Peter Collinson is a director who is guaranteed a place in British cinema history books simply by virtue of having made The Italian Job, a film which seem to have been taken to the nation’s collective heart with such passion that your critic feels a little nervous of confessing how little he liked it. Nothing else in his oeuvre has found the same popularity and much of it - Tomorrow Never Comes, The Sell Out, The Earthling and the painful remake of The Spiral Staircase - lies somewhere between the lower levels of mediocrity and the higher levels of garbage. But before his early death at the age of 44, he made some interesting movies which deserve reappraisal, notably his deeply cynical The Long Day’s Dying and a riveting, once controversial thriller called The Penthouse. He had a particular facility for creating suspense and this is one of only three things which keep Fright from going completely off the rails.
Made by British Lion around the same time that Hammer Films were trying a return to the woman in peril genre, Fright is written by Hammer stalwart Tudor Gates and stars Hammer veterans Dennis Waterman and George Cole. Anticipating Halloween and the vast numbers of slasher films which followed in the wake of that film, Fright deals with Amanda (George), a babysitter, who is looking after a baby whose parents are separated due to the father’s mental illness. The father, Brian, played by a hard-working Ian Bannen, has been committed to a mental hospital while the mother (Blackman) is off gallivanting with her new partner (Cole). The night begins quietly enough until Amanda starts getting a series of creepy phone calls. Surely they can’t be from Brian because he’s safely locked up. Isn’t he…?
This set-up is now so familiar that surely everyone knows what’s going to happen but, before the inevitable duly occurs, Peter Collinson manages to build up a fair head of suspense using every blatant shock tactic known to man. There are fake scares, sudden loud noises, crazy camera angles, crash zooms – it’s like a cross between Lucio Fulci and Michael Winner. But fortunately, Susan George is around and giving her all to the role of Amanda and as a consequence we actually care what happens to her. She was an excellent actress during this period and the film is a good showcase for her abilities – although not even she can save the awful scenes in which she’s paired with Dennis Waterman as a particularly gormless boyfriend. During the parts of the film when she gets to play duologues with Ian Bannen, there’s enough sweaty tension seeping off the screen to keep the most jaded viewer hooked. None of the other characters make much of an impression, although fans of 1950s British cinema should spare a thought for poor old John Gregson stuck in what might be his most unrewarding role.
Optimum’s DVD of Fright is basic but adequate, lacking any extra features. The anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer looks pretty nice but a little drab – the colours are dull and lifeless, although that might be a reflection of the original material. The mono soundtrack is entirely adequate and sometimes quite atmospheric.