Color, 1976, 83m.
Directed by James Kenelm Clarke
Starring Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, Fiona Richmond, Patsy Smart, Vic Armstrong, Karl Howman
Severin (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Odyssey (UK R2 PAL), Golem (Italy R2 PAL), Bach Films (France R2 PAL)
"Suspense, gore, and lots of lashings of sex." That succinct description early in the audio commentary for this infamous British shocker definitely sums up the entire concept and appeal of this grisly number, which wound up getting banned as a video nasty in its homeland and had footage snipped out of almost every version released around the world. Both sexploitation and bloody horror films were common by the time this was released in 1976, most notably in other UK productions like Vampyres and almost everything by Pete Walker, but the shameless combination of the two proved to be too much for the powers that be. In fact, producer Brian Smedley-Aston had already made a mint with Vampyres, which at least had the benefit of the supernatural to keep its thrills palatable enough for mainstream audiences. Here that safety net was dropped, and the film has paid the price ever since.
In between his stints in Story of O and Suspiria, the great Udo Kier stars (with a dubbed English accent) as Paul Martin, a hack writer struggling mightily with the writing of his third novel at a house in the countryside. His publisher sends over a new secretary, Linda (Blood on Satan's Claw's Hayden), and beats up a couple of locals when they try to jump her just after her arrival. The two ruffians later catch her in a field and rape her at shotgun, only to have the weapon brutally turned against them. Meanwhile Paul starts to get grabby with Linda as well, and when she rebuffs him (preferring instead to explore herself in her room), he decides to call in his sexpot girlfriend, Suzanne (softcore star Richmond). Much bloodshed and nastiness ensues.
A strange beast indeed, House on Straw Hill was released in the UK under the title Exposé and constantly straddles the line between art and trash, with Kier's hallucinatory freak outs (accompanied by percussive typewriter keys banging up against the camera) alternating with leering, sleazy sex scenes, including a couple of scenes with Richmond clearly indicating in which direction her career would be heading. (Director James Kenelm Clarke would go on to mount a fake sexy biopic about her called Hardcore the following year.) Meanwhile Hayden is easily the best thing here, crafting an ambiguous, disquieting presence in a film not exactly drenched in subtlety. As for the button-pushing content, the big scenes involve the aforementioned shotgun scene (which starts very abruptly in every version and is treated with a disturbingly casual attitude) and the final twenty minutes, a string of bloody attacks and chase scenes including a shower attack that mixes female anatomy and knife slashes in a way that still comes as a bit of a shock.
As with far too many other independent horror films, House on Straw Hill fell into neglect after its initial VHS appearances, which included a fleeting uncut VHS in the UK before and a very cut one in the US). The handful of European DVD releases were all taken from subpar material and substantially edited, and when Severin announced its release, the immediate question was whether a complete version could even be assembled now at all. As an opening card before the film explains, what they eventually had to do was utilize three different sources: the original negative (which suffered extensive water damage and makes up about 25% of the transfer here) and a pair of 35mm theatrical prints. Each has age-related issues of its own, ranging from scratches to faded color (which looks a bit sickly and on the teal side for the most part), but it's still a vastly superior presentation compared to what we've had before. All of the nudity and violence is completely intact, including the troublesome sexual assault scene, and the 1.66:1 framing looks better than the claustrophobic, zoomed-in aesthetic of past video masters. Bear in mind the history behind the film, and it's thankful there was anything left at all to salvage in HD.
The Severin release contains both a Blu-ray (obviously the better option) and a DVD, both containing an audio commentary with Clarke and Smedley-Aston with moderator Jonathan Sothcott. Topics covered range from the commercial impetus behind the film, the possible embarrassment for Hollywood stunt man Vic Armstrong over his volatile role here, the reasons for casting Kier, and the pivotal casting of Richmond, which substantially changed the course for what was originally a more straightforward Hitchcockian thriller (or, if you will, a pretty obvious riff on A Quiet Place in the Country). The theatrical trailer (strangely squeezed) is included along with the 14-minute featurette "An Angel for Satan," which is basically a great career retrospective for Hayden who talks about her life starting with her childhood and most of her significant film projects. This was originally assembled in slightly different form as an extra for the first UK special edition of Blood on Satan's Claw and is always nice to revisit, including some great promotional shots and snippets of footage including the provocative promo for her breakthrough film, Baby Love. She also covers her sojourn to Hammer with Taste the Blood of Dracula, working with David Niven on Old Dracula and Vincent Price on Madhouse, and her distaste for House on Straw Hill ("a big mistake"), the only film she refused to publicize.
The initial pressing also includes a third disc, a DVD of the documentary Ban the Sadist Videos! (a 2005 documentary originally included in the UK Box of the Banned sets). The great thing here is that both parts (51 and 42 minutes respectively) have been assembled on one disc, offering a great overall view of the moral panic and artistic damage wrought in the UK during the 1980s by hand-wringing censors who didn't really know much at all about movies in general. Directed by Severin's David Gregory as a joint effort between Blue Underground and Anchor Bay UK, it's very thorough and features plenty of interviews with people from both camps who were down in the trenches when it all went down. The video distributors have the best stories, of course, and lots of vintage artwork and film clips keep things from getting too chatty. Also included is the 10-minute "Censors Working Overtime" (cute title), a piece from Strange Things Are Happening's David Flint covering the same ground in more a bouncy and explicit fashion. Definitely a good reason to grab this release sooner rather than later.
Reviewed on October 4, 2013.