Thursday, October 17, 2013

THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976) Blu-ray Review

The House on Straw Hill (aka Exposé aka Trauma) (1976) d. James Kenelm Clarke (UK)

A curiously dubbed Udo Kier plays a high-strung novelist working out the sophomore jitters in his country hideaway (when he’s not donning rubber gloves to do the horizontal mambo with bouncy playmate Fiona Richmond, that is), with Linda Hayden as the typist hired to take dictation. One of the infamous “video nasties” banned in Britain in the ’80s, writer/director James Kenelm Clarke presents a hallucinatory and twisted portrait of sex and violence, and while his presentation has a decided confidence of conviction, his narrative is absolute loopy claptrap...which is not necessarily a bad thing.

When Hayden isn’t wildly masturbating in the other room – which is often – she’s being raped in a field by two passing bicyclists, smarting off to the housekeeper, or luring Richmond into Sapphic embraces (though one gets the impression that Lady Fiona – she of the impossibly fake torpedoes and enormous jawline – could be seduced by a bowl of frosted flakes. She’s kinda, y’know, easy).

Meanwhile, people around the house keep getting messily bumped off. If you’re a stickler for logical storytelling, prepare to be frustrated. But if you’re just showing up for the naughty bits, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

As stated in a disclaimer prior to the feature, Severin Films has assembled its recent DVD/BR combo from three different sources. Apparently, the original elements had suffered severe water damage; as such there are pronounced flaws in the presentation, most noticeably in the form of flickering brightness levels, but these are very minor distractions considering the lurid subject matter unspooling before us. One can only imagine the effort required, and the final results are to be congratulated.

The supplemental features are equally impressive, beginning with the extraordinarily articulate and chatty audio commentary with writer/director Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston, who also handled the second-unit photography and additional (uncredited) editing duties. A quick glance at these two artists’ film credits should have horror fans sitting up a little straighter in their seats; Smedley-Aston not only served as editor for The Shuttered Room, Squirm and Blue Sunshine, he produced Jose Ramon Larraz’s acclaimed 1975 feature Vampyres for which Clarke provided the musical score. (Witness the “I am a Vampyre” t-shirt on one of the bicyclists.)

In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is a lovely 2003 interview featurette with Hayden, “An Angel for Satan,” in which she pleasantly discusses her early sexy beginnings (Baby Love) on to her Hammer and Tigon features (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Blood on Satan’s Claw) and other genre efforts (Madhouse, Old Dracula). She still expresses great regret over having done House on Straw Hill, although her persistent claims of the filmmakers utilizing inserts and body doubles are as puzzling as ever since it’s clearly her face attached to her body.

It may have been ill-advised action on her part (though I’m certainly not complaining), but it’s undeniably her action and no one else’s. Smedley-Aston and Clarke theorize that much of Hayden's ill will toward the completed film may have been arisen due to the distributor's selling it as an erotic thriller (retitled Exposé) starring Richmond!

But perhaps the most enlightening extra is the bonus disc containing David Gregory’s exemplary examination of the BBCC Video Nasty crackdown, Ban the Sadist Videos!, a two-part documentary which delves deep into the societal and political environment that led to one of the most notorious incidents of censorship in recent memory. Though it’s composed largely of talking heads and close-ups of newspaper headlines, it’s a thrilling look at a dark era not too far in our collective rear-view mirrors, where the small-minded few held sway over the many. Those who forget the past, my friends, are doomed to repeat it....

House on Straw Hill is now available from Severin Films and can be purchased HERE.

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