House of Whipcord, made in 1973 (released April 1974), is one of the most significant British horror films of the 1970s, a bleak, grim and unsavoury slice of cinema that helped signal the end of the gothic and the rise of a decade of nastiness. It was roundly hated by the horror establishment, then – as now – suspicious and contemptuous of anything new and challenging. But for a new generation of fans, this was much more exciting than the old-fashioned British genre films, such as The Ghoul, being made by the likes of Tyburn in the mid-seventies.
Opening with a pointedly cynical statement to the hanging and flogging brigade: “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment”, the film tells the story of Anne Marie (Penny Irving), a French model who meets a young man at a party, and despite his name being Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman, Vampire Circus), agrees to leave with him.
Before long, she’s captive in a disused prison, where Mark’s parents (Barbara Markham and Patrick Barr) run a quasi-judicial punishment regime for girls who have strayed from the path of ‘righteousness’. Along with psychotic warder Walker (Sheila Keith), they strip and abuse the girls in a hypocritical attempt to punish them for their sins’. But things soon start to fall apart, as Anne-Marie plans her escape…
With a sharply savage screenplay by David McGillivray (Frightmare; Satan’s Slave; House of Mortal Sin) – his first horror film and first movie for Peter Walker in what would be a sometimes fractious relationship – House of Whipcord rises above the exploitative nature of the material, without compromising on the sleaze factor.
Meanwhile, Walker delivers solid, no-nonsense direction. Irving and hardened exploitation starlet Anne Michelle get naked, there’s some gratuitous yet mild whipping and an overwhelming air of grubbiness, but the film nevertheless makes its point smartly, skewering the double standards of the so-called Moral Majority.
Of course, that same Moral Majority was out to get the film, and it suffered cuts at the hands of the BBFC – though less than you might expect, BBFC Head Stephen Murphy apparently appreciating the knowing attack on ‘moral reformers’.
The movie received a couple of positive reviews in the press, such as Films and Filming: “Shows that something worthwhile in the entertainment-horror market can be done for the tiny sum of £60,000”. However, it was more memorably dismissed by Russell Davies in The Observer as “a feeble fladge-fantasy” and the Evening News: “as nasty an exploitation of sadism as I can recall in the cinema.”
Writing in his 1977 book Horror Films, genre fan and critic Alan Frank pronounced it to be “a silly and tawdry exploitation film with ill-conceived characters written as cliches … in a series of voyeuristic scenes of sadism and violence … British exploitation cinema at its lowest common denominator.” In more recent years, however, the film has built a substantial fan following, and for many remains the definitive Pete Walker film.
The film was re-released in the USA by United Producers as Stag Model Slaughter and later, with a misleading ad campaign as The Photographer’s Models. In France, it was known simply as Flagellations.
On November 15, 2014, the film was shown at London’ Barbican Cinema as part of the ‘House of Walker’ festival organised by Cigarette Burns. The director and writer Jonathan Rigby presented a screen talk to coincide with the showing.
“I’ve always thought that this film was going to be one of those seedy, underground 1970s sexploitation films with no plot and lots of naked women being whipped left right and centre. However, I’m pleased to say that while it is low budget, with the odd flash of unnecessary flesh it is also quite a reasonable little horror that at times can be quiet harrowing.” Spooky Isles
“An above average sexploitation/horror that has been put together with some polish and care from a fairly original script. The film is dedicated ironically to all those who wish to see the return of capital punishment in Britain … The only trouble is that the film undercuts its potentially interesting Gothic theme by some leering emphases, and the final result is likely to be seen and appreciated only by the people who will take the dedication at its face value” David Pirie, Time Out
Cast and characters:
- Barbara Markham … Mrs. Wakehurst
- Patrick Barr … Justice Bailey
- Ray Brooks … Tony
- Ann Michelle … Julia
- Sheila Keith … Walker
- Dorothy Gordon … Bates
- Robert Tayman … Mark E. Desade
- Ivor Salter … Jack
- Karan David … Karen
- Celia Quicke … Denise
- Ron Smerczak … Ted
- Tony Sympson … Henry
- Judy Robinson … Claire
- Jane Hayward … Estelle
- Celia Imrie … Barbara
- Barry Martin … Al
- Rose Hill … Henry’s Wife
- Dave Butler … Ticket Collector
- And introducing Penny Irving as Ann-Marie Di Verney