Kim Newman on Assault

October 15, 2018

Posh schoolgirl Tessa Hurst (Lesley-Anne Down), whose pink miniskirt seems inches shorter than her classmates’, takes a short cut home through a ravine called Devil’s End, where a thrumming electricity pylon jostles (dangerously?) tall trees. A heavy-breathing subjective camera stalker creeps up on her, tears her clothes, and subjects her to a sexual assault that renders her semi-catatonic and unable to identify her assailant.  The next girl to take that ill-advised short cut is raped and strangled, but art teacher Julie West (Suzy Kendall) gets a distorted look at the killer through her rainswept rear window and describes him as looking – thanks to the infernal red glow of her brake-lights – ‘like the Devil’. 

Directed by Sidney Hayers (Night of the Eagle) and produced by Peter Rogers (of the Carry On series), this lurid whodunit is one of a pair of films Hayers and Rogers made about assaulted and murdered schoolgirls (the other is the Joan Collins vehicle Revenge) and is an entertaining mix of well-intentioned and prurient.  With the local plods, represented by Superintendent Velyan (Frank Finlay), on the lookout for a Satanic predator, the film spreads suspicion around by casting a clutch of sinister, scowling, leering types as likely culprits … Freddie Jones, fresh from playing the Monster in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, wears a ghastly corduroy jacket, bowtie and dark-glasses combo as the local reporter eager to wring more headlines out of murdered children … Tony Beckley, who seldom played a character who was not guilty of something (a giggling crook in Get Carter, a haggard psycho in When a Stranger Calls), leers as the emasculated husband of the domineering headmistress (Dilys Hamlett), keeping a stash of nudie pix and magazines in his toolkit, and too eager to assist a flirty girl on a library ladder with a furtive grope … Anthony Ainley is all golf club chat and professional concern as the hospital administrator, but sometimes flashes cold eyes when no one’s looking – and has a snarl that reminds you why he later got cast as the Master on Doctor Who … and a young doctor who goes out of his way to help the victims and witnesses remember what they saw, and even gets in a half-an-hour of love scene with the dithery heroine, would seem more like a helpful leading man type if he weren’t played by the always-slightly-sinister James Laurenson, later the shadmock of The Monster Club.

Even Frank Finlay, usually seen as kindly dodderers, had form – he had turned out to be the bee-breeding murderer in The Deadly Bees – and his copper on the case often seems too prone to brooding rather than solving the mystery. We might even wonder about the police doctor (Tom Chatto) who is nicknamed ‘Dracula’ by his Super, the tough sergeants played by James Cosmo and Patrick Jordan and the coiffed, mannish, desperate-to-protect-the-reputation-of-the-school headmistress (Hamlett, a less familiar player than the rest of the cast, has one splendid cackle as a punchline to a scene in which Beckley is humiliated). Just about the only folks beyond suspicion are the schoolgirls, and a pre-stardom David Essex, whose role as ‘Man in Chemist Shop’ is cut short by an improvised explosive device. Hayers’ most famous film, Night of the Eagle, is also set around a small institute of learning riven with jealousy, backbiting and a touch of the Devil – this has only the slightest gothic touches, but they add a kind of green belt folk horror feel to the far-fetched game of trap-the-rapist, which ends with an unlikely but spectacular encounter between the Satanic villain and that bloody pylon. 

Now that 1970 was half a century ago, what seemed shocking is almost quaint – but the ‘assault’ scenes, inexplicit and tactful but genuinely unpleasant, make this less like comfort viewing than the average British cinema mystery … but, in this BluRay edition, it now looks gorgeous again, with its sparse, brightly-painted sets dotted with posters and wallpaper of the period … and Kendall’s flowery fashions assault the eye as much as the psycho killer assaults his victims.

Kim Newman is a novelist, critic and broadcaster. His fiction includes Anno Dracula, Life’s Lottery and The Man from the Diogenes Club. His non-fiction includes Nightmare Movies, Horror: 100 Best Books and BFI Classics studies of Cat People and Doctor Who. He is a contributing editor to Sight & Sound and Empire. 

Assault is currently available at 20% off as part of our Slashed! promotion.

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