03 December 2008

Taste of Fear (Scream of Fear)

You would imagine that I would now turn to The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll as I continue to review the movies on the Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films DVD set. After all, it is another Terence Fisher movie. But instead I’m going to go to the film that most people would watch last of the four.
Taste of Fear (1961)
Directed by Seth Holt. Starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee.

Actually, the title on the disc and on the screen is the U.S. title, Scream of Fear, but I’m annoying when it comes to correct film titles. I’m using the U.K. title, I don’t care what Columbia Home Video says.

Hammer wasn’t exclusively making color period horror movies during the 1960s. They also did a series of presumably less expensive black-and-white psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock-Woolrich mode. Aside from Taste of Fear, the studio also made Paranoiac and Nightmare, two other films I own on DVD in Hammer collections.

The film’s original publicity campaign clearly borrowed from Psycho’s famous “No One Will Be Seated After the Film Begins” tag:
This is positively the only photograph we are allowed to show you.

Under no circumstances may we give away any of the startling secrets of this Great Screen Thriller.

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU SEE IT FROM THE START!

--THE MANAGEMENT
Okay, everybody chill out. The management won’t come and enforce this ultimatum if you try to watch the DVD. Go ahead and skip to Scene 3 if you want; the Management will not punish you.

Despite the Psycho-inspired warning, the film that Taste of Fear owes the most to is the hit 1954 French thriller Les Diaboliques, the classic of the “am I insane or is something sinister happening here” subgenre (although Gaslight might give it some competition). Crippled Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) returns to her father’s home after she hasn’t seen him for ten years, only to find he has gone on holiday suddenly and left Penny’s stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) and her chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) in charge of the house. Penny has never met her stepmother before, and it was her own mother’s death three years ago followed by that of her former nurse and best friend, that has driven Penny back to her father. However, Penny soon starts to see—or imagines she sees—her father’s corpse lying around parts of the house. Is she going bonkers? Or is someone trying to drive her crazy in order to get to her father’s fortune?

Early on I figured out what was going to happen. At least, I thought I had. I seemed to be correct, but the film actually has a second twist that blindsided me. It requires lengthy exposition at the finale, and leaves a few nagging and unresolved problems behind, but I have to give the script credit for crafting it in the first place. This type of thriller depends heavily on how it makes its final bow, and Taste of Fear leaves a good finale impression.

American actress Susan Strasberg gained most of her reputation for her stage work—she originated the role of Anne Frank on Broadway—and as part of the famous New York Strasberg acting family. It’s too bad she didn’t do more film, because she’s extremely good here—not to mention astonishingly gorgeous—in a performance of a performance. Penny is both fragile and strong at the same time, filled with a beautiful hypnotic loneliness.

You might have noticed Christopher Lee’s name in the credits, billed fourth. As one of Hammer’s top stars, he would occasionally show up in supporting roles to add some box-office muscle. His part of Dr. Gerard is either a red herring or part of the twist (I won’t tell you which), because otherwise they wouldn’t have cast someone of Lee’s stature in the part. Lee can seem sinister without forcing it, and he doesn’t lay on the French accent too thickly.

But the real star of the movie is cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who shot the first three Indiana Jones movies and was sorely missed on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (Slocombe is still alive, but in retirement.) Slocombe’s deep-focus compositions are marvelous and moody, and there are numerous clever camera set-ups and angles to enhance the paranoid feel of the film.

Taste of Fear is a pretty nifty find. It’s no Psycho or Les Diaboliques, but a good cast, a clever double-twist that genuinely caught me without warning, and photography from one of the masters make it worth watching. And if you get it in a deal along with The Gorgon, all the better.

Enjoy the amazingly overwrought U.S. trailer for the film here.