House On Straw Hill, known to U.K. viewers as Exposé, has the reputation of being pure exploitation filmmaking. It was deceptively marketed in the U.K. as a vehicle for sexploitation queen Fiona Richmond and earned additional notoriety when it made it onto the English government’s list of “Video Nasties” in the early ’80s. That said, anyone who actually watches the film will quickly learn there is more to it than just sex and shocks. In fact, you could argue it is the exploitation film version of an arthouse flick.
On paper, the storyline seems to be pure exploitation: high-strung author Paul Martin (Udo Kier) has relocated to a private home in the country to work on the follow-up to his successful debut novel. At his request, a typist named Linda (Linda Hayden) is sent to handle dictation duties for him as he composes his text. Unfortunately, Paul has a few problems: to begin with, he’s bedeviled by visions of death that aggravate his paranoid sensiblities. It turns out Linda also has some hidden demons of her own, with the whole pot bubbling over when Paul invites his personal plaything Suzanne (Richmond) to join them. Cue the artfully deployed sex and violence…
The surprising thing about House On Straw Hill is its ability to exude an air of classiness as it explores some gleefully seedy material. Director/writer James Kenelm Clarke gives the film the kind of glossy, dreamy look you might associate with films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and effectively uses the English countryside as an ironically idyllic back drop for the film’s sex, blood and head-games. He and cinematographer Dennis Lewiston compose their camera setups carefully, choreographing the framing and movement with an unusual level of care. Even when the action gets intensely bloody or sexed-up, it’s always offset by an element of sophistication in how it is composed.
Clarke is aided nicely by (uncredited) sharp cutting from producer Brian Smedley-Aston that lends the film an elegant sense of flow. Smedley-Aston also worked with future Bond flick cinematographer Phil Meheux on Paul’s stunning, hallucinatory nightmare moments, which have the blend of morbid and baroque sensibilities that you might expect from a vintage giallo film. One can imagine Dario Argento being impressed with these sequences.
Finally, House On Straw Hill is anchored by two sophisticated lead performances from Kier and Hayden. Kier proved in films like Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and The Story Of O that he had a unique ability to appear sleazy and cultured all at once – and he brings that debauched yet aristocratic bearing to the fore here. Hayden has the more challenging role: not only is demanding in terms of sex and nudity but it also requires an ability to be subtle and ambiguous. She handles all the demands with skill and makes it look effortless. Compared to those two, Richmond is just there to serve eye-candy – but she acquits herself well in this department and is memorably uninhibited in her bedroom scenes.
Simply put, House On Straw Hill earns the cultish place of affection it occupies in the hearts of Euro-cult fans with its disarmingly graceful blend of kink and style. Any student of sexy shock-horror should consider it required viewing.