An interesting addition to several cusp-of-the-1970s trends, this 1969 film is half a sensitive account of mixed-up teenage sexuality (cf: Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush) and half schoolgirls-in-peril psycho-thriller (cf: Assault). Wynne Kinch (Jenny Agutter), an adopted fourteen-year-old, has such a crush on her 32-year-old foster brother George (Bryan Marshall) that when she notices clues – scratches on his back, lies about where he spends his evenings – that suggest he is the killer preying on young girls in the park near the condemned house where the family used to live (they have been relocated to a tower block) she covers for him. She is also drawn back to the former house, holding seances with her more outgoing best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) to contact George’s fiancée, who died in a fall there, and given to odd moods and impulses which get her into trouble (sometimes farcical, sometimes suspenseful). When she hides in the back of George’s van, getting tipsy on drink she finds there, she discovers that his real secret is an affair with an older, boozy, rich, sometime-suicidal woman (Lana Morris) … which means that the only other available suspect, a young and handsome but puritanical bus conductor (Simon Ward), must be the killer.
Ward fits into a string of presentable young male psychopaths from the era (cf: similar turns from Nicholas Clay, Hywel Bennett, Peter Firth, etc) and signals his guilt by criticising Corinne’s fab gear (though, frankly, her skirt is too short). As in Frenzy, there’s a blasé attitude to serial murder, with some lurid tabloid elements (it’s specified that the victims weren’t interfered with) and a lot of prurient bystander characters dwelling on the details. A touch predictably, the finale finds easygoing but provocative Corinne throttled in the basement, but good girl Wynne escaping after a chase through the park. The coda is a now-ambiguous moment that signifies the heroine putting the past behind her as she watches the old house (which now looks more like a lovely fixer-upper cottage than a ruin) being bulldozed as if life in the tower block flat with her extended, slightly caricature family (Mum Madge Ryan, Grandad Billy Russell, brother Gregory Phillips) is actually an improvement on somewhere by the (dangerous) park with a garden and a swing. Oddly, Greene’s previous psycho-thriller The Shuttered Room also ended with a real historical building seemingly destroyed on film. Here, the actual urban renewal of Bracknell is valuably chronicled, though contemporary viewers won’t see any improvement.
Agutter, in her first starring role, is appealing and complicated, credibly annoying as well as sensitive. If everyone else is stereotyped it’s because that’s how a slightly obsessive girl sees them until shocked by situations she can’t understand like handyman George’s relationship with the older woman. It feels also like a forerunner of the laughless British sex comedies of the ‘70s, presenting a real, slightly depressing vision of a randy handyman who beds his clients and addressing the way actual women might relate to him. A great British supporting cast includes Michael Feast, Lally Bowers, Charles Lloyd Pack (as a priest giving a sex education lesson to schoolgirls) and Lewis Fiander. Scripted by Richard Harris (not the actor, but a busy writer mostly for TV) from the novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop (which I must have come across at some point, though all I can remember is the heroine’s unusual name). Music by Basil Kirchin and art direction by Brian Eatwell, both of the Dr Phibes films. Other Greene credits worth rediscovering: The Strange Affair, Sebastian, The People Next Door, Madame Sin and – um – Godspell; after that, it was mostly US TV work, including seminal miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots, true crime stuff like Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story and remakes like the Richard Chamberlain Night of the Hunter and the Redgrave Sisters Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?