Color, 1971, 96 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by John Mackenzie
Starring David Hemmings, Douglas Wilmer, Carolyn Seymour, Hamilton Dyce
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Long before he scored an international success with the British crime classic The Long Good Friday, director John Mackenzie delivered a highly effective but severely underseen major studio thriller: Paramount's Unman, Wittering and Zigo, based on a successful TV, stage, and radio play by Giles Cooper featuring a striking concept that seems a little too plausible for comfort today. A prep school nightmare that would play well with other '70s stories of homicidal academia like Absolution and Child's Play, this superb adaptation goes a lot further than you'd expect for its 1971 GP rating (a sort of stronger predecessor to the current PG) and boasts a typically excellent lead performance by David Hemmings (Deep Red) in the middle of a British suspense streak between Fragment of Fear and Voices. For some reason (perhaps the unwieldy title), the film fell into obscurity very quickly, mentioned in film reference books but maddeningly difficult to see for decades unless you managed to catch an occasional TV airing (with Starz running it a handful of times in the '90s in the U.S.). A very aged SD master eventually turned up for commercial streaming, but a legit commercial home video release didn't materialize until 2023 with a Blu-ray from Arrow Video that's very much appreciated and overdue.
Arriving at the seemingly idyllic Chantry School for young boys, new teacher John Ebony (Hemmings) finds that his predecessor has died after falling from a high rocky cliff along the seaside. The headmaster (onetime Sherlock Holmes and two-time Fu Manchu actor Wilmer) helps get John and his wife, Silvia (Seymour), acclimated to the new position and living so close to the school itself in the middle of the countryside. However, the students (whose last alphabetical member, Zigo, is always absent) prove to be an unruly bunch -- especially when they claim that they murdered their previous teacher, and John will meet the same fate unless he does their bidding. As the boys take outrageous advantage of the situation, John finds his complaints ignored by the powers that be and his pupils becoming even more dangerous than he could have anticipated.
In addition to the solid direction and convincing performances across the board by the adult and adolescent cast members, the film benefits greatly from the atmospheric cinematography by the great Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Murder on the Orient Express) and a haunting score by Michael J. Lewis (Theater of Blood). If you go in expecting a straightforward mystery, it's going to be a tough one to digest since the focus here is more on the abuses of power privileged people can learn to inflict even at a young age (and even our protagonist isn't exempt). It's a very unsettling film and one that can still raise some uncomfortable feelings in viewers without a nice, tidy ending to tie everything up. Speaking of which, for anyone who remembers Leonard Maltin's movie guide books that were updated each year, his positive write-up claimed that the identity of the murderer in the film wasn't revealed until after the end credits. That isn't the case, so don't expect any Marvel-style tags at the very end here.
A very welcome surprise from Arrow, the Blu-ray release comes from a 2K restoration that easily outclasses the standard def full frame version that's been floating around for ages. The 1.85:1 framing looks accurate, and detail and color are satisfying throughout while still capturing the gloomy, overcast feel that lingers throughout the film. The LPCM 1.0 English mono track is also in fine condition and features optional English SDH subtitles. A lively new audio commentary by Sean Hogan and Kim Newman is packed with facts and insights about the film and its source material (evidently a popular pick at boys' school drama productions) as well as plenty about Mackenzie (including his notorious traumatic short film Apaches), Hemmings, and the state of the British education system around that time. In "An Unruly Education" (25m45s), critic Matthew Sweet examines the film's infiltration in pop culture in some unexpected places, the history of British public schools, and other depictions of institutional education and the cracks within its structure. "Unman, Terhew, Lipstrob + Mrs Ebony" (30m13s) features with cast members Seymour, Michael Howe, Michael Cashman, and James Wardroper looking back at the film including their positive memories of Hemmings (despite his tendency to resort to alcohol to cope with shyness), the presence of his wife Gayle Hunnicutt who gave birth during the shoot, and the shooting of the very intense, nightmarish squash court scene. An original 1958 recording of the radio play (73m1s) is fascinating to compare to the film, especially with its much older main character who's fresh from military service here; not surprisingly, it's also quite a bit less extreme. Finally you get the original trailer (faded but nice to have in HD) and a gallery of 140 images(!) featuring tons of stills, poster art, and some great production photos including a few revealing how they pulled off that impressive pre-credits sequence. The package also come with a double-sided fold-out poster featuring the original poster art and a new design by Eric Adrian Lee, reversible sleeve art, and an insert booklet with new essays by Kevin Lyons and Oliver Wake.
Reviewed on June 22, 2023