Sunday, April 17, 2022

TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR) (1961) Movie Review

Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear) (1961) d. Seth Holt (UK) (81 min)

Following the recent death (by drowning) of her boarding school friend Maggie, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) is beckoned to her estranged father’s seaside home in the south of France. After being literally picked up by the family chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis), she is informed by her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) that despite the fact that her father has been suddenly called away on business, Penny is invited to consider this her new home. That night, Penny investigates a mysterious light in the summer house and sees what she believes to be her father’s corpse; in her hasty retreat, she falls into the adjoining swimming pool and is rescued by Robert. The cordial but stern Dr. Gerrard (Christopher Lee) quells her fears, telling her it must simply have been “a case of nerves,” but this marks only the first of Penny’s encounters with her pater’s inanimate form popping up in the most unlikely of places. It’s the kind of thing that could drive a person mad… and out of her inheritance.

After several years of successfully reanimating the Universal classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy) for Hammer, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was looking to break out of his Gothic horror gilded cage. His solution: write an original script (on spec) devoid of any makeup-festooned monsters and shop it around. Psycho, of course, was all the rage in 1960, with Hitchcock having deliciously dialed back his budget by shooting in black-and-white and making a classic in the process.

However, the greater inspiration seems to have been Henri-Georges Clouzout’s unforgettable 1955 French shocker Les Diaboliques, which also featured a missing corpse and swimming pool as two of its major plot points. Sangster sold his script to Rank Studio producer Sidney Box, who promptly suffered a heart attack, so Sangster double promptly showed the script to Michael Carreras, who triple promptly bought it back from Box’s brother-in-law to produce under the Hammer banner, with Sangster given his first opportunity to produce.

Originally titled "See No Evil" and "Hell Hath No Fury" (and subsequently re-titled Scream of Fear for its U.S. release), Taste of Fear didn’t do the huge business of the studio’s Gothic masterpieces, but it was successful enough to hold its own against other Psycho-esque offerings such as William Castle’s Homicidal or Francis Coppola’s Dementia 13. Numerous other black-and-white thrillers followed for Hammer (often scripted by Sangster), including Maniac (1963), Nightmare and Paranoiac (both 1964), The Nanny and Hysteria (both 1965), before switching to color for Die! Die! My Darling (1965), Crescendo (1970), Straight on Till Morning, and Fear in the Night (both 1972).

Holt had worked successfully as an editor on a number of well-regarded features, including The Lavender Hill Mob and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, before being handed the reins to Sangster’s script, and he was determined to make the most of it. With famed cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Indiana Jones trilogy, Rollerball, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and numerous Ealing comedies) behind the lens, the pair devised intricate and breathlessly prowling camerawork utilizing split diopters, intricate tracking shots, and rack-zooms, delivering a sharp contrast to Terence Fisher’s more docile observances.

Consistently leading viewers’ eyes all around the frame (and boldly trailing Strasberg’s wheelchair pathways), Holt ratchets the tension up to an admirably unbearable pitch, with the element of water showcased as an alternately beautiful and terrifying force throughout, from the aforementioned pool to the surf-kissed cliffs where Penny and Robert forge their emotional bond. Holt only directed two more films for Hammer, The Nanny and 1971’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (which he died before completing, leaving Carreras to complete the feature).

The film opens with a music-free sequence where a Swiss lake (Les Bowie’s sterling matte painting of the Alps layered behind London’s Black Park) is being dragged for the body of a young woman (revealed to be Maggie), made extremely effective by its use of diegetic sound, the splashing of the hooks in the water (again) punctuating the silence. Once the opening titles appear, we are treated to composer Clifton Parker’s ominous mournful tones, adding melancholy and emotional heft, much as he did for 1957’s Curse of the Demon.

Thanks to the black-and-white cost-cutting, production designer Bernard Robinson was gifted a grander budget, which allowed for the essential swimming pool set-piece, as well as some gorgeous location shooting in Nice (including the airport), the Villa de la Garoupe, Cap d’Antibes, and Villefranche, before returning to stage the indoor scenes at the Elstree studio.

The daughter of legendary teacher Lee Strasberg (famously connected to “the Method” school of acting), Strasberg does an excellent job walking the fine line between fragile broken bird and Nancy Drew-type juvenile investigator, driven to uncover the truth even at the risk of her own life (and perhaps sanity). Having made her film debut six years earlier in Picnic (1955, the same year she originated the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway), this marked her first leading part and sparked a career that stretched out over 100 credits on screens large and small. Genre fans will probably remember her best as the unfortunate back-birthing victim of 1978’s The Manitou, but she also popped up in Sweet Sixteen, So Evil My Sister, and Bloody Birthday, as well as numerous episodes of Night Gallery, Tales of the Unexpected, and Tales from the Darkside,

Ronald Lewis (Mr. Sardonicus, released the same year) makes for a wonderfully mysterious leading man, as we consistently question his allegiances to Penny and/or Jane, while David Lean’s former bride Ann Todd (The Paradine Case) sublimely plays the loving and caring stepmother to perfection while allowing the waft of something underhanded and rotten to surround her benevolent facade. Hammer icon Lee, assuming a questionable French accent, is cast as the family doctor whose primary purpose is to point out how mentally unstable Penny is (even going so far as to suggest that her spinal paralysis, the result of a horse riding accident, is completely psychosomatic!) and serve as a red herring, all of which he fulfills.

Thanks to the superb production values, direction, and performances, as well as Sangster’s clever script (despite a number of “Hey, wait a minute…” logic-stretching realizations that pop up afterwards), Taste of Fear remains the pinnacle of Hammer’s thriller output and makes an excellent entry into the studio’s deeper cuts.


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes as part of our year-long "Son of Hammerland" series!  Check out our conversation HERE:

Taste of Fear is available now on Blu-ray, although you have to be willing to scout about a bit. While there are single-disc releases out there, your best value is to invest in Mill Creek’s whopping 20-film collection, Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection (currently retailing at $50), where you’ll also find such worthy under-the-radar offerings as The Snorkel, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, The Stranglers of Bombay, These are the Damned, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and the Peter Cushing Christmas treat Cash on Demand

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