“This film’s a long lost British classic, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to restore it to its full glory and make it available to the wider public once more,” declared John Pusker of Brazen Films, at yesterday’s official press launch of his company’s latest DVD release – the notorious 1975 slasher movie Confessions of a Sex Murderer. “For far too long it’s been fashionable for critics to sneer at the output of the British film industry in the 1970s, dismissing it all as ineptly made cheap sex comedies, violent crime films or unpleasant horror flicks, all focusing on smut and the exploitation of women. But that just isn’t true, as Confessions of a Sex Murderer, which deconstructs the whole Italian psycho-killer genre and explores its inherent misogyny, proves.” On its original UK release the film fared badly at the box office, with the title and the presence of Robin Askwith in the cast conspiring to confuse audiences into expecting a continuation of the star’s popular series of Confessions sex comedies. Instead, they found themselves subjected to a series of gruesome dismemberments, as a string of attractive young women – played by Page Three models – were carved up on-screen by a crazed psycho-killer. “There’s no denying that it shocked filmgoers at the time,” admits Pusker. “I can understand that it must have been pretty disturbing if you were just going along to see some dolly bird whip her D-cups out, only to see them promptly sliced off by with a machete and thrust in your face by a black leather clad loony.”
However, for Pusker, the extreme violence which apparently alienated cinema audiences in 1975, not to mention drawing the condemnation of critics, is actually evidence of director Arnold Knuckler’s subversive intent. “He’s obviously forcing viewers to confront their objectification of women, their depersonalising them into a collection of sexual objects rather than complete human beings,” he insists. “Suddenly the objects of their desire – huge breasts – are turned into objects of revulsion once they are literally separated from the female form. It’s quite brilliant really, the way in which he is forcing the audience to identify with the killer by equating their sexual fixation on breasts, buttocks and genitalia as individual items of desire, with dismemberment.” Critics of Brazen Films DVD output remain unimpressed by such a analyses. “The fact is that they specialise in buying up obscure smutty films cheaply and repackaging them as art house pictures, so as to justify selling their DVDs at premium prices,” says Donald Jibbs, film critic of broadsheet newspaper The Sunday Bystander. “Worse still, they are simply legitimising sex and violence, allowing the sort of deviants who enjoy this sort of filth to deceive themselves into believing that they are doing nothing wrong.”
Jibbs is one of a number of influential British film critics who fear that the increased availability of 1970s low-budget British exploitation films on DVD and digital TV channels is in danger of damaging the reputation of the UK’s film industry. “These films were condemned to obscurity for good reason – they were unadulterated rubbish,” he says. “The likes of Confessions of a Sex Murderer and Hockey Girls’ Holiday are unworthy to stand alongside such timeless classics as Room With a View and Ryan’s Daughter, for example. We’ve spent years establishing ourselves as a centre of excellence for slow-paced, exquisitely photographed costume dramas, in which nothing at all ever happens. The epitome of cinematic art, in other words. If it becomes evident that this country used to produce commercial cinema for the masses, then this legacy will be completely undermined.”
Not surprisingly, Pusker has reacted furiously to Jibbs’ claims about British cinema. “That’s exactly the kind of cinematic snobbery we’re trying to overturn at Brazen Films, this idea which equates art with dullness,” he asserts. “Let’s face it, since the 1970s, most of the British film industry’s output falls into the category of ‘worthy but shite’ – the sort of thing the average person would only watch if it was the only thing on telly on a rainy Bank Holiday afternoon! Cinema is something to be enjoyed, not endured.” Pusker points out that most critics have no problem in celebrating the popular cinema of other countries, and extolling its virtues. “Just look at Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s – giallo movies, in particular, are now hailed as ground-breaking classics, with an influence reaching far beyond genre movies,” he says. “Which is ironic, as Confessions of a Sex Murderer, a film so reviled by critics in this country, was actually British exploitation cinema’s answer to giallo.” Pusker believes that it is the film’s very Britishness which has counted against it in the eyes of critics. “Part of the appeal of Italian exploitation films are their – to UK audiences – exotic locations,” he opines. “Sadly, the drab back streets of Bracknell are a poor substitute for sun-drenched Rome, and the film’s back drop of dingy lock-up garages, dusty bedsits and greasy spoon cafes, just can’t compete with the Italian product’s typical milieux of art galleries, chic espresso bars and fashion photographer’s studios.”
However, it isn’t just mainstream film critics like Jibbs who are questioning the artistic credentials of Brazen’s latest DVD release. “I don’t disagree with their contention that exploitation films can have artistic merit, it’s just that Confessions of a Sex Murderer is rubbish,” muses Lionel Bumstadler of Furtive Films Monthly, a publication which has long championed the cause of classic British exploitation films. “It’s little more than a standard British sex comedy with added machetes and gore. Robin Askwith even plays a window cleaner again, albeit one who witnesses a sex murder. Even novelty casting such as a bewildered-looking James Mason as a police inspector can’t save it.” Bumstadler believes that the film is finally sunk by its ludicrous denouement, in which the slim and athletic masked killer is revealed to be overweight and wheezing British seventies comedy fixture Arthur Mullard. “There really are many more British exploitation features still unavailable on DVD, which are far more worthy of critical re-evaluation than Confessions of a Sex Murderer,” he contends, “The little seen fourth film in Hammer’s series of On The Buses spin-offs, Buggery On The Buses, for instance. It features one of British cinema’s first serious attempts to explore the issue of homosexuality in the workplace.” Indeed, in the film, Inspector Blake gets sacked and is replaced by a new, disciplinarian ex-Sergeant Major who takes Stan roughly from behind every time he runs his bus late. “I’m going to have you Butler!” he roars, and he does. Right up the chutney. Stan’s appeals to the Union for help fall on deaf ears, after his conductor Jack consults his rulebook and declares that stopping the new Inspector from bumming drivers would be contrary to the Union’s policy on sexual discrimination. Sadly, after receiving an X certificate, the film sank without trace.
“Despite this setback, Hammer persevered, producing Cannibalism On The Buses the following year, featuring a script by J G Ballard,” explains Bumstadler. “Considered too dark for general release – the plot features Stan and Jack’s bus, with Inspector Blake and twelve passengers on board, crashing and ending up marooned on a traffic island in a busy junction; unable to reach safety, they’re forced into desperate measures in order to survive – this one went out on a double bill with the ground-breaking gay vampire flick Bite Me While I’m Naked. They netted total receipts of thirty seven pounds and twenty six pence during a two week engagement at Soho’s Golden Shower cinema.” Surprisingly, Brazen Films has no plans to release any of the titles highlighted by Bumstadler.