Lynne herself?

The poor psychic who falls prey to a killer in Schizo

Walker himself would only make a few more features after this, ending with House of the Long Shadows (1983), a reworking of the well-worn Seven Keys to Baldpate novel written by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933 heart attack) in 1913. Having probably made a fortune producing most of his own movies, he reportedly turned to buying and restoring cinemas.

A ‘kind of’ Schizo trailer but really just a few scenes

Walker is quoted about his films as saying: “All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief.”

Schizo is the most conventional of, dare I say it again, McGillivray’s screenplays. There is the usual final twist but we can far from guess what it is long before the end credits.

What is interesting though is the link between mental illness and the psychic world as well as mental illness and the psychosexual as a child. And we’re really not sure who is committing the murders. If it’s Lynne, she really has a split personality, one which has psychotic breaks.

Was it Lynne all the time?

If it’s her mother’s lover then he is purely a psychopath… But that these two characters are at odds perhaps over what was perceived as domestic and sexual violence by a young child when it was perhaps really just a couple getting it on and having a ball. That ends the Pete Walker films.

Satan’s Slave poster or DVD cover

We move onto McGillivray’s Norman J. Warren movies Satan’s Slave and Terror. And yes, Satan’s Slave is a Crown International Release which usually automatically indicates it’s going to be crap. It is not a complete disaster.

There is no story credit for this one and so, is it a totally original screenplay by McGillivray? Perhaps in the past the writer had to have his stories supplied as he is a self-confessed hack and his work with Warren is of a lesser quality. But then again, it was Warren’s first stab at the horror genre after his sexploitation films.

“They’re not voices, they’re premonitions,” says our heroine after announcing to her boyfriend she’s visiting an uncle in the countryside.

Who is the Satan worshipper at the beginning of Satan’s Slave?

If her uncle is Michael Gough (1916-2011 pneumonia), then he’s a devil worshipper as it is his voice beneath the mask at a Satanic meet at the beginning of the film. But we’re probably not meant to know that. Upon her parents perishing in a fiery car explosion as they arrive at her uncle’s country manor, our heroine played by Candace Glendenning (1953-) is absorbed into the household.

Glendenning also appeared in the classic Tower of Evil (1972) as well as Pete Walker’s first real attempt at horror The Flesh and Blood Show (1972).

The attractive actress with the blue eyes Candace Glendenning

As for Satan’s Slave, it has a suspenseful scene in a lift followed by a well-staged gory suicide from a building top somewhere in the city. Everything in the household seems so normal… except her cousin is a murderer and her uncle a Satanist.

Warren does well in framing a beautiful image but the movie seems a bit slow. The dialogue is good as usual. I find it hard to decide if Satan’s Slave is a flat ineffective shocker or if it is a stately, if very cheap, horror. With its nudity and violence there is no doubt this is still exploitation material and it was very successful at the local box office where it was re-released a number of times.

The person with these scissors doesn’t show much character

It is reported the budget of Satan’s Slave came in at around 35,000 pounds and it was shot in the same country house where Virgin Witch (1972), with its very high female nudity quotient, was shot. How little money McGillivray was paid for the script I can only wonder.

Throw in with the nudity a bit of necromancy and Warren’s Satan’s Slave is a half-decent start to his horror career which would peak with Prey (1977) and, especially, Inseminoid (1981).

Virgin Witch (1972) trailer

The movie Terror came next and is the last of McGillivray’s 1970s horror screenplays. It was probably his easiest pay check of all even though he probably still got paid next to nothing. The movie was formulated by Warren after he saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). He immediately thought he had seen a masterpiece of witchcraft and lighting and horror and as a result decided to create his own horror in the same vein right down to it not making a whole lot of sense.

Satan’s Slave (1976) trailer

But it is that factor – the not quite making sense – which distinguishes so many Italian horrors and giallos. And I even think Argento might have vaguely been proud of being the inspiration for this one.

It tells the story, such that it is, of a witch from centuries past who is burned at the stake but places a curse on the family responsible. There’s a bit of Michael Reeves’s The Witchfinder General (1968) about the beginning of Terror although there is no doubt this witch has great powers compared to the ordinary humans killed in Reeves’s film.

A quad poster for Terror (1978)

The director and writer have improved on Satan’s Slave with richer atmosphere and an array of killings which I guess were dreamt up by the writers of the original story Les and Moira Young who acted as a cinematographer and associate producer respectively. All I know is Les died in 2013.

“Dare to challenge one who serves the master?!,” cries the ghost of the witch who chops off the head of a female relative with a sword… But then The End comes up on the screen and we are in the same house only centuries later watching a rough cut of the latest film by the producer and relative of the woman murdered.

Lord of the Flies star James Aubrey is on the right in Terror (1978)

It’s a clever opening as the producer points out that the sword on the wall is the same one that killed his relative. It’s a true story after all!

One of the featured stars of the film is James Aubrey (1947-2010 pancreatic cancer) who was Ralph in the original Lord of the Flies (1963) and he along with many others die under memorable circumstances. There is definitely something supernatural about this movie, which like Argento, has a heavy electronic score in places as its cast escapes, at least for a spell… the murderer.

Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1981) trailer. Love that synth music!

McGillivray’s script doesn’t get much of a look in as the murders take centre stage.

Writer and director have fun sending up the sexual exploitation genre they worked in with the behind the scenes filming of something called Bath-Time With Brenda at the studio.

“Softcore garbage,” says Aubrey in what must be a genuine McGillivray line.

Terror (1978) trailer

One of the best scenes in the movie features a levitating car and another with reels and reels of film unspooling due to some ghostly wind. Apparently, several damaged copies of Saturday Night Fever were used for this scene. There is also a fleeting appearance by actor Peter Mayhew (1944-2019) who was Chewbacca in many a Star Wars movie as a mechanic who unwittingly terrorises a woman during a storm. And going along with Bath-Time With Brenda is a nod to the Soho strip club scene of the 1970s with a stripper in a bar.

Peter Mayhew makes a fleeting appearance in Terror

Terror is more exciting and atmospheric than Satan’s Slave. In the end, it is a case of the pen being mightier than the sword or at least both of them being on an even par, as the ending, as written, has the sword from the beginning of the movie striking the last blow. The film made money both in Britain and the United States.

Worst Fears DVD cover

Thus, that ends McGillivray’s horrors. He would have several other screenplays that weren’t produced but would remain busy especially with his association with comedian Julian Clary (1959-). He’s made short films too which were linked into the compilation Worst Fears (2016).

McGillivray is known as McG to his friends. Here’s his autobiography cover.

British films were popular at home until around 1974, which is when House of Whipcord and Frightmare were released. It was then that New Hollywood American product took more precedence at the box office. The British sex film and horror more or less died in the late 1970s box office wise.

With House of Whipcord a hit, then Frightmare a flop, The House of Mortal Sin was also a slight disappointment at the box office probably because it didn’t have a bankable star. Apparently, Peter Cushing turned it down. Warren’s films made money.

McGillivray pops in to repent at the local

McGillivray earns his star in the Pantheon of cult movies though, especially because it was the producers and distributors that ended up with all the cash. His and Walker’s horror movies aren’t necessarily very scary, compared with the graphic violence these days in multi-speaker and big screen multiplexes. All we can do is see them on the home screen which is getting bigger each year. The director was out to shock in more ways than one rather than craft Hitchcockian suspense, but the films are graced with good dialogue and some unforgettable characters all thanks to that item which every enjoyable film totally needs – a good script.

I contacted David McGillivray and here is an interview. As I expected the responses were brief  – he tends to do that – and he shows a contempt for his 1970s horror work and perhaps for those who dare to love his collaborations. In fact, it’s like asking questions of the genie/djinn from the Wishmaster movies as you never get the results you’d hoped for. The first few questions were near unpublishable which he later admitted he’s prone to… Otherwise he seems quite nice.

I asked about what he thought of Seance on a Wet Afternoon as it was one of the most influential of the films that he saw in his youth upon his later work… It is his most satisfying answer.

I first saw Seance on a Wet Afternoon on 10.7.64 and described it as “fantastically tense.”
I saw it again 4.5.08 and gave more detail:
“I put this in my ‘best’ list for ‘Film Comment.’ It would still be in a similar list today. One of
our most underrated directors, Bryan Forbes, creates one suspenseful scene after another,
based on a firecracker of a novel (which I read after seeing the film first time round). Gerry
Turpin’s black and white photography is equal to that of Freddie Francis. The location
shooting in London’s West End (including much on the tube) is superb. Kim Stanley is
spellbinding in the lead. What a performance! (I’d forgotten it got her an Oscar nomination).
Richard Attenborough provides solid support. I wonder whether anyone will ever notice I copied their relationship twice, first for House of Whipcord and then more precisely for Frightmare? Up until this year those seeing the film for the first time would dismiss it as incredible. But since the Shannon Matthews case (ed. It’s a British kidnapping case from 2008), ’séance’ now seems astonishingly timely.”

Seance for a Wet Afternoon (1964) trailer

What was your interest in the Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films in the late 1960s and early 70s. There must have been some which influenced you…

…I didn’t like Hammer’s Gothic films because I couldn’t relate to them. I liked their psychological horror films set in the present. Amicus was fun.

How much were you paid for each of the four Pete Walker films? And the two Norman J. Warren films as well? You seem to have almost done them for practically nothing…

I can’t remember exact amounts now but I bet I wrote about them in my pieces for Shock Xpress.

Was there any solace that other great screenplays in history were written for next to nothing? Or is there no precedent for you? Poverty Row studio Monogram’s Detour (1945) comes to mind…

I used to complain a lot about not being paid enough. But I was broke in those days.

House of Whipcord is incredible. Did you really mean to stick it up the Conservatives so absolutely?

No, that all came from Pete Walker. I did what I was told.

Director Pete Walker who fell out with David McGillivray

Frightmare is a classic as well. Who came up with the idea of cannibalism and the drill? The red-hot poker is a bit of fun as well!…

Thank you. I’ve written many times about how I was inspired by the Andes air crash and said “cannibalism” to Pete Walker.

Sheila Keith is the star of Frightmare after her turn in House of Whipcord. Was Frightmare written with her in mind?

No.

What can you tell me about Sheila Keith?

I liked her. There’s stuff about her in my book. (ed. She was a lesbian)

Sheila Keith in Frightmare (1974)

House of Mortal Sin looks at the failure of the Catholic church… Did you have any qualms with Christianity when you wrote the script?

No, it was Pete Walker’s obsession.

Do you think it could have done better box office with a bigger star in the Anthony Sharp role?

Maybe.

How much of the end product of Schizo is yours? You get much of the credit. Or was that so you could collect a cheque? I think it’s a good movie and the psychic element is interesting…

I’m glad you like it. I had little or nothing to do with the plot.

I describe a few of your Walker films as ‘epics’ due to their running times. Was it a conscious decision to go well over the ninety-minute mark with them?

They would have been a good deal shorter without all that dialogue.

One of the Amicus movies Torture Garden (1967) trailer

Satan’s Slave is beautifully shot… I can’t make up my mind about that one.  What’s your take on all the evil in the world? Are we born evil which is suggested in Frightmare or do we fall under its influence… is it a deliberate decision?…

I change my mind all the time about that question.

And why do good people love horror movies?

I’m sure some psychopaths like horror films.

A still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Terror is an ingenious script. Who came up with all the killings? Did you have a hand in any?

I don’t think so.

You and Warren must have had a laugh throwing in Bathtime With Brenda… Your idea?

Yes because of my experiences on I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight. I’ve written a lot about this.

And, finally, what are your cult movies?

They change from time to time. I was very impressed with the original Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

P.S. David McGillivray left a comment.

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