NOTE: At times, it is impossible to critique a film properly without discussing the ending. This is one such case. Revenge is not a film based around major plot twists – but if you are genuinely terrified of ‘spoilers’, then it might be best that you don’t read on…
Producer Peter Rogers is generally known as the man behind the Carry On films, as well as a handful of similar comedy vehicles (Twice Around the Daffodils, Bless This House), but in 1971, he worked with director Sidney Hayers on a pair of grim ‘rapesploitation’ films. Assault was a psycho thriller about schoolgirls being raped, and Revenge – the more interesting of the two – is the story of what might happen if the parents of the girls caught up with their attacker.
The film opens with a somewhat dysfunctional family leaving the funeral of a teenage girl, who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer. The girl’s father, Jim Radford, is a pub landlord married to ex-barmaid Carol (Joan Collins), and living with stroppy daughter Jill (Zuleika Robson) and son Lee (Tom Marshall). On the night of the funeral, Harry (Ray Barrett) – the father of the first victim – shows up to tell Jim that the prime suspect in the case has been released by the police. He convinces Jim and Lee to join him in stalking the suspect, Seely (Kenneth Griffith), and as they follow him as he heads to the shops (the long way, by the local school), they decide to take action – while Harry is all for killing him, Jim is less sure, but they agree to snatch him and force a confession out of him before taking further action. Of course, things go badly wrong immediately with their ill-conceived plan, and Seely ends up badly beaten by Jim before being bundled into their car and taken off to the pub cellar, where he is left to die. Unfortunately, Seely shows no sign of expiring, and as more and more family members discover him locked in the cellar, the lives of the Radfords start to unravel, with pent up angers, issues and desires brought to the fore as they try to conceal their guilty secret. To make matters worse, the kidnap was witnessed, and the police are sniffing around anyone who owns a car matching the description of the kidnap vehicle.
Revenge – also known as Inn of the Frightened People – is not exactly cheery stuff. It has that bleak, run down look that dominated many a British film of the era – everything is brown, the weather in constantly overcast and there is a palpable sense of decay about the whole thing. While the film itself is certainly sensationalist in its theme, the look is that of a dour social realism drama.
This sense of despair and decay runs through the story too – these are desperate and rather pathetic people, already alienated from each other and now caught up in a spiralling mess of their own making. Early on, the film oddly resembles recent nihilistic Israeli film Big Bad Wolves, which also sees a suspected paedophile kidnapped and abused (there is also a hint of the film’s contemporary, The Offence). But Revenge is much less extreme in approach – here, we have nervous, confused, emotionally raw characters talking themselves into doing the unthinkable because they feel let down by the law, and inevitably, their actions fail to bring them the sense of relief, justice or closure that they desire. Harry is a coward who talks the talk but then runs off to Manchester at the first sign of things going wrong, while Jim takes to the bottle and his relationship with Carol collapses.
And then, there is the question that hangs over the story, unanswered until the end – is Seely actually guilty? He’s certainly an oddball, but thanks to a remarkable performance from Griffiths, he seems more pathetic and victimised than a monster, and from the start, there is the suggestion that they might have the wrong man. Ideally, the film might have found a way of either maintaining this ambiguity throughout or even showing that this was definitely the case and so making a statement about the dangers of vigilante justice and mistaken identity. Unfortunately, the film decides to have its cake and eat it – at first, we are told that the police have arrested someone else, suggesting that Seely is indeed innocent, but then the film ends with him attacking a schoolgirl, proving Jim and Harry right all along. The final resolution is suitably grim (and there is no real sense of satisfaction from Jim taking his final revenge on Seely), but it feels like a bit of a let down, an effort to be crowd-pleasing. A better ending might have made this a better regarded film than it is, and lifted it out of the exploitation film world that it is firmly anchored in.
And unsatisfactory ending aside though, Revenge is better than you might expect. There are strong performances throughout, giving the film a sense of realism that is unexpected, and although the plot is rather lurid, the approach is serious and considered for most of the film (the final ten minutes or so are rather hectic, however). It’s not a movie that you are likely to watch for fun, admittedly – but it’s a surprisingly impressive and downbeat effort from the unlikeliest of sources, and well worth seeking out.