Review: Schizo (1976)

Schizo

Directed by Pete Walker
Starring Lynne Frederick, John Leyton, Stephanie Beacham, Jack Watson

I was seven.”

It’s a mistake to look back on childhood too fondly. When we were kids, barely able to imagine a world outside of our own, the possibilities presented to us seemed tangible and real. Our parents protected us and our imaginations fed us lies and half-truths. As we age, we learn of secrets and lies and scenes wisely hidden behind bedroom doors. We become aware of ourselves and our shortcomings.

Horror movies have a funny way of dealing with the bridge between childhood and maturity. Monsters are born from childhood trauma. Innocence is lost before coming of age. The terror of the real world invades the cocoon of youth, often in the form of violence and perversion. Norman Bates isn’t a murderer because he keeps his dead mother locked in the fruit cellar; He’s a murderer because he needed his mother too much for too long. The link between youth and age is sometimes a two-way street.

So here we are. Another giallo-inspired slash-em-up complete with black-gloved hands and crayon-colored bloodletting. Another movie about a young woman, a new husband, and an old acquaintance waiting in the wings. A pre-slasher, post-Deep Red meditation on innocence, psychiatry and the improper use of knitting needles and sledgehammers.

Samantha (Frederick) is a young, talented ice-skater, recently married to handsome John (Leyton) and surrounded by good friends like Beth (Beacham) and Leonard (John Fraser). But less than a day after her wedding, she begins to see shadows in her new home, accompanied by thumps, crashes and doors that seem to open by themselves. She’s convinced she’s being pursued by William Haskin (Watson), a mysterious figure from her past who appears to be keen on murdering her. Her husband grows tired of her constant flights of terror. Her psychiatrist insists that she’s imagining things. Her closest friend offers little more than moral support. And throughout all of this, Samantha hides a terrible secret that refuses to be put to rest.

The foreground plays a major role in Schizo. We watch terrified phone calls placed behind glass doors. We peer beyond steel gates and scaffolding at skulking figures in the dark. Characters exit rooms, leaving the camera alone with a closed door and a few moments of silence. Hitchcock’s use of mirrors is maximized here, as we watch entire scenes unfold within them.

Hitchcock’s Psycho is referenced with Schizo‘s characters. At no point is anyone content with themselves. Every moment is fraught with unrest. The happy couple is never happy. A trip to the supermarket ends with a bloody butchers’ knife in a shopping cart. Pop music from a car radio is only used to mask sounds coming from the backseat. Keys are lost. Quiet moments at home are interrupted by bad news. The possibility of infidelity is always just around the corner.

In spite of this acute sense of realism, situations presented in Schizo are sometimes flat and uninteresting. The big twist in the final act is ridiculously obvious. Often, director Pete Walker goes for gore when suspense is needed. Not everything makes sense.

But what Schizo gets right is people. People are boring. Chatter between friends is just that – chatter. Days are planned around sitting at home or going for a drive. Motivation is muddled. Even insanity is predictable and commonplace. These are empty lives on display. Samantha mentions that she sometimes spends eight hours a day practicing ice routines. John and Beth are uncommitted and sometimes listless. Even William Haskin spends his time sitting on buses and boiling water for tea. A mid-movie séance is an uncomfortable bad joke until a genuine supernatural occurrence rears its phantasmal head.

What the movie lacks in originality it makes up for in cleverly crafted camerawork and a cunning use of sound. The music score builds, the camera tightens, and then – silence. We’re somewhere else entirely, left exhausted from aborted intensity. The screenplay tries to fool us with a twist ending that has only become cliché, but succeeds in capturing scenes of near-agonizing discomfort as each character is considered as a culprit in turn, leaving less-experienced viewers on edge and veteran horror fans entertained. The central mystery may be a transparent one, but only in the most delicious of ways: it doesn’t matter whose hands flex within the black leather gloves when a new setpiece rears its twisted head.

I’ll punish you,” a character hisses, years in the past. A revelatory flashback of an unforgiving childhood, complete with broken glass and bladed weapons. A little girl, an older man, and the parent in-between. One slip, and this bridge to the past becomes a locked door, and only those who survive hold the key.

Links:

Amazon – Schizo: Remastered Edition DVD
Netflix – Schizo

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