Director: Richard Fleischer
By Roderick Heath
See No Evil seems to me a film that ought to be better beloved by horror fans, not only because it’s so bloody well done, but also because it’s a definitive stage in the mutation of the modern genre. Auteurs like Bava, Hitchcock, and Argento, and embryonic works like Black Christmas, are commonly cited as progenitors of the slasher movie, but See No Evil has a claim to attention as well, because it looks like the first, and to my mind, best “final girl” survival drama—one in which a lone young woman tries to survive the onslaughts of a psycho killer after everyone around her has been butchered. But See No Evil is distinct from much generic progeny in that it’s essayed with a black wit and cinematic cunning that’s the product of a superior filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Richard Fleischer, one of Hollywood’s most steadfast jobbing directors, had a violently uneven, but usually interesting career. He was equally at home with works of fantastic high style and lean realism. Case in point: he went through a mini-renaissance in making The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1970), true crime dramas in which, especially in the latter film, the bleak, morbid atmosphere chills like a polar wind all the more effectively because of Fleischer’s pared-back, docudrama style. See No Evil seems on the face of it like a lighter, artificial riff on the themes of the previous two films, but it’s my favourite Fleischer film partly because he’s obviously having fun, and because it’s an expert ideogram of form and function.
See No Evil, which was initially titled Blind Terror, was penned by Brian Clemens, a prolific screenwriter who had written dozens of episodes of The Avengers TV series and worked with another Avengers alumnus, director Robert Fuest, on the 1970 thriller And Soon the Darkness. Fuest went on to make the enjoyably campy The Abominable Dr. Phibes the following year, whilst Clemens’ next project evidently attracted some major Hollywood money: the spit-polish production and high-class collaborators on See No Evil actually help the film, which makes a change. Clemens attempted to drag Hammer Studios, then in its dying gasps as a maker of horror movies of relevance, into a new era with writing the deconstructive Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and directing the cultish Captain Kronos–Vampire Hunter (1974). British horror, like that in the US and Italy and evident in the seamier films of Pete Walker, Peter Collinson, and Sidney Hayers, was entering an era in which the corporeal threat of murder and violation were overtaking traditional gothic metaphors and dusty mythology. See No Evil also has thematic and visual ties to a very different work, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), and a handful of much more recent films, like Alejandro Aja’s High Tension (2005) and Brian Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), which seem to owe a lot to See No Evil’s dramatic compression and visual geography. But See No Evil stands in a certain judgement on the more exploitative films in the genre in determinedly taking its victim’s viewpoint and excising all the acts of genuine violence.
Fleischer, for instance, commences with a cinema marquee displaying the titles on a double bill with the juicy titles The Convent Murders and Rapist Cult. His camera then tilts down to observe the cheery-looking crowd of mainly young couples flowing out of the theater, before the camera descends further to focus on on patron’s cowboy boots, brown leather emblazoned with white stars. The owner of the boots, body swathed in denim but whose face remains unseen, paces jauntily by news agencies, toy stores, and storefront televisions that blare out a popular obsession with violence and sex, ready to feed the sociopath’s cravings. The Booted Man performs a minor bit of mischief when he blocks the path of the flashy Mercedes owned by George Rexton (Robin Bailey), who dryly comments, “Alright, old chap, you’ve made your point.”
George and his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) have just been to the railway station of Wokingham, Berkshire, to pick up their relative Sarah (Mia Farrow), who’s recovering from a horse-riding accident that’s left her stone blind. They take her to their large, splendid house where she’s to sleep in a room with their daughter Sandy (Diane Grayson) until she acclimatises to living without sight in the house. Sarah’s gearing up for a life as a blind person, planning to take a course in physiotherapy. She visits her long-time flame Steve Reding (Norman Eshley), a horse breeder and trainer who keeps a stable not far from the Rextons’ estate. Steve makes it clear he wants to pick up where they left off before she had her accident.
When Sarah returns to the Rexton house after visiting Steve, she pluckily makes her way about the house, making herself tea and putting herself to bed, assuming the others have gone to a party. Fleischer has cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s camera glide, zoom, and track with grace to casually note odd details like a proud prankster pointing out mechanisms in a trap that will spring soon enough—the mysterious bracelet that lies on the foyer floor; the broken glass dish that waits in cruel ambush for Sarah’s bare feet in the kitchen; a woman’s booted feet jutting motionless from a chair behind Sarah as she picks up a stack of records; the empty shotgun shells that roll around in the breeze outside as night falls; and the abandoned lawnmower amongst swirling leaves. All indicate that something strange and dreadful has happened. Slowly the truth emerges to the viewer—the Rextons are all dead, left sprawled about the house in bloodied states by the Booted Man in a thrill-killing spree, and Sarah knows nothing about it.
The paradoxical pleasure and strength of See No Evil is that it’s a film sporting a blind heroine and is also one of the most visually concise movies around, thanks to the quality of the exposition that Clemens packs into the narrative, which Fleischer lays out, full of unforced, slowly emerging details. The cause of Sarah’s blindness is not explicitly spelt out, but instead conveyed by photographs of her from her previous life as a rider, and her conversation with the Rextons’ gardener Barker (Brian Rawlinson), who probes her about whether they shot the horse she’d been riding at the time, Dandy Boy. Later, Steve, in a ploy to convince Sarah to stick around, gives her a new horse, and uncomfortably informs her that his name is Dandy Star: “You can change it if you like…” Likewise the motive for the murders is suggested entirely through visual cues, from those opening with the Booted Man roaming the streets and, later, ogling girls dancing in a local pub, and virtually offhand details, like the great scratch that George discovers on his Mercedes that inspires him to run off in a rant about hooligans who are “not prepared to work so they can own something worthwhile, and they can’t bear the existence of other people that will!”, livid in his haute-bourgeois outrage in an age of class paranoia.
See No Evil’s social context is repeatedly suggested in the hallowed layering of British provincial society still doggedly enduring in era of mod fashions and hippie hairdos, apparent in the resplendent Rexton house clogged with precariously balanced bric-a-brac that Sarah attempts not to knock down—she will, eventually, and at exactly the wrong moment—on down to one of Steve’s hired hands, Frost (Christopher Matthews), complaining about the gypsies encamped near the Rextons’ house, who, in reply to Sarah’s suggestion that they “don’t do much harm,” retorts, “No – but they don’t do much good neither!” The beauty of the Rextons—the lustre of their possessions, the lushness of flirty Sandy—attracts anarchists. One of the gypsies, Jack (Barrie Houghton), lurks near the house, trying to make Sandy, and, of course, the murderer sets his sights on annihilating them. Barker’s a good old-fashioned red-herring in his burly dourness, patronised by George when he arrives late to do the lawns.
The middle third of the film is nerveless in its black-hearted patience, allowing Sarah to sleep for a night in a house full of corpses: the next morning, when she runs a bath, Fleischer reveals that George’s battered corpse is lying in the tub; before she makes the crucial discovery, Sarah hears Steve calling from outside, having arrived to give her Dandy Star. She stops the taps and goes out riding with Steve in a lingering scene in which their bond is being reforged and Sarah’s confidence in steering her mount grows by the moment, Elmer Bernstein’s score flurrying around them in romantic zeal. It’s not until she returns home and starts running her bath again that the camera adopts a calm poise and begins zooming ever so slowly in on the door to the bathroom as Sarah strips off her shoes and socks, closes the door, and opens it again moments later in violent panic.
Sarah’s subsequent discovery of Sandy’s body cues her increasingly dire predicament. She encounters the mortally wounded Barker who warn Sarah that the killer has left a distinctive bracelet on the floor, which she manages to grasp hold of as Barker dies and the killer arrives to retrieve it. Sarah flees via the kitchen only to then, at last, tread on that waiting broken glass, stricken rigid with agony. But Sarah, in spite of her handicaps and waifish physique, is a survivor, and she manages to flee on Dandy Star, knocking over the Booted Man as she gallops for the woods. A low-hanging branch swats her off, leaving her stranded in the forests, pummeling on through choking bushes and paddocks until she finds her way to the nominal safety of the gypsy camp. There she’s tended to a woman (Lila Kaye) who proves to be the mother of the lurking Jack, and another son, Tom (Michael Elphick), who thinks the chain Sarah proffers with the name “Jacko” on it means that his brother is the killer. Instead of taking her to the police, Tom jams her in an old wooden hut in the middle of an abandoned clay pit to give the tribe time to get out of Dodge, whilst Steve, Frost, and the rest of his gang of stable hands, alerted to the calamity when Dandy Star rides into the compound with Sarah’s blood on him, scour the countryside for her.
Steve makes for a likeable hero in a classical mould, ironically because he’s not, on the face of it, immediately classical: although he’s clearly as advantaged as the Rextons, he’s disarmingly gentle and generous. His first encounter with Sarah in the film comes after he sends Frost to fetch her in his car because he doesn’t want to leave one of his horses as she gives birth; he dedicates himself to Sarah in a similar way to how he’d rear a foal, solicitously caring until she’s strong enough to survive alone. Yet he literally becomes a mounted knight riding off to do justice in the final minutes in trying to catch Tom and Jack before they flee.
But Sarah’s a great central figure (Woody Allen’s films with her notwithstanding, this is effortlessly my favourite Farrow performance), engaging from the outset in her straightforward efforts to conquer her physical surrounds and her honesty (“What’s it like?” Sandy prods her when they’re alone; “Bloody awful!” Sarah replies immediately). There’s an almost cosmically cruel quality in the later scenes, especially when she escapes the hut and, in a Kafkaesque image, wanders the clay pit, smeared with filth and bedraggled, pushed on by raw instinct, surrounded by industrial detritus. If the remnants of a bygone past of landed gentry and mounted knights seems inherent in the country life glimpsed throughout the film, this seems a logical antithesis, an apocalyptic wasteland. But it’s there that Sarah, slamming broken pieces of machinery together, finally manages to attract rescuers.
It’s a masterly collaboration between Fleischer and Fisher, who had the difficult job of enforcing similar limitations, at least in part, on the audience as those suffered by Sarah, whilst interestingly resisting the later, constant device of the point-of-view camera, which some critics argued emphasised a sadistic identification with the killer, whereas here the killer is, until the end, constantly sliced out of the action’s he’s undertaken to assert his own power. Even after a murder spree, he’s not the important one – it’s his potential victim. Perhaps See No Evil gets less attention than it deserves is because with all those sweeping autumnal landscapes, it doesn’t look like a horror movie: it’s shot more like Barry Lyndon than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But that’s a disparity I like here, the threat all the more piquant because of the physical beauty of the surrounds and the way the film utilises that subtle quality of the English landscape in seeming homey and threatening all at once. Fisher’s constant refrains of low, wide-angle shots not only justifies the fixation on the killer’s boots, but also reflects the imbalanced, threatening world Sarah lives in, with the eternal threat and common fact of her taking violent plunges. Moreover, almost every detail in Clemens’ script feels organic, and yet plays a part in the unfolding drama, like Sarah almost taking the wrong door to the basement instead of the kitchen, warned off gently by George, a perfectly casual bit of business; but, of course, later she’ll plunge head over heels down the basement stairs when she makes the same mistake later. And there’s the final twist when Steve realises his mistake when, having caught Tom and Jack, the latter pleads his innocence, and Steve abruptly realises “Jacko” is one of his own stable hands, the one he left behind to watch over Sarah.