Color, 1977, 97m.
Directed by Ian Merrick
Starring Donald Sumpter, Debbie Farrington, Marjorie Yates, Sylvia O'Donnell, Andrew Burt
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
There's something genuinely creepy and haunting about the strain of true crime films made in the 1970s. In America you had titles like The Town that Dreaded Sundown, The Todd Killings, and Deranged, while the UK had fewer, more cerebral shockers like 10 Rillington Place. Practically buried upon its release in '77 was a particularly grim British contribution to the cycle, The Black Panther, which was released shortly after the court sentencing of Donald Neilson, a now-deceased former soldier who embarked on a shotgun-toting crime spree involving robbery, murder, and abduction. The film takes a clinical, case study approach to Neilson's deeds, coming off like a chilling cross between a low budget docudrama and The Candy Snatchers but with a brooding nocturnal sensibility all its own. For cult movie fanatics it's also notable for the screenplay by Michael Armstrong, who had earlier written and directed the notorious Mark of the Devil and would go on to also pen such films as The Sex Thief, House of the Long Shadows, and the underrated horror anthology Screatime.
Best known now to viewers for such TV shows as Being Human (the UK one, as the religious zealot Kemp in series two) and Game of Thrones (as Luwin), Donald Sumpter offers an intense performance as the unstable Neilson, who decides to provide for his family by robbing Yorkshire post offices and banks while wearing a black hood with narrow eye slits. He soon progresses to murder as part of his routine, invading at night and often leaving trauma and bloodshed in his wake. Eventually he becomes more ambitious and plans to kidnap teenager Lesley Whittle (Farrington from the cult TV miniseres Codename Icarus), whom he confines at the bottom of a drainage shaft in the sewer system. When the police and media become involved, his plans soon start to unravel with increasingly dire results.
Though it earned a brief and essentially unwatchable American VHS release in the '80s and a UK one with tacky artwork partially swiped from House of Whipcord, The Black Panther has been extremely difficult to see since its theatrical run and never in anything resembling an acceptable presentation. Its garish promotion at the time made it come off as a sleazy horror film, and while the treatment isn't too far off from The Town that Dreaded Sundown territory (how could it be given they both feature shotgun psychos with hoods?), this is far from your average exploitation film. The violence is sparing but shocking when it happens, and there's also a jolting bit of non-sexual nudity that's probably more disturbing today than it was for audiences at the time.
The BFI release will be a revelation to anyone except for the very lucky few who saw this theatrically back in the '70s, and while the dual-format edition contains both Blu-Ray and DVD discs, you'll want to stick with the former for obvious reasons. The HD transfer from the film's color reversal internegative looks very good throughout; the night scenes have the rough, grainy texture common to footage with low lighting at the time, but it's part of the fabric of the feature's appeal. As usual with the Flipside series, there doesn't appear to have been much in the way of any digital tinkering apart from repairing some element damage; it looks very filmic and of its time, which is to be expected. A French-dubbed track is also included, along with optional English subtitles.
The only video extra is another true crime offering, the 1979 short film "Recluse." Clocking in at just under half an hour, it's a grim character sketch about two brothers and a sister spending their final days on their Devonshire farm before meeting an unthinkable fate. Winner of a BAFTA award two years later and onetime theatrical companion to Peter Yates' The Janitor, it's a subdued but eerie vignette that makes a fine supplement to the main feature. Also included is ten minutes of silent reconaissance footage shot at the site of West Chapel Farm, the actual murder site where the short was filmed. The substantial liner notes booklet offers a tremendous amount of context for both the film and the short including a comparison "Case Histories' essay by James Oliver, notes on the making of both by Merrick, Armstrong (who's very candid about the disturbing nature of writing his script), and "Recluse" director Bob Bentley, along with brief archival reviews for both. The DVD edition also contains a standard def '80s video trailer for The Black Panther. Score another direct hit for the Flipside line, who have pulled off another unexpected and very welcome revival of a film (and an excellent short) almost gone from movie history forever.