Pete Walker, a Brit-Trash wannabe auteur of the ‘70s, has received some belated attention of late, mostly for his ruggedly gory horror films like Frightmare (1974) and Schizo (1976). Die Screaming Marianne is generally considered one of his lesser efforts. All I can say is that the film’s poorly paced construction, full of opportunistic lapses in logic of motivation and character behavior, and kamikaze bra shots of Susan George, betrays a barely above-average filmmaker. Not helping: a blaring, corny music score from Cyril Ornadel that’s one part Burt Bacharach, one part John Barry, and all bad.
The film’s minatory charge of perversity comes from Murray Smith’s intriguing, almost nihilistic screenplay. Heroine Marianne (George) “The Hips” McDonald is a professional go-go dancer kicking about
Marianne flees with him to
Sebastian is also the boyfriend, or something, of Marianne’s half-sister Hildegard (Judy Huxtable). Hildegard is a skinny succubus who lusts more for her papa than anyone, and has no problem with torturing Sebastian when he’s reticent with details over Marianne's whereabouts, on the behalf of the Judge. The Judge seems to be the implacable engine of persecution working to force Marianne to come back to the family villa in
It isn’t long before uber-skank Hildegard (who wears a quarter-inch of blue eye shadow at all times, and it doesn’t smear in the steam bath) is working with Sebastian in trying to knock off Eli and grind the bank account number out of Marianne. Because, as happens all the time in accidental marriages, Eli has proven to be the best possible bloke for Marianne. He’s already fought off what seems to have been an attempt to have him killed back in
What is interesting about Murray’s screenplay is that the characters are hard to pin down: the wait to discover their exact natures provides the film’s compelling moments. The Judge proves to be relatively avuncular for a corrupt, amoral tyrant (Genn’s performance despite his age and surroundings is, as ever, possessed of a silken-throated voice and unnerving poise) and Hildegard, initially seeming to be the princess prisoner of a monster (when Hildegard comes on to him, the Judge replies that although he has no moral objections to incest, it would probably prove rather disappointing for her), proves to be a complete sociopath, trying to grill her sister in the steam bath of death, but instead meeting her comeuppance when she crosses the line, at the hands of devoted family retainer Rodriguez (Kenneth Hendel). By the end all the schemes, wants, hopes and desires have been laid waste by the attempt to act on them.
The film had potential to be a peculiarly English, utterly merciless assault on family role cliches, and a particularly scurrilous metaphor for incestuous, patriarchal control. The film threatens to openly acknowledge this embrace of taboo, when, in the opening titles, Genn's glowering fatherly visage is superimposed beside his on-screen daughter's gyrating hips, a prelude to his relentless campaign to bring his daughter home before she becomes "of age". But after toying with the notion, Walker and Murray side-step it, instead offloading the responsibility onto Hildegard, a crazed femme fatale who, like Marianne's mother, has perpetuated a disturbance in the normal father-female relationship. So rather than being radical, it's actually a reactionary parable of good and evil editions of femininity. Overlaid is a meritricous sheen of modish cool, complete with an off-hand detail where Sebastian lies under a newspaper announcing that The Doors have just opened the Isle of Wight concert.
That would be forgivable if the film was better, but Die Screaming Marianne never resolves into anything gaudily entertaining or bitingly subversive. The plot is full of holes and the cinema isn’t good enough to make it unimportant. Climactic action scenes are clumsy, and the necessary edge to illustrate hysterical, obscene passions entirely lacking. However, the finale is affecting for its downbeat, ironic presentation of a heroine who survives and gains material safety and comfort, but is still in truth the same lost, rootless, loveless girl she was at the start. Not quite a grindhouse King Lear. But getting there.