John Ebony (David Hemmings) has arrived at this isolated boys' boarding school with rather grand ambitions: escaping the rat race of the advertising world, he has set his heart on improving the next generation of schoolboys, and here looks to be as good a place to start as any. As he is given the tour of the establishment by the headmaster (Douglas Wilmer) he is made aware that he is joining it mid-term because his predecessor suffered an unfortunate accident while out walking the nearby cliffs - or did he?
Unman, Wittering and Zigo began life as a radio, then television play, so it was appropriate that a celebrated writer for that medium, Simon Raven, should be the man to adapt it for the big screen version at a time in the British film industry where things were growing less certain. On TV the work had been well received, so must have looked like a surefire, even controversial, prospect to bring in the punters, which was why star Hemmings got the rights as a starring vehicle for himself. As it turned out, this did not go down in the annals of movie history as a classic.
Yet as a cult movie, it had far more potential as it would occasionally show up on late night television and captivate the unwary who wondered exactly how this thriller was going to play out. It might not have been an example of all-round brilliance, but its central conceit was strong enough to keep you watching with a strange fascination, especially if you respected how powerful the class system was in the United Kingdom. Ebony is of a lower class to the rich kids he is assigned to, and we are never in any doubt that it is these boys who will be running the country once they graduate from university.
But no matter how civilised they appear on the surface, Ebony becomes horribly aware of how savage they actually are when on his first day he finds them unruly to the point where he puts his foot down and demands they stay in extra lessons for Saturday afternoon. This is not popular, and to make this clear the class drops a bombshell: it was they who killed their previous teacher, and they will have no qualms about doing so again with Ebony should he displease them. In fact, they have a plan to blackmail him into agreeing to marking their exam papers with pass marks so they will graduate with flying colours.
This outwardly respectful (creepily they always call him "Sir" no matter what they're saying to him) but inwardly manipulative and baleful behaviour is something Ebony struggles against, but the boys have the upper hand in that he cannot get anyone to believe him. The headmaster is unapproachable, his wife Sylvia (Carolyn Seymour) cuts him off intolerantly any time he broaches the subject, and his only friend (Tony Haygarth) treats his fears as a joke, already convinced his charges are little devils beyond any conventional control. The possibility the whole school is filled with boys like this only renders the drama more unsettling. But that class pressure mixed with the mob mentality of youth is what sustains the plot, which in truth goes a little too long into tightening the screws of tension on its main character; that inversion of power is vivid and uneasy as the boys threaten rape and more murder. If the resolution is slightly anticlimactic, what has gone before is disquieting and memorable. Music by Michael J. Lewis.