AKA SCREAM OF FEAR
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 81 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Wheelchair-bound heiress and neurotic Penny Appelby arrives at the Cote D’Azur. She’s come to live with her estranged father following the death of her nurse Maggie who drowned six weeks before in a Swiss lake. However, her father is away though her stepmother Jane, who she is meeting for the first times, proves to be quite welcoming. On her first night however, she sees a light in the summerhouse and upon investigation, sees her father sitting there, apparently dead. Others can find nothing there and tell her she must have imagined it. She later sees his body in the library and then again in the pool. Could somebody, or some people, be trying to drive her insane, or is she just going mad herself….
Christopher Lee once said that: “Taste of Fear was the best film that I was in that Hammer ever made. It had the best director, the best cast and the best story”. With all due to respect to Mr. Lee, I wouldn’t go anywhere near as far as that. It’s a highly atmospheric, sometimes chilling and beautifully shot suspense thriller that sees Hammer virtually throw away their horror movie template for their first modern day chiller since Quatermass 2 [though you could say that Stop Me Before I Kill has horror elements], whose chief influence seems to be not so much Psycho as Les Diaboliques. However, it’s also one of those films that surprises and even impresses you with its twists and turns, but ends up not making a whole lot of sense when you think about it. I was impressed greatly by the movie [though I’d seen it once before and remembered it to be scarier than it actually is] while I watched it, but as I write this review, the basic story doesn’t hold up much at all in the cold light of day, as if screenwriter Jimmy Sangster just hadn’t thought things through, or just hoped that audiences wouldn’t notice or care. I don’t always consider plot to be that important, but a film like Taste Of Fear, which hinges on dramatic story twists towards the end, can’t help but be scrutinised, especially if you like to ponder upon a movie after you’ve watched it, not to mention if you’re going to write about it! For much of its length though, Taste Of Fear does work, and I suppose that’s what’s most important!
Sangster had originally written what was first called See No Evil for Rank producer Sydney Box, to be directed by Ralph Thomas, but Box suffered a heart attack. The project was moved to Box’s brother in law Peter Rogers to produce, but Sangster, thinking that the Carry On series producer would never find time to make it, bought it back and took it to Hammer, where it was re-titled Taste Of Fear because MGM owned the previous title, and Sangster was allowed to produce it himself. The film was shot in and around Nice, where Winston Churchill’s arrival caused the closure of the airport and shooting to be held up, and at Elstree Studios because the main swimming pool couldn’t be realised at Bray. Star Susan Strasberg had her domineering, Svengali-like manager, who was also her mother, on set, and she would either nod her approval or shake her head, which meant another take. Eventually director Seth Holt, who probably got the job because of his taut 1958 suspenser Nowhere To Go, got her to leave. Re-titled, for some reason, Scream Of Fear in the US, Taste Of Fear received better reviews than normal for Hammer, though was only a moderate commercial success in the UK and the US. It was a huge hit in some Continental countries though, inspiring Hammer and Sangster to make a few more movies in a similar view. In 2013, a remake was announced to be directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, but nothing has been heard since. If it is made with care, restraint and some tidying up of the story’s illogicalities, then I can’t say that I’m opposed to it.
The opening, set on a Swiss lake [pretty good matte paintings of the mountains by the way, which I’m not sure too many would notice], has an eerie and tranquil beauty about it, the only sounds being birds singing until we see a close-up of the body that’s been found and the music kicks in. I’m not sure that it’s made clear that the body is of the heroine’s nurse even when she explains that she committed suicide, but the scene becomes important towards the end so it’s certainly not irrelevant. We then cut to Penny arriving at her new home, and, while you immediately expect to feel her vulnerability because she’s in a wheelchair, these early scenes, where she’s virtually pampered by those around her, almost make it seem nice for her that she can’t walk. Aside from the usage of the word “cripple” which doesn’t bother me anyway though will no doubt offend some, the treatment of disability in this movie seems quite psychologically astute and not at all condescending. Penny remains a strong personality even when she’s being scared out of her wits and seems almost helpless, and it certainly isn’t long before she’s seeing her father’s body all over the place, in scenes which are eerie but are more effective in their build-ups than their actual climaxes, which seem slightly muted. These buiild-ups work so well partly because of Douglas Slocombe’s highly effective monochrome cinematography which does odd things without seeming to actually be showy like having Penny’s face in darkness rather than the usual light when she’s investigating noises, piano playing and mysterious candles at night.
With neither her stepmother Jane, nor a certain Dr. Pierre Gerrard who always seems to turn up after Penny has had a fright, believing her and instead saying that she’s mad, it’s up to Robert the chauffeur to aid her, though he seems to switch back and forth from believing her or not, which seems quite realistic I suppose. The movie slows down just a little too much – just when it should be beginning to turn the screw – around the middle to show their flowering relationship, which is nonetheless quite well written by Sangster and doesn’t feel forced. Then….well, I’m not going to give everything away don’t worry….but Penny is killed and we follow the villains for a while as they now have the family inheritance. Now the film would have worked perfectly well if the final section had had, for example, the killer’s guilt coming back to haunt them in some way, though we still get a typical, down to earth, dogged French police inspector who is obviously far more on the ball than he initially seems to be. Instead, we get another twist which is quite frankly ludicrous and just had me asking questions like; Why do people decide to sit in a wheelchair which is positioned in the most precarious place possible? And why does someone stay “in character”even when they’re on their own and even when they are in great danger?
O well. Most of the other aspects of the movie just about make up for the script defects. The main set is brilliantly utilised in a film which seems largely based around water, and its size helps to give the film a more expansive than usual look and feel for a Hammer picture despite featuring just four characters for much of the time. I’ve already mentioned it, but I’m going to praise Slocombe’s photography again, as it’s such a good example of how great black and white can be and how it can have qualities you don’t get in colour. Perhaps the best shot scene is when Robert is exploring the swimming pool for a body and you get murky darkness [God that pool needs a clean] but with shafts of light coming from above, a scene that benefits from being virtually silent, though the cinematography even subtly seems to give the viewer clues as to later developments. I don’t think that it’s for nothing, for example, that one character’s face is often dark on one side and light on the other. It really shows what a well put together movie this is in most respects, along with Holt’s direction which uses a far wider variety of angles than, say, Terence Fisher would utilise. You even get some lengthy POV shots, but the film remains quite elegant in its look.
Susan Strasberg is as sympathetic a heroine as you could wish for in a movie like this and her performance really is very layered. Stop Me Before I Kill’s Ronald Lewis and Ann Todd show themselves to be highly adept at seeming to be nice while hinting that they may not be all that they seem. Christopher Lee’s role is very small and hampered by the fact that the actor has decided to sometimes speak in a very half-hearted French accent. Clifton Parker’s score has some great eerie use of strings in a couple of horror sequences and a nicely melancholy main theme, though sometimes gets just a tad comical in moments of excitement. It’s a good effort though. Taste Of Fear is one of those movies that really is very good indeed until you start to think about it, whereupon it sadly falls apart like a deck of cards. It’s still a decent example of a kind of creepy mystery thriller which just isn’t made very often nowadays, and I really don’t know why, as I reckon modern audiences would enjoy being wound up and manipulated by them as older moviegoers were.