David Greene, 1970
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Bryan Marshall, Simon Ward
The 14 year old Wynne (Jenny Agutter) realizes she is in love with her stepbrother, George (Bryan Marshall), who is in his early thirties, and her sexual awakening just happens to coincide with the emergence of a serial killer who is murdering young women in the area. Wynne comes to suspect that George might actually be the killer, thanks to his suddenly mysterious behavior, which includes lying about his whereabouts, scratches on his back, and a bloody sweater that he attempts to hide in the garbage. He also disapproves of Wynne spending a lot of time at their partially burnt-out old house, which Wynne and her friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) pretend is haunted, because George’s fiancee died there in an accident years ago. But the more investigating Wynne does, she finds herself closer and closer to the killer...
Based on a novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop, I Start Counting is really more of a psychological thriller than a proper horror film, though it’s something of a spiritual successor to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — about a young woman with latent amorous feelings for her uncle, who she suspects is a serial killer — with shades of eerie Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), though of course the latter wouldn’t come out until a few years later. But speaking of Australian films, this was an early starring role for the mesmerizing Jenny Agutter prior to her career-making performance in Walkabout (1971), which is also something of a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback.
Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Shadow of a Doubt, and I Start Counting are all concerned with depictions of teenage sexuality — specifically emerging female sexuality and the potentially violent effects of its repression. Like some of the other British psychopath films of the time, I Start Counting intertwines fantasy and reality, but with an interesting twist: from the perspective of a potential victim rather than the killer. It was apparently somewhat shocking for the time, but there is nothing graphic about the sexuality on display here and (outside of a sex scene that Wynne stumbles into, to her horror), there is not even much implied. That’s not to say that director David Greene’s (The Shuttered Room, among many other more mainstream titles) use of this theme isn’t impactful and, in a sense, the film also reminded me of Romero’s Season of the Witch (1973), where the film’s horror genre themes emerge from an unhappy character’s boredom with their dull homelife. For Wynne, this is compounded by puberty and I Start Counting is a compelling portrait of the jarring, notably melancholic shift from childhood into adolescence.
And this is actually the primary focus of the film: the undertones of sex and morbidity just happen to coincide with the off-camera actions of a serial killer. This figure serves less as a major plot point (or side plot) and more as a symbol for the confrontation of past trauma with repressed desire. There is a brief glimpse of a girl’s body under the water — perhaps a reference to Night Must Fall (1964), which also opens with the murder of a girl near a riverside — but, as with Shadow of a Doubt, the central characters are made up of a female “detective” and her family: a nagging, clueless mother and a male relative obsessed with the crimes. Wynne’s slightly older, teenage step-brother has a folder where he collects all the press on the murders. He utterly some (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious lines like “If he’s going to kill all these people, he could at least rape them, it seems like such a waste.”
It’s perhaps unusual to have what is essentially a film about a young psychopath — like the countless titles made in the wake of Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) — told from the perspective of an even younger female protagonist. Though the basic script from Richard Harris — no, not that Richard Harris — is the only real flaw and it could have stood a bit more development, it makes great use of the fact that Wynne is still finding her way in the world and the agony she feels over her love for George is tangible. There are a few comical scenes, most of which involve her absolutely horrible friend Corinne, including one where she and Corinne discuss sex during mass and another where Corinne insistently shouts that she has had sex seven times. Seven times! If you’ve ever had a friend who was actually quite nasty to you (as teenage girls can often be) and was aggressively jealous, this captures that perfect. Corinne even tries to seduce George, which sets in motion the concluding tragic events, though I will restrain myself where spoilers are concerned.
I Start Counting has been almost totally ignored — particularly compared to other British psychopath films — and, as far as I can tell, it’s not yet available on a proper home video release, something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. It deserves a restoration and a Blu-ray release with plenty of special features. If you’re a fan of Shadow of a Doubt, this would make an interesting double feature with either that or Picnic at Hanging Rock, and anyone who loves Agutter — and particularly in her early years, you’d have to be a monster not to — should seek this out immediately. Though I shouldn't give it all to Agutter, though she is phenomenal. Bryan Marshall (The Long Good Friday) has great chemistry with her and is perfectly used. Between the two characters, and especially in their interplay together, the film's stretches its legs and explores a profound sense of fantasy, longing, and emotional restraint that means that a lot of non-horror fans will also find a lot to love here.