In the world of horror movies, there are few potential victims that are more vulnerable than that of the lone babysitter. Always female, and usually little more than a child herself, the babysitter is left alone with the children in an empty house, and a mysterious stranger inevitably shows up. In 1971, years before the situation was explored and exploited in When a Stranger Calls and Halloween, British director Peter Collinson (who directed the original The Italian Job) made Fright, simultaneously inventing a horror sub-genre and scaring the hell out of young girls for generations to come.
Fright begins with Amanda (Susan George from Die Screaming, Marianne) arriving at the home of Helen and Jim Lloyd, played by Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore from Goldfinger) and George Cole (Arthur Daley from the British show “Minder”) respectively. Amanda is there to watch the Lloyds’ three year old son while they attend a dinner party. Once the Lloyds leave for the evening, Amanda starts to hear weird sounds and sees things outside the house. When her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman, also from “Minder”) arrives, Amanda is somewhat relieved, thinking that the disturbances have been caused by him. She’s still scared, though, and Chris tries to take advantage of the situation by putting the moves on her. They get into a fight and she throws him out, but not before he reveals that he is not the cause of the noises she’s been hearing outside. Meanwhile, at the dinner party, the Lloyds run into Dr. Cordell (John Gregson from “Gideon’s Way”), who discusses Helen’s ex-husband Brian (Ian Bannen, Oscar nominee for The Flight of the Phoenix) with them. Brian is a patient of the doctor’s, and the Lloyds learn that he is extremely mentally unstable. When the strange happenings back at the house continue, Amanda tries to call the Lloyds at the restaurant, but the telephone line is cut before she can talk to Helen. Helen is then sure that Brian has come home to do harm to their son. The Lloyds leave the party and race home, hoping to make it there in time to save Amanda from Brian’s psychotic rage.
Fright is not only considered the original stalked-babysitter movie, but it’s also seen as one of the scariest British films of the seventies. Written by B-movie icon Tudor Gates (Barbarella), the screenplay combines elements of both suspense and horror into a story that is as engaging as it is terrifying. Because it has been imitated so often, Fright seems predictable and stereotypical by today’s standards. That fact only serves to prove how influential the film has been over the past 40 years. Peter Collinson took Gates’ well-crafted script, assembled a first-rate cast, and made horror movie history.
Susan George and Ian Bannen take Fright onto their shoulders and carry it. George plays the perfect victim to Bannen’s villain. George’s Amanda is naïve at the beginning, frightened in the middle, and, most importantly for a horror movie heroine, strong at the end. Bannen plays the psychopathic ex-husband Brian perfectly, turning on both the charm and the madness, at first alternately then simultaneously. The rest of the cast is great in support, but that’s all they are – support. George and Bannen steal the show.
Well, them and Collinson himself. Along with cinematographer Ian Wilson (The Crying Game), Collinson uses unique framing, selective focus and subtle reflections to bring out the creepiness in an already spooky house. Wilson paints the interior of the Lloyd house with light and shadow so that, even without a lunatic trying to get inside, any sane babysitter would turn down a job offer to sit there. Fright is both claustrophobic and frenetic, and Collinson captures the terror and helplessness of the situation perfectly.
Both the acting and the cinematography almost become victims of poor editing. Veteran editor Raymond Poulton (The Man with the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die) cuts with disrupted rhythm, taking away from the timing of the actors’ performances. About halfway through the film, when the gears switch from suspense to horror, the edits get tighter and Poulton hits his stride. But, during the early expositional scenes, the continuity errors and loose timing distract from the suspension of disbelief. Luckily for the film, the plot is good enough to shine through the technical errors.
Fright is a groundbreaking film, not technically but conceptually. It takes a helpless victim and puts her into an isolated situation where another person’s well being is in her hands, and injects an element of unrelenting danger. John Carpenter obviously saw it before he wrote Halloween.