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I Start Counting

by Alex Kirschenbaum Jan 15, 2021

The disturbing British coming-of-age thriller I Start Counting (1970), starring Jenny Agutter, makes its US Blu-ray debut on a pristine remastered Region A disc, loaded with fresh extras, courtesy of boutique label Fun City Editions.

Adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by Audrey Erskine Lindop, I Start Counting is a welcome relic of its era: it is distinctively late-1960s in its fashions and characterizations, and it is decidedly British in its affectations, despite harboring a rather risque subject matter.

I Start Counting
Fun City Editions
1970 / Color / 1.85:1 widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date November 24, 2020 / available through Vinegar Syndrome / 24.99
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Bryan Marshall, Simon Ward, Clare Sutcliffe.
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Film Editor: Keith Palmer
Composer: Basil Kirchin
Written by Richard Harris
Produced by David Greene and Stanley R. Jaffe
Directed by David Greene

Lovesick, imaginative 14-year-old Wynne Kinch (a young Jenny Agutter) is convinced that her much older, 32-year-old brother George (Bryan Marshall, who looks like a young David Warner, though he is, apparently, not) is (a) responsible for a series of grisly murders of Berkshire schoolgirls and (b) secretly in love with her. Are either of these realities true, or is one (or both) the product of overactive hormones and paranoid half-baked investigations? That, dear viewer, we’ll leave for you to discover.

As she dances around the topic of her verboten infatuation while chatting up her schoolmate friend, the slightly more worldly Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe), Wynne is quick to point out that she was adopted, and thus she and George are not biologically related, as if that somehow excuses her inappropriate pining.

Unlike her older brothers George and Len (Gregory Phillips), Wynne is being raised Catholic (as was, incidentally, Agutter herself) in honor of her birth mother. Wynne’s education leads her to seek the blessing of a local priest (Lewis Fiander) to justify her sinister urges, where she again tries to rationalize the interest via her lack of a biological connection to George.

After Wynne finds blood on a discarded sweater she knit for him, and discovers scratches on his back while voyeuristically pseudo-peeping, she begins to spiral. Wynne begins tracking her brother around town after work through various modes of transit (bus, moped, stowing away in George’s van) and discovers that he has at least been lying about helping out a former neighbor with housework once a week.

The smitten adolescent yearning of Wynne is deeply uncomfortable as she becomes more and more untethered in the conviction of her delusions — that George is a murderer with a specific bloodlust for teen girls, and that only she understands and accepts his homicidal tendencies. It’s a tough watch. The discomfort of the various conversations Wynne compels upon Corrine and George is expertly written by screenwriter Richard Harris (no, not Dumbledore) and poignantly performed by this first-rate cast.

Fun City’s gorgeous Blu-ray remaster, newly scanned in 2K from the film’s original 35mm interpositive print, highlights cinematographer Alex Thomson’s masterful use of stark, sinister shadows and intentional framing and movement to suggest the figurative darkness creeping into Wynne’s relatively bucolic English countryside life. Thomson’s excellent, deliberate camerawork brings out the edge of a life lived in seemingly banal locales, from a modest family home to a fairly mundane school and church to a bopping coffee shop of underage mod kids. The Blu-ray disc arrives replete with two Agutter clips, a spirited introduction plus an extended 20-minute interview with the star; a fun photo gallery; a feature commentary from film historian Samm Deighan; and an insightful video essay from Chris O’Neill, “Loss of Innocence.”

The Blu-ray package itself, boasting excellent new artwork from Jacob Phillips (who also illustrated the recent hit graphic novel miniseries That Texas Blood with TFH alum Chris Condon) is rounded out by glossy booklet essays on Greene’s filmography, from Amanda Reyes, and the creative collaboration between Greene and experimental composer Basil Kirchin, by Matt Stephenson. For much of the film, Kirchin’s rather chipper score and the upbeat theme song from Lindsey Moore theme song belie the film’s reality as an unsettling family drama and, eventually, a spooky serial killer thriller, until Wynne’s dogged pursuit of the local serial killer finally catches up with her.

As to the title itself, it’s a reference to Wynne’s childish practice of counting in her head when frightened to calm herself down. The name serves a nice dual purpose — as a reminder that Wynne is still very much a kid, and a hint that there may be truly scary elements of this story for which such a coping mechanism could actually come in handy.

The film stands as quite an impressive early showcase for Agutter, whose performative skills are in fine form as the precocious, fantasy-prone teen striving full-bore towards adulthood. The actress would put her chops to great use following I Start Counting. She starred in a bevy of well-regarded genre fare throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, including the Australian outback survivalist drama Walkabout (1971, where she was reunited with I Start Counting production designer Brian Eatwell), the dystopic sci-fi fugitive tale Logan’s Run (1976), the bizarre Sidney Lumet thriller Equus (1977), and of course TFH Guru John Landis’s lupine horror-comedy classic An American Werewolf In London (1981).

In Agutter’s longer interview, she explains that, though she got her professional start as a preteen child actress and was a seasoned pro at age 16 when cameras rolled on I Start Counting in 1968, she had little theatrical training, and subsequently credits David Greene with helping her create such a memorable star turn. “David Greene was extremely good at accessing that part of me that used the imagination as a child does to invent and to play in the scene,” Agutter notes. “It was a happy shoot, and I think that comes very much from your director.”