Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
The instant skepticism that comes with casting musicians in movies is almost palpable, but in many cases, the doubt is oftentimes warranted. The Comeback is thankfully one exception that proves even musicians have layers when it comes to talent. While Pete Walker’s 1978 film still hasn’t gained the same universal regard as other proto-slashers from the same decade, this cheeky hidden gem still acted as a precursor to one of horror’s more enduring subgenres.
Straight-pop crooner Jack Jones plays Nick Cooper, a talented and famous singer whose career was put on hold after getting married. With his divorce now complete, he finally decides to write a new album at a remote manor in England. The owners have gone on vacation and they’ve left behind two employees to keep everything running in the meantime. When he’s not writing and composing, Nick spends time with his manager’s assistant, Linda (Pamela Stephenson); their whirlwind romance helps mend a broken heart desperately in need of love and care after experiencing so much sorrow.
In time, Nick starts to hear strange noises and experiences even stranger visions during his stay. His supposed discovery of his ex-wife’s severed head inside a gift box obviously raises concern over his mental health, as well. It’s become increasingly clear someone is out to get Nick and the people he cares for, but without any physical evidence to support his paranoia — the head conveniently disappeared as if it was never there to begin with — all he can do is wait until that sinister threat makes their presence known.
Pete Walker, recognized for his horror and sexploitation movies at the time, delivered his most commercial effort yet with The Comeback. The film, written by Murray Smith with assistance from Michael Sloan, is relatively more subdued than Walker’s earlier work. Even so, there are still the trademarks of his style that creep in every now and then. The shrieking battle cry of the film’s hag-masked killer is not only patent Walker, it’s also incredibly bracing for the audience. His literacy in psychological breadcrumb trails, as seen in his 1976 film Schizo, was now more streamlined and effectual than ever.
One thing that makes The Comeback stand out from the crowd is its choice of victim — rather than stalking and menacing another hapless woman in an unsafe society, a man is terrorized. Not just any man, either; Nick is an all-American, red-blooded male whose physicality alone would scare off the average attacker. Be that as it may, his existence in the movie undermines a convention of horror where the woman is usually the main focus; any commiseration we experience from watching endangered women is challenged once the spotlight shifts to a man. There are still female casualties in Walker’s movie, yes, but their peril is brief and not at all what impels the story. It’s still all about Nick and whatever he did to offend the murderer. He’s the one being gaslighted and toyed with, whereas the women around him are discarded with little afterthought. For this reason, audience sympathy for Nick isn’t compulsory despite the fact he’s innocent of any malicious wrongdoing. His level head and lack of basic vulnerability makes him come off as inaccessible as a character no matter how agreeable he may seem.
Proto-slashers didn’t always zero in on teens like their successors would. The Comeback doesn’t try for a collegiate setting, either, as the protagonist is closer to middle age and, from the looks of it, fairly wealthy. The gorgeous, spic and span manor nestled away in a quiet corner of Surrey, seemingly safe from the ailments of any urban jungle, is home to underlying evil. Walker favors a modern look as opposed to Gothic, and the manicured aesthetic of Nick‘s home away from home helps emphasize the occasional horror that waits in plain sight or behind pristine walls. The film has been accused of being slow-paced and maybe even boring; it’s those quieter moments in this sterile house that make the scary and grotesque ones all the more resonant.
When it comes time to reveal who the “hag” killer is, the unveiling is not disappointing. The immediate and forceful shove into the film’s climax is jarring and such a total crowd pleaser. At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising as to who the culprit behind everything is; the assailant has all but winked at the camera. While the murderer’s rationale doesn’t hold much weight — grief never makes much sense, now does it? — a melodramatic, indulgent speech explaining their motive turns out to be moving. It just goes to show how far an elevated performance can save even the most absurd dialogue. In contrast to all the angry violence earlier on, the ending leaves the viewers a little sad; the best slashers always manage to summon an iota of compassion for the villain. Nearly every loose end is tied up apart from a choice spooky bit meant to leave viewers speculating.
“The Comeback is sorely overlooked when studying the contributions of proto-slashers, but there’s no time like the present to pay respect…”
Walker had more say in the foundation of slashers than people let on or are aware of. He added his own special touch to the brand before the tropes took form and flight in future movies. This may not be his signature film, and it’s not exactly one that moves at an accelerated pace, but the ghoulish scenes are beyond satisfying. The story takes some risks in spite of familiar trappings; it’s curious how the writers also submit a man as the victim when others were concentrating on female characters in horror. And critics today see more merit in the clever script that has more humor than people realized.
The Comeback is sorely overlooked when studying the contributions of proto-slashers, but there’s no time like the present to pay respect to both this considerable movie and Pete Walker’s general abilities in the horror genre.