Contemptible, degrading, sordid and vile are deserving adjectives describing James Kenelm Clarke's highly-controversial 'House on Straw Hill.' Or to be more precise, they were perhaps deserved back in 1976, but compared to the sort of graphic nonsense littering theaters in the last decade, the film is little more than an amusing curiosity but easily forgettable nonetheless. Today, it has a better chance of tickling your funny bone long before it reaches that part of your conscience which would find anything about this movie the least bit shocking or revolting. It definitely says something about cultural differences and how desensitized we've become to certain perversities and on-screen violence.
But, that's a conversation for another day and when more time is allowed. For now, it's interesting to know what was once objectionable in Clarke's film is today harmless and almost pedestrian. Known in the U.K. as 'Exposé' and 'Trauma' in the U.S., the movie's only significant repute is for offending the senses of common decency and being one of the first to earn a place on the notorious "Video Nasties" list. With graphic depictions of lesbianism, sexual depravity, masturbation, and violence committed by a woman, the low-budget production garnered a cult reputation as a much sought-after collectible. It remains unseen in some parts of the world and was only recently made available for British audiences in an edited form.
After sitting through the uncensored, unedited cut, I suppose the negative reaction towards the film is understandable, if not well-earned to some degree. Much of the response was aimed at the lovely Linda Hayden, who only five years earlier caught the attention of horror fans in 'Blood on Satan's Claw.' Constantly exposing herself for the camera, Hayden appears quite comfortable in her steamy role as the lascivious and mysterious but also crazed nymphomaniac Linda. In turn, the camera loves gazing at her sensually wanton ways, walking around the home of her employer in revealing clothing or sleeping in the buff with her bedroom door open. Of course, these are nothing in comparison to her scandalous masturbation scene and when she seduces another woman, which are the sequences that finally set 1976 censors over the edge.
Her employer is author Paul Martin (the incomparable Udo Kier), who recently found fame and success but is now needing a secretary to assist him in typing his follow-up novel. The two stay at a secluded countryside cottage overlooking wheat fields, and their time alone not only builds sexual tension but also suffers from an apprehensive suspicion of one another. Although his voice is funnily dubbed in the most artificial way imaginable, Kier is nevertheless great as a troubled writer agonizing with a dark, possibly disturbing secret that makes him somewhat paranoid and seeing bizarre hallucinations. When he invites a friend (Fiona Richmond) to stay with him, we also learn he has some depraved sexual urges.
For all its notoriety and infamy, 'House on Straw Hill' is not a well-made or even decently well executed motion picture, making its more shocking aspects a bit of a chore rather than tantalizing. Written by Clarke, the plot is intended as a mystery thriller, not so much in determining the identity of the killer, which is revealed very early on, as on trying to figure out the reasons behind Linda's obsession with Paul. And while Kier gives a strong performance, his character is, on the other hand, a wimpy, almost whiny twit who's probably better off dead, especially when what he did is finally exposed. All things considered, however, the movie is still enough of a curiosity to see what all the fuss was about.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Severin Films brings 'House on Straw Hill' to Blu-ray as a three-disc combo pack: one a Region Free, BD25 while the other two are a DVD-9 copy and a DVD-5 with bonus material. All three are housed inside a blue eco-elite case on opposing panels. At startup, the Blu-ray goes straight to a standard menu selection with a silent static menu screen.
At the start, a screen with plain white text explains that this presentation was made from three separate theatrical prints, the best available which were in moderately good condition. Despite showing several instances of scratches, discoloration and even a couple cigarette burns, an effort was made to restore the film to its original glory with the worst of the three being the one unedited, without cuts or alterations. Basically, Severin Films warns owners that the presentation is may not meet to the standards of Blu-ray, but it was done under the best possible conditions and after many hours spent on its restoration.
With that in mind, I suppose this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is the best the controversial cult favorite could ever look. A few spots are actually rather nice with decent definition and resolution, but sadly, there are not many such instances. The majority of the 1.66:1 image is soft and blurry although small background details are fairly visible throughout. Colors are grossly faded and listless while flesh tones generally appear pale and flush. Contrast and brightness is noticeably lacking with washed-out, murky shadows, giving the video an unattractively grayish and worn appearance. All things considered, however, this probably is the best anyone could ever hope from such a maligned picture.
Unfortunately, things don't improve all that much in the audio department. I'm sure the same considerations made for the picture quality should also extend to the DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack, but even in spite of the source's condition and history, it remains somewhat disappointing. Although the ADR work is distractingly poor and laughable, dialogue is delivered with a decent sense of presence and warmth, if only a few decibels too low and sometimes fading in and out during a couple scenes. Low bass is more of a light pop in sequences with gunshots, and the mid-range is heavily restrained, narrow and flat. All in all, the lossless mix is not horrible or unlistenable, but sorely dissatisfying nonetheless.
For all its notoriety and infamy, 'House on Straw Hill' is not a well-made or even decently well executed motion picture, making its more shocking aspects a bit of a chore rather than tantalizing. Starring Linda Hayden and Udo Kier, the film is today little more than an amusing curiosity for its controversial cult repute but easily forgettable in the long run. The Blu-ray from Severin Films delivers the best possible high-def presentation imaginable, considering the production's history and budget limitations. Nevertheless, a nice set of assortments that includes an excellent documentary makes the limited edition package worth picking up for cult enthusiasts and collectors.