“How do you spell that word, psychotic?”
Directed by Peter Collinson, Fright 1971 is a gripping psychological thriller that surely influenced several horror movies to come, including Black Christmas (1974) and When a Stranger Calls (1979).
While babysitting for her neighbor in a cavernous old house, Amanda (Susan George) is terrorized by the neighbor’s ex-husband (Ian Bannen), who escaped from a mental institution. In fact, the night on which the movie occurs happens to be the anniversary of the night the neighbor divorced her insane ex-husband.
Broodingly atmospheric, Fright is quite scary at times, and easily one of the more underrated thrillers from the 1970s.
Collinson takes full advantage of the setting – in the case of Fright, the house. Like all old houses in horror movies, this one makes its share of unsettling noises. The movie creeps up on us with a classic slow build, as we watch Amanda watch horror movies alone in the old house, listening to the wood creaking, while shadows shift along the windows.
False alarms sound from outside, too, and while these are typical horror tropes, the execution makes them effective in Fright. One of my favorite false alarms is when Amanda’s boyfriend shows up, knocking loudly on the door, as Amanda wonders who is on the other side. She asks who is at the door, and he says in a dark voice, “It’s me.” Simple, yet effective.
Faces appear in the window, watching Amanda, and then someone gets attacked outside. The violence quickly escalates.
In addition to Collinson’s quality direction, intentionally unstable camera work is utilized to create a sense of disquiet. The camera is always moving, especially during the early scenes where Amanda is just starting to grasp the danger she is in. The ex-husband’s face is sometimes silhouetted as he stands in the shadow, a nice touch that is reminiscent of Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The over-the-top insanity of the ex-husband reminded me of Billy from Black Christmas.
If I were to make one complaint about Fright, it is that the lunatic ex-husband’s arrival is telegraphed too early, leaving little room for surprise. That said, the husband’s psychosis is disturbing, and it is difficult to watch his volatility without getting chilled, regardless if we saw him coming from a mile away.
However, it’s not just the external threats that make “Fright” so haunting; it’s the internal, psychological menace that drives the film’s tension. Collinson skillfully blurs the lines between reality and hallucination, making us question what’s real and what’s merely a manifestation of Amanda’s growing paranoia. As the film progresses, the viewer becomes as disoriented as Amanda, pulled into the whirlpool of her terror. Susan George delivers a nuanced performance as Amanda, moving convincingly from the nonchalance of a typical babysitter to sheer terror as her night from hell unfolds.
One of the standout features of “Fright” is its exploration of mental instability and the stigma associated with it. Through Ian Bannen’s portrayal of the deranged ex-husband, the film offers a stark reminder of society’s treatment of mental health in the ’70s, casting a shadow that lingers even today. The movie doesn’t just rely on jump scares but delves deep into the psychological realm, making it a more profound horror experience than its contemporaries. The music, composed by Harry Robinson, plays a crucial role, with its haunting score elevating the sense of dread. As the credits roll, “Fright” leaves behind a chilling resonance, making it a must-watch for fans of the psychological horror sub-genre.
For my money, Fright 1971 is at its best during the suspenseful buildup encompassing the first 30 to 40 minutes. Not that the movie falls apart after that – it doesn’t. It’s just that the final scares never quite live up to the setup. Fright ends up focusing on the maniac’s savagery rather than keeping the suspense high, and in my estimation, this was a mistake.
Fright vs. Black Christmas
Both “Fright” (1971) and “Black Christmas” (1974) are seminal entries in the psychological horror sub-genre, standing out from the generic slashers of their era by offering more cerebral, slow-burning experiences. At their core, both films are home-invasion thrillers, anchored by the vulnerability of young women in domestic settings. While “Fright” focuses on a babysitter’s traumatic night in a creaky old mansion, “Black Christmas” revolves around a sorority house under threat from an anonymous caller. Both movies leverage their isolated settings, creating a claustrophobic tension wherein the protagonists are trapped with an unseen, often unheard, menace lurking just beyond their reach.
Yet, while the two films share thematic commonalities, their narrative approaches are markedly distinct. “Black Christmas” is more enigmatic in its horror, with the attacker remaining largely unidentified, and his motivations obscured, heightening the sense of unpredictability. Bob Clark’s direction uses subtle techniques to conjure dread from the ordinary – a ringing phone, for instance, becomes a symbol of imminent threat. “Fright”, on the other hand, ties its horror more to psychological breakdown and past trauma.
Collinson’s film plays heavily on the fear of the known – the terror stemming from a familiar face with a tortured past. Moreover, while “Black Christmas” weaves in socio-political undertones, touching upon topics like abortion and women’s rights, “Fright” tends to stay firmly rooted in the psychological realm, exploring the ramifications of a broken marriage and mental illness. Both films, in their own unique ways, redefined the boundaries of horror in the 1970s, showcasing that the genre could be both thoughtful and terrifying.
Fright 1971 is a good psychological thriller, a lost horror gem that fell short of being a classic. Eventually, Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls perfected the Fright model, and the rest was history.
I highly recommend Fright to anyone looking for legitimate chills. Grab the DVD at Amazon soon, as movies like Fright tend to periodically go out of print.
While it may not hold the cult status of its successors, “Fright” is a masterclass in atmospheric tension. Its haunting ambiance, combined with a strong storyline, make it a must-watch for aficionados of 70s horror cinema. If you’re a fan of suspenseful narratives and vintage horror aesthetics, don’t let this one slip through your fingers.
Dive into this gripping tale and experience a film that, while perhaps overshadowed by its contemporaries, deserves a place in the annals of horror history. Give “Fright” a chance; you might just find a new old favorite.