The early 1970s were certainly an interesting time for Britt Ekland. As well marrying Rod Stewart, during which time she helped popularise the now-recognised concept of “Swinglish”, she also appeared, one after the other, in a run of four undisputed horror classics- first as Charlotte Rampling’s murderous “friend” Lucy in Asylum (1972) then a thorn in the side of Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills in Endless Night (also 1972) before achieving immortality as dubbed Caledonian temptress Willow McGregor in The Wicker Man (1973) most famous for a nude scene in which her arse was replaced by that of a model.
A pub conversation with most Brits over the age of 35 will eventually bring up one or all of the above, which are etched firmly in our consciousnesses, but fewer seem to remember the distinctly sleazier, darker and less cosy Night Hair Child, which, if one finds pleasure in creating subgenres, belongs alongside Night After Night After Night (1969) Something To Hide (1970) The Sinful Dwarf (1973) Take An Easy Ride (1975) Give Us Tomorrow (1978) and the ridiculous Don’t Open Till Christmas (1983) in the elite club of British horror films and thrillers so sordid they make the viewer feel like taking a good bath after viewing. Not that this is a bad thing: Night Hair Child (to give it its best known- as well as rather confusing- title) is actually a splendid, well-shot and logically executed film. It just feels WRONG on every level possible. But in a good way…..
An opening pre-credit sequence, in which a young blonde woman is electrocuted to death in a bath, more or less signifies what sort of film we’re about to see- something made all the more worrying by the cast of stars listed before your eyes that reads: “Britt Ekland, Hardy Kruger, Mark Lester.” Er, Mark Lester? The one that played “Oliver?” and starred in other heart-tugging kids’ epics such as Run Wild Run Free, Flight Of The Doves and Melody? The very same. But let’s not forget he debuted in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), had his first speaking role in Jack Clayton’s bleak urban terror masterpiece Our Mother’s House (1967), was top-billed in the ultimate Christmas horror Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1970) and turned in an impressive performance in the Van Der Graaf Generator-soundtracked assassination thriller Eyewitness (1971) so this appearance isn’t exactly without precedent. I just wonder what he thinks about it all now…
The improbable plot is based around the recent marriage of 22-year-old Elise (Ekland) to middle-aged widower Paul Bezant (Kruger), whose first wife Sara was the unfortunate woman we saw “frying tonight” between the telecine and the credits. The late woman was also the mother of Kruger’s son Marcus (Lester) who has mysteriously been sent home from boarding school in Berkshire (shades of The Innocents and therefore The Turn Of The Screw) to the family residence in Spain (on his own? OK, fair enough, if it says so in the script) a few weeks before the end of term, ostensibly due to a “chickenpox epidemic”. He’s a strange kind of 12 year old, with a full adult vocabulary and an atypical detachment (sounds like me at that age) but this is the least of it- he has several other idiosyncratic habits, at least one of which Elise is about to discover very quickly when he grabs her by both knockers from behind whilst sat in the bath.
Marcus’ prodigiously accelerated development has actually got him expelled, first for “erotic drawings”, then for spying on local courting couples (presumably the same ones seen hanging around the Slough and Bracknell area in most British exploitation movies) in the nearby village- both of which careworn headmaster Harry Andrews could have easily dealt with were it not for the boy’s subsequent torturing and killing of a cat. Of course, Ekland only finds this out by flying quickly from Barcelona to Heathrow and back while Kruger’s away for the day on business (like you do) and making her own enquiries, as Lester has actually torn up the expulsion letter and hidden its remains- one might say rather expediently- inside a book on scientific phenomena she’s seen him reading.
You’d think, logically, that finding out all this (depicted by intercutting Andrews’ speech with shots of Lester staring randomly at people in streets and some camera angles that veer a little too close to a pre-pubescent girl’s skirt for comfort) would be enough to make the father take his errant son firmly in hand, but it seems that in Dad’s eyes Junior can do no wrong. First some money goes missing, meaning “Elise must be mistaken”, then various other clues, including some hefty hints dropped by Kruger’s best mate Sofia (Conchita Martez), all begin to suggest “little Marcus” is more than he seems, leading to a rift with his new stepmother which her husband puts down to jealousy over lack of affection.
Bad mistake. Dad is so blinded by his love for his son (making you wonder why he remarried so quickly, as he obviously doesn’t love his new wife, even if she does makes herself easy to dislike by acting like a drunken pain in the ‘arris) that he can’t see salient truths staring him in the face. Things escalate from bad to worse, with the pre-teen boy actually blackmailing Ekland into stripping for him- yes, this is actually filmed, although her “vitals” are conveniently obscured by a close-up of Lester’s tousled bonce- so she can receive the information she’s been seeking all along: he engineered the death of his own mother, who he knew had a heart condition, by putting dodgy electrical equipment within reach of the bath taps. When she mentions this to family therapist Lili Palmer (“her mouth was open under the water, like a fish!! He laughed!!”) and subsequently tries to smother her stepson, a spell in the local nuthouse beckons, after which the three are reunited, and everything seems tickety-boo. Or is it?
Despite sounding ridiculous on paper (and containing a few plot holes that are considerably less easy to fill in than the ‘peephole’ Lester drills in the attic floor to spy on Kruger & Ekland’s nocturnal doings- a precursor to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea onscreen, though not to Mishima’s original book), all of this brouhaha, when viewed, actually makes a strange kind of sense. All of Elise’s fears are genuinely believable, as we’ve seen Marcus act with her in a way he clearly doesn’t in front of his father- yet there’s also just as much of a possibility that we could be seeing everything from the skewed perspective of a delusional woman, who may or may not have a history of dementia. Dream sequences are handled brilliantly, the surrealist air assisted by the blue and white décor: one sequence, in which the boy visualises his mother’s dead body floating in the swimming pool, is particularly effective and seems to directly presage Jack Nicholson’s bathroom encounters in The Shining eight years later. Other notable scenes include Ekland imagining herself (while under the influence of tranquilisers) in bed with Lester, a scene cut from the US DVD available under the film’s alternate title.
Despite my personal disdain for modernity, it’s impossible to discuss such a film without reference to recent news events, and you do find yourself wondering, even though nothing “dodgy” actually happens save one snog (which probably made Lester the envy of all his real-life schoolmates) who green-lit a project such as this, and how it would fare today in a world that claims to “care” about our sensibilities while simultaneously promoting violence at every turn. Ultimately Night Hair Child, like even more explicit European titles such as Malabimba (1979, also directed by Bianchi) Die Bruder (1977) and the uber-controversial Maladolescenza (1974) is gentler than any gangster blockbuster starring Jason Statham and his ilk, yet at the same time, like much early 70s Brit/ Eurosploitation fare, is all the more disturbing, possibly because of that gentility, and remains a captivating, bewitching movie, which draws you in time and again, and (which like 90 percent of the best horror films) inhabits a universe of its own. The Italianate, Giallo-style theme and incidental music (surely a favourite on the Ipods of Stereolab and Broadcast, if ever I heard one) complete the picture perfectly, rendering the final result a step or two closer to Fulci, Bava or Lenzi than your average cosy BHF (such as Kelly’s other effort that year, the decidedly un-alike Beast In The Cellar starring Beryl Reid and Flora Robson), with photography to match.
There are, unfortunately, also several negatives to be considered. It’s definitely too staid, drawn-out and blighted in places by repetitive dialogue to be a classic in the style of I Start Counting, Would You Kill A Child? or Straight On Till Morning, and there is obvious visual padding (mainly comprised of Ekland modelling a variety of fantastic outfits and Lester moping dreamily about while the camera pans the landscape) which seems to suggest that the plot might be a little too thin to stretch over 96 minutes. Also, Marcus may possibly be a little too cold and emotionless to be real, and he talks like the descriptive writing in a Ray Bradbury novel: on the other hand, there have been instances of highly intelligent yet disturbed children with adult emotions in real life- remember 10 year old antique dealer turned-adult-woman Lauren (formerlyn James) Harries, and his family of nutters that prompted Keith Allen to yell “You’re all fucking mental!!” on live television? The young Mr Bezzant could easily be that kind of psychopath, suffering from what can best be described- rather oxymoronically- as “arrested overdevelopment”, although such phenomena would also, like an intelligent handling of the film’s subject matter, be rare in the dumbed down society of today.
Similar bemusing mixtures of plausibility and incredulity prevail throughout: Kruger comes across as far too businessmanlike in both his haircut and attitudes to convince as the writer he’s supposed to be (he seems more like a banker), yet the idea of a middle-class bohemian father, who probably didn’t even plan to have children, being largely absent throughout his offspring’s early life while jetting about Europe and leaving him in the care of various ill-suited bodies without much actual recourse to right or wrong, is easy to imagine. Peter Cook was one such child, financially privileged but emotionally impoverished, though the closest he came towards psychotic violence was as an adult, in the late 70s, when a restraining order prevented him and estranged wife Judy Huxtable from being within a mile of each other whilst living in the same house: the thankfully fictional Marcus Bezzant seems to have plunged headlong into lunacy at an even earlier age.
The performers themselves are also ambivalent: for such a young actor, Lester handles his demanding part with relaxation, even if he is a little wooden when a little more emotion is called for. Still, his uninflected Home Counties Horror speech (very popular amongst baby faced killers- see also Lanchbury, Karl, and Potter, Martin) complements Britt’s Swinglish and Hardy Perennial’s Germanic monotone perfectly, and adds to the otherworldly atmosphere, something further realised by the multiple-edged sword of it being a British-Italian co-production set and filmed in Spain featuring Swedish and German actors. Kruger’s performance wavers somewhat between detached and disinterested, but then again, this may have been deliberate- his character, Paul, is not meant to be the most conventional of parents anyway, seeing as his friends seem to be the kind who enjoy themselves taking vast quantities of hallucinogenics and eating grapes off the bodies of hired supermodels, most of which takes place in his old house where his wife met her grisly fate, and which he has since sold to Martez, but has no qualms about visiting. Also, there are times when his own relationship with his son seems a little too close for comfort- as Ekland confesses to Palmer in therapy, “he’s always touching him”, an opinion which a swimming pool scene halfway through would seem to reinforce.
These factors leave the viewer up shit creek as far as relating to characters is concerned, meaning that eventually, despite the fact that we’re clearly not meant to like her and see her as a bit of a gold-digger (let’s be honest, why else would a young woman with her life ahead of her marry a widower- who just happens to be stinking rich- within three weeks of courtship?) it’s Elise that we end up rooting for. She genuinely seems the lesser of three evils (and more rational than Palmer’s trick cyclist, who seems to spend most of her therapy sessions asking questions no professional would usually venture) and we know she’s not a loony, or at least not as much as Lester, so it’s a relief when we see her released from the bonds of the “sisters of mercy” and taking her place in the world, even if into what looks like a more dangerous situation than before. Not to worry though: the resolution, though sudden (and coming after the film’s undoubtedly most shocking scene), is exquisitely handled, and adds a whole new element to the concept of sweet revenge.
And although still not a happy ending per se, it’s about as upbeat as it gets here: you get the impression that even if Marcus were sane and Paul less of an ‘absent’ father, the house, decked out as it is in art-deco whites and greys more befitting of a singleton’s shag-pad than a familial home, and situated miles from anywhere among endless Spanish scrub and tundra, wouldn’t have provided the cheeriest of environments. Thus, if there’s one recurrent image which will haunt me for years to come, it’s the by-then fortysomething actor’s constant canoodling and necking with Ekland in the early stages of the film- maybe it’s just because he’s an ugly git, but is that how sad it really looks when an older man fawns over a younger woman? If so, I’m going to have to rethink my personal life….