Saturday, 30 September 2017


In films such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and the Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel-directed Man Bites Dog, filmmaking itself becomes implicated as a dangerous tool that promotes and enables murder for voyeuristic psychopaths who use it to procure their victims, while exposing the prurience of the gaze of not just the amoral antagonists of these films, but of us -- the viewers at home -- who are presumed to find this stuff entertaining. This point was drummed home with a particular nihilistic intensity in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which includes a moment when disturbing videotape footage of a home invasion and its aftermath, including the cold-blooded murder of a family, is played in its entirety, filmed by the serial killer duo at the centre of the movie using the victims' own video camera. This lengthy scene is immediately followed by the entire thing being re-run once again, but this time we’re watching it as the killers play back the video footage in slow motion on TV for their own entertainment. Such elevated concerns about the ubiquity of the acts of filming and viewing, and the fear of increasingly eroded ethical boundaries that might result seemed recondite back then when home video was still a novelty, but now that the technology in an age of camera phones and video streaming is so taken for granted that it’s become an everyday, even essential, part of modern life, the idea has become opaque and almost invisible to us, and is barely ever alluded to in the flood of found footage-style movies which have appeared over the last decade, most of which seem to exist as a cheap means for budding exploitation film-makers to access a now easily accessible medium.

Following in the wake of the cult success of the ultra-morbid Faces of Death series, fabricating authentic-looking ‘snuff’ footage of atrocities has become a staple of both the found footage and tied-up-and-tortured subgenres, and the two are made to fit rather snugly together for this indie Horror drama co-directed by Brian Allan Stewart and Nick McAnulty (who also wrote the screenplay) -- which presents itself as self-shot footage taken from the digital camcorder of a married twenty-something couple (Jennifer Fraser and Farhang Ghajar – whose screen characters share the actors’ real names) as they set about making a video diary record of a shared home project that they hope and expect to strengthen the bonds of their relationship.

The film starts from the moment Jennifer first unpacks the new digital recording device, purchased specifically for the project, and thereafter gets so excited by its novelty that she won’t give up filming absolutely everything in sight while her husband has to resignedly put up with her annoying kid-with-a-new-toy over-enthusiasm; he later perks up at the thought of making a sex tape, but this plan falls by the wayside when Jennifer falls asleep in the middle of his back massage foreplay. 

The first signs that this is no ordinary couple, and that their intended video diary is to be rather less mundane than the documenting of some home renovation project or whatnot, comes as the couple film themselves in a hardware store and Jennifer’s casual chit-chat is all about which axe or hammer etc. will make the most suitable murder weapon! Part of the joke here is that the average hardware store actually is a serial killer’s paradise, containing every weapon and restraint under the sun a psychopath could possibly need for executing the perfect kidnap-and-kill plan, all gathered conveniently under one roof; the main source of the film’s sour brand of humour, though, at least initially, lies in portraying the couple’s perverse hobby exactly as though it really were like any pastime an average couple might choose to engage in as a bonding exercise. The two share intimate moments as they pour over anatomy textbooks in the evenings while looking for tips on dismemberment and removing teeth; they go scouting for likely victims together in their car, and have blasé discussions about who might make the most suitable ‘victim’ in a tone that suggests comparing favourite movies. Both can agree that a child would be a bit tasteless, and Farhang has hang-ups about murdering a woman in case people think his motivation was sexual; and he won’t consider ethnic minorities or gay people because the public might mistake the act for a hate crime. Jennifer thinks a teenager would make a good target though because no-one likes them: “there’s got to be at least one person who would thank us for killing any given teenager,” she muses.

What gradually becomes clear to the viewer is that this is very much Jennifer’s project, and that Farhang is kind of meekly going along with it more out of a desire to please his partner and to feel fully invested in their marriage by indulging her interests than out of any real excitement of his own about murdering people for kicks. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s preferred pastimes are mainly those of a sadistic, thrill-seeking sociopath! This is fine when the couple are still in the planning stages, because Farhang can endlessly procrastinate by finding ways to delay the actual implementation of the act: his list of unsuitable victims becomes so long (no handicapped, no elderly people) that it ends up leaving very few options still on the table; and he takes every opportunity to highlight ever more potential for unforeseen problems that might derail the project completely (he wonders if their bath will actually be large enough to hold a corpse while it bleeds out, or even to cut it up in afterwards). But a visit to Jennifer’s mother (played by the actress’s real mom) highlights just how ingrained in her nature the voyeuristic filming of suffering really is when a stack of old VHS video cassettes (as well as her very first video camera) are uncovered in her old room and Jennifer reminisces about a childhood video project: filming herself throwing the family cat down the stairs to see if it landed on its feet! 

The second half of the film documents the unravelling of the couple’s fraying relationship as Jennifer’s impulsive bloodlust leads her into ever more reckless acts of sadism, such as drowning a neighbour’s cat in the kitchen sink and forcing Farhang to film her doing it! (“It’s gonna be a lot easier with a person, don’t worry!” she blithely informs her disgusted husband.) Rather than stick to their original, carefully thought-out idea, which was based on the wisdom of choosing someone who likely won’t be missed, she becomes fixated on taking revenge on an obnoxious rich guy in a suit who insulted her in the street: stalking him, staking out his house (she find out he has a mistress, which she then tries to use as a further justification for killing him) and all the time trying to persuade her husband to make him the focus of their kill plan. Finally, Jennifer goes ahead with the first stages of the plot with another choice of victim, yet without consulting Farhang first -- who comes home to find a strange guy sitting at the dining table sipping drugged wine. With the plan already in operation he has no choice but to reluctantly go along with it.

The entire film is constructed like a home movie, with the actors shooting it themselves using a digital camcorder, although so many semi-amateur non-found footage horror flicks these days are shot in the digital video format that there is little mileage to be milked from the medium as far as creating any sense of authenticity is concerned because nearly all low-budget films now look like this! The biggest drawback, inevitably, is that both husband and wife are thoroughly unlikable -- he’s whiny, needy and weak; she’s flippant, callous and utterly selfish – and we have to spend the entire movie with them, without any relief. Even their potential victims are either pathetically trusting or grossly unpleasant. There are moments of dark comedy, though, located in Jennifer’s completely self-centred attempts to paint her sadism in a positive light, such as when, having forced a visibly numb Farhang to dismember the dead weight body of their eventual victim in the bath using an electric saw (the unbelievably convincing gore effects are some of the nastiest I’ve seen in a long while) until there’s nothing left of it but hunks of bloody flesh, she still takes it upon herself to complain when he asks that for the sake of his own sanity she stop constantly referring to their victim by his name, expressing her fake outrage at her husband's request with the throwaway comment, “well, he was a person … I think we should show a little respect!” 

The film does have an in-built excuse for the standard complaint that most dogs the majority of found footage films: that it’s unbelievable how their protagonists will always continue filming under almost any circumstances. Here that trait is specifically tied to the pathology of one of the couple and becomes a plot point in the final act of the film when Jennifer continues filming in the aftermath of the crime, and drives a wedge between herself and Farhang by unwittingly capturing and throwing a spotlight on the differences in their instinctive responses to the preceding act of murder, thereby documenting the disintegration of their relationship as surly as she did the destruction of a human being. She even secretly films herself at one point promising Farhang that she will stop filming him all the time! Unfortunately, occasional sparks of knowing humour like this are not enough ultimately to raise this entry above the mass of similarly nihilistic, low-budget entries in the found footage and/or kidnap-and-gag-then-torture straight to DVD bin.

The UK DVD release is on the Eureka label and comes with two deleted scenes, teaser trailers and the untreated footage for several scenes in which the couple use an old VHS recorder from Jennifer's old house, all of which were in reality shot using the standard DV format, than artificially degraded to make them look like low resolution VHS tape.             


Sunday, 24 September 2017


WARNING: This review contains spoilers throughout

Christian Marnham’s tawdry offbeat thriller The Orchard End Murder furnishes audiences with a curious viewing experience in 2017 for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that – uniquely for a film of its kind -- it presents us with a very particular (and rather twisted) outlook on a mid-1960s milieu filtered through a lens which has been shaped by the equally distinct and time-locked cultural perspectives of the early-1980s  --  which is when this was filmed and then distributed as a fifty-minute second feature to play opposite current Hollywood movies of the day as a means to take advantage of the tax break being provided back then by the Eady Levy. Thus, it’s also now a time capsule whose oddly inappropriate comic excesses and warped tonal peccadilloes seem, ultimately, to flag up how much it embodies an outlook with roots in societal developments that have a lot to do with past ideas about the notion of a divided England: more specifically, the memory of a perception of there-having-been, at one time, an encroachment of suburbia and its ideals on the time-honoured ways of the English countryside, which continues to affect the relationships previously crucial to the functioning of traditional village life. In fact, such developments might be traceable all the way back to the post-war period, when the divide first began to form between a cultural heritage that takes its values, traditions and customs from a way of life that's guided primarily by the needs of agriculture and the rhythms of the surrounding landscape it depends upon, and the demands of an affluent middle-class commuter set that began to move in from surrounding areas from the mid-1940s onward -- sending commuters traveling in and out by rail each day who eventually also take control of local institutions without necessarily sharing the emotional investment in the area that comes of being an indigenous, integrated part of the community. For British viewers, this short, brutal-but-comic domestic horror thriller is as loaded with cultural subtext as Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre no doubt was for U.S. viewers of the mid-1970s. And now, in a period when the UK seems as divided and as uncertain of its future as it ever has been since the Second World War, this often deliciously grubby exploitation piece seems vaguely to grasp its way towards becoming a pertinent critique of short-sighted provincial middle-class mores and Little Englander-ism because-of rather than despite being an iteration of the theme rooted in a now-largely vanished world of steam trains, British Rail branch lines, and tea and scones with vicar at the cricket pavilion. 

In many ways, The Orchard End Murder was taking up the baton of low-budget British Horror where the independent filmmaker Pete Walker left off. Walker arguably perfected the optimal blend for the times of sensationalism and titillation with his grungy, pessimistic 1970s thrillers, which were informed by and made possible through a combination of the new social permissiveness of the 1960s and the relaxing of censorship laws in the UK which took place in the early ‘70s, helping to create a climate guided by what Walker chronicler Steve Chibnall has termed, ‘the commercialisation of sexual display.’ While stately bastions of the genre like Hammer Productions struggled to adapt to this state of affairs, Walker’s savvy breed of new independent filmmaker flourished by integrating contemporary themes and exploitation subject matter, discovering a knack for the business of generating publicity in the process; whether it was the positive or negative kind didn’t much matter to them!  

By 1981, though, even Pete Walker was finding it difficult to operate successfully in an increasingly financially-straitened, moribund British film industry. His latest film at the time, House of Long Shadows, was a knowingly arch post-modern take on the hoary old Gothic Horror genre, but it was a throwback nonetheless, attempting to mine for nostalgic appeal the popularity of its quartet of veteran Horror stars: Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, John Carradine and Christopher Lee.  The Orchard End Murder, which came out at about the same time, though, operates in a similar way to Walker’s classic trio of Horror thrillers by generating a dread atmosphere and conjuring an ineffable sense of despair still discernible despite, and in some sense because of, the prosaic mundanities of the contemporary English country way of life it frames, pointedly set during the decade whose sexual attitudes first spawned and enabled Walker’s best films. The film even borrows the talents of cinematographer Peter Jessop, Walker’s go-to camera man and collaborator on nearly all his projects -- although, ironically, Jessop had been unavailable to Walker for the filming of House of Long Shadows -- and recreates a blissful, lost idyll of quaint Home Counties gentility which the film then proceeds to deface with lurid dabs of queasy sex, comic perversity and the macabre. What strikes one almost immediately is how confident and efficiently fine-tuned these 50 minutes of suspense are, considering the fact that the film effectively constitutes a writer-director feature debut for Marnham. In fact Marnham was already much steeped in the craft of film-making, having been forced to begin working as a young trainee assistant editor in a film processing lab because the job offered the only means at that time of earning his union card from the Film Producers Guild. He became friends with Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson during this period, and was later presented with a golden chance to to hone his skills as a director by making commercials for the advertising firm Cammell-Hudson Associates for several years during the period when Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg were also busy working on their masterpiece, Performance

From its opening seconds The Orchard End Murder impresses with the quality of its direction and writing, combined with the gorgeous cinematography and clever sound editing it showcases throughout; Marnham establishes his central character, her circumstances, and the situation she is about to face at the start of this tale with a simple but perfectly judged device: as the title credits role – simple white text against a black background – the usual title music is replaced by an awkward phone conversation in which a young woman called Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) -- who, it is quickly established, comes from the leafy south-east London suburb of Sidcup -- rings up a man she evidently barely knows, called Mike Robbins (Mark Hardy), after having previously obtained his number after meeting him on a night out in town. Hopeful expectation born of sheer boredom is a succinct summery of the frame of mind we sense from Pauline, and which has led to the making of this call, perhaps looking for stimulation and thrills in random sexual assignations to distract from the emptiness of suburban inanity. At first curt and formal towards her tentative inquiries, then solicitous and ingratiating when he recognises Pauline as the woman he has previously had a fumble with in a local car park, we immediately peg Mike for a bit of a player; and although both parties are ostensibly looking for 'a good time' with 'no strings attached’, there is an unvoiced intimation throughout of the uneven power imbalance that's manifested by the social dynamic in operation behind their words to each other during the setup of this assignation between a working class cinema usherette with few prospects and a public school-educated chartered accountant.

Mike isn’t available to take her out that night, though. Instead he suggests she join him for a Sunday drive out into the Kent countryside. For there’s a "lovely little place" there called Charthurst Green where he will be taking part in a cricket match with some work colleagues and social acquaintances. Pauline’s rather incredulous response (“a cricket match?!”) to the idea of being made a party to this impeccably middle-class pastime is eventually tempered by Mike’s plan that they go off and ‘have some fun’ afterwards: perhaps, she contends hopefully, they might pick up where they left off in that car park? But when Mike remembers that he doesn’t yet know where she lives and  hurriedly asks her for her address so that he can pick her up ‘in his sports car', Pauline pointedly hesitates before answering. Then, without exactly refusing him, she replies by asking that he simply pick her up ‘under the clock’ in Sidcup high-street. We are given to think then that, despite everything else, Pauline is at least sensible enough not to impart her address to somebody who at this stage she barely knows – yet this turns out to be a wariness that will dessert her utterly later in the film, when the plot calls for her suddenly to become bizarrely reckless in her desperate need for human contact.  At this stage, though, we have yet to actually clap eyes on either Pauline or Mike, yet we already feel we have grasped the situation and obtained some knowledge of the personalities of both protagonists, as well as got a handle on the social dynamic underpinning the uneven relationship that has defined their interactions thus far. A title card then lets us known that events are taking place in 1966, and a high-angle crane shot above the cricket ground at Charthurst introduces the familiar and comforting sights and accompanying sounds of a traditional English sporting pastime. Maintaining its altitude, suspended above the scene of play, the camera pans to the right, past an adjacent country lane and above a substantial plantation of apple trees in a neighbouring field -- which is where we find Pauline and Mike, whom we see as small figures canoodling under cover of the orchard’s canopy. But the scene also includes another figure, over towards the edge of the frame, observing them furtively and skulking behind the cover of nearby trees and bushes … 

In just one shot, Marnham has indicated the terrain this film will inhabit throughout its running time -- both a geographical and a psychological terrain. Images of countryside activities and locales associated usually with peacefulness and calm will be constantly invaded by a sense of unease and tension; the mundane becoming infused with a feeling of profound dread because of the intrusive appearance of something that doesn’t quite fit the scene: this is British Home Counties Horror 101. When Marnham cuts from Pauline and Mike’s tryst to a shot of the bowler at the crease in the next field, rubbing the seam of the cricket ball against his crotch as he prepares to bowl, the juxtaposition of the two shots, though innocent in isolation, becomes a sly innuendo – a strategy Marnham employs throughout the film to suggest the darker undercurrents of sexual threat contained within apparently harmless situations and activities. This is a theme encapsulated in the Garden of Eden symbolism expressed through the film’s various manipulations of the visual motif of the apple. Apples are first seen growing in a young orchard, then being collected by child ‘scrumpers’; one is later picked by Pauline herself, presaging terrible developments -- before, finally and ominously, we later see a great mountain of discarded rotting apples dumped at the site of a remote chalk hole: a trajectory that indicates this fruit represents loss of innocence leading to death. 

The first half of the film is structured like a cautionary parable, taking a traditional slasher movie form that begins with that familiar, viewer-implicating POV voyeur’s shot from the bushes we’ve become used to seeing in so many slashers, which then cuts to a close-up of Pauline as she breaks away suddenly from Mike in reaction to an apparent noise in the distance that alerts her to the idea that they might not be alone, and giving her: “a horrible feeling … like somebody just walked over my grave!” With the spell of amour momentarily broken, Mike suddenly realises that he is up next to bat, and thereby instantly lets Pauline in on the lowliness of her ranking on his list of concerns for that day: he is here primarily for the cricket, with hanky-panky being merely a pleasant but inessential bonus addition to the proceedings. He hurriedly leaves her, not wanting to let the side down. 

Our identification with Pauline’s escalating feeling of isolation and creeping loneliness -- her sense thereafter of not belonging in these surroundings, or among these people – provide, in the following moments, the context in which we view these scenes, and informs our understanding of what she does next. Although we have been told that these events take place in 1966, Pauline is the only person whose fashion sense and styling gives that fact away on screen: with her Op art print-patterned dress and Vidal Sassoon-like bob cut hairstyle she stands out amongst the traditionally uniformed cricket players and the staid, mostly elderly middle-class attendees frequenting the picnic area. Yet Tracy Hyde’s naturalistic performance indicates not a modern, hyper confident ‘It’ girl of the High Sixties, but someone who has scrimped and saved to afford the occasional trip to Biba at the weekend where she can find something ‘hip’ to buy and wear on her nights out. The soundtrack becomes laden with audio cues that intimate the stultification a conventional upbringing in the semi-rural suburban outskirts of a big city might produce in a young woman seeking to forge an independent identity in those surroundings during the 1960s: the gentle rustling of leaves in the summer wind; the drowsy but insistent buzzing of insects as village church bells toil politely in the far distance … these are the sounds that provide the backdrop for the polite chit-chat over tea and scones that emanates from one of the trestle tables at which the vicar is busy holding court while light-heartedly discussing what turn out to be ominously relevant subjects -- such as the nature of the Biblical Adam and the concept of fate. Taken together, all such elements seem to conspire to produce in Pauline a feeling of alienation and disconnection from her apparently idyllic milieu, and she is soon tempted by the uncomfortably bourgeois atmosphere generated by these surroundings, to go wandering alone in the nearby orchard to escape the unpleasantness of the unwanted sensation they have left her with.

From here, the film skilfully constructs an uneasy and almost uncanny atmosphere using the most prosaically kitsch of materials: Pauline ends up at a quaint Gatekeeper’s cottage, situated a little way up the road from the leafy local railway branch line its occupant oversees, and production designer Simon Haynes (whose credits at IMDb seem rather sparse beyond this title) contributes to the viewer’s rapidly dawning sense of there being something slightly ‘off’ about the whole scene by constructing an environment for the cottage that appears, deliberately, just a little too picture-postcard-perfect to feel completely real. With its neatly manicured lawn and the picturesquely arranged ivy that adorns a surrounding, pristine-white picket fence, this chintzy cottage design looks like something from a fairy tale picture book, and it puts you on edge as soon as you see Pauline ambling unsuspectingly up its winding gravel pathway in much the same way as do the first daylight sightings of the Sawyer household in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To add to the absurdist sense of unreality which attends the scene, the garden is heavily adorned with dozens of ornamental garden gnomes. When the beckoning personage of the Gatekeeper/Stationmaster -- hunch-backed, bearded, and wearing little bottle-top-shaped spectacles -- appears at an upstairs window, looking like a novelty figurine popping out of a cuckoo clock and resembling one of his own colourful gnome collection as he welcomes Pauline to this “proper little gnomes’ fairyland”, inviting her in for “tea in my parlour”, one can’t help feeling that Pauline’s weird-o-meter should be buzzing off the scale by this point -- especially when he casts the gnome menagerie in terms of them being just like his “little friends”.

But even when the Stationmaster (an enjoyably creepy performance by Bill Wallis) follows up his initial invite with a (one would have thought) unnecessary reassurance that he ‘won’t bite!’ there is so clearly a sinister glee being indicated when he also notices in passing that some wasps have been caught in a ‘honey trap’ jam jar left out in the garden (“look where your sweet tooth has got you now!”), that for Pauline to accept his offer appears a positively suicidal decision on her part. The interior of the cottage is reassuringly drab in an English provincial sort of way, as china tea sets and lugubriously ticking pendulum clocks abound; a gloomy silence prevails that is only punctured by the Stationmaster's forced cheeriness as he merrily regales Pauline with an anecdote over tea and a slice of fruit cake, about how the former owners of the abode committed suicide by lying together side-by-side with their heads lined up along the railway tracks outside! It’s this mixture of bland domesticity and outrageously macabre detail which puts the piece broadly in the same bracket as Pete Walker’s best work, with the emphasis being on the quiet desperation that belies the cosy picture of contentment such surroundings generally denote to the outside world while usually disguising a multitude of sins. In some ways, the image that emerges of the Stationmaster’s rustic existence here has parallels with the depiction of Pauline’s solitude in suburbia, suggested earlier  when she found herself reluctantly seated among the great and the good of village life: with a disguised passive-aggressive note of bitter animosity just discernible beneath the amiable badinage, the outlandish host chats about how he has lived in this village all his life, and how he used to know everyone by their first name, as they once knew him; but now that city dwellers have taken up residence in so many weekend homes here, the village has become full of people who …”have no idea what I think … or what I do!” This is a comment that also carries intimations of a sinister double meaning, of course, but Pauline’s life in bedsit land in Sidcup seems similarly isolated, despite her insistence that “I live my own life.” A comical air of creepiness attends the Stationmaster’s attempts to ingratiate him-self with a young woman who he clearly thinks might be of ‘easy virtue’ as he tries to elicit sympathy by complaining to her about how “strangers can be very cruel … and make fun of my little deformity”; he even manages to persuade her, tentatively, to touch his hump at one point!

It also turns out that the Stationmaster has adopted a hulking, mentally challenged young man called Ewen -- an orphan Borstal boy who also lives with him and helps out, through his work as a local handyman, the various dignitaries and weekend residents whose needs clearly now dictate the rhythms of village life. Unfortunately, poor Ewen isn’t quite so practiced in the art of leaving a pleasant first impression with young women: he appears at the tea table cradling a cute bunny rabbit in his arms, but before Pauline has even reached the end of her first exclamation of appreciation for the cuddly creature, Ewen has started slamming it into the table, his features contorted as he lets out a bloodcurdling scream! Given the level of insanity now clearly on display as Ewen stalks off with a large kitchen knife promising to “take it out and skin it”, you’d think the shaken guest would now be making every excuse under the sun to be on her way by this point, despite the Stationmaster’s timid explanation that Ewen is “a very mixed up young man!” Instead she takes pity on him and agrees to go for a walk with him in one of the orchards, thus sealing an extremely unpleasant fate to come … 

Marnham’s script takes the Psycho route when determining the structure of the piece: it introduces Pauline as the central character, and therefore the site of the audience’s sympathies – but then kills her off before the half-way mark. Not unsurprisingly, Ewen turns out to be unable to control his spasmodic sexual urges during the couple’s saunter amongst the ripening apple trees; and indeed, at first, Pauline, despite having witnessed his disturbingly bizarre behavior earlier, seems more than willing to entertain the possibility of indulging in at least some light petting, if not a full sexual liaison with the lumbering manchild -- although we don’t get any insight into why exactly she would choose to take this course of action other than maybe out of sheer boredom. Here the film fully embraces the exploitation feel of many Pete Walker projects -- from Cool It Carol to Home Before Midnight -- in its depiction of a sad, grotty little enclave of a repressed (and repressive) England where the prospect of some rushed, cheap sex on a filthy mattress in a damp chalk hole dump for discarded fruit provides the acme of recreational entertainment. Clive Mantle, in one of his earliest screen performances, plays the taciturn, sexually immature hulk with a quiet desperation which allows the film to almost get away with attempting to make him the sympathetic party later on, even after we’ve just seen him attempt to rape Pauline in a violently graphic sequence during which her dress gets pulled off and her breasts pawed at, and which culminates in her finally succumbing and getting throttled to death during the course of Ewen’s unsuccessful attempts to have sex with her on a slag heap of rotting apples (oh, the symbolism!). 

The rest of the film develops the Stationmaster as an equally sexually freakish miscreant, and goes all in on the idea of rural England being a hotbed of twisted vice and sexual perversion behind the pastoral gentility of its homely village décor and mock Tudor heritage façades. The interior of a track-side railway sidings shed becomes a macabre shrine when Ewen transfers Pauline’s corpse to it so that he can indulge in a grim make-believe parody of domestic living, with some necrophilia on the side; and when the Stationmaster finds out, his reaction is to throw a hissy fit and accuse Ewen of cheating him because he “stole my flower!” The remainder of the film plays as a, frankly, tasteless piece of comic farce involving the mad Stationmaster and Ewen attempting to dispose of Pauline’s body in the middle of a large-scale police manhunt, after her disappearance is reported on the national radio. They seek to transfer it in a cardboard box on a trailer that’s attached to the back of a bicycle they normally use for collecting jumble for the Girl Guides (“I don’t think Brown Owl would approve of this!”), hoping to bury it in a secluded field after the site has already been searched by the Police. The film ends on a dismally facetious note with Pauline’s corpse finally being discovered in a shallow grave and a forensic pathologist assiduously dusting her exposed buttocks for prints as they emerge from the excavated dirt: a sight which results in Ewen losing it again, jumping into the grave, and attempting to ravish the soil-besmirched corpse in full view of some by-now-very-suspicious police detectives! Throughout this portion of the film, we’re constantly reminded how true the Stationmaster’s earlier exhortation actually is about nobody really knowing what he thinks … He and Ewen occasionally interact with a well-to-do out-of-towner called Mr Wickstead (Raymond Adamson), who wants Ewen to come round and trim his garden topiary sometime – but who is clearly otherwise not in the least bit curious about the lives of these suspiciously furtive locals.   

With its TV episode runtime length (50 minutes approx.) and the stylistic flavour of its excellent, melodic musical contributions from composer Sam Sklair -- which often imitate the kind of fretless base-dominated cues one would’ve been routinely exposed to in episodes of contemporary television shows such as Bergerac in the 1980s -- the film cultivates the disreputable air of something that feels like it may have been at one time commissioned for TV but then got subsequently side-lined for being far too explicit to actually screen – although this was never in fact the case. The way the tone shifts between a jokey nudge-nudge, wink-wink furtiveness and a grim atmosphere of incipient sexual violence informs the quirky melancholy character of the piece, which emerges from the film being, ultimately, both an example of sexist objectification and a critique of social alienation at the same time. One also senses that the central murder scene ended up being more powerful and disturbing than its makers intended when it was originally shot; Marnham’s apprenticeship as a director on numerous commercials imparted to him the ability to maximise the impact of his material, and he employs a number of techniques (discussed in the BFI release’s interview extras) which add such a gut-punch to the reception of that murder scene that it sets it apart from the lighter tone of the performances being given elsewhere. Nevertheless, the resulting contrast adds rather than detracts from the film’s uneasy reconstruction of the English countryside as a macabre but picturesque site of domestic solitude and sexual desperation.

This being a little-known programme-filling short rather than a main feature does not take anything away from its watchability, and anyone who prizes British Horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s will find this early-80s offering equally as fascinating. The new BFI Flipside release offers a gorgeous 2K digital restoration using the original 35mm film print preserved in the National Film Archive as a source. The image is almost perfect, although the audio track does get a little crackly in places towards the end. The dual-format presentation comes with a number of extras that make the release a valuable historical summery of the culture of independent filmmaking as it stood in the early 1980s, just as the programme short was about to die out with the removal of the tax break system of finance which made it possible. Christian Marnham’s first films outside of the advertising industry were documentaries and the disc includes a 25 minute short made in 1970 called The Showman. It’s a fascinating, and almost equally as macabre record of the career of the variety circus showman Mr Wally Shufflebotttom Snr: a portly, elderly sideshow host who toured British fairgrounds in the early 1970s touting his flaming knife-throwing act, which incorporated striptease  performances enacted by vacant-looking ‘dolly birds’ who we get to see jiving to a Gary Glitter track in order to tempt the shifty-looking punters in. What could sum up the 1970s in Britain better than that image? It’s yet another cultural document which appears to prove that the ‘60s/’70s were another country in terms of how sex was dealt with back in the day and, Marnham’s short account of the development of his career during this period, and of the making of this particular film, is extremely compelling. There is a longer 38 minute account of the making of The Orchard End Murder included, which is again fascinating; and Tracy Hyde has also been tracked down to discuss her previous life as an actress in a 12 minute interview. Actor David Wilkinson, who plays one of the cricketers in the opening section of the film, also talks of his memories about the filming of the feature. The accompanying booklet features two astutely perceptive articles by Josephine Botting on The Orchard End Murder, and Vic Pratt on The Showman: both writers are curators and historians at the National Film Archive who offer perceptive analysis of this bizarre lost period from the nation’s film history.