Written and Directed by: James Kenelm Clarke
Starring: Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, and Fiona Richmond
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I want your guts."
When Britain enacted its infamous Video Nasty laws in the 80s, it must have been the country’s way of doing penance for the 70s, wherein it churned out its fair share of schlock and sleaze. However, the UK banned only one of its domestic productions, House on Straw Hill, a thoroughly English revenge shocker, what with its pastoral phobia and its peculiar blending of sex and violence. Yet it also shares the DNA of its other European cousins, as it lacks the refinement of its British brethren—it is perhaps best described as Pete Walker by way of Jess Franco, and such an unholy union spews forth a somewhat leaden film that doesn't fully exploit its intriguing twists and turns.
Paranoiac novelist Paul Martin (Udo Kier) is hiding out in a remote house in the rural countryside, where he’s plugging away on a follow-up to his smash debut. Having grown bored and frustrated, he decides to employ Linda (Linda Hayden), a secretary to take dictation for his work. As if his frequent bouts with his mysteriously damaged psyche weren’t enough, it turns out that his new typist arrives with an agenda of her own, and the two become locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse game, even if Paul remains wholly oblivious to the fact.
That’s sort of the overarching problem with House on Straw Hill: it’s playing at aping the qualities of a giallo, but it’s mystery is hardly intriguing and easily guessed at. Kier’s very presence (as the Creepy Udo Kier archetype) and his character’s frequent freak-outs (realized via some well-done nightmarish sequences) serve as a red herring. Given the first fifteen minutes or so, which find Martin engaging in bizarre sex fetishes (like wearing latex gloves) and imagining bloodstained bathtubs, it’s easy to imagine that the film will revolve around this uber-creeper leading unsuspecting women to his homes like lambs to the slaughter.
But that’s where the film takes a slightly interesting, if not somewhat derivative turn where the film gets turned on its head (which just feels like the umpteenth Psycho riff, especially since this one features a memorable bathroom murder). As it turns out, Hayden’s character only resembles an innocent lamb; initially, it even looks like Martin has to save her from the lurid advances of a couple of brutes who intend to have their way with her. However, once she arrives at the house, she quite literally reveals herself to the audience when she unpacks her belongings—which include a pictures of Martin and another, unnamed man—and begins to masturbate. And if that weren’t weird enough, this insatiable gal goes at it again in a field at back, only to be interrupted by the same thugs that bothered her in town. She takes their latest advance in stride, almost to a discomforting degree, before quickly turning the tables and blowing them away with their own shotgun.
It’s a neat turn of events—after all, how many movies match up Udo Kier with someone who might be just as nuts as he is? The twist is handled rather gracelessly, though, as the film provides enough quick hints to reveal Linda’s ulterior motives here. With most of the narrative intrigue deflated, the film leans on sex and murder, with the former especially providing some erotic, gratuitous padding. Linda takes her time to toy with Martin and even makes a move on his girlfriend (Fiona Richmond). With all due respect to the Klingons, House on Straw Hill makes a good case that revenge is best served with a lesbian encounter.
James Kenelm Clarke does his best to overcome his threadbare script with some claustrophobic direction that reflects the noose that’s slowly tightening around Martin’s neck. His moody establishing shots often capture an appropriate sense of desolation, and the film (as its title may suggest) faintly echoes Peckinpah’s rugged Straw Dogs aesthetic. Clarke’s film lacks the disturbing ambiguity of that film, though, and opts solely for visceral shocks and psychosexual terror—it’s more roughshod than outright rugged, and the warbling, hallucinatory vibe renders House on Straw Hill trashier than other British efforts. Its mean, fatalistic streak is particularly noteworthy, as the film ultimately degenerates into a chaotic climax that bloodies the line between good and evil—instead, the inmates are essentially running amok since no one involved can be considered sane (Linda is perhaps sympathetic in theory, but Hayden gets lost in her one-note psychosis).
Unlike some Video Nasties I’ve encountered, I can at least understand why this one caused such a stir nearly a decade after its release—it is unabashedly sleazy, violent, and amoral tale that’s more lurid than creepy. Its status as a Nasty obviously increased its profile but also negatively affected its presentation, as it’s been confined to edited versions for years. Severin Films has finally unearthed the 84 minute uncut version, though it wasn’t easy: as the warning that introduces their Blu-ray explains, the company was forced to use multiple sources, including the damaged negative and a pair of theatrical prints. The Frankensteined result is still serviceable, if not a bit distracting at times—the color timing varies, there’s various print damage, and it’s a soft transfer overall. Likewise, the DTS-MA mono track features some occasional hisses and pops but manages to get the job done.
Severin’s supplements compensate well, though. The highlight is an audio commentary with Clarke, producer Brian Smedley-Aston and moderator Jonathan Sothcott, while Hayden drops by for “An Angel for Satan,” a fifteen minute interview where the actor reminisces about her career (which included turns in the awesome Blood on Satan’s Claw) in general and House on Straw Hill specifically. Though she enjoyed working with her co-stars on the film, it’s not one she’s especially proud of, as the film apparently morphed from a standard thriller to a more erotic peep show. The release also features the theatrical trailer and a DVD copy of the film. Finally, the first 3,000 copies are packaged with an additional disc that features Ban the Sadist Videos, a two part documentary documenting the rise of Video Nasties that was apparently produced years ago but is only now seeing the light of day. Its inclusion certainly makes this package much more attractive, as House on Straw Hill itself is ultimately caught somewhere between the arthouse and the grindhouse, a purgatorial zone whose foundation lies more on infamy than it does genuine fascination. Rent it!
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