Visiting a cinema’s rubbish these days isn’t it?
By ‘cinema’ I of course mean the ‘civilian cinema’ of a multiplex or similar. This rather snobbish observation reflects the barrage of adverts and mind draining trailers one sits through before the film starts and having to share the auditorium with any number of patrons who display a somewhat liberal interpretation of the ‘no talking’ and ‘no phones’ rule.
I am just old enough to remember the days of short, experimental films before the main feature but it has passed its heyday long before I was allowed anywhere near a cinema.
In the days before television, cinema was your only chance to experience any form of audio-visual footage so along with the main feature your trip to see a film would often include several supporting items such as a second, shorter film, a comedy, a cartoon, a travelogue and a newsreel.
As time went on, and television osmosed into popular consciousness this ‘programme’ became a single supporting feature, one that you usually had no idea of before it started. Occasionally such a film was deliberately planned to partner a specific feature, such as travelogue spoof Away from It All (1979), which was shown before Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1979).
Quite what the makers of The Orchard End Murder (Christian Marnham, 1980) were expecting their film to be shown before is anyone’s guess. While violence and titillation weren’t exactly hard to come by in British films around this time, this tries to go somewhere rather more bizarre, at least initially.
The title sequence economically set the scene by sound-tracking the set up: a phone conversation between a women, Pauline (Tracy Hyde) and a man, Robins (Mark Hardy), who hooked up one night, trying to meet for a second date. As bad luck would have it, he’s got a cricket match in Kent so rather than, y’know meet another day he takes her along with him…..
The opening shot of The Orchard End Murder is extremely striking, a crane shot of a local cricket match before we pull away, over a road before closing in on an orchard. We see a figure lurking behind a tree but the camera doesn’t dwell, its focus is the couple rolling around on the floor.
Similarly, the soundtrack by Sam Sklair is sparing and effective. The use of natural, rural sounds become disquietening and eerie. Mind you, there’s always something menacing about a buzzzzzzzz.
So director Christian Marnham would seem to have many of the key ingredients to make this film a cut above the usual violence and titillation murder schlock. And it’s a bit disappointing that this is exactly what it becomes.
Pauline encounters the eccentric (and nameless) railway crossing gatekeeper (Bill Wallis) and his taciturn companion Ewen (Clive Mantle) who appears to have what we would now understand to be learning disabilities. You suspect it isn’t going to be the most sympathetic of portrayals.
Before too long Pauline has been assaulted, murdered, stripped and buried under a load of rotting apples. The rest of the film becomes the story of the two men’s attempt to hide the body from the Police and their subsequent search for the missing girl (including a rather improbable night time search of an orchard).
The slow build up of menace (the scene with Bill Wallis talking about his collection of garden ornaments is superbly chilling, and the interior of the cottage is a dark parody of kitch homeliness) gives way to brutal sexual violence and the change of pace is hard to take. You can sometimes get away with such violence if you show it to be awful and nothing more, to have consequences that lead to justice or retribution. Yet Ewen is eventually thrown to the wolves by Bill Wallis’s character to save himself. And while you’re meant to understand than Wallis cruelly manipulates Ewen you can’t really get away from the fact that the audience is seemingly being told that flirty girls in stockings get assaulted and mentally ill people will kill you given half the chance because – well, that’s just what happens isn’t it? We’re into the “c’mon, it’s obvious innt?” populist social attitudes of The Sun and its ilk. You could try to justify all of this by explaining how this reflects the public’s attitude to the murders of attractive young women, how it throws a mirror to society and tabloid hypocrisy, but it rings hollow. It seems somewhat like having your cake and eating it. Certainly the later scene where Ewen recovers Pauline’s body and tried to explain why he’s not such a bad person after all to her brutalised corpse comes across as hamfisted and clumsy, and compound an already deeply problematic character.
Religious symbolism is seen throughout, from the Last Supper echoes of the people watching the cricket to the Pauline’s fate only being sealed after she is persuaded to take an apple. Once our less than pure heroine strays from the path into forbidden territory, she is doomed.
According to Josephine Botting in her sleeve notes for the DVD/Blu-Ray release on the BFI’s Flipside label The Orchard End Murder was released as a supporting feature with Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981), a tale of a necrophiliac mortician who reanimates corpses. You may know the director better for cult favourite Death Line (1971). It’s certainly clear how distributors GTO saw its market.
There are many reasons films and TV programmes are lost to obscurity and no one has a more vital job to play in preserving the past than the BFI. The recent releases of Symptoms (Joseph Larraz, 1974) and Psychomania (Don Sharpe, 1973) are a testament to the work they do. However this is one film I could have done well enough without ever having seen. Now The Appointment (Lindsey C. Vickers, 1981), there’s a film that could do with the Flipside treatment. But that’s another story.