Straight On Till Hammertime

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Written by Michael Carreras and directed by Peter Collinson, Straight On Till Morning is one of Hammer’s more original films. Although you can tell it was consciously trying to catch up with the directorial innovations coming out of the New Hollywood (for example, it makes frequent use of brief flashbacks and cut-aways to convey details of the narrative), the actual concept is pretty unique – it’s a serial killer story shot through with allusions to fairytale and children’s fantasy, and in particular (as you might have guessed from the title) Peter Pan.

We open with socially awkward Brenda (Rita Tushingham), who writes light-hearted children’s fairytales in her spare time, making her preparations to move down to London from her home in Liverpool. Flashbacks intercut with the move process imply that she’s moving because she’s is pregnant and she hopes that in London she will be able to find someone to be a husband to her and a father to her child. (It’s also a tip-off to us that we should expect a lot of flashbacks and cut-aways in the movie before the structure of the cut-aways starts getting complicated). Once Brenda arrives in London, she has to find a job, find somewhere to live, navigate the shallow social scene her work colleagues inhabit…

But before all that, she bumps into Peter (Shane Briant) outside a newsagent’s, and we follow Peter as he goes about his errands. And his flashbacks tell another story – of how he has only recently done something vile to his drunken lover, how he lured her up to the top of her home with promises of a magical game, of how he would take her to Neverland… and later, it’s pretty clear that wherever she went in that upstairs room, it wasn’t Neverland. Soon enough Peter has moved into her home and taken it over entirely, disposed of all her things, started calling her dog “Tinker”… and when he and the desperately lonely Brenda meet again, they strike up a friendship. Brenda thinks she might have found the man she’d been dreaming of, but Peter’s habit of calling her “Wendy” suggests to the audience that he has other plans.

Shane Briant’s performance as Peter is the standout one here, not least because as a character Peter is properly scary – watching him calmly go through his victim’s things and making his home his own as though this is a perfectly normal process is downright chilling. The key to Briant’s performance and his knack for keeping Peter believable is in making his behaviour unusual enough that the audience notices that something is up, but toning it down just enough that it’s believable that Brenda doesn’t just run a mile. Briant keeps his eternal playfulness and cheerfulness just on the level where you could convince yourself that Peter is just a loveable eccentric if you didn’t know he’d killed someone and stolen her house, and slips in just enough worrying touches to his behaviour to make you nervous – especially the way he can get arrogant and dominating at a moment’s notice, in just the way Barrie’s own creation can come across as arrogant and dominating in some readings of the Peter Pan story.

With respect to the Peter Pan stuff, it teases out an interesting theme running through the film about the role of fantasy in people’s lives; whereas for Brenda it’s a comfort during difficult times which is at risk of leading her into danger, on his part Peter’s fantasy has overwhelmed him and made a beast of him. And the two of them may not be so different; whilst Peter seems to take so much of his personality from Peter Pan, when Brenda introduces herself to him she doesn’t give her own name, but the name of the protagonist from her own stories. And later at points it seems as though Brenda wasn’t actually pregnant from the start – she was just so in love with the idea of having a baby she moved to a different city for the sake of tracking down someone to fulfil her fantasy of motherhood. The Peter Pan parallels are also carefully chosen, Peter’s invitation to Brenda to basically become his live-in housemaid in return for him giving her a child being a lot like Peter spiriting Wendy away to be a housemaid for the Lost Boys in return for… wait, what did Wendy actually get out of her Neverland adventure?

Although there’s lots of flashbacks and cut-aways, Collinson doesn’t go overboard; he knows when a scene can take them, and when a scene is important enough to be played out without interruption. (One of the first such scenes is Brenda’s first conversation with Peter, which is absolutely brilliant.) A particularly good use of the flashbacks is when Peter is telling Brenda a fairytale which, the flashbacks show, is pretty clearly an allegorical version of his life story and his murderous career. (The bit at the end of the story, where Peter leaps up and does a startlingly good impression of a cock-crow, is wonderfully crazed.) At points the editing is reminiscent of some of Nicholas Roeg’s work from the period, which is unsurprising since Performance had finally seen release a couple of years previously; I was completely unsurprised to learn that editor Alan Pattillo had worked with Roeg shortly before taking this job.

At the same time, careful viewers may notice occasional plot holes cropping up in the structure of the cut-aways. Far and away the most blatant one revolves around Peter’s finances; one of the kitchen drawers is stuffed to the gills with cash, which is meant to imply that Peter doesn’t actually have a legitimate source of income, but if Brenda has really been doing all of Peter’s cleaning for him she should have discovered this fairly soon after moving in, rather than taking the time she does to finally uncover it.

Some viewers may also ask where exactly Peter hides the bodies of the people he kills, and how he cleans up all the evidence so quickly, though in this case I think that complaint would miss the point. Firstly, the film isn’t about how the police catch Peter, it’s Brenda’s interactions with him, and focusing on the logistics of disposal of evidence would distract from the actual thrust of the story. Secondly, an awful lot of the film is structured around what we don’t see. The real artistic accomplishment of the film is in its adept use of sound; we get through most of the movie before we actually see Peter kill anyone, but we do hear several of his killings early on, and his tendency to record the highlights of his murders on tape both sets up the scene in which he comes out to Brenda as a serial killer, and the bit in which Brenda’s ultimate fate is hinted at – just as the movie begins with Brenda’s voiceover narrating the start of her fairytale, it ends with her voice on his tape narrating on how she imagined her story would end, as opposed to how we suspect it did end.

At the end, the film does not show us Brenda’s fate directly; it’s down to us to listen and work it out for ourselves. This is clever, but perhaps a little too clever – the first time I watched the movie I actually rolled back the scene and watched the ending again because I thought I’d missed something crucial, and the film’s refusal to resolve most of its loose ends at the climax (or, indeed, have very much of a conventional climax at all) will be off-putting to some. Still, the whole package remains haunting enough that it’s one of the more successful latter-day Hammers.

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