House of Whipcord is a notorious women behind bars/ sexploitation/ torture film that I have been avoiding for as long as I have heard of it, as it is really not my cup of tea. As it turns out I like more tea than I thought as not only is it not that exploitative, nor that violent, it is also really rather good. Women are behind bars though and I’ll always prefer them at bars.
London is still swinging in the early 1970s and the sexual revolution is in full flow as poor young French model Ann Marie finds herself splashed all over the papers with her top off. At the crazy/cool/really-not-cool party the photographer throws after, Ann Marie meets a mysterious stranger who takes her out on a date where as a “joke” he pretends to slice her face open with a steak knife. For some reason this is the best date she’s ever been on and agrees to go on a weekend trip to meet his mother. A few points here:
a) Things are going way too fast already. If your second date is to meet someone’s parents then they obviously will be walking you down the isle by the third one. This was meant to be the seventies when free love was just a pill away. What’s the matter with them all? At least her best friend Julia has the sense to have sex with a married man instead.
b) If a boy you meet asks you to meet his mother on their second date they are either a psychopath or a homosexual.
c) The guys nam is Mark E. Desade as in the Marquis De Sade, the notorious sado masochistic sex pest. Even Ann Marie realises this before she agrees to go away with him. This is forty years before 50 Shades of Grey so don’t expect to end up happily married here. You’re a fool Ann Marie, you hear me! A fool!
Obviously this weekend in the country turns into a disaster. Mark mostly ignores Ann Marie in the car on the drive on the way down like he’s having some kind of hissy fit, then when they get there his mum’s gaff turns out to be a “privately run women’s correctional facility”. Ann Marie is stripped, dressed in sack cloth, tried (very unfairly I might point out) and thrown into a jail for what seems to be the rest of her life, which won’t, so she is told, be very long.
Inside the House of Whipcord (as it is never referred to but what a great name) there doesn’t seem to be much to do other than starve to death and read the bible (much like my old Catholic boys school) so its very easy to get into trouble. Once in said trouble you are subjected to the three strikes and you’re out rule:
1) Two weeks solitary in a rather large cellar with no lights, a dirty looking mattress, two rats and all the straw you can eat.
2) When you’ve been really bad you are subjected to some lashes. Not sure how many as the scenes always cut before the end but enough to expose women’s flesh to the camera. This really is the most exploitative part of the film and only happens briefly twice, and that’s what gave the film the notorious X Certificate in the first place (which is still attached to the front of the titles which is almost lovely in its nostalgia factor).
3) The hang you. All the rats, floggings and straw in the world obviously ain’t going to stop you being a wrongun so its all over.
The fact that the women in the prison seem to be there for minor misdemeanours, like brief nudity, and are judged by older, and clearly insane “moral guardians” says so much about the times when this film came out. Imagine being an mature, more conservative British citizen when the sixties swept aside the previous Victorian-like sexual moral structure. It must have been a shock, and you can’t deny that to some people who were already past it, there must have been some serious jealousy. So here we have a group of mostly women taking the law into their own hands: taking these poor girls out of society to be punished for their modern behaviour.
Of course, the people in the House of Whipcord are, to a woman, a bunch of deranged lunatics.
Head of the house is the appropriately named Margaret, a cross between Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher before anyone even knew she was a thing. Of course she might be all moral crusader but she’s also a gibbering mad person who clearly fancies the pants off her own son and tries to attack her blind husband with a paper cutter. Barbara Markham totally nails this part, and she is a great example of a British character actor giving it her all. A consummate professional in a cheap and cheerful tits n’ whips movie.
Then there are her two faithful guards (well faithful up until the writing’s on the wall and then it’s so long and thanks for everything Maggie), the senior of two is weirdly called Walker. Sheila Keith is also great here, smirking away with her steely eyes, and really relishing beating young girls and stringing them up. What is weird though is that “Walker” is also the name of the director, Pete Walker. The story was written by Walker although the screenplay was by David McGillivray. Was McGillivray making a comment about his director being a bit of a tyrant? Or maybe Walker himself wanted her called that as a cheeky nod to his own leadership skills? Who knows. Its a funny little touch though.
House of Whipcord came out nine years after capital punishment had been banned in the Britain, and only one year after it had been stopped in Northern Ireland, so all of its ideas about the law of the land not being fit for the slack morality of its people must have hit home to audiences in 1974. Being hung for your crimes was still a fresh thing for many, especially as the majority of the public still backed hanging at the time (it wasn’t removed with a referendum I can tell you). It is fitting that Margaret’s husband is also the judge in this micro-criminal justice system. He may be blind, so you could say he can be seen as Justice – unswayed by prejudice so able to give a correct sentence to these girls. However, he is also blind to the fact that his wife is not “setting the girls free” when they have served their time as she tells him. Instead they are being hung in a cold dark room. Justice in the UK too had been blind to the reality of capital punishment: of how cold and cruel it was, and it was only cases such as Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis that made the establishment see what was really going on.
So House of Whipcord has kind of had a bad reputation for its sleazy and violent set up (or at least in my head it did). But the film genuinely has something important to say about the UK in the 1970s and our attitudes to morality and crime today.
It also has lots of hot girls with their whammers out, so its got something for everyone.