Many films have used London for its sometimes eerie atmosphere (although with light pollution, that’s now getting hard to do). As much as I loved Hammer horror films, we all knew they were rather gentle studio-bound fairytales that couldn’t hurt you, and the rare times they used London (‘Dracula AD 72’ and ‘Taste TheBlood of Dracula’) they made a mess of it, although the sight of the Prince of Darkness pelting down the King’s Road was rather fun.
But there were a few exploitation directors who stepped into the true London darkness and knew exactly what they were doing, and one of them was Peter Walker.
The maverick cult director clearly had an agenda beyond merely making money (despite what he has since said to the contrary), and in this he followed a through-line that extended from WS Gilbert (stay with me on this), whose satirical attacks on church and state delayed his knighthood.
Walker’s lurid horror films explicitly condemned the judicial system, the church and the government while filling the screen with flesh and blood. In ‘House Of Mortal Sin’, a priest strangles a parishioner with a rosary, clubs another to death with an incense burner and delivers poisoned communion wafers before burying his victims in his own cemetery, having blackmailed them first.
The films haunted me for another reason. Walker rooted his horrors in specific areas of London in order to save money, but incidentally caught the strangeness of its urban landscape.
In ‘Frightmare’, Andrew Sachs walked across a deserted Battersea Fairground on the way to his death, other characters arranged sinister meetings on Shepherd’s Bush Green, and a gradual accretion of co-ordinates located the film’s murderous activities in specific run-down parts of South London.
Walker’s independent films broke with Hammer’s traditional sense of fair play. In his world the wrongs weren’t righted, the innocents suffered and the guilty were allowed to escape. His endings were unjust as well as being unhappy and downright cruel. It was the seventies, after all.
Walker had an avatar through his film cycle, the Scottish actress Sheila Keith, who had regularly appeared as a children’s TV presenter, but who also starred in his films as a deranged psychopath. She usually started out normal and slowly went bananas, sometimes with a power drill or a whip. In ‘Frightmare’ she joyously licks the spray of blood from her lips as she drills through someone’s skull, loving every minute of it. The image stayed with me for years. I saw her across a room at a party once and wanted to run away screaming.
Walker went for the mainstream eventually, making the cheesily toothless ‘House of Long Shadows’, which united John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. Unfortunately it also had Desi Arnez Jr playing a blocked novelist. At least he got the block part right.
Despite clunky dialogue, porno-level lighting and peculiar shots of people just sort of standing around, His films captured London at a unique moment in time. They feel oddly real, but also portray the city as a desolate, dangerous and lonely place, where bad things can happen to good people simply because they talk to the wrong strangers.
This is a London one can clearly recognise, a city of eerie no-go areas and silent wealthy streets, of dark pubs and melancholy empty lots. They remind me that if you drove to Vauxhall or King’s Cross back then, there was a good chance that someone would break into your car.
Walker’s films captured the nihilism of the seventies better than anyone else, and are still disturbing today.