(Release Date: April 19, 1974)
(USA Release Date: March 1975)
The sentence is DEATH!
But if you find that obvious, how about the fact that one of the main characters in this "Women's Prison Movie", which centers, in no small part, on nude whippings is named "Mark E. Desade"? Yeah, that's about as subtle as a cinderblock to the balls. Truth to tell, these nearly-obnoxious conceits are just about what one should expect from a mid-1970s exploitation film, especially one laded with such predominantly prurient subject matter masquerading as pathetically prudish punitive pandering.
Yeah, House of Whipcord is so wrapped up in its sanctimony (mock or sincere) that it actually starts out with the following on-screen text: "This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment." Rrrrrrright! Shouldn't that be followed by "Thank GOD the Moral proponents of Corporal and Capital Punishment have come to this particular GRINDHOUSE, man!"? Let's get real, here, Pete! Why not just say "This film is dedicated to those who are aroused by titties, sex, bondage, ropes and whippings upon the skin of beautiful and supple nude women." Now that would be accurate.
The big surprise here is that while this is unquestionably an exploitation film (as are, arguably, all of Petey Walkie's flicks) with tons of gratuities and edgy nastiness, the film itself is not really that bad in quality. That's not to say it could hold a lit match's chance in a hurricane of making you feel terribly good after having watched it, but the performances are overall pretty good and the directing, lighting and even camera work are of the quality of much better films.
Again, though, from a moral standpoint... you can guess what's packed into this film like Stove Top into a Christmas Duck! The story begins (in flashback) at a very British party where we meet our beautiful leading lady, a young, innocent French Fashion Model named Ann Marie Di Verney (played by Englishwoman Penny Irving). The life of the party is a Mural-Sized black and white of Ann Marie being arrested for indecent exposure during a nude modeling job in London. It's here that she meets the aforementioned Desade (Robert Tayman), whom only someone as sweet and naive as Ann Marie would find charming. Anne Marie's almost equally hot roommate Julia (Anne Michelle) describes ol' Marky as "Dishy", though I have to believe that she actually meant "Douchy". Then again, sexy Julia is somehow sleeping with a frumpy and hairy married guy named Tony (Ray Brooks), so who knows what her tastes are?
It is more than welcome to see lovely ladies like Penny Irving and Anne Michelle parading around naked in their apartment as their characters get ready to go out with Mark and Tony to say the least. It might have been better (for both the characters and the audience) if they had simply stayed in together (still naked), but that's not where the script goes. Instead Ann Marie finds herself traveling cross country to meet Mark E. Desade's family, while he's essentially acting like an ass-bag. It's hard not to feel for pretty Ann Marie in her sweet naivetÚ, especially when Mark acts like such a dick. One would think he would be grateful to date such a hottie when he looks more like the skinny guy in a Spock uniform who needs a haircut at a third-rate Star Trek convention. Maybe it's because he has a cool car.
What Mark E. Desade doesn't have is a charming house in the country with parents who want to meet his new girlfriend. Instead, Ann Marie is surprised to find herself ushered into a huge, dreary place by a drab, marm-like mannish woman named Bates (Dorothy Gordon), stripped naked, checked for lice, dressed in an even drabber uniform and put on trial for Indecent Exposure (for which she previously was only fined "Ten Pounds"). It seems that Bates isn't Desade's mother, but a prison guard who, teamed up with the even crueler Walker (Sheila Keith), enforces the sentences laid down by a mean elderly couple.
Barbara Markham's Mrs. Wakehurst (said to be a twisted representation of Brit-Prude Mary Whitehouse) is the evil mastermind behind this corn-ball prison that enforces (Star Chamber-like) sadistic punishments that the real law has let slide. She also seems to take great pleasure in isolating, flogging and even killing the all-female inmates at this crusty establishment. Of course, to rationalize this, Wakehurst must have a Judge, which she has in the form of Patrick Barr's Justice Bailey. If the name of the film and the villainous characters still held some tentative grasp on artful, fanciful expression here (sarcasm, mine), then get a load of the fact that Bailey is crippled, enfeebled and, yes... Blind. Justice is... Blind. Sigh.
Could we get a little MORE heavy-handed here with our metaphors, please? I think a few lobotomized shut-ins may have missed where Petey-boy was going with this! Folks, I half expected Pete Walker to actually enter the camera frame and say "You see, I was going for a fictional microcosm of society here by naming all of my...", but I guess he knew we'd all stop watching right about there. Oh, and the fact that the cruelest guard is also named "Walker" couldn't have been a mistake, could it have? With this many "clever" hints in the screenplay "Pete ze Hutt" wrote with David McGillivray, I'm thinking he just might have some Mommy Issues rolling about in that melon of his!
And that gets more clear as the film progresses and more of the back story is revealed. However, the main clue is in the treatment of the women here. First off, this unsanctioned prison has only female inmates usually "guilty" of doing something sexy. In fact, one of the taglines was "The story of a strange hobby and its victims whose only crime was to be young and beautiful." Sure, Walker might have been going for an ironic satire on the way women in society are treated, but he's doing so in a bizarre, meta-fictional parallel to what his characters are doing. Exploiting for exploitation's sake. Second, Walker seems to justify this by showing the main aggressors to be women themselves, therefore it can't possibly be sexist, right? Rrrrrrright! All the while, Walker casts doubt over whether Douchy Mark E. Desade is a vicious co-conspirator or a victim of a violent family himself.
Regardless of what Pete Walker was going for (and it seems to change by the scene, thus his insistence that there was no political subtext intended... Rrrrrrright!), the end result is an Exploitation Flick. This fact makes the overall quality of the film all the more noteworthy. Of course this isn't a "great" movie, nor is it a misunderstood gem. However, if you take a look at this movie you'll find that even the most over-the-top moments never come off as campy, the suspense can be palatable in many places and the acting is actually quite good, considering all. Even Irving's fake French accent doesn't devolve into a Jacques Clouseau mockery.
Further, the director (along with his cinematographer Peter Jessop) makes positive use of negative space and treats light and shadow as if they were special-made tools for the camera to work with and in. Walker's writing may be none-too-subtle, but his framing really can be.
Parts of the film feel incongruous and parts may cause the occasional eye-roll, but considering the type of film this is, at least from a technical standpoint, it's simply not that bad. Compare it to low-budget works from today (with technology over thirty years beyond that of 1974) and most of them don't look this good. Of course, not many of the ladies you could get to star in such a low budget flick look quite as good as Penny Irving either. Two and One Half Stars out of Five for House of Whipcord. It's unpleasant and crude, but it's also proficient in a lot of ways. So until Pete Walker makes an animated flick called Twelve Angry Hens with places like "Oliver Crom's Well", with a character named "Richard D. Third" who loves eating Huckleberries and saying things like "Tom Saw Your Fin!" I'll see you in the next reel.
Well, I've got MORE than enough to share...
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