Review: House of Whipcord (dir. Pete Walker, 1974)

House of Whipcord

House of Whipcord
UK, 1974
Director: Pete Walker
Writer: David McGillivray

Review by N Emmett.

While doing his rounds at night, a trucker picks up a frantic young woman (Penny Irving) as a hitchhiker. Too traumatised to talk, clad only in dirty rags and bearing the scars of whipping across her back, the girl has clearly been through hell. “Who did that to you, love?” asks the trucker. ”He deserves to swing for that, whoever he is.”

After this in medias res prologue, we learn that the woman is a nude model named Anne-Marie. Recently achieving infamy for posing naked in public, Anne-Marie is lured by a cold but alluring young man with the unlikely name of Mark E. Desade (Robert Tayman) into an old jailhouse. Officially abandoned, this prison has been taken over by a band of stern moralists who feel that too many young women have been getting away with sexual immorality.

Tried and convicted of public indecency by a jury of three kooks, Anne-Marie is sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in the House of Whipcord. Any further misbehaviour is punished on a three-strike basis: the first misdemeanour warrants solitary confinement; the second results in a whipping; and the third leads to execution.

Released nine years after Britain abolished the death penalty, The House of Whipcord is a brittle piece of social commentary from exploitation merchant Pete Walker and critic-turned-screenwriter David McGillivray. The picture opens with a dedication “to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment”, andwhip1 the digs at right-wing moralists do not let up throughout the rest of its running time.

House of Whipcord depicts authority as having two faces, neither of them attractive. On the one hand we have the heartless and ruthless characters of Mrs. Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) and her two assistants; on the other, the blind and senile judge played by Patrick Barr, an ineffectual figure who routinely signs papers that he does not realise are death warrants. The doddering judge represents the last remnants of decency in this twisted court, calling for fair trails but unable to actually enforce them; it is the increasingly deranged Wakehurst who holds the real power.

It is interesting to note that the judge is the only male character amongst the four people in charge of the jail: the film portrays a specifically matriarchal form of authoritarianism. Whether this is a comment on gender politics or simply an extension of the idea of an all-woman prison is open for debate.

Walker depicts those in power as having some dirty secrets of their own. There is a clear hint of incest as well as sadism when Mrs. Wakehurst tenderly caresses the face of her thirtysomething son, as they both listen with pleasure to a girl being whipped in the next room.

This is an idea that was in the air at the time. Even the rather reactionary (and, in the seventies, whip3increasingly out-of-touch) Hammer played with the same theme in the 1971 film Twins of Evil, where the villain accuses Peter Cushing’s witch-hunter of getting his jollies from kidnapping and burning attractive young women. The 1968 film Witchfinder General also evokes the related idea of a cruel and vindictive older generation using moral superiority as pretence to abuse youth – just look at how Vincent Price, in his late fifties at the time, was cast as the twentysomething Matthew Hopkins.

Lacking any supernatural elements, or even a period setting to provide a degree of distance, House of Whipcord invites comparisons with hard-edged horror and exploitation films of the era such as Last House on the Left and Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The early scenes showing the mentally and physically scarred Anne-Marie, her teeth chattering as she is loaded into the truck, touch upon the rawness of the American pictures. However, the film as a whole offers a more restrained and – it is hard to avoid the description – fundamentally rather English approach to exploitation.

The result of Anne-Marie’s public-nudity photoshoot shows her streaking between a traditional English bobby and a pair of middle-aged women (Mary Whitehouse and Nora Batty, perhaps), a scene that could easily have come out of one of those embarrassing British sex comedies of the same era.

The character of Mark Desade, meanwhile, appears to have been lifted directly from a Hammer film. whip3A Byronic figure comparable to Ralph Bates in Horror of Frankenstein or Damien Thomas in Twins of Evil, Mark is a strangely anachronistic character. The obvious path would have been to show carefree Anne-Marie being lured to her doom by some sort of countercultural tearaway, such as the drug dealers in Last House on the Left or the numerous screen incarnations of Charles Manson. In keeping with its themes, however, House of Whipcord instead uses a lad who – despite his youth – clearly represents a bygone generation.

When the torture scenes take place, the film adopts a remarkably discreet manner: at one point, just as a girl is about to be whipped, a prison guard closes the door in front of the camera so that the act is portrayed purely using sound. This seems more likely to have arisen from BBFC guidelines than genuine reticence on the part of Walker, but either way, the results now seem commendably subdued. While the film is certainly exploitative, it is nowhere near as misogynistic as many of its contemporaries from Spain and Italy.

As is generally the case with exploitation movies, House of Whipcord’s plot has its weaknesses. The far-fetched idea of the private jail can be accepted as a satirical joke, but we are still left with the question of why the inmates have never made any serious attempt at overpowering their captors. After all, the prison is run by three women in late middle age and an elderly blind man; it is hard to whip2believe that these four people could keep a bevy of twenty-year-olds in under their thumbs forever.

In one typical scene, a girl due to be executed allows her hands to be bound as she is sent to the noose without putting up the tiniest bit of struggle. Granted, this was before Buffy, Ripley and the pantheon of Final Girls; but even in 1974, surely it would have been obvious that such a sizable gathering of damsels could do a good job of getting themselves out of distress? House of Whipcord is unfortunately founded on an outmoded concept of the horror heroine: someone who is incapable of saving herself without help from an outside agency.

Thankfully, this narrative flaw becomes less apparent during the third act of the film. The plot ends up as something a shaggy dog story as Anne-Marie swings in and out of trouble like a yo-yo, and any storytelling contrivances (and boy, there are contrivances!) become part of the film’s ramshackle charm.

This DVD from the Odeon Entertainment Group comes with a set of documentaries: one on director Pete Walker; one on actress Sheila Keith, who played on of the prison wardens and later became a Walker regular; and a short one on the film itself, hosted by James Oliver. Also included is an audio commentary from Walker, cinematographer Peter Jessop, and film historian Steve Chibnall.

whip5These extras shed a good deal of light on the film’s background. Amongst other things, they reveal that BBFC censor Stephen Murphy pointed out the unintentional similarities between the film’s villains and the key anti-porn protestors of the day, Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford; this observation led Walker to add the opening caption.

Intentional or not, the Mary Whitehouse connection would retain its relevance for at least a decade. During the height of the video nasty scare, Ramsey Campbell remarked that “the real-life counterparts of the villains – the flog ‘em and hang ‘em brigade – would doubtless be in favour of banning such films” in issue 26 of Halls of Horror magazine.

Today, of course, both exploitation and censorship exist in very different forms. House of Whipcord is a relic of its time – a lurid snapshot of the period in which it was made. Nothing captures the obsessions and anxieties of an era quite like exploitation.