Unman, Wittering And Zigo

Director: John Mackenzie   
David Hemmings, Douglas Wilmer, Tony Haygarth

I don't look back on my school days with much fondness. In the past, I have told you stuff in school I had to suffer through, like gym class and bullies. Another thing I was stuck with at school was with insufferable teachers. Actually, I didn't have any such teachers during elementary school, but once I got to junior high, it seemed that I always had at least one teacher that rubbed me the wrong way. I can remember the English teacher I had in grade eight, and I remember in one of my first classes with him, he sprung on us students an awful task - we had to write a four hundred word essay on a certain topic, and write it in a week. To this day, I remember all my fellow students in the class looking at each other with appalled looks on their faces and softly groaning out loud as our teacher told us this incredible task we had to do. As it turned out, that was not to be our last four hundred word essay to write, but that's another story. Another teacher that gave us students another problem was Mr. Barnes, the school's math teacher. Before every class started, he would go to each and every student to see if they had done the homework he had assigned during the previous class. If you hadn't, he would scream out loud at you in front of the rest of the class. That was not the only thing about Mr. Barnes that annoyed us students. After we would have a test and he marked the papers, he would hand the papers back, reading out loud one by one the student's name and his or her grade. Until I got the hang of advanced math, I had many an embarrassing time in his class. (Strangely, I happened to be friends with his son, who attended the same school.)

Aside from having one or two teachers each year that rubbed me the wrong way as well as gym class and bullies, I realize that the school environment I had was much better than it could have been. If I had been in one of those typical American inner city schools you see so often in popular media, I don't know what I would have done. Another school environment I'm glad I didn't learn in was the British school system. I'll give you an example as to why I feel fortunate not to be educated there. One day my father, telling me stories about the old country, told me about the time when, for some reason, he was late for school. Waiting at the front door of the school was a teacher with a cane. My father knew what he had to do because he was late - raise his arm ninety degrees with the palm of his hand up. The teacher then raised his cane and THWACK, he hit my father's hand with the cane. Yes, corporal punishment was used in the British school system back then, and I later found out it was still being used in British schools when I was attending school. Besides corporal punishment, over the years I heard of some other nasty punishments British schools would give students who broke the rules, like having to write something like, "I will not be late for school" a hundred times or more. But there were other things about British schools that made me feel fortunate I wasn't getting an education there. There were school uniforms - I've never felt comfortable wearing anything but casual clothes. And there was a class system, where you'd be judged by others by your background or even the way you spoke.

I can only imagine what it would be like to have the worst of both worlds - having a teacher who had a work ethic that would put so much pressure on me, and at the same time being stuck in the British school system. It very well might drive me to do what the students in the movie Unman, Wittering And Zigo are suspected of having done. The idea of students feeling they are being pushed too much and possibly reacting in a deadly fashion Unman, Wittering And Zigoseemed creepy to me, which is one reason I was attracted to this movie. The second reason was that Paramount Pictures has, for some reason, pretty much buried this movie - it's never been available on VHS or DVD even in its native England. A movie that's seems to have been made intentionally obscure is irresistible to me. The movie takes place in and around the grounds of an English private school, where the all-male students being taught are in their teen years. In the first few minutes, we learn that one of the teachers at the school has been killed in an accident, falling off a cliff near the school. A new teacher, John Ebony (Hemmings, Deep Red), is hired, and he and his wife Silvia move into a cottage on the school grounds. When John starts teaching his class, it is soon made clear he's over his head - not only is his class ill-behaved, when he subsequently tries to bring discipline to his students, his students tell him something he didn't expect - that the students killed their former teacher, because basically he rubbed them the wrong way. John refuses to believe this... at least at first. As the days go by, thanks to his "helpful" students, he starts getting clues that suggest that his predecessor may have indeed been murdered by his students. But are the boys playing a joke? More importantly, what should he do?

The actions of John when he is told of this supposed murder, and what he subsequently does as time progresses, are mostly believable. When the students stop being rowdy and are sitting in their desks, quietly and politely telling John what they claim to have done, is one of the best scenes in the movie. It's a creepy sequence, seeing these confident youths bragging about what they allegedly did with smiles on their faces. Even though any teacher would be unnerved experiencing this situation, there would still be some teachers who would do what John immediately does - refuse to believe it. Children committing murder, then freely bragging it out in the open? Who could believe that? Not John, at first. But as the days go by and the clues start to appear, John does feel he has to investigate... sort of. He asks a question here and there to his fellow staff members, but you can see he wants to cling onto the idea it's all a joke - he never becomes Columbo. In fact, some time later, having seen all the clues and getting multiple direct (and indirect) threats from his students, he doesn't turn vigilante - he feels that the best thing to do is to cave in and obey his students' demands. I think many people in real life would do the same thing. One action I could not accept was when John finds the package in his desk, and takes its contents to the headmaster. John leaves out so much detail of the situation he's in and what he's found that it's no wonder the headmaster thinks nothing is wrong. Anybody else in that situation would have been able to make an opening statement to the headmaster that would have both been more convincing and make the headmaster consider things.

Another action of John's that I couldn't believe was near the end of the movie, when he is confronted by his students who request his help with something. After all that's happened to John up to his point (including his wife reporting an uncomfortable situation with the students that happened to her just a few hours earlier), it would seem that anyone would think they are smelling a trap and would refuse to help. (Actually, there is subsequently a surprise for John and the audience, though I won't reveal what it is.) And when the movie's last scene plays out, the Michael J. Lewis musical score belts out music that would probably be labelled "triumphant" by most viewers. But I don't think these same viewers would claim that what is happening at that moment as triumphant. It's kind of a (pardon the expression) sour note to end the movie with in what is, despite its faults, a pretty engaging thriller. And on that note, I'll momentarily get back to some of the stuff in Unman, Wittering And Zigo that made it interesting enough despite flaws like I have reported up to this point. The acting by the principle as well as the secondary characters is uniformly good. Hemmings plays this inexperienced and clueless written character with a reluctance that seems to say (more like whisper), "naive" in all his actions and words. Carolyn Seymour brings a strong edge as John's wife, making her stand out in her scenes, despite the fact that, upon closer examination, her character could easily be deleted from the script with no additional rewrites needed.

Needless to say, it's the students who steal the show. While none of them stand out from the rest of the students in the pack (with maybe the exception of the character of "Wittering", well played by Colin Barrie), they all seem to be feeding off the nasty and effective energy that director John Mackenzie no doubt was feeding them to make them a scary kind of gang. There's clearly something very uneasy about them even before they say a few words; careful observers, for one thing, will take note that practically all of these students have last names that you've probably never heard of before. (At least I hadn't heard these last names before.) A number of these students look like they are played by actors who were no longer teenagers. It would have been creepier had all the students be cast with actors who were still in their teenage years, since true evil coming from a more innocent time of a person's life is unusual and often more frightening than if it came from an adult, but the movie's casting decision may have been because of a couple of scenes where some of the students are seen nude. (This depiction of nudity by characters who are not adults may be one reason why this movie has been seemingly withdrawn.) Anyway, viewers will be uneasy with these people. If they are guilty of murder, yes, that's a reason to be frightened by them. But if they are not guilty of murder, they clearly have some sort of sick minds since they are more or less torturing their teacher and enjoying seeing his squirm. Viewers, however, will be sitting still in their seats until the end to get the answer to that question and others. See if you can find this sleeper - it took me years to find it, but it was worth it.

Check for availability on Amazon for the play of the same name

See also: The Offense, 3:15, Thunderpants