Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith) gives Tarot readings to those in need of help and guidance. She also likes to kill them and feed on their brains!
Her Husband Edmund (Rupert Davies) has, for years, been covering up his Wife's crimes but at last their luck runs out when Dorothy kills another man (Andrew "Fawlty Towers" Sachs!) and they are caught and sentenced to a mental institution until they are cured and deemed safe to be let back into society.
Dorothy's baby Daughter Debbie, and older Stepdaughter Jackie, are taken into care.
Fifteen years later the Yates's are released and are now living in a remote cottage. Dorothy is still under the watchful, but loving, eye of Edmund and although she insists she is now okay Edmund is not so sure and fears she may go back to her old ways. Especially when the tarot cards come back out!
The now teenage Debbie (Deborah Fairfax) has since been told that her parents died and Jackie (Kim Butcher) tries to ensure Debbie never finds out the truth about her Mother.
Jackie still visits her Dad and Stepmother though, in secret, and delivers mysterious parcels to Dorothy.
Jackie is pretty down to earth and has started a new romance with a Psychiatrist named Graham (Paul Greenwood, "Captain Kronos") but Debbie has grown up into a scheming, manipulative delinquent with a taste for bad boys and brutal violence. She is also asking questions about Jackie's trips away and the interfering Graham is intent to bring up Debbie's past to 'help' her.
Can Jackie keep the secret?
Will Dorothy go back to her psychotic ways?
Has the blood link to her murderous Mother doomed the increasingly out of control Debbie to re-creating the crimes of the past?
Or is there something even more sinister going on?...
1974 was a good year for Pete Walker and his regular screenplay partner David McGillivray. It not only brought this effective little shocker but also the excellent "House of Whipcord", and things would continue on a (short lived) positive track two years later with their next film "The Confessional Murders"./"House of Mortal Sin".
"Frightmare" also saw head of the sadly defunct 'Tigon Films', Tony Tenser (who gave us such classics as "Witchfinder General" and "Blood on Satan's Claw"), join up with Walker as Executive Producer.
The delightfully lurid ad campaign (with a leering Dorothy sporting a blood flecked power drill) are certainly effective but today promise more than is actually delivered.
In 1974 this would have been much stronger stuff (though by this time there was far worse around) than it is today and certainly the cannibal aspect of the plot is not exploited as much as it could have been despite a couple of moist sights.
There is also a relatively low (especially on-screen) body count.
But this does not mean that "Frightmare" does not manage to pack a punch, in fact even today it's few scenes of actual bloodletting are pretty strong.
This is mainly thanks to the general lurid plot and the barnstorming performance by Walker regular Sheila Keith who absolutely gives it her all during the very violent and bloody (if not actually that gory) murder scenes.
Her wide eyed, frenzied and maniacal performance, as she stabs and beats her victims to death, injects these scenes with an intensity that they would lack otherwise.
There was none finer in British horror films at portraying psychotic, vicious and generally unnerving women characters than Sheila Keith and, alongside "House of Whipcord", this is her finest performance.
Shrewdly understanding that there must be degrees of insanity for Dorothy, Sheila not only rips up the screen as the brutal killer but also manages to illicit more subtle chills as her character struggles to bury the past and struggles to keep even vaguely sane in the present.
Keith is backed amiably by British stalwart Rupert Davis ("Witchfinder General", "Dracula has Risen from the Grave") as the tragic Edmund, who is so blinded by his love for Dorothy that he fails to see just how hopeless her decent into madness is and is himself now totally corrupted by his compliance in his Wife's crimes. It's a subtle, well judged and even sympathetic performance by Davis.
Sadly the rest of the cast is less impressive and give very inconsistent performances.
Deborah Fairfax is good when being bad and does a nice job during the final scenes, but her scenes with Kim Butcher and Paul Greenwood are less effective and seem very forced.
Kim Butcher is pretty good for the most part as Jackie, but given her character's 'stuck in the middle of madness' fate she does not make Jackie as intense or emotional as she should be.
Greenwood himself (almost always hindered by an awfully bad pair of 70's glasses) has little to work with and Graham comes across as simply annoying, and rather stupid, for the most part.
The smaller support cast is interesting though.
As well as the aforementioned Andrew Sachs (a long way from Manuel) we have veteran actor Leo Genn, ("Circus of Horrors", "Lizard in a Woman's Skin") in a one scene cameo and Gerald Flood is a joy as the mental institution Supervisor who fills Graham in on the Yates's history. His slightly whimsical description of events and all round genial presence turns this entire back-story sequence (which also gives Greenwood some of his best moments) into one of the movie's highlights;
Laurence: "She was a cannibal".
Graham: "I'm sorry"!?
Laurence: "I can't put it more daintily than that I'm afraid. The fact is�she ate people".
Mention of Laurence also brings up a very interesting facet of the screenplay. Certainly "Frightmare" covers well worn 'psycho' territory and the shock horror aspects of any horror film, but it also explicitly attacks the justice (as in fact "House of Whipcord" also did) and mental health system.
That the obviously nutty Dorothy was, along with the now equally disturbed Edmund, wrongly released into a society that should have been protected from them (and also given no support or supervision, all of which is still frighteningly real today) is strongly condemned in the screenplay and in fact the very last words heard in the film, from the initial Judge in the Yates's case, are as subtle as a sledgehammer in delivering Walker's and McGillivray's message.
Thanks to Pete Walker's regular Cinematographer Peter Jessop, the film also looks pretty good, especially where the Yates's cottage is concerned which carries a heavy, oppressive air and (via a crackling fire and subdued lighting) drips with doom-laden atmosphere. The black and white opening segment also delivers a feeling of oppressive bleakness and doom.
Even an impromptu nightmare sequence (which does take the film out of the grim reality stance it takes up otherwise) delivers some striking images.
This is all nicely complimented by Stanley Myers's effective score which is a mixture of chaotic Jazz fusions and gothic, harpsichord heavy creepiness and gives the film that marvellous 70's vibe.
The lean running time moves along at a brisk pace thanks to Walker's tight control and the brilliant lead performance by Sheila Keith, which is full of enjoyable moments to savour.
And as with a lot of 70's horror output the film does not give any easy answers, or much hope, to the audience.
And if the lurid idea is not fully exploited, and if some of the support performances are a bit ragged (although we have all had to endure far worse) these are only slight criticisms of what is otherwise a fine slice of British horror from that most wonderful of horror decades.