I have recommended the film Flirting, in which sadistic masters torment the new students in a boys’ school. I now turn the tables by recommending a film in which a new teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) and his wife Silvia (Carolyn Seymour) are terrorized by the fifth form from hell. The last three students on the class roll are Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but Zigo is always absent, even going back to the time when the teacher that Ebony is replacing, Mr. Pelham, fell to his death (by accident?).
Director John Mackenzie of Long, Good, Friday fame made this creepy, nasty, thriller in 1971. He was aided immeasurably by master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who contributed some dazzling and disturbing point of view shots in the opening sequence as well as during the most horrifying scene in the film (which I will not spoil by describing other than to say, don’t bring the kids to this one).
The nefarious school boys (who include some actors who went on to distinguished careers including Michael Kitchen and Michael Cashman) are hard for the viewer to keep straight but that actually works, along with skillful editing, to make them seem less a group of individuals than a multi-headed hydra snapping relentlessly at Mr. Ebony. Hemmings, who also produced, is good as the pitiable Ebony, including in those scenes where he starts destroying himself with alcohol (perfect casting there, sadly enough. Hemmings left us too soon).
While struggling with the boys ostensibly below him in the hierarchy, Ebony must also cope with the headmaster, played by Douglas Wilmer with just the right amount of Old Brit unctuousness overlaying snobbery and cold-heartedness. Although the scenes with the boys are chilling, the pre-dinner drinks scene with the Ebonys, another master and his wife and the headmaster, make one’s skin crawl in an entirely different way.
The final third of the movie is not entirely satisfying in terms of logical plotting, but the film still delivers a consistent air of menace that gets under your skin. Certain ambiguities in the story invite debates about the interpretation of this film; to avoid spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I have placed my own nagging questions about this movie after the jump (i.e., Don’t read the rest of this unless you have seen the film, it will ruin it for you).
**SPOILER ALERT** THE BELOW IS ONLY FOR THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE
I offer two inter-related speculations about Unman, Wittering, and Zigo:
1. Is this film fundamentally about about homosexuality and homophobia?
The schoolboys taunt Wittering as “wet”, which in British slang often means gay. The headmaster notes curtly that the former teacher, Mr. Pelham, did not have a wife. Is the implication that he was gay as well? And why do the boys make jokes of the missing Zigo and Mr. Pelham meeting in Jamaica? One can imagine many scenarios: the bullied Wittering turned on the gay teacher out of his own self-hatred, or to prove to himself or others than he is not gay. Or perhaps there was a sexual relationship gone sour or an unwelcome sexual incident involving Wittering and Pelham that led the former to seek revenge.
It also has to be said that Ebony also appears to have some struggles with his sexuality or at least fears of being unmanly. When the headmaster asks him hopefully if he plays the manly sport of rugby, Ebony says no, he plays tennis. When his wife tries to initiate sex he resists, and when he initiates sex with her he is cold and almost violent. And he dreams of being captured and stripped by the boys — a gay fantasy, or a fear of being emasculated (or dare I say it “Unman”ed)?
2. Is the resolution of the film the true answer, or does the filmmaker intend us to wonder if Wittering’s letter is a forgery or was coerced?
If Wittering is not the true ringleader the likely villain I think is the headmaster. Note that the students practically shove him aside (a gross breach of the school’s code of obedience) as they carry Wittering’s body at the end, and he does nothing in response. He expresses derision of the “aging bachelor” Pelham early in the film…did he arrange to have Pelham killed because he was gay? Did he do the same with Wittering and perhaps with the missing Zigo before that? This could explain his unwillingness to investigate Pelham’s “accident” despite the evidence that Ebony gives him. Does he judge that the tennis-playing Ebony is also not man enough for his Chantry School and is that why he decides to sack him at the end of term?