A Different Sort of Horror Movie
10 Rillington Place serves as a reminder that all life is precious.
Most horror films operate according to the principles of a rollercoaster. The filmmakers lull the audience into a state of anticipatory complacency and then administer a series of starts, shocks, and jolts. Think of the title character’s first signs of life in Universal’s The Mummy (1932), or the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or the countless acts of sudden violence in the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
This formula is as old as the motion picture medium itself, but there exists an alternate tradition of horror films that induce fright through means other than jump scares. These pictures petrify by presenting behavior that is actually petrifying. There is little genuine suspense in, say, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974); to the contrary, these films are united by an almost documentary-like plainness as they present the doings of demented (or possessed) souls.
Firmly within this mold is Richard Fleischer’s 1971 masterpiece 10 Rillington Place, a startling account of the actions of a real man named John Christie. Played by Richard Attenborough in a role far from his grandfatherly beneficence as the dinosaur mogul in Jurassic Park, Christie was a British man of seemingly mild disposition who, during World War II and the years that followed, maintained a sideline as a serial killer. With undisguised wantonness, Christie used a variety of pretexts to coax women, including several prostitutes, to the scruffy flat he and his wife called home, at 10 Rillington Place in London, where the murders took place.
In depicting this sordid history, Fleischer does not beat around the bush. In Psycho, Hitchcock suggests for much of the running time that it was not Norman Bates who was offing women in his motel but his deranged mother. In 10 Rillington Place, on the other hand, Fleischer does not resort to such stall tactics. The film’s first scene shows Christie to be a killer: Having enticed a bronchitis-addled middle-aged woman to his flat, Christie proceeds to give her a concoction which he promises will treat her affliction. “Not many of them know about this stuff,” Christie says of real physicians’ ignorance of the “compound,” as he calls it, that he mixes with gas and then encourages his victim to inhale through a mask. In fact, Christie is administering gas to induce unconsciousness in his victim, who is then assaulted and killed.
Perhaps Fleischer reckoned that the particulars of the Christie case were sufficiently notorious that it was unnecessary to play games with the audience. At the same time, the filmmaker—who, through his earlier films Follow Me Quietly (1949), Compulsion (1959), and The Boston Strangler (1968), had become recognized as a kind of specialist in murder stories—surely recognized that it would be infinitely more terrifying to watch Christie in action than to wonder whether or not he did it.
Because we understand Christie’s nature from the outset, we have nothing but ominous feelings when a young family ill-advisedly moves into a flat at 10 Rillington Place: an illiterate, ill-tempered worker named Tim Evans (John Hurt), his sweet-natured wife, Beryl (Judy Geeson), and their infant child, Geraldine. Played with menacing understatement by the plump-faced, soft-voiced Attenborough, Christie instantly takes the measure of this unworldly couple. He is certain that he can outsmart them if he must and exploit them if he wishes.
Shortly after moving in, Beryl finds that she is pregnant. This might be a bright spot amid the dank, dark surroundings in which she finds herself, but Beryl does not regard the news as welcome. Anxious over the economic burdens of a second child, she ingests pills to induce an abortion, a prospect Tim—dim but possessing sound moral instincts—regards with dismay. “Do something?” he says when his wife expresses her wish, euphemistically, to end the pregnancy. “Do what? Do what?”
When Beryl fails to bring about the desired outcome on her own, she finds an apparently willing helper in Christie. Expert at doublespeak, Christie suggests to the Evanses that he had received training in “medical stuff” prior to the outbreak of the Great War and therefore is qualified to undertake what was still an illegal procedure in England. “I’ve seen it done a hundred times,” Christie tells Beryl. “‘Termination,’ we call it.” Rather touchingly, Beryl is impressed by what sounds like medical jargon, repeating the word—“termination”—to the class-conscious Tim to give the procedure the patina of respectability.
The abortion scene is filmed by Fleischer in a flat, uninflected style that emphasizes the fear and indignity of an illegal abortion of that era. “There’s no cutting, is there?” Beryl asks, pitifully.
Yet Fleischer is not merely making another exposé of so-called “back-alley abortions” as a way of advocating for the procedure’s legality. Instead, without ever drawing a false equivalency between a confused mother and a conniving murderer, Fleischer shows us a society in which life has become devalued and degraded in all its forms. Death hangs over this scene: Both its participants are present in the name of the taking of a life or lives. Tragically, Beryl wishes to end the life of her unborn child; horrifyingly, Christie means to end the life of Beryl to satisfy his own sick compulsions. (Whether Christie considers her unborn child to be a living being—whether he thinks of her child at all—is debatable.)
Then comes a remarkable moment: As Beryl is inhaling the gas given to her by Christie, she has a kind of awakening. Before she succumbs, she realizes that he is trying to do her harm and tries to resist; in her last seconds of consciousness, she sees him for what he is—a murderer. The insight is fleeting. Christie manages to subdue and then strangle Beryl; her unborn child expires with her.
Anyone who watches the movie would find it impossible to believe that, had Beryl somehow escaped Christie’s clutches, she would have remained so indifferent to life as to simply find another abortionist. Having nearly lost her life, she would have been bound to feel differently about her child’s; Geeson’s wholesome, appealing qualities as a performer convince us this is so.
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Christie, meanwhile, advances to actual infanticide when, after killing Beryl and her unborn child, he murders her baby Geraldine—part of an elaborate but sloppy cover-up that ultimately brings Tim to the gallows. Truly this is a horror film worthy of the designation. (In real life, Tim Evans received the punishment of hanging for the murder of his daughter before being posthumously exonerated; Christie was ultimately tried and hanged himself.)
Does the fact that Christie masquerades as an abortionist make 10 Rillington Place an anti-abortion film? Of course not. Even in pre-Roe v. Wade Hollywood, its makers would have likely scoffed at such an interpretation, and there’s nothing about its sharp, severe style that suggests a preachy “message movie.” Yet the seriousness with which the film presents Christie’s crimes—the lack of Psycho-style trivializing of its subject, masterly though Hitchcock’s film is—will leave thoughtful viewers cognizant of the tragedy that accompanies the taking of any life.
That Christie saw nothing wrong with abortion would cause any sane or humane person to question the practice himself. We mourn for all of Christie’s victims—for Beryl, for Geraldine, and for the child she would never know nor name.