When Jenny Agutter is mentioned to any man of a certain age, certain reactions (including drooling, dribbling and the emitting of noises) tend to occur: these are invariably followed by a discussion of her iconic (often naked) appearances in Walkabout, Logan’s Run, Equus and An American Werewolf In London. Sadly, not as many have seen this groundbreaking, multi-layered and fascinating movie which belongs as much in the ‘once seen never forgotten’ category as it does in the ranks of ‘hard to see’ British films.
It wasn’t always difficult to gain access to I Start Counting: over its (at time of writing) 35-year plus lifespan it has been screened on both terrestrial and cable television several times, yet it looks unlikely to surface on DVD in the near future and its VHS release (in the UK at least) seems to have been extremely limited. Those lucky enough to have seen it often speak in almost hushed, reverential tones: for once these are deserved. A film at least three years ahead of its time, it could even be said (along with Night After Night After Night) to be the film which pointed the way for British horror and suspense in the ensuing decade.
It was not, of course, the first film to openly embrace topics- drugs, rape, incest, teenage sexuality and blasphemy among them- which had been hitherto considered largely taboo in the nation’s cinematic lexicon, but by transporting them from the liberated surroundings of central London’s demi-monde set to the concrete, disenfranchised suburban sprawls of Bracknell and Slough, it allowed audiences license to realise that these were issues affecting more than just one isolated group of individuals.
Sure, the gritty face of the northern kitchen-sink drama, as best envisaged through the eyes of Braine and Sillitoe, had already leered from screens for over a decade, but if I Start Counting- still essentially an exploitation film and thus not accorded the gravitas given to its monochrome predecessors- showed anything, it was that there was more to the seedy underbelly of this country than a class-based North/South divide. In a historical and cultural context it is equally significant: not only does it point the way (like Lindsay Shonteff’s aforementioned shocker) to the urban sleaze of 70s Brit cinema, but its content seems to have laid the foundation for half the lyrics that the likes of Bob Stanley, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker (himself an avid collector of cinema of this kind) and the late Nick Sanderson spent the last 25 years writing.
The story appears simple on the surface, but is revealed, especially after multiple viewings, as more multi-layered and textured than Cassavetes at his best. Ostensibly it concerns a 14-year old Catholic girl, Wynne (Agutter) growing up in this post-modern wasteland, who develops a crush on her much older adoptive brother (Marshall)- a crush which perversely deepens and grows into infatuation once she starts to believe he is the local sex killer. This is in itself an idea that makes you sit up and jolt, but as the narrative develops, it continues not necessarily along a linear path but in several confusing and fascinating directions: the family’s history (involving at least one spousal death discovered by the infant Agutter, detailed effectively in chilling flashback during an improvised séance) is a chequered one, and has suffered at least one major relocation and upheaval in the last ten years.
Marshall’s character’s personal life, without wanting to give too much away, seems to be one long catalogue of tragedies, but aside from one angered outburst directed at Wynne’s sluttily precocious friend Corinne (Claire Sutcliffe) quite late on, he maintains a sense of calm throughout that adds to the viewer’s confusion as to his true nature: both her mother (Madge Ryan, drudgy as ever) and her grandfather (Billy Russell) seem like drained, useless couch-potatoes whose one form of social outlet is when “Auntie Rene” (there always was one back then, it seems) pops round to polish off the digestives, and her other brother (Michael Feast, a world away from the camp old roue of Velvet Goldmine) is a porn-collecting drug-user who seems to spend his time hanging out with ‘the wrong sort’.
Placed subtly in the midst of all this social comment, not enough to be obvious at first glance, but by no means hidden from view, is the horror element- murders of young girls have been occurring in the town (the very same locale in which Lumet’s masterful The Offence was set three years later- just what is it with Bracknell exactly?) and the older generation seemingly feel as powerless to intervene as they do in any of the other social changes they find themselves confronted with.
At the crux, however, it’s the depiction of these social changes that make I Start Counting so fascinating and elevate its language far beyond the confines of the standard horror film. The major subtext- that teenage girls were maturing more quickly than before, and developing full sexual and romantic appetites (even if in thought rather than deed) but were not possessed of enough discretion to make the ‘correct’ choices- was a step forward for a genre in which its young females had previously been portrayed as bimbo victims (Cover Girl Killer and The Night Caller spring to mind), but not one that all viewers would necessarily agree with: likewise, the bouncy popsicle of the incidental song “They Want Love” (heard as Agutter and Sutcliffe stroll through a maze of milk bars, clothes shops and record listening booths in their prefabricated town centre) would be enough today to incite gangs of torch-burning chavs to gather outside its composer’s house shouting guttural abuse.
But most striking of all, and possibly the most enduring image which the viewer will take away with them, is of the masterful symbolism with which director Greene invests every shot. Every inch of the Kinch family’s world- their house, their walls, their TV, Agutter’s underwear, bedroom furniture and toys, Sutcliffe’s clothes, Marshall’s van, the local Catholic church, their town centre, their record shop) – is painted a bright, scintillating white- a white which, by inference, is slowly becoming smudged and corrupted with the dirt of the outside world. White also symbolises, of course, purity and innocence (two qualities Catholic schoolgirls are supposed to hold dear), and it is into this world of innocence that the ever-present red bus (a symbol of violation and penetration), conducted by the lecherous yet similarly juvenile Simon Ward, makes regular journeys. The allegory is further expanded in one scene where Agutter believes she sees the Christ figure in church weeping blood: by the time we acknowledge it, it’s gone, but the seed has already been planted. Rarely in a genre production has the use of colour and background been so important or effective in creating a uniformity of mood.
I wouldn’t want to ruin the ending, or indeed any part of this superlative film by detailing too much of its powerful climax, suffice to say that it becomes pretty obvious from the start of the last 20 minutes (detractors may say even earlier, but that’s missing the whole point) who the killer is, and that one character gets what some may consider to be their ‘come-uppance’.
Some may consider the conclusion ambiguous: however, the final shot of bulldozers trampling over fields and outhouses leaves us in no doubt as to its director’s intent. The old world is dead: long live the old world, the Seventies (whose first January marked the actual release date of the film) are around the corner. Admittedly never terrifying, but in equal measures fascinating, worrying, disquieting and enveloping, I Start Counting is as near-perfect an end to a decade as one could hope for, and exactly the kind of film people should be making now- which is, of course, exactly why they never will. A genre essential.