The Comeback is a delightfully grimy and atmospheric experience. One of the last films by Britain’s ‘King of Sleaze’ Pete Walker – only Home Before Midnight (1979) and House of the Long Shadows (1983) were to follow – this surprisingly effective chiller is in many ways more restrained than his infamous ‘House of’ films and notoriously disturbing masterpiece Frightmare (1974). It is the film’s controlled approach to its grisly premise however which has made it stand the test of time, resulting in a film as enjoyable to watch today as it was when first released in the late 70s.
The story – following fading crooner Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) who, in order to resurrect his singing career, holes himself up in a secluded mansion outside London to work on a new album – has a relatively simple premise. The tension and unease arise when it emerges a killer is on the loose, determined to wipe out – in typically graphic ‘Walker’esque’ fashion – anyone connected with Nick and his attempts to stage a ‘comeback’.
Pete Walker peddled sleaze, and was more than happy to admit it. During a career in filmmaking which spanned fifteen years between 1968 and 1983, he made a series of highly successful, low grade films, which made no pretence at being anything other than fun. However, though he has denied it, his films which frequently focused on twisted family relationships and the exploitation of vulnerable and helpless young women, often had deeply rooted psychological undertones. As such The Comeback contains many of Walker’s trademarks and remains the perfect example of the genre with which he became intrinsically linked.
Money was never something Walker had a lot of to invest in his films and it showed. Foregoing exotic, foreign locations, he instead shot films like The Comeback in and around London, which leant his film’s much of their style and appeal. Nick’s wonderfully elaborate penthouse apartment, hidden behind the facade of a Dockland’s warehouse, where most of The Comeback‘s gruesome set-piece murders take place, is a marvellously elaborate affair entered by means of a decidedly dodgy looking cage lift and nondescript, utilitarian door. From the opening scenes where his ex-wife Gail (played by actress Holly Palance, who had found brief fame as the demonic Damien’s suicidal nanny in The Omen (1976)) is seen walking through a deserted East End on the approach to the disused warehouse which houses Nick’s London pad, Walker and cinematographer Peter Jessop – who collaborated with Walker on several films as well as episodes of the cult TV series The Avengers – capture perfectly the down-at-heel yet vibrant air which gave London its ‘buzz’ during the 1970s. Later, as the action transfers to the Home Counties mansion which Nick’s manager Webster Jones (portrayed by David Doyle of Charlie’s Angels fame) has hired to act as his client’s retreat, the film again exudes that intangible ‘Brtish’ness’ which made productions shot in the capital during the 1970s so appealing.
The film’s other most memorable aspect is the presence of Walker’s favourite actress – the grandame of British horror – Sheila Keith. The cast, for a Pete Walker production, was of a surprisingly high caliber: Americans Jones and Doyle gave the film added appeal for the international market, whilst popular English actress Pamela Stephenson gave an effectively deep performance as Webster’s secretary and Nick’s love interest Linda. But it is Keith – along with character actor Bill Owen as her husband – who stands out. Having made her mark in several of Walker’s previous horror outings, Keith – who said more with a curl of her lip than many actors could with a page of verbose dialogue – gives an unsettling performance as the custodian of Nick’s new home. Her obvious disapproval of his louche lifestyle and questionable career path simply adds to the film’s overall sense of disquiet.
Many aficionados would place The Comeback lower in the cannon of Walker’s work, behind such disturbing delights as House of Whipcord (1974) and Frightmare. However for its sheer grisly fun and moody ambience the film remains an undisputed classic of British horror cinema.