Somewhere betwixt British horror, the arthouse thriller and the grand old school drama lurks a strange netherworld that still remains as yet unrecognised and unappraised by the orthodoxies of film criticism – the boarding school mystery. Principally a British genre with its roots in the literary works of Lord Dunsany and suchlike (although one of the greatest entries in its canon, Sydney Lumet’s superlative CHILD’S PLAY (1972) originates from the US) it taps into the memories and mindsets of a certain sector of British society now very much a thing of the past- which could explain why, with the exception of Terence Hardy’s heart-warming comedy A FEAST AT MIDNIGHT (1995) and one or two amateur features, there has been little development in the genre in the last 30 years.
Its counterparts include FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972) one of Hammer’s many Diabolique-inspired psycho-thrillers made under the auspices of Jimmy Sangster that could have just as easily been made in the same era for Aaron Spelling to network on US TV, starring Peter Cushing as a mysterious one-armed headmaster who may or may not be menacing Judy Geeson, and the Schaffer-scripted ABSOLUTION (1978) which plays Richard Burton as a troubled and unstable priest in charge of a Catholic boys’ school against the intrusions made by an itinerant Billy Connolly and a sinister pupil in the shape of KES star Dai Bradley.
However, UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (actually filmed twice – the first time as a Theatre 625 episode in 1964 by Donald McWhinnie) has the edge over both the others in that it lacks the predictable “they’re trying to drive me maaaaad” Clouzotisms of the former and is slightly terser than the latter, which tends to fill out a great deal of its running time with footage of its leading man running repeatedly through trees. In fact, ZIGO pretty much sets the scene in situ from the opening reel, as a body hurtles in point-of-view fashion toward rocks and water in a whirlwind of what looks like quite dangerous cinematography – one of very few examples of such trickery in this film.
In fact, with the exception of a later scene involving some high-speed whirling round a gymnasium, and one of those great falling-down-a-cliff dream sequences which we seem destined to talk endlessly about in pubs 30 odd years later, the entire mood is one of almost theatrical stillness, which perhaps belies its origins as TV play, or maybe hints at director John Mackenzie’s future as one of Play For Today’s finest contributors. Still, from the point of view of a fan of an era when atmosphere, aesthetic and good-old fashioned dialogue were more important than trickery and explosions, this is of course rather refreshing!! That said, the adaptation (by Simon Raven, author of the superb DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, later filmed as the misunderstood INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED) is definitely designed for cinema audiences – not that today’s cinema audiences would give such a film five minutes of their time, of course, unless it were made by Thomas Winterberg or Lars Von Trier.
Into the stuffy and rural (and yet prefab enough to be authentic early 70s Grand Guignol) world of blue classrooms, white halls and grey cliffs steps our central character – recently appointed form master John Ebony, played with the usual mixture of suave authority and baby-faced naiveté by the one and only David Hemmings. Still handsome enough to capitalise on his status as a counterculture idol forged in the furnaces of BLOW UP and BARBARELLA, yet with a world-weariness that enhances his depth of characterization (possibly acquired during his work on Richard C Serafian’s seminal psychotropic mindfuck FRAGMENT OF FEAR two years previous), Hemmings immediately draws us in and makes us identify and sympathise with him, grabbing our dramatic focus as much as his colleague Tony Haygarth provides warmth and comic relief – or at least what little of those one can provide in what is ostensibly a thriller with horror leanings.
In a reflection of the changing times (in which the developments of the preceding ten years had even permeated olde-worlde academic environs such as this) the boys of the school at which our man now finds himself employed refer to themselves as “the men” – by bizarre comparison, Ebony is little more than a boy himself, something given added credence by Hemmings’ youthful features which, despite their owner’s already obvious real-life predilection for hedonism, give little hint of the ravages, or indeed the demon eyebrows, to come. His idealism, stating that he simply “wants to teach more than anything else in the world” of course sets him up pretty much from the start as a potential victim (or at least that’s how it appears to those of us who watch this kind of film regularly and know the drill) but that, of course, is the clincher with which both director and writer draw us into the plot and ensure our focus remains intact. At the same time, his wife Sylvia (the severely underrated and underused Carolyn Seymour) seems slightly more mature in outlook if not age than her husband, and whilst embodying the same cultured, refined poise of many of her contemporaries is in no way presented as a sex-bomb. Like John and his achievements, Sylvia is modest and unassuming: like their recently acquired house, she is “beautifully dull” – an aesthetic that any devotee of British cinema between 1965 and 1975 will understand.
Among the faces of the young “men” one will encounter such familiar faces as Michael Kitchen and Michael Cashman, striking their early blows for cinematic immortality: ironic that much of their later work (with the exception of Kitchen’s iconic turn in the original adaptation of Dennis Potter’s BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE) should have been in productions less interesting than this. Not that the film is in any way as innovative or groundbreaking as Potter’s televisual cause celebre – in fact, the casual viewer stumbling in at this point could be forgiven for thinking he’s about to watch a straight-ahead school drama. But of course we know it isn’t, hence the opening sequence – and sure enough, the bomb drops within minutes of Ebony’s first lesson when the boys inform him in the most matter-of-fact way possible that they murdered his predecessor, a Mr Pelham, in cold blood. The skilful way in which the director handles this scene is to be commended: not a hint of hammy “dun-dun-durrrr” style dramatics are applied to this revelation, which tumbles from the boys’ mouths as easily as their answering of the register, from which of course the title of the film is taken. Of the last three titular names mentioned, Zigo is, of course, absent.
From the audience’s perspective, this is where things “get juicy” and we find ourselves drawn inexorably in: of course, it could be said that anyone who seeks out such a film knows what they’re getting anyway, and is obviously a genre fan to some extent, but that doesn’t make it any less involving. This is the point at which the boys become more than just mischievous teenagers and take on a far more ominous import – Cloistermouth (Nicholas Hoye) is terrifyingly sinister in his delivery, and later on launches into a shocking display of violence (reciprocated) towards his tutor and others. Meanwhile, Terhew (Michael Cashman in his earliest role) and Bungabine (a similarly nascent Michael Kitchen) certainly seem a pairing likely to give one the jitters. The sense of mistrust and concern shown by Ebony from this point is reminiscent of the slowly developing and enveloping sense of dread felt by Sergeant Howie in THE WICKER MAN (although Hemmings’ schoolmaster is a far more reasonable, likeable and fair prospect than Edward Woodward’s pious policeman), and as is the case with Hardy’s film, we feel it with him. Many of us have found ourselves in surroundings where there appears to be nowhere to run and no-one to trust, and geographical isolation surely doesn’t help, although at least in this case Hemmings and the beleaguered Haygarth can take a country bus into the nearest town late at night (something that definitely dates the film, as the likes of Arriva or Stagecoach wouldn’t stand for such shenanigans nowadays!!) and get pissed enough to submerge their daily woes. And they’re not on an island, of course.
As the film develops, the theme on the surface appears to be Ebony’s struggle to be taken seriously by the boys, let them know who’s boss and of course gain their trust enough to be able to do his job – which is, of course, in the light of the recent revelation, nigh on impossible. Not that he believes them to begin with, nor are his increasing concerns given much credence by either his wife or headmaster (Douglas Wilmer, playing yet another part that looks as if he may have been drafted in, as was the way for most of his career, as a replacement for his friend Peter Cushing) This is one of the areas in which the structure of the plot actually lets the viewer down slightly: on the surface he appears to be little more than slightly peeved by the idea that he is teaching a gang of murderers, almost as if he sees it as merely symptomatic of prankish juvenile behaviour, and he accordingly sets out to scotch any further dalliances with a mixture of Fraulein Maria-style “firm but kindness” and kick-arse authoritarianism. But of course, if he doesn’t at least partially believe the boys’ claims (and OK, on balance, who would, given the circumstances) then why does he seem so unsettled by their every word and action? Not that his methods have the desired effect – at least not too begin with. The fact that he quite visibly loses his cool in front of his pupils, shouting ‘STOP THIS’ during one bout of heavy taunting, is demonstration enough of how far he has crossed over the line – or does it? What exactly does he want them to stop? Maybe he sees the even more worrying subtext lurking beneath – that maybe his wife, rather than himself, is the one in danger. After all, Mr Pelham, in the best coded language traditions of British cinema, was ‘unmarried’….
However, for all these plaudits it should be pointed out that the film, whilst by no means a bad movie, is not a classic either. Despite having more originality and sublime dramatic edge, as discussed previously, than any of its counterparts, and being technically a ‘better film’, there are several areas in which it is found wanting. It lacks the chilling sadness of the aforementioned CHILD’S PLAY, has none of the “Hammer high camp” which infused FEAR IN THE NIGHT, and lacks, well, a Richard Burton at its centre to bring it up to the bravura levels of ABSOLUTION. Not that I think personally such a performance would befit such a film anyway – and not that I wish to contradict my earlier appraisal either – but for the purposes of entertainment, sometimes as a British horror lover one must accept that the better film isn’t necessarily the one you’re going to get the urge to watch at 1 in the morning after several units of nostalgia-induced alcohol (or should that be alcohol-induced nostalgia?)
What it does have, which elevates it above all the others as a complete work, and keeps it at the level of a film worthy of discussion, is a flawless cast, a sense of atmosphere and intrigue, and a genuinely unusual storyline. It constantly hints at hidden secrets, half-whispered promises of things better left unsaid, and invests all of its characters, even the absent Zigo, with back stories which build them into shapes of several dimensions. It also contains a ‘bit that everybody remembers’ – always a good sign, although in this case it concerns the subtle telling of a joke in a gym (intercut with the aforementioned cliff-falling) rather than anything scary, graphic or particularly unpleasant. Watch the tension between the actors in this scene build, though, and you will be soon hankering after the glory days of British cinema like the rest of us….
In any film with a cast this size there’s always going to be some difficulty fleshing out all the constituent parts into a thematic whole – but Mackenzie and Raven seem to manage with aplomb. The sex scene between Hemmings and Seymour, and the demonstration of Sylvia’s apparent social ineptitude at a dinner party, both seem to hint at an uneasiness in their marriage ala Dustin Hoffman and Susan George in the concurrent STRAW DOGS (indeed such a dinner scene also takes place in Peckinpah’s rape-revenger), and the descriptions of the boys – such as Wittering, who can apparently sing and also ‘looked adorable’ hint that he may have a secret more deadly than any other. Of course, no film set in and English boarding school during this era could exist without its small dollop of repressed homosexuality and side-order of repressed longing, and in this case the aforementioned Wittering is set up as the recipient – never in any explicit way, mind you, but with enough thinly coded hints to suggest an ambiguity between victim and perpetrator.
Of course, once Ebony begins to actively investigate the so-called murder at any length, he ironically begins to win the boys’ respect back. Maybe there’s a hint of Mishima in Raven’s script, cheering as the brave warrior is led willingly to his own fate- but Ebony is not the blushing flower they have made him out to be (as a swift slap round the face administered to Cloistermouth after he takes proceedings a little too far) proves, and nothing in this plot is that cut and dried. And having been informed by this stage of his imminent sacking anyway, it’s not like he actually cares anymore. It’s debatable whether he even cares about teaching per se at this point- but if nothing else the events have been a rite of passage for him.
Without wanting to give anything away, let’s just say the film builds to an inevitable (and quite upsetting, depending on what mood you’re in) climax via the use of two dramatic scenes. Penultimately we find ourselves observing a gang of dancing, swirling, goading boys (excellent camerawork here courtesy of the inimitable Geoffrey Unsworth) as they surround their unwitting female victim in a cold, dark gymnasium – but who is the real quarry here? It would seem that the unfortunate Sylvia (who does a damn good job of defending herself, but unlike her husband, ensures she comes out victorious) is nothing more than a cat’s-paw in this instance, a means to an end – and it is this chilling end which Ebony must face, one way or another, atop a craggy peak while the sea rages below. He has failed in every respect up until now …is he beyond caring for his own life, or is he making one final attempt at redemption, if not in the boys’ and masters’ eyes then that of his wife? I’ll say no more on the subject…
One can’t help thinking, though, that despite all the right ingredients, the film never quite builds up to the crescendo that it has been threatening all along – almost as if the conclusion were hurried either due to time and budgetary constraints or simply not quite knowing how to get there. As the final reel fades, one does feel left with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction – maybe because we wanted some form of retribution or redress for the preceding events, and we are offered little. What we do get, though, is a beautifully shot ‘outro’ as the boys tramp in solemn single file downhill (towards adulthood?) and their names are read by Hemmings in synchronised rhythm from the register once more – almost reminiscent of the ‘roll of duty’ from soundtrack veterans The Pretty Things’ psychedelic masterpiece “SF Sorrow”. Not, of course, that every viewer would necessarily make the connection – but as a counter cultural reference point for those who wish to find it, it adds a nice touch.
Ostensibly a mystery movie, UNMAN retains its ‘horror’ credentials due to the rather unpleasant and hitherto taboo nature of its subject matter. that of the ‘murderous child’ or ‘child monster’, which had previously only been tackled in Wolf Rilla and Anton Leader’s John Wyndham adaptations, and only then as the result of some supposed alien intervention or outside intelligence. It would be wrong to suggest that the film is in any way ‘seminal’, but it does belong to an important movement of the time (if by default rather than design), where contemporaneous works such as I START COUNTING, SOMETHING TO HIDE, REVENGE and THE OFFENCE, strove to place terror back in the arena of the mundane and everyday world. Obviously, they did this by removing the supernatural element and blurring the boundaries between the genre and its close relative, the suspense thriller- something which annoyed the purists still hankering after the days of Hammer monsters- but for many of us of a certain age (ie those either very young or not yet born at the time!!), this was probably the most fascinating and important step ‘fantastic film’ in the UK had taken for over a decade, and without it stagnation would surely have set in a lot sooner. And the fact that we see little or no blood, nor any actual deaths (at least until after they have happened) made the film all the more ripe for TV screenings in the 70s and 80s, thus defining itself as the kind of ‘British Horror’ film that today’s archivists fondly refer to.
And, as anyone who has seen the closing credits will tell you, Zigo is still absent. Which, all things considered, is probably just as well.