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A forgotten gem, this is one of the earliest films John Mackenzie
after a few years working in television, before he returned to television
time to shoot some of the finest Play For Todays of the 1970s. And along
with The Long Good Friday and Ruby this is Mackenzie finest achievement
the cinema. A stunning thriller, this is an assured, efficient filming of
chilly concept. David Hemmings is excellently vulnerable in the lead, the
perfect Hitchcockian hero, believed by nobody apart from the viewer. The
class of boys includes a young Michael Kitchen, and there's Tony haygarth
a world weary colleague whose lack of joie de vivre begins to corrupt
Hemmings as much as his class do.
The most frightening sequence is the shocking persecution of the wife in the squash courts, a superbly staged scene that is quite a jaw-dropper considering the age of the film. In fact it is more the quaint English setting that adds the real shyock to the scene. It is interesting to compare this film with two other public school movies of the era, inevitably Lindsay Anderson's If....but more significantly the brilliant Walk A Crooked Path
which similarly portrays the public school boys as corrupt, ruthless and cold blooded, brilliantly adept at money making, no matter how immorally, and trained to view the world with a haughty authority.
Unman Wittering And Zigo is a truly gripping thriller, and proves Mackenzie is a great thriller maker as he illustrated in pieces like Dennis Potter's Double Dare and The Long Good Friday even more vividly.
Brooks?"Blackboard Jungle" in which Glenn Ford's wife is assaulted by
the young guys.Anderson?"If" with its strict school and religion and
sport as vectors of alienation.Vigo? (Check the name;it cannot be a
coincidence;besides Zigo is always away during the whole movie)"Zero de
conduite" the granddaddy of all these students rebellions.
With such references,the miracle is that "Unman,Wittering and Zigo" is a thoroughly original movie,what we usually call a sleeper.Extremely suspenseful,frightening without any special effect,it sustains interest till its last pictures.David Hemmings gives a good performance of this nice teacher ,literally under his students'thumb.What is really fascinating is the way they subdue him,the very polite way they speak;the story is implausible,but its implacable logic makes our blood run cold."We have killed your predecessor" they say to a first bemused teacher "It's a perfect crime".Hemmings 's character is completely lonely in his chic school where nobody wants to believe him ,not even his wife."We took you in hand" his students keep on repeating him.
SPOILERS:Once again,the punching bag subject comes to the fore;it makes sense that such a character should be the instigator of the crime .Being an outcast is ,to some,unbearable,and out of despair,he'd do anything to become part of the group.But what's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh:during the terrifying scene at the gym,this boy is once again humiliated .Although ,they treated their pal like a dog,they have lost their strange leader and they become children again,crying children in the last sequence.
"Unman ,Wittering and Zigo" is a disturbing movie;to the art teacher who tells him he ultimately solves the mystery,Hemmings answers :"but what can explain their behavior?"And as they carry their dead companion,the students walk hostilely towards the headmaster and his old fossils:the true rebellion has only begun.
Ok, it's not a big picture, but for me it was a once in a five years kind
thing. Air loaded with anxiety without the the ease of deeply
the motives or reasons of the characters.
These psychological thrillers of 70's and early 80's are all about the
- the poetical anxiety of not being safe or being able to find reasons for
For me this genre is pure gold and nowadays rarely approached.
Unman... is a nice find for a friend of this shivering era.
"Unman, Wittering and Zigo" is a thoroughly peculiar and strangely uncanny gem from the early 70's Brit-movie industry; an era where lots of long-lost forgotten movie classics are still waiting to be re- discovered by cult fanatics. The film lacks explicit bloodshed or exciting actions stunts, but it thrives on ominous atmosphere, a solid and complex screenplay and impeccable acting performances. David Hemmings, perhaps the most shamefully underrated actor/director to come out of Great Britain, stars as a young and still ambitious teacher who enrolls in a strictly catholic male boarding school in the remote British countryside. He takes over class Lower 5-B since their previous teacher died in a most unfortunate accident when he fell off a cliff. When trying to bring some order and discipline amongst the rebellious young men and threatening to give them Saturday afternoon detention, one of his pupils suddenly states: "our previous teacher also wanted to that and that's why we killed him, Sir". From that moment onwards, the students are provide more and accurate proof that they, in fact, did kill their previous teacher and scare Mr. Ebony into believing that the same might overcome him or his lovely wife Sylvia. Obviously no one believes him not even his wife and the pupils continue to push further their blackmail and menacing. "Unman, Wittering and Zigo" (the title refers to the last three names on the alphabetic list that Mr. Ebony runs through to see who's present in class) is a slow-brooding chiller with an immense claustrophobic power. By this I mean that director John MacKenzie manages to make it so obvious that nobody in John Ebony's immediate surrounding even suspects the pupils of anything, whereas he finds himself trapped in a isolated situation of fear from which he cannot escape. To everyone else, the pupils of class Lower 5-B are sophisticated and well-mannered young men and only their teacher knows that they're actually deeply disturbed and nihilistic psychopaths. There are a handful of truly powerful and perturbing sequences, including near the end with John's wife trapped in the school's gym, as well as a terrific use of the contemporary British life-styles and the remote setting. Unfortunately, the film also contains a few defaults, like a largely unsatisfying climax and some dead-end plot lines, but overall I would definitely say this is a gem well worth seeking out and treasuring.
Unman, Wittering and Zigo is largely unknown little film, and that
isn't really surprising considering that it's really rather odd. It's
not a bad film, however, and certainly is ripe for rediscovery. The
film is along the same lines as Lindsay Anderson's 1968 masterpiece
"If..." as it focuses on a rebellious group of boys at a posh school.
The film is based on a play by Giles Cooper and that is always evident
as we focus on just a handful of small locations and everything is
centred on the main plot line. We focus on John Ebony, a young and
idealistic teacher who takes a job an English school and is put in
charge of a class of boys, leaving his wife at home in the cottage
provided for them. He is given the job because of a tragic accident
which resulted in the previous teacher of the class falling off a cliff
to his death. It's not long before it becomes apparent that the class
is not made up of 'normal' boys, and this becomes even more the case
when the new teacher is told by the boys that they murdered the old
one! John soon starts to fear for his life...
The best thing about this film is the way it's plotted. We are given the mystery on a plate at the start of the film and the rest of it focuses on working out whether or not what the boys told their teacher is true. Director John Mackenzie skilfully handles the main plot theme and Unman, Wittering and Zigo becomes more thrilling with every turn. The plot is relaxed in the way that it plays out, but the director keeps things interesting by ensuring that the mystery is always intriguing and the tension just bubbles beneath the surface. The film benefits from an excellent ensemble cast which is lead by the great David Hemmings who is backed up by a good cast of youngsters. The atmosphere in this film is great and is partly created by the way that the boys interact with one another. One of the most striking things about this film is the way that they talk in unison and that in itself helps to build up a feeling of dread emanating from how it shows us what the central character is up against. Overall, Unman, Wittering and Zigo may be slightly lacking in some areas (the ending is not particularly strong and the story sometimes lacks direction) but these are not big faults in what is otherwise an excellent slice of cult cinema!
When a school teacher dies in an accident, his replacement quickly
begins to suspect his students of murder.
Using its theatrical origins to claustrophobic effect, Unman, Wittering and Zigo very cleverly builds up layer upon layer of tension and menace, as Hemming's naive and idealistic Mr. Ebony is quickly and easily outclassed by his pupils, seemingly at every turn. Dismissed by his headmaster, and humoured by both his wife and a fellow teacher, Ebony is slowly ground into submission by the boys as they repeatedly claim to have killed his predecessor. However, when the boys attempt an assault on his wife as a way of further controlling Ebony, the web they have spun begins to unravel until eventually another tragedy forces out the truth.
Chilly and chilling, Mackenzie is well-served by his actors, both adult and juvenile. Hemmings captures just the right note of bewilderment and impotence, whilst Seymour turns the potentially thankless role of Mrs. Ebony into a striking portrait of independence, determination and naturalism - her performance during the attempted assault by the boys is quite brilliant. Standout amongst the boys are Hoye, Owen and Cashman, all conveying stonewall confidence collectively, whilst allowing just the faint trace of fear and uncertainty when separated from their classmates. Unsettling allusions to Ebony's ambivalence and a vaguely sexual response to his ordeal add to the mix, and only a slightly dissatisfying and unbelievable conclusion mar what is otherwise a deeply disturbing, grown up story. Highly recommended, if you can track it down.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
John Mackenzie, the director of this film, passed away last month. He
is probably best remembered for the sublime 1980 gangster drama 'The
Long Good Friday' with Bob Hoskins. 'Unman, Wittering & Zigo' ( 1971 )
is not as well known, but just as gripping. I first saw it on B.B.C.-2
one Sunday night sometime around the late '70's, and it frightened the
life out of me. I was due back at school the next day, and it was
pretty rough, with a minority in my class thinking they had the
God-given right to do as little work as possible and laugh at those
wishing to get good grades. I was fearful they might start copying the
boys in this movie.
Adapted by Simon Raven from a radio play by Giles Cooper, the story begins with the death of a teacher - Mr.Pelham - who falls from a cliff. The coroners' verdict is accidental death. A replacement arrives at Chantry boarding school for boys - the idealistic 'John Ebony' ( David Hemmings ). He finds class Lower Five B to be arrogant, insufferable, yet quick-witted. One of their number, Wittering ( Colin Barrie ), is forever being picked on. They claim to have murdered Pelham, and will do the same to him unless he co-operates. The boys have devised what they call a 'modus operandi' - in return for his life, he must fake exam results and pass bets to the bookie. When Ebony tries to tell the headmaster ( Douglas Wilmer ), he realises he has no proof of what the boys are doing, and hands in his notice. Under the terms of his contract, he must stay until the end of term, so he decides to try and discover who the gang's ringleader is. The 'modus operandi' ends. Enraged, Lower Five B punish him by tormenting his attractive wife Silvia ( Carolyn Seymour )...
Strongly reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson's 'If...' ( 1968 ), this darkly comic film has not been on television in years nor available on D.V.D. or Blu-Ray. It deserves to be better known. The cabal of Lower Five B are thoroughly evil, basically Malcolm McDowell's 'A Clockwork Orange' gang in blazers. Ebony is so terrified of them he even has a weird nightmare in which he is stripped naked in a forest and carried aloft. But the scene which disturbs the most is Silvia trapped by a gym, and the boys calmly announcing their intention to gang-bang her.
The cast are good, particularly Hemmings - who also produced - and Seymour. Amongst the boys are Michael Kitchen, Tom Owen ( son of Bill ), Michael Cashman, and James Wardroper. Other familiar faces are Tony Haygarth, Barbara Lott, Donald Gee, and Hamilton Dyce.
The revelation at the end may strike some as contrived, but I have noticed that teenage gangs often tend to be led by the unlikeliest candidates, so maybe its not so contrived after all.
'Zigo', incidentally, does not appear even though his name is in the title. We are told he is in Jamaica recuperating from an illness. Being amongst this lot would make anyone sick. In an amusing touch, he is listed in the closing credits as 'Zigo...Absent'!
I came across this obscure and barely released film by chance,intrigued
by it's synopsis. And like it happens with every buried treasure it was
a revelation. Director John McKenzie, and cinematographer Geoffrey
Unsworth, skilfully made this film into a close knit mystery with a bit
of a disappointing ending which doesn't hurt the overall impression.
David Hammings is a new teacher at a boarding school who gets to teach a class from hell. Not by violence, but by sinister mind games,and subtle or not so subtle threats, they creep him into playing their game. What will happen is there to be seen. There is no need to explain why they are so twisted, there can be many reasons, and the boarding school system with it's rigid rules can be one of them, but than again, it may not be.This movie is not on DVD and it probably will never be, but mystery film buffs, if you come across this gem, be sure not to miss it.
This is an absolute gem, and why this masterful chiller remains so obscure is beyond me! 'Unmann Wittering & Zigo' is masterfully directed by John Mackenzie, with truly chilling performances from a sublime young cast and yet another stand-out performance from the ever-genius David Hemmings. This profoundly disturbing film can sit quite uncomfortably alongside 'village of the damned' & 'the wicker man' as one of British cinema's all-time great horror films. A razor-edged shocker with a palpably disturbing atmosphere; as this genuinely creepy film unfolds, director, Mackenzie ratchets up the penetrating unease with consummate skill; including a number of genuinely terrifying sequences (The ICA or NFT really should give this masterpiece a screening) Highly recommended.
I have been scratching my head for years trying to remember the name of
this brilliant film and now I have found it. It definitely deserves
another outing, I saw it years ago, it scared me witless then but I
would love to see it again.
It reminded my of my days at boarding school although thankfully not quite so gruesome.
The pace of the terror is kept up throughout the film and I have kept an eye out for it hoping that one day it will be shown again.
It has not happened yet but maybe one day someone will dig it out of the vaults dust it off and give it another showing. It is an extremely well made film.
Very well worth watching and I give it my own rating of 100 out 10 !!! It has been made the way "terror films" ought to be made, in the style of "Hammer Films" and "House Of Horror".
Incidentally Roy Skeggs, who produced the "Hammer House of Horror" films in the 1980's later went on to buy the remains of the original defunct production company.
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