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Tuesday, 5 November 2013

THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1975) - A Blu-Ray Review

Welcome Back, Folks!

Severin Films have recently released the infamous UK Video Nasty THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka EXPOSE, aka TRAUMA) (1975, James Kenelm Clarke) onto a Dual-Format set.

The film is an interesting oddity, and it's nice to see a company essentially rescue such a work from obscurity. (More on this in a moment.) The film is set in Essex, in England, and follows Udo Kier as Paul Martin, an author trying to write his second novel, plagued with hallucinations and terrifying visions.

Retiring to a remote house in the middle of nowhere, (actually Hatfield Peverel in Essex, England), he is accompanied by buxom secretary Linda (Linda Hayden), who is there to look after Mr Martin and type-up his novel. But whilst there, Linda has other plans on her mind, and nothing and no one is going to stop her. At first compliant with Martin's demands, she then starts to turn on him, and those around him. In particular, the lady who looks after the house, Mrs Aston (Patsy Smart)

The film is rather slight, and the plot isn't the most demanding, but being a British-based "nasty", I was particularly enamoured with it, for daring to be different. It's a rather chaotic blend of sex and violence, (more of the former, not too much of the latter), that doesn't always work, but it's never boring. At a scant 84-minutes, it zips along at a fair pace, and you soon forgive any possible plot issues. Things like why Martin always wears latex gloves when he's about to have sex, or why Mrs Aston is so moody looking after Martin, when she's meant to be a housekeeper.

British 70's sex-symbol Fiona Richmond stars as Martin's girlfriend Suzanne, but she is rarely on-screen, and when she is, her acting is pretty attrocious by any standards. Most of her screentime, is her undressing, pouting, and/or getting it on with Martin.

Severin Films have spent a lot of time on this release, and whilst it will never win any awards for the picture and sound, they should be thanked for rescuing this film from relative obscurity. (The Blu-Ray comes with DTS-HD MA Mono audio only.) As a note at the start of the film warns viewers, the film no longer exists in a complete version. Severin had to blend together two 35mm film prints which were very bruised and battered, and a heavily water-damaged 35mm print, from a private collector, that has also seen better days. As such, the result is visually poor by modern standards. Hovering somewhere between DVD and VHS in quality, although there are no artifacts or blocking, and the film remains reasonably sharp for most of the running time, it's not in a great state by any means. Anyone purchasing or renting this film, will need to be in a very forgiving mood. AVATAR this isn't!

Colour is fair, but often shimmers and moves. Sometimes it looks great, other times muddy and ill-defined. There is a lot of dust, dirt and scratches on the print, along with some very noticeable print damage, reel-change issues, and occasional image stuttering - noticeably in a scene where Linda and Martin go for a drive. This is not a fault of the Blu-Ray, but of the original prints utilised here, and as such, viewers have to accept, that this film will never look remotely great, no matter how many thousands of dollars is spent attempting to restore it. Simply put, this is the best THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL will ever look.

The British censorship history is a little checkered, and even the BBFC's own website isn't entirely clear of exactly what happened and when. However, I have managed to establish the following details, as a rough guide. Under the title of EXPOSE, the film was classified with the old "X" certificate on 12th February 1976, with cuts of around 3 minutes-or-so. Most of the excised material dealt with the violence (a throat being cut, and some other assorted knife-wounds), plus the rape of Linda, and almost all of the sexual material.

In 1979, Intervision released the film on Betamax and then VHS, under the same title. Some of these releases included the BBFC's old "X" certificate logo at the start of the film, but were in fact uncut, though it is not clear how any viewer could distinguish a cut version from an uncut one. (Luck, probably!) To make matters more confusing, video releases were given under both EXPOSE and THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL. By 1984/85, and the whole Video Nasty scandal erupting, the then Director of Public Prosecutions had added all versions of the film, onto their hit-list of 39 Nasties, effectively banning the film from cinemas or video - at least in the uncut version.

Ten years on, and Odyssey Video resubmitted the film, and the BBFC removed just 51 seconds, predominantly the entirety of the rape sequence and the murder in the bathroom. This edition came out twice: on VHS with an 18 certificate in 1995, and again on DVD, also with an 18 rating, in the middle of 2002. This same edit, was supposedly released by Village Entertainment DVD, four years later, though no one I know was ever able to locate an actual version of it to purchase.

A few UK-based TV channels have aired this cut version on TV, including Channel 5, but none of the violence and none of the sex remains, reducing the film's run time to a little over 75 minutes - meaning viewers were probably left wondering what all the fuss was about.

The Severin Blu-Ray/DVD Dual-Format release, supposedly contains the complete and uncut version. However, with that said, I don't think this is entirely accurate. From my research, many people who reviewed the film in the past, have said that the rape scene is one of the most contentious in film-history, and that it appeared to go on for a "very long time". I have also read material, that suggests the rape is much more explicit, includes full-frontal nudity, and a lot more suggestion that Linda "enjoys" the rape, before she shoots her rapist - with his shotgun - and, on top of this - his injuries are far more bloody too.

Now, whether this is actually true or not, is impossible to determine. People's memory's are suspect at the best of times. Severin's release does the best it can. And for that, I can't fault them. The rape scene doesn't appear to be as nasty as history has suggested. Yes, it's not pleasant - but then rape scenes shouldn't be. (An issue I've talked of, in previous blog entries.) But if Severin's release, is indeed completely uncut, then the rape scene is very short - certainly under 50 seconds - and it's not particularly graphic. The most contentious part, is Linda miming masturbation of the shotgun barrel, whilst she is being raped, and the look on her face. Hence, the implication that she appears to be unperplexed by her situation.

But like I say, I don't want my words to sound like I'm condoning sexual violence, or agreeing with it, even in the context of a fictional horror film.

Overall, I suspect that this film would probably pass uncut today, with an 18, maybe even scraping a 15. The violence is very limited, and not especially nasty. Yes, there is some blood on breasts and crotches, but it's so restrained, as to be dated and ever-so-slightly ridiculous-looking. That said, the film is still enjoyable and an interesting oddity in the cannon of Video Nasties. By no means is it truly worth of its acclaimed status, but it's still a very worthwhile watch, as long as you know what you're getting.

What makes Severin's release truly great, though, is that the first 3000 copies of it come bundled with a bonus DVD, containing the old Anchor Bay two-part documentary BAN THE SADIST VIDEOS. (Copies that do so, are labelled with a sticker on the front-cover.) A compelling and detailed account of the whole Video Nasty event, from those involved in it: law-makers, via law-breakers, film critics to film collector's. Part 1 is about 50 minutes, and Part 2 is about 44 minutes. Both are in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, and it's a really informative way to spend 95-minutes of your time. This was previously released in the UK only, on the two Anchor Bay "Box Of The Banned" DVD boxed-sets, with each set containing one part of the documentary. So for non-UK fans, this is your first chance to own a proper, official release of this really, rather brilliant doc.

Alongside this, the film itself is also included on DVD, for those who wish to see it in that format. I believe both the Blu-Ray, and both of the DVD discs are Region Free, so should play on any DVD or Blu-Ray players. However, that emphasis is on the should play. It's not guaranteed. So please be aware of this.

Accompanying the film, there's an audio commentary from the film's writer/director Kenelm Clarke and the producer Brian Smedley-Aston. I didn't get time to listen to that, so can't comment upon it, but it will probably be good for those wanting to know more about the film's inception, creation, and completion.

There's a trailer - which for some odd reason, despite appearing to be meant to be in 16:9 - is played in forced 4:3. Quite why this is, I'm not sure, but it looks like there may be a faulty encode on the Blu-Ray, but it's not a major issue in my books. More a minor irritation! And then last, but not least, a 14-minute interview with Linda Hayden herself. Still looking as beautiful as she did in 1975, she talks about her career, her film choices and why she doesn't like THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL. The interview is good, but it's too short to be really interesting. Don't get me wrong, you'll enjoy watching it, and it is informative, but I wanted to know more about why she is so dismissive of THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL. Considering her previous films, I wonder how much of her dislike is really to do with the films she chose to be in, and how much is an issue with the films content themselves. Still, it's a worthy extra. I just desired more. Though her slightly catty and scathing comments of her fans, is a tad unfair and unwarranted, in my view. This is definitely a lady wanting her cake and eating it!

Overall, though, despite the many flaws, I still think this is a great little release, and a worthy addition to your film collection. There's certainly no other film quite like it, and as a bit of Video Nasty history, it's never less than attention-holding!


Later on this week, I'll be reviewing another cult classic, that is a must-own on Blu-Ray, and is out in a lovely, 3-Disc Limited Collector's Edition. Stay-tuned...

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