The Comeback (1978)
Starring Jack Jones, Pamela Stephenson and David Doyle. Directed by Pete Walker. From Enterprise/Lone Star Pictures.
Gail Cooper (Holly Palance) is the estranged wife of famous singer, Nick Cooper (Jones). When the two got married, Nick put his career on hold but things went sour and the two separated. Gail returns to the unique apartment the couple shared in London, England and is met by a mask-wearing, scythe-wielding psychopath who hacks her to death and leaves her on the stairs.
Nick arrives back in London as well. His plan is to adjourn to a quiet Surrey estate to record his comeback album. He’s met at the airport by pretty Linda Everett (Stephenson) who works for Nick’s manager, Webster Jones (Doyle). The live-in caretakers at the estate seem quiet but efficiently friendly and Nick settles down to work. He is menaced in the night by sounds of a young woman weeping and by other horrific sights and sounds. Nick is thought to be losing his faculties and is institutionalized for a time. When he returns to the manor though, it becomes quite clear that the horrors of the house are very real.
It’s winter and you pack up your vehicle and head south to a warmer place. You’re excited to reach your destination but, along the way, you take side trips off the beaten track. You realize later that these detours can be as enchanting as the holiday itself; getting there is half the fun.
This happens to me often during my Vintage Leisure journeys. I begin to write on a certain topic and while researching this topic I stumble on many other fascinating things and my main subject begets many spin-offs. And sometimes what I stumble on absolutely boggles my mind. I’m forced to ask how such things can possibly exist. Case in point is the English slasher flick that singer Jack Jones made in 1978. Are you kidding me?!
In 1959, Jack Jones – son of actors Allan Jones and Irene Hervey – appeared in a rock & roll-type musical called Juke Box Rhythm. The film was produced by “King of the Quickies” Sam Katzman and also starred Brian Donlevy, Jo Morrow and Marjorie Reynolds. 21-year-old Jack plays Riff Manton, “a college student who is also a singer”; not much of a stretch. While Jack was a regular singing on variety shows of the day, acting as a character was not really something he did in his heyday. It seems that, in the second half of the 1970’s, Jones caught the acting bug again. In ’77, there was a McMillan and Wife and a Police Woman and in ’78 he appeared in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. I can find very little though on how he got hooked up with English horror director Pete Walker and traveled to England to star in this film that also bears the name Encore. Read my article on Jack here.
Jack is 39 years old as Nick Cooper and he looks great; the mop of salt-and-pepper hair he sported at this time suits him well. He appears very comfortable before the camera and manages to bring a real world-weary almost cynical vibe to his character. Copper has fallen on hard times and suffers from no illusions regarding the transitory nature of fame and his own stardom. Jones is able to express a lack of confidence that suits the story while at the same time being quietly confident when it comes to ingratiating himself with the younger Linda. He is strong enough to be firm with his somewhat-flakey manager, Web, but is susceptible to fear resulting from his unsettling nights in the manor. Jones as Cooper has to slowly lose his reason to the point where he enters an institution. This can be hard for any actor to pull off and Jack does alright; though I suspect that the lightweight nature of the actors and the story going on around him help to camouflage any acting deficiencies. Meaning Jack Jones – while not particularly gifted as a thespian – fits into these proceedings. Overall, he acquits himself well, thereby scoring points with his fans and adding this interesting project to his list of accomplishments.
The film itself? It has a definite visual charm and doesn’t look like it was made cheaply and looks not much different from other English films of the time; such as Mitchum’s later The Big Sleep from the same year. As most films do, this one greatly benefits from a location shoot. The manor house Nick stays in is Foxwarren Park in Surrey. Built in 1860, it is a home made in a “harsh Victorian Gothic” style that was once owned by a breeder of birds who kept on the grounds the last two pink-headed ducks in the world. It was later purchased by American television producer Hannah Weinstein who provided it for location shooting for many films and television shows.
Try to figure out of you can the fascinating London penthouse apartment Nick and Gail shared that is entered through what looks like a parking garage and accessed via an ancient elevator. The entrance to the apartment proper looks like backstage at the Palladium or something. Gorgeous inside. Nick and Linda visit the beach at Brighton and can also be seen at Thistle Grove in Kensington.
It took some doing but I’ve identified the cool car Nick drives in this film as a 1977 Lotus Éclat Sprint Series 1. I right away assumed it was the same as the car featured in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me which was filmed and released around the same time as The Comeback. This particular model was in production between 1975 and 1982 and the one Nick drives is a real beauty. Interesting to note that The Comeback went before the cameras in April of 1977 while the James Bond movie wrapped three months previous. The Bond film premiered in July and the Jones horror film came out the following June. I have to wonder if Walker and his crew had learned of the Bond film making use of the Lotus. Likely this and the car’s growing notoriety worldwide prompted Walker and his crew to find one for the shoot.
The stalking of Gail Cooper that opens the film is handled well with good pacing to heighten the tension. Gail is played by Holly Palance, daughter of Jack. Holly, though born in Los Angeles, seems to have settled in the UK. She appeared in only four feature films and was married to Roger Spottiswood, director of the Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.
Stone faced housekeeper Mrs. B is played by English stage actress Sheila Keith. You can see her on The Saint TV series but she is best known for being a regular in Pete Walker’s repertory company; she appears in five of Walker’s films as variably a lesbian prison warder, a one-eyed housekeeper and an elderly cannibal. David Doyle made The Comeback during his run as Bosley on Charlie’s Angels. No film actor, Doyle, you can see him in Clint’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Capricorn One from ’77. Pretty Pamela Stephenson was also a comedian born in Auckland and has had an interesting career. Appearing in only a few films but, in 1984, she became the first female cast member of Saturday Night Live to be born outside North America – Italian-Canadian Tony Rosato was the first male. Soon after, she married fellow comedian Billy Connolly. Pamela became a noted author and psychologist based in Beverly Hills. Research and field studies in Tonga and India, activism in the area of food colouring and additives and even a brief political career. Pamela Stephenson, prolific renaissance woman, still going as of this writing at 72.
Writer, director and producer Peter Walker is something of a cult figure. He specialized in films that mixed horror and sexploitation and usually featured “sadistic authority figures” dishing out punishment on hapless victims. His lower-budget films usually featured the same actors and actresses. He got his start in the late Sixties with films like For Men Only (1967) and School for Sex (1969) until turning to horror.
Throughout the 1970’s, Walker created films with titles like Die Screaming, Marianne, The Flesh and Blood Show, Frightmare and Schizo. His final film was 1983’s House of the Long Shadows which was a step up of sorts for Walker considering the cast. The film was based on a 1913 novel by Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan) called Seven Keys to Baldpate and starred four legends of horror films; Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine. Make it five film legends if you include another cast member, Desi Arnaz, Jr. Though I’d never heard of him, Walker does have a rep among horror film aficionados and, to his credit, after Long Shadows, he quit the business to focus on buying and restoring cinemas. A few of Pete Walker’s films are up on YouTube including a great print of The Comeback available here.
The Comeback is not a bad film but its appeal for me comes from the fact that it even exists. The casting of Jack Jones is mind-boggling and aside from that it has a sort of appeal as a lesser-known, pioneering slasher flick from England. It is definitely worth seeing for a pretty good ending, for the Seventies vibe, for the Lotus and for Nick’s amazing stereo equipment. This film and a few others of Walker’s are available on YouTube. Start by clicking here. I’m happy to have brought another buried piece of Vintage Leisure to the light of day.
Another interesting aspect of Pamela Stephenson’s career was that she was part of a comedy ensemble that worked in a BBC television series called Not the Nine O’Clock News, late 70s and early 80s. They were perhaps the first real ‘rock stars’ of British comedy at the beginning of the ‘alternative’ scene, which attracted a huge young audience, bearing in mind the biggest comedy stars of the day were The Two Ronnies (BBC) and Benny Hill (Thames TV). It was a very political show, lots of social commentary about trade unions, racism and unemployment, and anti Margaret Thatcher skits. It was quite brilliant at times, and launched everyone’s career.
The other stars were Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys-Jones, and earlier Chris Langham. (Langham didn’t get away with the ‘I just downloaded those images for research’ excuse and went to jail later). Billy Connolly was a guest in one of the NTNON sketches which is where he and Pamela Stephenson first met.
The 70s was an interesting time in British cinema generally. The Carry On franchise ran out of steam, and for a while the most successful films were TV sitcom spinoffs and the ‘Confessions’ sex comedies with Robin Askwith. Ambitious producers and directors like David Puttnam and Alan Parker were looking to Hollywood. Some of the best dramatic work, with the best talent at that time, was being done consistently on television (BBC and independent networks).
Interesting to learn about Jack Jones, I hadn’t been particularly aware of him, so thank you again for some great research and work.
Here’s me, seeing her for the first time as window dressing in a slasher flick. Fascinating to think of her in comedy; not to mention her other accomplishments. Blimey!