Thursday, November 25, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The House on Straw Hill

I have a soft spot for Linda Hayden, mainly because of her deliriously seductive turn in the otherwise jumbled horror flick ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, and I’d pretty much watch her in any old POS.

Sadly, the phrase “any old POS” encompasses most of her filmography. It’s one of those crimes of the film industry that someone so stunning, with such presence and capable – on the very rare occasions that anyone gave her decent material to work with – of demonstrating real acting chops never rose to the heights that equal (or even lesser) talents achieved.

I approached ‘The House on Straw Hill’ (a.k.a. ‘Exposé’) knowing very little about it except it was a home invasion thriller, it was directed by James Kenelm Clarke, it had made the DPP’s video nasties list and there was a girl-girl scene between Linda Hayden and Fiona Richmond.

Already I had cause for concern. The home invasion subgenre is usually done badly. There are relatively few good examples. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ is probably the greatest home invasion movie, and the very title of ‘The House on Straw Hill’ suggests nothing more than a ham-fisted attempt to cash-in on the controversy and box office success of Peckinpah’s film and Wes Craven’s ‘Last House on the Left’.

Then we have the dude in the director’s chair. His seven-film CV includes ‘Hardcore’ (not to be confused with the George C. Scott drama), a supposed biopic of Brit sex star Fiona Richmond starring the lady herself, and the desperately unfunny comedy ‘Let’s Get Laid’, starring Richmond (again) and Robin Askwith. (The phrases “desperately unfunny comedy” and “Robin Askwith” are virtually synonymous.) His last film ‘Yellow Pages’, made in 1984 but shelved for four years, was an attempt at a film noir spoof. Let’s just roll out that “desperately unfunny comedy” tag again and move quickly on.

So: the film was almost guaranteed to be a cheap cash-in; the director didn’t have a halfway decent or even acceptably average film to his name; and the unavoidable fact of the DPP video nasties list is that the nastiest thing about most of the titles on it is how drab and often quite boring they are.

Which really only leaves the anticipation of a bit of girl-girl action (promising) between Linda Hayden (very promising) and Fiona Richmond (hmmm). Now, I’m not intending to be cruel, and for all I know Fiona Richmond might be the coolest person on the face of the planet and incredibly kind and generous, but (how shall I put this?) she doesn’t quite conform to the kind of looks you’d expect of someone who attained that degree of fame in the adult entertainment industry. Or to put it another way: despite having the kind of pneumatic figure that guaranteed her décolletage entered the room five minutes before the rest of her, Richmond had a very stern visage. More deputy headmistress threatening to cane you than sex kitten promising to seduce you. (Actually, thinking about the kind of overcoated, repressed, middle-aged British males with boarding school backgrounds who probably made up Fiona Richmond’s core audience in the ’70s, it all makes sense!)

But wait! I started this review in praise of Linda Hayden. And I’ve also (you’ll have noticed) tried to avoid talking about the film. Why’s that? Are we firmly in “any old POS” territory here?

Let’s pause for a synopsis before answering that question. Writer Paul Martin (Udo Kier) has holed up in the countryside to escape the publicity generated by the success of his first novel, work on a follow-up and conduct a controlling and borderline SM relationship with his consort Suzanne (Richmond). The book is progressing too slowly for his publisher’s liking, so the intensely private Martin reluctantly agrees to hire a typist, Linda Hindstatt (Hayden). What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between Linda and Martin which begins with sexual overtones and ends with homicidal ones.

The attentive viewer will pick up a clue in the opening sequence – a TV interview in which Martin is cagey in his answers – that makes the final act revelation an inevitability rather than a surprise. Structurally, the film presents a stagnant, talky and not particularly well shot first hour followed by a frenetic attempt at steering things into psycho-thriller territory. This involves narratively pointless splurges of violence (SPOILER why not just kill Martin first and get it over and done with? END SPOILER) rendered in a not particularly well shot style and way too much reliance on tired ‘Psycho’ homages.

‘The House on a Straw Hill’ is a tired, unengaging piece of hack work with very little entertainment value. Why it ended up on the nasties list is a mystery. Sure, there’s some sexualized violence, but nothing more than your average non-DPP-witch-hunt stalk ‘n’ slash title. Yeah, there’s a rape scene, but it’s so clumsily staged and the emphasis shifts from attack to vengeance so arbitrarily that it’s ludicrous rather than offensive.

The script is clunky, the score intrusive and the cinematography just plain horrible. We shall not speak of the direction.

Acting-wise, Kier blandly suggests Martin’s prissiness and self-regard, but it’s a one-note performance. Richmond is slightly better than you’d expect for someone who’s normal acting range was perforce restricted to writhing suggestively and moaning “mmmm yes … mmmm yes”. Predictably, it’s Linda Hayden’s show and she rises above the shoddy material in fine style. It’s sad that the misogynistic finale ultimately rubbishes the character she manages against all odds (ie. Clarke as writer and director) to breathe life into. Sadder still that this and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ are arguably her career highlights. She deserved better.

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