Poor Susan George. 1971 was a rough year for her, having to endure onscreen abuse from local yokels in Straw Dogs and murderous in-laws in Die Screaming, Marianne. Sandwiched between those movies, the Seventies sex-kitten took the lead in this British precursor to such babysitter-in-peril psycho-thrillers as Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). She plays Amanda, a blonde teenager in a fetching purple mohair mini-dress, hired by socialite Helen Lloyd (Honor Blackman) and her husband Jim (George Cole) to baby-sit their three year old son (Tara Collinson, the director’s real-life offspring), on a dark and spooky night.
A handful of scary incidents and things going bump in the night set Amanda on edge before her sex-starved boyfriend, Chris (Dennis Waterman) arrives looking to get some (“You’ve got a lovely pair of Bristols” - This passes for a chat-up line in 1971? Gosh, how could she resist?). Whereupon, an escaped mental patient (Ian Bannen) bursts into the house, intent on terrorising everyone in his path. While Amanda fights desperately to keep her young charge out of harm's way, it becomes apparent the madman has closer ties to this household than she suspected.
Horror historians point to Psycho (1960) or giallo thrillers as the obvious precursors to the slasher movie craze, but neither Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece nor the madcap plots concocted by Italian filmmakers play by quite the same rules. Scripted by Tudor Gates, who toiled on everything from Danger: Diabolik (1968) to Hammer’s lesbian vampire movies, Fright seems a closer match in its preoccupation with sexual neurosis and such soon-to-be formulaic ingredients as the screaming blonde teenager and her obnoxiously horny boyfriend imperilled by a homicidal madman, the family with a dark secret to hide, and the coolly rational psychologist (John Gregson, in his last big screen role) out to catch the killer before its too late. One might even make a case for it being a precursor to such post-modern fare as Scream (1996), what with Chris’ smart-arse declaration “you could make a horror film in here” or Amanda watching Plague of the Zombies (1966) on television.
The film also fits into a cycle of thrillers - e.g. Twisted Nerve (1968), The Corpse (1970), Deadly Strangers (1974) - distinguished by a distinctively English atmosphere of bleakness and dread. This feeling of futility is underlined by the ludicrously ineffectual British constabulary, who deflect Gregson’s psychologist with a ton of paperwork and don’t even know how to spell the word psychotic. Although mostly remembered for his more jocular The Italian Job (1969), Peter Collinson contributed a slew of titles to this trend, ranging from offbeat Hammer chiller Straight on Till Morning (1972) to his remakes of And Then There Were None (1974) and The Spiral Staircase (1975). His flashy style was somewhat hit-and-miss, but wrings every ounce of tension during Fright’s first hour or so, with sound effects maximised to jangle the nerves and some inspired visuals (Bannen’s reflection in the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock) to illustrate the psycho’s deranged state of mind.
Ian Bannen’s leering psycho routine goes off-the-rails during the latter half, but Collinson keeps a tight hold of his actors for the most part and draws a compelling turn from the often-underrated Susan George. However, Fright is tainted by a casual misogyny and sexism that even bigger body-count thrillers Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973) do not have. Amanda denies her boyfriend sex (“you can’t stay a virgin forever!”) but is characterised as a coquettish tease (shortly afterwards she admires herself in the mirror) and punished with rape at the hands of the maniac. This muddled viewpoint of female sexuality is almost an inverse of the get-laid-and-die ethos of slasher movies throughout the early Eighties, but is every bit as tiresome. Which underlines why this is an occasionally tense and involving horror movie, but far from a great one.
Disappointingly, Dennis Waterman neither writes nor sings the theme tune, but “Ladybird” performed by Nanette (Gasp! Not THE Nanette?!) is almost as bad.