Fifteen years ago, a terrible series of crimes occurred that saw a married couple, Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy (Sheila Keith) Yates sent to an asylum for the criminally insane. They had preyed on the weakest members of society, or at least Dorothy had, with her husband assisting, but whatever the reality of their behaviour they have now been released and are living in the country. Yet one of their daughters, Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), is concerned about their welfare and visits them in the middle of the night, bringing them mysterious parcels...
Presumably the inspiration for the "special stuff" in the second series of The League of Gentlemen, but Frightmare was not the sort of thing to be broadcast on prime time BBC Two, as its proper home was a dingy cinema on the bottom half of a horror double bill of the nineteen seventies. It was the second script by former critic David McGillivray to be filmed by director Pete Walker, who had finally found his calling in a series of depressing, disturbing chillers that he claimed were simply his way of making cinematic mischief and not to be analysed, yet were so full of bitterness and anger that many had been tempted to do just that.
Not that Walker ever strayed outside of the more trashy end of the entertainment spectrum, but those shockers he created spoke to a contemporary Britain in a way that the higher profile horror movie makers like Hammer or Amicus would not, especially as those studios were seeing their profits eaten away by slicker, more relevant American product during this period. Walker was having none of that and set out to corner the market in home grown terror through his very particular tales that depicted a Britain in a state of decay, the older generation corrupt and corrosive, the younger fighting against their influences.
That fight would either lead the younger generation to fall victim to the corruption, or as happens here, become part of it as Jackie has a half sister called Debbie (Kim Butcher) who is something of a tearaway. That's an understatement - we are introduced to her as she makes up a lie about being insulted by a barman to get back at him for not serving her (rightly) for being underage, an encounter that ends with her biker friends goaded into beating the barman up, whereupon Debbie lags behind to murder and mutilate him. Yes, she's a chip off the old block all right, and Jackie only gradually realises her sibling has inherited the worst aspects of her mother.
And that mother being Sheila Keith in a Pete Walker movie means that those aspects are dreadful indeed. Keith was to his movies what Peter Cushing was to Terence Fisher's work, bringing out the best in the chills and themes that might have laid dormant if they had not been involved, and for many Frightmare was the finest of their collaborations. As Dorothy invites the lonely to her isolated cottage, her feckless husband mithering but unable to stop her, their tarot readings turn murderous as her craving for human flesh, specifically brains, returns, and while this wasn't consistently gory, Walker flirting with suggestive menace, he decided to pour on the blood for a few key scenes regardless. It's true that once you know the premise there's not much more to add, but here was a film that set out to unsettle, sometimes with macabre humour but often simply by being as horrible as the filmmakers could muster. As far as that went, Frightmare succeeded with one of the bleakest endings of the decade: take that, nuclear family! Music by Stanley Myers.