Synopsis: Teenage babysitter Amanda arrives at the Lloyd home to watch their young son for the evening. But it seems that the strangely nervous Mrs. Lloyd is hiding a shocking secret…
Stars: Honor Blackman, Susan George, Ian Bannen, John Gregson, George Cole, Dennis Waterman
Director: Peter Collinson
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Don’t let their love of monarchies, tea times, or cricket fool you, the Brits can get down and dirty in the horror department just like their grubby Yank friends across the pond. While Hollywood had Universal Studios churning out a fine slate of monster films in the ‘40s as well as other independent distributors popularizing B-movie drive-in fare during the ‘50’s and 60’s, the scare business in England really started to take on a new life in the ‘70s. Up until then there was a bit of a restrained regality to films produced by Hammer Studios in European countries for UK and US distribution. With the dawn of a new decade came more risk-taking and a greater emphasis on risqué material that pushed the limit of the fuddy duddy censors.
Released in 1971 by British Lion Films in the UK and stateside later in 1972, Fright is an interesting discovery. We’ve seen so many movies where a babysitter is terrorized by a maniac that it’s become far more than a cliché but this was one of the first uses of the set-up and it’s useful to keep that in mind watching the events unfold. This was before Halloween and When a Stranger Calls so there was no real baseline for audiences to get an idea of what it would be like to be alone in a remote location and have to fight for survival.
The mood is set from the beginning while the credits play over singer Nannette crooning the haunting ‘Ladybird’ as we watch Amanda (Susan George, Straw Dogs) walking alongside a dirt road, trekking deeper away from town toward the secluded home of the Lloyds. Filling in for their regular babysitter, Amanda is watching over young Tara for the evening while Mr. Lloyd (George Cole) and Mrs. Lloyd (Honor Blackman, Goldfinger) step out to celebrate a special occasion. There’s something a little…off about Mrs. Lloyd though. Maybe it’s the numerous locks on the door. Are they to keep someone out? To keep someone in? Why does she seem so nervous? Is there a reason she doesn’t want to say what she’s going out to celebrate?
The genial Amanda seems unfazed by the numerous warning signs, writing them off as just a new mother nervous to leave her toddler alone. Confident she can handle whatever comes her way, she gets the Lloyds off on their way and settles in for a quiet evening with some tea, a good magazine, and maybe a scary movie. The stillness of the night doesn’t last for long though as faulty lights, strange noises, unreliable telephones, and a face-to-face meeting with a psychopath soon disrupt her plans. Screenwriter Tudor Gates (a longtime affiliate with Hammer) has a swell set-up for Fright and lays the gameplan out with precision…I just don’t think it was enough for a full film.
At the same time Fright was made, the Brits were also doing a bang-up job with horror anthology films. From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, and Asylum are all fun collections of short tales of shock that make quick work of their plots. Fright works best in its dynamite opening 45 minutes as Amanda arrives, settles, and is then sent spinning into a nightmare. Where it starts to fall apart is the latter half which devolves into an overly dramatic stand-off that drags on far too long. Even though it’s performed exceedingly well by all involved, in particularly the gorgeous George who is put through the ringer, your attention likely will drift the further we get away from the taut opening. If it had been trimmed to more compact running time, this would have been a knockout chapter in a longer cinematic omnibus.
Director Peter Collinson’s film looks great and I liked the way he used the camera differently to shoot the action, often framing Amanda from interesting angles. There’s a lot of unexpected shots I wouldn’t have thought of and good POV moments that keep the tension at a high level. In addition to George, Blackman is solid as the tightly wound mother we eventually learn has good reason to be on edge. Without saying too much, Ian Bannen’s performance is a tricky one and he knows when to lean into the material and when to lay off the gas and just coast. I don’t know what they gave the young child playing the Lloyd baby but whoa, they are remarkably serene even when adults are shrieking mere inches from their face.
Ultimately, Fright wasn’t exactly the movie I thought it was going to be based on how it began. When I had started the film, I turned off all the lights and prepared to settle in for 87 minutes but have to admit I flicked on a light about ten minutes in because it was just too creepy and I was scaring myself. I wanted that same feeling throughout the film and while it definitely has an atmosphere I appreciated and performances aligned with the emotional stakes, the frights at the end didn’t match the frights at the start.