Schizo (1976)

Schizo Header image
by Ian Taylor What is this that I sense? It seems to be a dark pall of nihilism and a rejection of any system of authority and social well-being. Oh hello, it must be a Pete Walker film! Schizo was the very first Walker directed film that I saw, rented from a tiny VHS rental shop situated in the basement of the large offices in which I took my first job as a teenager. As a devoted fan of classic horror, particularly Hammer, and a nervous fan of the more visually violent slasher phenomenon I was unprepared for what seemed like an unholy matrimony of the two. Here were genuine Hammer alumni caught up in a dark, cynical world of violence. Wow. Salad days, indeed!

A heavy-handed voice-over on the subject of schizophrenia opens proceedings. Many people suggest that this and the actual title of the film itself give the game away but I’m not so sure that it does. Any character within the story could be the killer surely? What’s more, if we’re going to let the rather non-PC attitude towards a particular mental condition pass on the understanding that this is a clear work of fiction… who says that schizophrenia has to be an obvious illness? Whether characters within the text show signs or not, who is to say that other characters are not hiding their condition? There are clear red herrings contained in Schizo – you be the judge of how many when you watch!

Stark industrial themes open the film – the North East of England, or a stereotypical view at least. Still, I won’t complain as it’s a change from the norm. Here are smoking chimneys, the clattering metal framework of dockland cranes and drab, grey streets filling with exhausted dockers trudging home to the sound of the factory sirens. The charismatic Jack Watson (The Gorgon, Tower of Evil, The Wild Geese) stands out in donkey jacket and red bob cap as he buys the newspaper from a street vendor. A Co-Op milk float trundles by. Here is the 70s caught in aspic. Walker is clearly determined to ground this film in reality before plunging us into the tale of terror. And here we go, as Watson reads the newspaper headline – ‘Ice Queen to Wed’. Cue dramatic music, clenched fists and a meaningful frown. Walker shies away from subtle too! We cut to Watson’s small flat, a grim affair, typical of the director’s unforgiving view of much of British life. Reading the news story again, our angry docker notes an address in Hampstead – and here is a nice camera edit as his biro pen swirls around the photograph of the ‘ice queen’ who caught his attention. It spirals around her face, round and round and round until the image dissolves into a circle being scoured into frozen ice by the skates of the girl in the photograph. Here is our heroine, Samantha. A professional ice skater played but none other than the one-time wife of Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick, star of Hammer’s Vampire Circus. Rest assured, the grim Grimm’s Fairy Tale horrors of that classic will be thin on the ground in this mean piece of work. Meanwhile, a prowling camera finds Watson, in his role as William Haskin, still in Newcastle. He packs his suitcase, fair enough… and then retrieves a knife and a bloodstained fragment of broken glass. Stanley Myers forcefully eerie music intrudes as the title appears – SCHIZO. We are seven minutes in and the mood has been established.

It’s actually very easy to sell the virtues of a Pete Walker film to horror fans who like a walk on the sleazy side. Even though many of his characters are comfortably middle class at the very least they live shabby lifestyles full of arguments, worries and affairs. People die violently, sometimes as retribution, often for no reason at all, and those deaths tend to be bloody. There is rarely a happy ending too. Even better, due to the fact that the British film industry was pretty much dying on its arse at the time there was a very good chance of seeing respectable actors getting down and dirty with the commonplace sex, violence and cynicism. Hence a cast list here that, in addition to the afore mentioned Watson and Frederick, also includes Stephanie Beacham (later a US soap star courtesy of Dynasty and The Colbys but already something of a Brit Scream Queen thanks to The Nightcomers, Dracula AD 1972, ~~And Now the Screaming Starts! And an earlier Walker film House of Mortal Sin,) respected stage actor and on-screen veteran of 20+ years John Fraser, John Leyton (of war films such as The Great Escape, Guns at Batasi and Von Ryan’s Express) and familiar faces of British television comedies and dramas: Queenie Watts, Colin Jeavons and Diana King. Perhaps it is difficult for anyone from elsewhere other than the UK (unless a dedicated Anglophile and specific fan of British film and television culture) to really appreciate just how much of a guilty thrill the griminess of Walker’s projects are. Add to that the fact that this is very much a prototype slasher, two years prior to Halloween making it the trend of the next ten years and set in drab, downbeat little England and it seems that Schizo should need no selling at all.

The thing is, this was Walker at another turning point. His biggest horror hits had all occurred over the last couple of years and each one promoted itself by scandalously targeting some British institution or another. Frightmare (1974) took pieces out of ‘family’ – actually quite literally, with a power drill! House of Whipcord (1974) was a dig at the judicial system and House of Mortal Sin (1976) really dragged the Catholic Church through the gutter. These films were written by David McGillivray; a writer of exploitation films, an occasional playwright and the future comedy writer for Julian Clary. Those previous projects had effectively gained promotion from salacious subject matter and the outrage of those easily offended. In turn, those in favour of sticking it to the system – and as this was the mid-70s, who wasn’t? – loved it all. And yet, Schizo really lacked an institution to attack. Maybe we could argue that it is anti-celebrity culture (as indeed was his next shocker, The Comeback (1978.) Taking that argument, the two films dovetail nicely, the former showing that people can’t necessarily be trusted even if you know them well, the latter showing that celebrity can inadvertently cause non-celebrities an awful lot of grief. Other than lacking a clear scandalous target though, the other issue that Schizo had was that which I mentioned at the top of the feature, the thoroughly objectionable suggestion that schizophrenia was likely to turn people into vicious killers. Walker and McGillivray may have lost their golden touch. In any case, this was the writer’s last script for Walker. The director’s old scribe Murray Smith, responsible for the likes of Cool It, Carol! and The Four Dimensions of Greta returned to the fold to adapt McGillivray’s script and he was then back in the scriptwriting role for The Comeback. McGillivray would move over to working for Norman J Warren, an arguably better independent director of similar material.

In my opinion though, these changes are actually not a bad thing. Interesting things happen such as the introduction of the supernatural, albeit briefly, and the body count element manages to channel as much Italian giallo as stateside slasher. The bringing of these two relatively exotic sub-genres to a fairly unstylish England produces some moments of note…

Having been quickly introduced to the main female characters of Samantha (a quite clunky Frederick) and her best friend Beth (a fantastic Beacham) we then meet the men who complicate things. Samantha is getting married to carpet manufacturer Alan (Fraser) – but Beth has the hots for him – whilst John Leyton plays rather fey friend Leonard, a psychiatrist who should give himself a free session as he is overly arch and terribly jealous of Alan. It all might seem a bit soapy but it definitely offers plenty of motive for murder – plus the carpet factory is a lovely, interesting location which offers plenty of scope for dramatic and bloody nonsense later on! At this point in his career David McGillivray did tend to be rather verbose in his writing but he does at least get the opportunity to offer a few negative views about capitalism. Not to mention a lack of social niceties with the likes of fat, bespectacled women huffing and puffing next to Haskin on the train as he has flashbacks to a naked woman being viciously knifed as he stands by, equally naked and trying to look years younger by wearing a silly wig! Disembarking, he checks into a men’s hostel as an old boy roots through a bin outside. So far, so grim!

Walker’s style is often blunt – there are lots of troubled stares and a very slow set-up for the next big scare – but he can also be clever. The soundtrack thriftily communicates a rammed party atmosphere whilst the camera shows careful shots of far less people. It is Samantha’s wedding day and here comes the cake… complete with bloodstained knife! Menace has been building nicely prior to this as Haskin has made a few problem phone calls, mumbling about Jean – who is she? Now that menace is generated further as the shaken couple return home to their darkened townhouse. A Point of View camera shot prowls inside. A door carefully shuts before they enter. There is a lack of soundtrack music other than for the scenes of nudging suspense. This cleverly renders those moments all the more sinister whilst the rather more mundane sequences full of bog-standard chatter feel bleaker thanks to the lack of musical enhancement. It makes things feel markedly chilly.

Granted, there are times when we need to suspend our disbelief. A further mystery phone call provokes nothing more than a shrugged “Some nut case” before Alan realises that he needs to go out and leave her alone. Yes, on their wedding night! Yes, despite the phone calls and the bloody knife!! Yes, the bloody bloody knife!!! It should come as no surprise that Samantha reassured herself by taking a shower, leaving herself at her most vulnerable but then this is a psycho thriller after all. What else should there be but a naked shower scene? Unlikelihood aside, this scene really does build up the tension, especially on the appearance of a gloved hand wielding a knife! Of course, Samantha hears something, and of course she wraps herself in a towel and goes to investigate. And here, my friends, is the beautiful contrast between such films from other countries and the English made Schizo. They might use a cat or a swarthily complexioned security man to provide a jump. In 70s Britain we use Queenie Watts! It’s strangely surreal to see someone more suited to the kitchen sink drama of Poor Cow, and Up the Junction in this sort of situation but it does add to the weird frisson! Queenie is the cleaner, it turns out. More than that, she’s a spiritualist – “Ah, you’ve begun to see them at last”. There it is, that interesting supernatural subtext so unusual for Pete Walker films.

The bluntness of Walker’s approach begins to pick up pace now as the shocks mingle ever more frequently with the mundanity of everyday life. Muzak, fresh veg and a voice in Samantha’s head as she visits the local supermarket, not to mention a butcher’s cleaver in her trolley! Dashing away she bumps into Leonard. That’s handy – what about an impromptu session on the couch? It’s all above board but not everyone might think so… more motive! In visiting Leonard’s offices we are treated to a brief cameo from John McEnery as a patient on the edge – just the one scene to add to the sense of jeopardy, to unnerve the characters and the audience. But John McEnery…one decade he’s giving his Mercutio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, the next one and it’s rubber dinosaurs with Doug McClure and this strange walk-on (wholly attributable to the fact that he was married to Stephanie Beacham at the time.) Still, it’s one more red herring, isn’t it?

Back home alone for the night – draw the curtains – and there are banging noises from upstairs – here’s the cliché of an open window, an old photo disturbed, open doors, a shadow… oh, it’s only hubby. The strength of these scenes is that they are being played out in a far more brutal film than the old black and white melodramas that are good for a rainy Sunday afternoon. The notion that the director is fiendish cynic who wants to shock you rigid is great for tipping all the hackneyed stereotypes on their head. This is clumsy stuff but it keeps the viewer twitching!

In taking the reader through the précise plot I am leaving the details of the antagonist as bathed in mystery as I can, though I suspect that many will know who the culprit is irrespective of whether they have seen the film or not. Still, I should warn that spoilers are imminent as I think I need to address the issue more directly. After all, the way this all unfolds is part of the film’s dirty charm and one of the ways in which I’m trying to draw people in… In actual fact, the story only really makes sense if Samantha is the schizo killer of the title, unless we have an extreme case of ‘gaslighting’, the term coined by Patrick Hamilton in the excellent Victorian set play that spawned two equally excellent films. That being the case though, someone is planning pretty bloody hard and is taking an awful lot of risks in setting things up with no time to spare before athletically escaping through a window that they had only just entered through like a Ninja! As already mentioned, there are love triangle red herrings a-plenty but they seem too obvious. Beth and Alan are seen out for a drink (John Fraser being slightly upstaged by Stephanie Beacham’s earrings, which would make effective murder weapons in their own right) whilst Sam is with Leonard for a therapy session. The swapped partnerships here are blatant, leaving us guessing. However, the thing that does pop up is nothing about Leonard’s person but is actually the revelation that William Haskin, the biggest, baddest red herring in the barrel so far, is “My mother’s lover”! Cue an expanded version of Haskin’s earlier flashback, this time showing that Samantha is present at the age of “Seven, seven, seven” years old. Yes, her voice-over does echo like that! Seven, seven, seven year old Sam is downstairs and there is a broken glass. She is witnessing a violent row between her naked mother and Haskins…who seems to butcher his lover.

Are we getting somewhere? Unfortunately, before Leonard can conduct any further therapy sessions the doctor is out…for good. It’s another scene to tick off the list – the baddie in the back of the car. It doesn’t matter that I told you and it won’t matter that you’ll see it coming. We all know that scenes such as this crank up the tension and always make you jump! This isn’t the last death, and the supernatural element develops further as Samantha visits the cleaner’s spiritualist group where Queenie’s daughter is the key performer. Here the clairvoyant clearly senses the presence of the murderer and her eyes turn opaque and her voice becomes possessed. These elements are never explained but they darken the tone further and prepare us for the worst. This is a genuine spiritualist who sees the real thing…doesn’t stop her from suffering a particularly gruesome death though but at least it gives McGillivray a chance to write in a little cameo for himself!

As the endgame begins we are left with that triangle of lurve… Samantha, Alan and Beth, with Haskin in pursuit and returning to that lovely carpet factory location with lots of spiky bits in the machinery… There is one more gruesome dispatch to go and the final line of dialogue is “Goodbye Alan!”

That’s all you’re getting. There is nothing here that you haven’t seen before – but it’s never been as downbeat, as violent nor as cynical. And you’ve never seen it amongst the supermarkets and community halls of a recession battered England. It’s a downright dirty slice of brutal Brit Horror and it’s well worth the history trip