Thursday, May 16, 2013

House of Whipcord (1974) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: A young French nudie model working in England (Penny Irving) is tricked by a mysterious and dour man (Robert Tayman) through the front doors of a secret correctional institute for morally corrupt girls. Run by a ruthless trio of matronly wardens (Barbara Markham, Sheila Keith, and Dorothy Gordon) and presided over by a decripit former judge (Patrick Barr), this illegal prison turns into a house of casual sadism, in which its nubile prisoners learn that the second infraction against good behavior earns one a whipping and the third earns one a hanging.

I think Pete Walker is a fibber. In a recent video interview included on Redemption Films' snazzy blu-ray boxset of four of his films (House of Whipcord included), Walker claims that he stands by the old adage that a filmmaker "must never let [his] audience know which side [he's] on," lest he become too preachy or inadvertently simplify the ambiguity of his characters. And yet, the allegiance of the minds behind House of Whipcord is apparent from the film's opening frames. Boisterously, with a touch of irony as tender as the crack of a whip, the film opens with a dedication of itself "to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment." In no conceivable way do the film's unending scenes of horrific torture and murder in the name of moral decency support this dedication as an earnest one. Rather, the film is-- much like Walker's previous effort, The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)-- an exaggerated, hysterical dramatization of what would happen if the looser, sexier England of the 1970s were to all of a sudden revert (at least in the eyes of the law) to a rigidly conservative moral code. Under such an archaic code, flagrant offenses like modeling for nude photographs in a public park (an action unthinkable and unconscionable in the truly conservative society of England's jolly old days) would need to be met with punishment pious in its intent and extreme in its severity-- bordering on the barbarous-- in order to attempt to cleanse the sin from the hopelessly corrupt criminal.

Once again, Walker is pitting the older and younger generations against one another in mutual misunderstanding and intolerance, breeding violence. Neither generation can comprehend the actions of the other: the older sees the younger as reckless heathens decaying the fabric of society, while the younger sees the older as a group of ruthless, stuffy sadists upholding a fruitless and unjust system of yore. In that same video interview, Walker claims that in contrast to what most of his critics read, he has put no conscious themes of the "suppression of the young by the old" into his films, and in fact identifies himself as a conservative (though in what sense a conservative he fails to elaborate). Either Old Pete is being disingenuous with these statements (not terribly unlike House of Whipcord's opening dedication) or he fails to realize the power with which he condemns the conservative moral authority. House of Whipcord's younger generation may be vapid and slightly debauched, but such attributes come nowhere near to approaching the deplorable lows of the older generation's hypocrisy, repression, and sadism.

And what is at the root of hypocrisy, repression, and sadism, you ask? The patriarchy, of course! House of Whipcord equates ultra conservatism and patriarchal authority (an apt maneuver), and then demonstrates how they are used to suppress female identity, sexuality, and independence. In line with Walker's belief that sides shouldn't be too clearly drawn or freely sympathized with, the film's attack of patriarchal authority stems from its trio of female villains rather than its male villains. The off-the-grid prison institution is run by three elderly matrons-- Mrs. Wakehurst, Walker, and Bates-- who don themselves in grey, put up their hair, refer to themselves by their masculine last names, and whip poor young liberated women half to death. They do this with the hope of curing "depraved females of every category," though their "cures" and "categories" are awfully loose. In a moment of angry passion, Walker (Sheila Keith) spills the beans to the imprisoned French model concerning their true motives when she snarls, "I'm going to make you ashamed of your body." The three matron wardens, made to be ashamed of their own bodies, seek to violate and harm the bodies of those women who aren't, those who are free (relatively speaking) from the old patriarchy's sway. 

Because Wakehurst, Walker, and Bates all very much subscribe to the notion of a controlling patriarchy, they are restricted (at least formally) from enacting this violence independently. They require male consent before taking action against their prisoners, not because it's lawfully required (their institute is basically structured vigilantism) but because they have been culturally indoctrinated to believe that they require it*. Consequently, the three women require the constant presence and notarization of a resident senile judge, Justice Bailey, before they commit any of their evil deeds. In a curious twist, Justice Bailey (while still complicit in the forced imprisonment of innocent women) is oblivious to the violence and murder, believing as he does that their prisoners are being rehabilitated and released. The point being: even "benevolent" patriarchal authority causes damage and violence to women, if by no other way than altering the way women see and treat themselves and each other. 

To conclude, it's worth noting that House of Whipcord is essentially a Women in Prison film (all the rage in 1970s exploitation cinema) that becomes a horror film merely by twisting a few knobs and turning the Gothic sadism and blood up a tad. There's no need for monsters or the supernatural with a situation as horrific as the one presented here. And despite very definitely being concerned with staging a social critique, it's not all dour and self-important-- for giggles, there's an amusing instance of ice cube sadism and the mindbogglingly stupid "Mark E. Desade" false identity employed by one character-- but any moments of levity are countered by the bleak, nihilistic streak that runs underneath it all. As long as the patriarchy continues to hold court, society's escape from the House of Whipcord seems unlikely.

*The most illustrative moment of the matrons' bowing to male authority occurs during the film's resolution: Walker and Bates are attempting to flee the prison in a car after everything has gone awry but are thwarted, rather easily, by a police officer who merely raises his hand and commands them to stop. From their patriarchy-infected viewpoints, the notion of disregarding a symbol of male authority and, say, running the defenseless police officer down with their running automobile isn't even an option.

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