Are you weary of a flaccid and overly lenient prosecutorial system that seems more inclined to slap offenders on the wrist rather than giving them their just desserts? Do you yearn to return to a time when both corporal and capital punishments were the order of the day? If so, then there's a rather simple solution to your dilemma...open your own prison and mete out the forms of punishment you see fit, as depicted in House of the Whipcord (1974). Written, produced and directed by Pete Walker (Die Screaming, Marianne, The Flesh and Blood Show, Schizo), the film features Barbara Markham (Sunday Bloody Sunday), Patrick Barr (The Satanic Rites of Dracula), Ray Brooks (The Flesh and Blood Show), Ann Michelle (Psychomania), Sheila Keith (Frightmare), Dorothy Gordon (Grip of the Strangler), Robert Tayman (Vampire Circus), and Penny Irving (Are You Being Served?), in her first, starring film role.
As the film opens it's a dark and stormy night, and we see a half nekkid girl, dressed fashionably in a potato sack, running through the woods, eventually finding help in the form of a truck driver parked on the side of the road, resting his eyes. Upon closer inspection we see the girl, whom we later learn is a Frenchy named Ann-Marie Di Verney (Irving), has been half beaten to death, and is rambling on incoherently. After slipping into a flashback we see the same girl at a party celebrating her recent run in with the law (apparently, in an act of civil disobedience, she doffed her clothes in public). At the party Ann-Marie meets a handsome, yet oddly spooky, young man named Mark E. Desade (Tayman)...oh bruther...and the two hit it off so well Mark invites her to his parents estate in the English countryside for the weekend. A clueless Ann-Marie accepts, despite barely knowing the fellow, and quickly finds herself in a world of pain as the country estate is not an estate but a prison operated by an older couple named Margaret Wakehurst (Markham) and Justice Bailey (Barr), she a former prison governess (one released from her official duties after an incident) and he a former court judge. Seems the pair, deciding the current system too lenient, especially on offenders of moral decency, bought an unused prison out in the country for the sole purpose of passing out `proper' sentences on those they feel got off too lightly. Now finding ourselves squarely in the middle of `women in prison' (WIP), we see life for inmates is harsh, as near most everything is considered an offense, including talking to a fellow inmate. The first offense results in a two-week stint in solitary confinement, the second a serious flogging, and the third a one way trip to the gallows. After Ann-Marie's been missing for nearly two weeks, her flat mate Julia (Michelle) begins to think something's hinky...perhaps she's not the sharpest tool in the shed...anyway, while Julia starts making inquiries, a power struggle develops in the prison (Mrs. Wakehurst believes the doddering Judge not fit for his duties anymore), and things aren't looking too good for Ann-Marie as she's quickly racking up the offenses (after various incidents) and soon finds herself marked for execution...
I dug this feature, although it contained a lot less violence than expected, especially given its title. There were only two flogging sequences, neither actually depicting leather slapping flesh, which was all right with me as sometimes what isn't shown is more effective than not. There was a bit more in terms of the lurid stuff (a handful of nekkid scenes with two of the performers), but not much. The idea of someone operating their own relatively decent sized prison outside the system may seem a bit far-fetched, but within the context of the film it came off as plausible as the facility was located out in the middle of the country, the staff minimal, and the inmates were women of questionable morals, the types few would probably miss if they were to disappear off the face of the Earth...that and the fact the none of the inmates ever made it to the end of their sentences (no time off here for good behavior) given the ease in which one could garner offenses (remember, a third offense meant curtains), who'd be out and about to talk speak ill of the facility? There's quite a few characters running around in this film, but Walker managed to place just the right amount of emphasis on each given their respective roles within the story. Something else he was able to do was develop interesting characters, ones that had a bit more depth than those normally depicted within this type of movie. Sure, Mrs. Wakehurst was a cruel, twisted, abusive, tyrannical, power hunger b*tch, but that might not have always been the case. I especially liked the bits near the end as things begin to unravel, and she reverts into a sort of catatonic, homicidal mode. And what was up with her and her son? Just when I thought she couldn't get any creepier...I though most of the performers did pretty well, especially Sheila Keith as the stern, sort of albino head guard. Not a soft edge anywhere on that one...another interesting aspect was how little attention was given to the inmates, except for Ann-Marie. They were present, for sure, but since they didn't figure all that much into the story, there wasn't much point in making them into more than what they were, fodder for the antagonistic, matriarchal elements within the prison. The story moves along at a good pace throughout, as there's very little down or drag time involved. Perhaps one of my favorite sequences was when Ann-Marie first arrived, thinking she was going to be spending a pleasant weekend in the country, only to find out much later than the rest of us the world of pain she stepped into...here she is, being lead around what is obviously some sort of facility, having no clue as to what's going on until the reality, the reality being Madame Walker, slaps her in the face. All in all I enjoyed this atmospheric film, but those looking for a more straight up women in prison feature (nekkid shower scenes, beatings, dueling batwing action, etc.) will probably be disappointed.
The picture quality on this Media Blaster/Shriek Show DVD release, presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), looks a bit murky at times and the audio, available in both Dolby Digital mono and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround comes through well. Extra features include a feature length commentary track with producer/director Walker and biographer/professor Steven Chibnall, an original theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Pete Walker films including The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Die Screaming, Marianne (1971), Frightmare (1974), The Comeback (1978), and The Confessional (1976) aka House of Mortal Sin.
By the way, the DVD version I've reviewed is for the recent Media Blasters/Shriek Show release...the film had a prior release to DVD by Image Entertainment, of which I haven't seen, so I'm unable to compare the versions.