Also known as In the Devil’s Garden, British director Sidney Hayers’ 1971 film Assault is cast very much in the mode of contemporary Italian giallo – lurid crime, exploitative sexuality and plenty of voyeuristic pleasure. It may not be up to the standard of the best crime cinema, but Assault is sufficiently well executed to satisfy the appetites of any crime fiend.
Cutting through the woods on her way home from school, a girl is raped by an unseen assailant before raping and murdering another girl a few days later. Both attacks are shot from the rapist’s perspective, hiding his identity but also establishing a sense of voyeurism that is revisited throughout the film. Like so much crime cinema of the era, there’s little question that these attacks are for our squalid visual pleasure. This theme is reinforced by the revealing school uniforms of the girls and the glimpses of nudity during the attacks.
The gaze implied by Assault’s voyeuristic style is sordid, but complicated by the introduction of art teacher Miss West (Suzy Kendall), who first glimpses the killer bathed in the hellish red of her brake lights. It’s her visual identification, initially dismissed by the sexist police officers insisting that she is hysterical, that leads to the killer’s eventual capture. Indeed, as the balance of power shifts from the killer to his pursuers, so too does the perspective, with photographs explicitly used to manipulate the killer proving crucial to catching him. In Assault, the primacy of one’s gaze grants the voyeur both power and agency.
The film’s second act admittedly drags a little. A dearth of ongoing crimes smothers the dubious vicarious pleasures offered by the earlier attacks, instead giving way to the procedural police investigation. But as the red herrings pile up, the tightening net of suspense goes a little slack. Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in the team-up between Miss West and Freddie Jones’ opportunistic reporter, and the final reveal of the killer is effectively tense.
Assault is not the strongest in its class, either as an exploitative shock film or as a police procedural. Yet its visual execution elevates the film above its more formulaic qualities. The climax, a frantic chase through the darkened woods and culminating at the site of the original crime, offers a satisfyingly nasty end for the killer, and a final moment of questionable pleasure for the viewer.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell