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Thursday, October 10, 2013

HOUSE ON STRAW HILL -- Blu-ray/DVD review by porfle

Watching HOUSE ON STRAW HILL today, it's hard to imagine such a relatively innocuous little horror-thriller causing much of a stir.  But upon its release in the UK in 1976 (under the title "Expos√©") this neatly-produced but rather unassuming independent feature was shocking enough to the faint of heart for it to later be banned as one of the dreaded "video nasties." 

Although British audiences finally got to see an edited, rated-18 version in 2006,  Severin Films' current Blu-Ray/ DVD combo is the first time the film has been shown uncut since its release.  The main cause for concern among such media watchdogs as Mary Whitehouse, whose tireless efforts to ban morally objectionable material resulted in stiff fines and jail sentences for many dealers in home video, was that old one-two punch--sex and violence.  Still, next to some of the other titles on the banned list such as "The Driller Killer",  "Cannibal Holocaust", and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "House on Straw Hill" seems positively sedate. 

 Udo Kier (ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN, MOTHER OF TEARS, THE THEATRE BIZARRE) stars as Paul Martin, a successful novelist laboring over his sophomore book in the seclusion of a rustic cottage in the English countryside.  The paranoid and emotionally distant Paul gets even more privacy than he bargained for when his sexually frustrated wife Suzanne (70s sex bomb Fiona Richmond) packs up and returns to the city.  He then decides to hire a live-in secretary who, in the form of beautiful genre fave Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW), soon begins to disrupt Paul's life in ways that even his creative mind couldn't dream up. 

While technically "softcore" compared to the burgeoning porn industry's more graphic offerings at the time, the sexual content in this film is still strong enough to have raised a few eyebrows (among other things).  Paul prefers to have rough sex with the voracious Suzanne while wearing rubber gloves, and is sometimes wracked with violent fantasies during the act.  Linda, on the other hand, seems particularly fond of masturbation, in which she engages pretty much wherever and whenever she can.  She rebuffs Paul's eventual advances while aggressively seducing a willing Suzanne upon her return to the cottage.  The lesbian scenes are tastefully filmed and, by today's standards, somewhat tame.  There is no full-frontal nudity.

What must've had the prudes popping their corks in 1976 was the juxtaposition of these sexual elements with the various scenes of graphic violence that occur infrequently throughout the film.   Early on,  when it seems as though we're watching one of those thrillers about civilized folk being terrorized by rural ruffians--I was briefly reminded of THE SHUTTERED ROOM with Oliver Reed--there's a scene in which one of the female characters is raped in a cornfield by two uncouth locals armed with a shotgun.  (The story takes a pleasingly atypical turn here, as it does earlier when mild-mannered Paul is accosted by the two men in town.) 

A good old non-sexual throat slashing occurs later on, which, incidentally,  is no more graphic than the one in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 westernTHE WILD BUNCH.  However, an extended lesbian encounter sometime after that is followed by the film's most bloody sequence involving a naked woman being slashed to death in a bathtub.  Here, HOUSE ON STRAW HILL is at its most deliberately exploitative as the knife is shown crisscrossing the actress' breasts in loving closeup while copious amounts of fake blood flow freely.  The scene is brief and there aren't any Tom Savini-style makeup effects, but it's more than enough to have had certain people squirming in her seats. 

Otherwise, HOUSE ON STRAW HILL is a nicely directed and photographed low-budget thriller with a simple and ultimately very predictable storyline.  Visually, it benefits from the typical moody, overcast atmosphere of the British countryside along with good location interiors.  An intense, handsome young Udo Kier is fun to watch as always, as is the lovely Linda Hayden giving it her best effort.  Fiona Richmond, not that great an actress, is at least rather decorative. 

A pre-titles disclaimer warns viewers that the print is compiled from the only existing copies which are worn and damaged.   Personally, I'm so tired of flawless film prints and super-sharp HD that I couldn't wait to see some honest-to-goodness imperfect and even battered footage for old times' sake.   Even so, the picture quality is mostly pretty good save for some very rough patches.  The picture is in 1.77:1 widescreen with English mono sound and a running time of 84 minutes.  No subtitles. 

Extras include a commentary track with writer-director James Kenelm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston, a trailer,  and a recent Linda Hayden interview entitled "An Angel For Satan" in which the actress recalls her career as a popular horror star in such films as BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.  (She has no kind words for HOUSE ON STRAW HILL, however.) 

In addition to the two feature discs--for a limited time only--a third disc contains the 2-part documentary BAN THE SADIST VIDEOS! (named after a Daily Mail headline) which was written and directed by David Gregory and runs for a total of almost two hours.  Here you will find everything you could ever want to know about the "video nasties" controversy, and it makes for a fascinating story.

As one of the most notorious of those video nasties, HOUSE ON STRAW HILL is instantly watchable if only for the purpose of seeing just what it took to get Mary Whitehouse and the British Board of Film Censors after you with torches and pitchforks back in 1976.  Other than that, it's a pleasant enough diversion that's neither all that exciting nor particularly boring, and is of interest mainly to fans of Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, and/or Fiona Richmond's fake boobs.

Buy the Blu-ray/DVD combo at


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