Wednesday 9 October 2019

October Horrors 2019 # 5:
Killer’s Moon
(Alan Birkinshaw, 1978)

“It’s one of those nights, Pete. Blood on the moon, one mangled dog, one missing axe and a lost girl who’s just found a body – on the wrong end of the axe! How’s that for the great English outdoors?”

The late 1970s were a dark time indeed for British horror; as opportunities for theatrical exhibition dried up and the prospect of getting projects financed became ever more nightmarish, only the genial Norman J. Warren was really flying the flag for the genre by the time punk hit, and even he was generally making do on budgets more appropriate to a biscuit advert than a feature film.

Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that a project as marginal and bizarre as Alan Birkinshaw’s ‘Killer’s Moon’ fell through the cracks in 1978, and is rarely acknowledged even today in histories of British horror. I’ll freely admit that, although I’ve long been aware of the film, it had not occurred to me until recently that I might actually want to watch it. Aside from anything else, the “escaped mental patients rape and murder school girls” plotline scarcely sounds very edifying, and reviews which tend to write the film off as revolting and amateurish are not exactly encouraging.

As horror fans will be well aware though, holding out this way is a mug’s game. Sooner or later, you’re going to see a bedraggled movie like ‘Killer’s Moon’ looking up at you with dewy eyes from some pile of bargain basement blu-rays, and think, what the hell, let’s give it a try. After all, my British horror palette is so jaded at this point that even such impossibly sleazy ventures as James Kenelm Clarke’s ‘Exposé’ / ‘The House On Straw Hill’ (1976) can sit happily on my comfort-viewing list; how much worse can this one possibly be?

Well, long story short, I’m glad I took the plunge, because I absolutely loved ‘Killer’s Moon’. I’m not sure what it says about me that I managed to find a film about a gang of maniacal, animal-mutilating rapists so thoroughly charming, but…. there’s just something about ‘70s British horror, isn’t there? That sense of haunting, otherworldly mundanity and whimsical oddness that just seems to rise atavistically from the landscape itself, completely defusing my critical faculties…. and ‘Killer’s Moon’ has it in spades.

The film certainly gets off to an appropriately foreboding start, as a bus carrying a group of teenage choristers and their two teachers, apparently taking a fairly extensive diversion on their way to Edinburgh, breaks down in a remote and inhospitable corner of the Lake District. Subsequently setting out on foot, they eventually find themselves seeking shelter in a gloomy manor house-turned-hotel, closed for the winter and occupied solely by an accomodating caretaker. (I loved the way that, when the teacher rings the doorbell, the caretaker opens the door immediately, as if she were waiting on the other side in anticipation of random visitors.)

Although nothing untoward has really happened up to this point, the threat of impending violence is palpable during these opening scenes. Arthur Lavis’s grainy photography imbues the damp woodland with the same kind of dark, overcast malevolence found in Jose Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’ and ‘Symptoms’, whilst the film’s surprisingly accomplished score, by John Shakespeare & Derek Warne, creeps and burbles along nicely, mixing devilish clarinet and piano figures with glockenspiel, free improv percussion and disconcerting electronic pulsations, echoing such folk-horror touchstones as John Scott’s music for ‘Satan’s Slave’, or Marc Wilkinson’s work on ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’.

This sinister ambience jars very pleasantly with the naïve, Children’s Film Foundation-style performances delivered by most of the cast – “just say line loud enough for soundman to pick it up, luv” seems to have been the extent of the direction offered to the young performers here. It’s all quite lovely, but, at the same time, the pervading tone of bleak uneasiness means we can easily believe that some harrowing, ‘Last House..’ style awfulness could be coming down the pipe in due course.

Our first hint of the film’s slightly more, shall we say, ‘whimsical’, agenda arrives when we cut away to what purports to be a ministerial office in Whitehall (not sure about the wallpaper), where a government minister is being debriefed by a psychiatrist and a representative of the police force, who basically give us the sum total of this film’s narrative exposition in one easily digestible dose.

A quartet of psychopathic criminals, we learn, have escaped from a cottage hospital in the wilds of Cumbria. As if that weren’t bad enough, all four of them were taking part in an experimental treatment programme involving “lysergic acid in conjunction with dream therapy”. The net result of which is that, not only are the escapees presumably blitzed out of their minds on acid, they are literally “..walking around believing they’re in a dream”.

“My god”, exclaims the minister, neatly foreshadowing the action to come, “in my dreams I murder freely, pillage, loot and rape!”
“You do?” replies the policeman in surprise, before his superior swiftly changes the subject.

Despite the blackly comedic tone of this interlude, the mood back in the woods remains foreboding, as we trudge through an agonisingly extended build up during which the escaped maniacs remain largely unseen.

Instead, we spend time with Pete and Mike, a pair of jack-the-lad young campers who have pitched their tent somewhere in the vicinity of the ill-fated hotel. As if to prove that he can get his leg over even in the middle of a rain-sodden, uninhabited wilderness, Mike, when we first meet him, has just finished shagging Julia, the maid from the hotel, who has apparently popped out to meet him during her lunch hour. (Julia, incidentally, is played by Jane Hayden – sister of Linda, no less!)

Meanwhile, we also have the pleasure of meeting the area’s taciturn gamekeeper, an old geezer who keeps muttering about sensing that “something’s not right out there tonight”, and so on. (Perhaps he can hear the music on the soundtrack?)

Fears of very bad things to come are only increased by our first few encounters with the deeds of the elusive maniacs. Firstly, the campers are taken aback when a dog which appears to have had one of its legs hacked off hobbles into their tent (don’t worry folks, the genuine three-legged dog who was smeared with fake blood for this role looks perfectly content), after which they discover that their wood axe is missing. (1)

Needless to say, this is very much the point at which any responsible citizens would call a halt to their camping holiday and find a way to contact both the police and an emergency vet ASA f-ing P, but, as we will be continuously be reminded over the course of the next hour or so, common sense holds little sway in the inverted dream world of ‘Killer’s Moon’. So, Pete and Mike merely bandage up the poor old doggie, who dutifully limps off into the night, and proceed with their sojourn in the great outdoors as if nothing were amiss.

Our first proper sighting of the escapees meanwhile comes when one of their number – a lumbering brute in white hospital scrubs – infiltrates the cottage the groundskeeper shares with his wife, who, as you’d imagine, is not long for this world. The invader’s first order of business however is to menace the elderly couple’s cat, and, though the effects shot is obviously fake (thank god), a close up of the cat’s front paw supposedly getting sliced off is still outrageous – a shocking moment, and a clear indication that we’re dealing here with filmmakers who are unafraid to “go there” when it comes to gleefully tackling a few censor-baiting taboos.

Shortly thereafter, the campers encounter one of the schoolgirls, who is fleeing alone through the woods, having discovered the body of the murdered bus driver whilst on an errand to the phone box at the bottom of the road. Thereafter, the unhappy trio are also joined around the campfire by Julie, who is in a bit of a state. Whilst on her way back to the hotel, she matter of factly states, she was attacked and raped by three men in white overalls.

Gosh, that’s a bit of a rum do, approximates the sympathetic response of the boys to this grim news, but heaven knows, it’s not as if they can just head to the nearest town to seek help. I mean, it’s five miles away for heaven’s sake, what are they supposed to do, walk for a couple of hours?

In fact, the continued failure of the characters in ‘Killer’s Moon’ to make contact with the outside world become increasingly funny as the film goes on. On multiple occasions, various groups set out to make it to that nearby town or village, where they might “wake up the shopkeeper” or “look for a phone”, but none of them ever actually succeed in this relatively straight-forward task, repeatedly turning back, having decided that they’ve forgotten something, or can’t abandon their friends, or simply being chased back into the woods by the lurking maniacs.

If my tone seems rather flippant in view of the grim subject matter under discussion here, well, such is the strange frame of mind this film lulls us into. As soon as we actually get to spend some time with the dreaded maniacs, we find ourselves breathing a sigh of relief as we realise that nothing that bad is going to happen here.

‘Killer’s Moon’ has often been compared to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (the bowler hat prominently worn by one of the fiends alongside his boots and overalls can’t help but be read as a deliberate reference), but to be honest there is very little resemblance between the menace and physical dynamism embodied by Alex’s gang in the Kubrick film and the lackadaisical berserkers on parade here.

To put it bluntly – this lot are fairly goofy. Two hefty, middle-aged chaps and two younger, somewhat foppish skinny ones, all four of them gurn up a storm, hamming it up as if they were stomping around in a local panto or something.

Although the film’s central rape scene, and a couple of subsequent low level molestations and stranglings, are inevitably pretty unsavoury, things remain reasonably restrained here compared to the kind of mean-spirited exploitation films that were coming out of Italy or the USA in the late ‘70s, and, basically, it’s difficult to take these awful acts seriously when the perpetrators are capering about the place, lip-smackingly referring to each other as “Mr Trubshaw” and “Mr Muldoon”.

Likewise, the whole business about the escapees believing they’re taking part in a shared lucid dream is just so utterly bizarre it’s difficult to know what to make of it, but it’s more or less played for laughs from the outset, as they intersperse their raping and pillaging with banter about who may or may not be a nurse or a hospital psychiatrist in real life, and hammer the kitchen table wondering why they can’t magic up some steak and chips. “Don't worry, she’s just a figment” Mr Jones cheerfully reassures his comrades as they look down at one murder victim, “I think I had her identified with the radiographer”.

In moments like this, it’s difficult to judge whether the makers of ‘Killer’s Moon’ were revelling in pitch-black humour, or whether the film’s assorted hilarity is entirely unintentional – an accidental result of the affectless, non-professional performances and giddily absurd situations.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping example of this ambiguity comes when the most level-headed of the girls (who will later do in one of the killers with a sickle) comforts one of her violated friends by blankly telling her; “Look, you were only raped. As long as you don’t tell anybody about it, you’ll be alright. […] And if we ever get out of this alive, well, maybe we’ll both live to be wives and mothers.”

When you’ve picked yourself off the floor and wiped your eyes after this line is delivered, you’ll no doubt begin to wonder whether it is a bit of razor-sharp satire aimed at the sexist attitudes traditionally embodied by horror films, or alternatively something a male scriptwriter in 1978 might actually have considered a legitimate response to the situation.

And at this point, we should probably turn our attention to the fact that writer-director Alan Birkinshaw is the younger brother of the celebrated author and essayist Fay Weldon, and that, remarkably, it has been widely reported that he called in his big sister to entirely rewrite the dialogue for his ‘Killer’s Moon’ script prior to shooting.

This revelation certainly helps explain a few of the film’s tonal peculiarities, as well as pretty much confirming the satirical interpretation of the infamous lines quoted above, and helping ‘Killer’s Moon’ to top even Rita Mae Brown’s script for ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ when it comes to unexpected collisions between literary feminism and misogynistic horror movies.

Weldon, for her part, seems to have suffered from a pretty bad case of sour grapes when it comes to her (uncredited) contribution to the film, telling an interviewer at some point that; “In the original script, the girls were ciphers. I gave them characters, which had the unfortunate effect of turning the film into a cult movie. I should have left it as it was. Picture dialogue: A. Picture movie: D. A terrible mix.” (2)

Sad to say, this verdict strikes me as both unduly self-regarding and entirely unfair - not only because, as discussed above, some of the film’s visuals are actually quite accomplished, but also because, despite Ms Weldon’s best efforts, the schoolgirl characters remain chronically underwritten and largely undistinguishable from one another.

Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to assume that there are a number of moments in ‘Killer’s Moon’ in which the mordant wit of the woman who once tried to popularise the slogan “vodka gets you drunker quicker” whilst working in the advertising industry [source] can be seen shining through – not least the Monty Python-esque exchange which occurs whilst one of the campers is being pursued by a gun-toting maniac.

“Go to hell you bastard, you’re mad!”, our hero yells. “What sort of a reply is that from a National Health psychiatrist?” responds Mr Trubshaw, still convinced he’s in a dream at the hospital, “I knew I should have gone private.”

An extremely strange film by any yardstick, ‘Killer’s Moon’ ultimately fits into no known lineage of British horror, despite the atmospheric similarities outlined above. To my happy surprise in fact, it reminded me not so much of any rape-atrocity film, slasher or ‘Clockwork Orange’ knock-off, but rather of the kind of films Jean Rollin was making at around the same time on the other side of the channel.

An unexpected comparison, I’ll grant you, but just think about it for a minute; we’ve got artfully framed shots of girls in night-gowns taking long walks through atmospheric woodlands and uninhabited buildings, off-beat, naïve performances and surreal, dream-like situations, all underpinned by the looming threat of hideous (yet reassuringly unrealistic) sexualised violence. I think I know where I’ve sampled this complex bouquet before. Swap around the national stereotypes and rejig the tone of the humour a little, and ‘Killer’s Moon’ could easily have slotted into Rollin’s filmography, somewhere between ‘Les Raisins de la Mort’ (1976) and La Nuit des Traquées (1980).

And, like each of Rollin’s films, ‘Killer’s Moon’ is an unforgettable, idiosyncratic experience too. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, we’re looking here at a freakish mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production; too weird to live, too unique to die. It’s up there on the shelf next to ‘Exposé’ the next time I need something easy-going to cheer myself up.


(1) According to an anonymous contributor to ‘Killer’s Moon’s IMDB trvia page: “Hannah, the three-legged dog used in this movie, was cast from a local dog agency. Moreover, Hannah had lost her leg after saving her master in a robbery at the pub that she lived in.”

(2) Unfortunately I can’t find a source for this quote, but again, it is reproduced in full on the film’s IMDB page.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

This ones been on my list for.........18 years, I think. I did nearly buy a copy, but then noticed Schizo was lurking next to it and swept up that one instead.

Essentially, this is more or less a New English Library film? Thats my understanding of its grubby charms.

Ben said...

YES, absolutely! That's spot on! : D

I could probably have just written that, instead of writing this long, rambling review... in fact, now that I think about it, there's a definite Guy N Smith vibe going on here(which is pretty weird, given that half it was written by *Fay Weldon* - hard to think of two more polar opposite writers).

Something about the combination of utterly bizarre situations and totally mundane surroundings, and the way that stuff which should by rights be horribly offensive just ends up seeming quite charming... if they'd thrown in a few crabs, they would have nailed it!

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

God bless the NEL. Where would charity shop scavengers be without them? :)