Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 14, 2013
In the early 1980s British home video stores found themselves in the center of a storm when moral panic swept through the U.K. Religious leaders, parents and politically motivated individuals created what’s now known as the “video nasty” scare after discovering that stores were renting graphic horror films usually reserved for American grindhouses and indiscriminate drive-ins. Most of the objectionable movies were made in the U.S. or Italy where excessive violence and nudity had few problems getting past censors if it was properly rated but in Britain film censorship tended to be much more restrictive. Movies with explicit content and titles that often intended to shock such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) caused widespread outrage throughout the U.K. that led to them being removed from video stores, criminally prosecuted or cut for British audiences. The only British film that was apparently singled out during the video nasty scare was James Kenelm Clarke’s THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka Exposé; 1976). For decades this notorious erotic thriller has had the reputation of being one of the sleaziest films ever produced in Britain during the 1970s, which made it difficult to see. Badly cut or edited video copies circulated among the curious but the quality was always questionable. Thanks to the efforts of Severin Films I recently had the opportunity to catch up with this infamous film on DVD but it didn’t exactly live up to its seedy status. Is it an unsung cult classic waiting rediscovery? Or is it one of the most depraved movies ever made? In truth it’s neither of these things but I’m glad that Severin has saved the film from obscurity and given it a new life on DVD.
My own interest in THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL was sparked thanks to its inclusion in The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies edited by Phil Hardy, which is one of a handful of film related books that I read religiously in the early ‘90s. I rarely agreed with the reviews included in the book but I was determined to see every film listed. THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL demanded my attention because it starred cult film favorites Udo Kier (FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD FOR DRACULA, SUSPIRIA, MARK OF THE DEVIL, THE STORY OF O, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, DANCER IN THE DARK, etc.) and Linda Hayden (BABY LOVE, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, MADHOUSE, SOMETHING TO HIDE, NIGHT WATCH, QUEEN KONG, etc.). Its sketchy pedigree also incorporated the skills of producer/editor Brian Smedley-Aston whose name is associated with a series of unusual, offbeat and flat out amazing films such as THE LOVED ONE (1965), THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967), SEBASTIAN (1968), PERFORMANCE (1970), VAMPYRES (1974), SYMPTOMS (1974) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1978). If you’re a connoisseur of psychotronic film these are the kinds of credits that will inevitably raise your expectations so I went into THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL with high hopes. The film wasn’t the hidden treasure I was anticipating but it also wasn’t the debauched disaster that so many critics claimed it was.
The plot centers around a petulant writer (Udo Kier) with a fetish for latex who moves into an isolated country house so he can concentrate on finishing his latest book. Soon after arriving he asks his publisher to hire him a secretary (Linda Hayden) who can help with typing and organizing his magnum opus, which he claims could win him a Pulitzer. Over the course of the film the two strangers begin to develop a strained relationship filled with an underlying sexual tension that never feels quite right. Things take a violent turn when Hayden’s character is raped at gunpoint by two creeps but she manages to get a hold of the gun and shoots her attackers. The horror of this event is magnified by the fact that she doesn’t tell anyone about it. Soon afterward Kier’s character asks his girlfriend (Fiona Richmond) to join him in the country and more bodies begin to pile up. All fingers point to the lovely Linda and the film doesn’t really make any effort to hide her involvement in these crimes. The plot completely unravels in its final few minutes thanks to a ridiculous twist that has to be seen to be believed.
THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL borrows ideas from a handful of better movies including PSYCHO (1960), A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) and STRAW DOGS (1971) but it isn’t anywhere near as creative or challenging as the films it apes. And it while it does share a lot in common with some Italian giallo thrillers, the claustrophobic nature of the plot limits its scope. The film does occasionally rise above its budget constraints as well as the lack of chemistry between the three leads and that has a lot to do with James Kenelm Clarke’s direction. When he takes risks such as filming Udo Kier’s view through a car’s rearview mirror or raises his camera high above the action as he does in the film’s finale, THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL seems to find its footing. And while it is an extremely violent and bloody affair, by today’s standards the film seems rather tame. There’s nothing particularly explicit about the nudity and sex scenes but accompanied by the extreme violence it’s easy to see how the movie would have raised eyebrows in 1976.
According to writer/director James Kenelm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston the film was originally supposed to be a Hitchcockian style thriller but after the popular British soft porn actress Fiona Richmond became involved with the production they decided to exploit her assists and the film lost its focus, which is a shame. Richmond is the most uninteresting element in THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL and her copious nude scenes only distract from the thought-provoking unhinged performances of her much more charismatic costars. Udo Kier is surprisingly low-key here but there’s something deeply unsettling about his off-center portrayal of a sex and death obsessed writer and he’s always fun to watch. But in the end he’s upstaged by Linda Hayden who steals the show as his unhinged secretary. Hayden is one of the most underappreciated and ill-used actresses in British film history but no matter how awful the material was, she always seemed to try and make the most of her role. Few actresses can manage to be utterly alluring and utterly terrifying at the same time but that was Hayden’s M.O. Hayden used her sexuality to both seduce and scare audiences, which made her a favorite among horror film aficionados. But to be perfectly blunt, she should have had a much richer and varied career. It’s a shame that her abundant talent, chameleon-like abilities and natural beauty was so often wasted. But even in low-budget exploitation films like THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL, which Hayden has practically disowned due to the sexual nature of the production, she manages to rise like a phoenix over the questionable proceedings and pull you into her shadowy world.
Severin had to use multiple sources to compile and restore a complete version of the film and the mixed quality of the print is occasionally apparent when you watch the DVD but all-in-all this is a remarkable release of a movie that many thought was lost. The multi-disc set includes both DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film as well as an audio commentary by writer/director James Kenelm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston. Extras include an interview with Linda Hayden that focuses on her defining role in BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, the original trailer and an insightful documentary called BAN THE SADIST VIDEOS (2005) that sheds some light on the “video nasty” scare that panicked Britain in the 80s. Severin is also currently selling a deluxe package on their website that includes a VHS copy of the film along with the DVD set that should appeal to nostalgic collectors and devoted fans of British trash cinema. If I didn’t already own this I’d be adding it my Christmas wish list.
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