Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hysterical Paralysis

SCREAM OF FEAR feels like it belongs somewhat apart from similar Hammer thrillers made during the post-PSYCHO/DIABOLIQUE period. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote a few of those other thrillers as well, like Freddie Francis’s NIGHTMARE and while this script may be in the upper tier of some of his efforts, a great deal of the credit should go to director Seth Holt (helmer of the Bette Davis vehicle THE NANNY), cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who never shot another movie for Hammer and is best remembered now for the first three Indiana Jones films) and most especially lead Susan Strasberg whose presence and inherent vulnerability elevate the film, released in 1961, above what it was probably intended to be. It was just released on DVD as part of a Hammer Films Icons of Horror set from Columbia and is definitely recommended.

After an unexplained prologue that shows a body being fished out of a lake, we pick up on wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Strasberg) returning to live with her father after ten years away in Italy with her now-deceased mother. After being met at the airport by chauffer Robert (Ronald Lewis, also in William Castle’s MR. SARDONICUS) Penny arrives at the house greeted by her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) who informs her that her father had to leave suddenly for business and should return in a few days. Penny’s already fragile state is compounded that night when she discovers the disturbing sight of her father’s corpse in an unused part of the house. Naturally, no one believes her. It doesn’t take long before Penny becomes suspicious of everyone around her. Can she trust that her stepmother is telling her the truth? Is she going insane? Where is her father, anyway? And what about family friend Doctor Gerrard (Christopher Lee with a French accent) who seems to be taking a little too much interest in Penny’s physical and mental state?

I certainly won’t get into spoilers, but it doesn’t take much to figure out that a few twists are going to occur in SCREAM OF FEAR (also known as TASTE OF FEAR) and given that most of the running time is set in one location with only four main characters it’s possible for just about anybody to determine some permutation of the plot revelations. Some may still come as a surprise, or at least they were for me. With a running time of only 81 minutes it knows how to play all its cards correctly and get out of Dodge before we get a chance to think about things too much—sure, afterwards it’s easy to wonder about how much of the suspense generated turns out to be a red herring, but so what? Holt gets some good tension out of the actors when necessary and the black & white visuals by Slocombe give it some nice additional punch—it’s easy to think of other such thrillers from this time frame that wouldn’t have bothered with such beats as the wheels of Penny’s wheelchair coming perilously close to the edge of the pool or the moodiness of the shadows as Penny finds herself alone in the house at night. There’s some very good underwater photography late in the film as well.

As for the lead actress, I remember being amazed by what Susan Strasberg did in PICNIC when I saw it a long time ago and looking over her filmography, dominated by countless TV guest shots, it’s surprising to see that she never quite reached the heights that some may have expected of her early on (but she did a ROCKFORD FILES? I’ll have to look for that one). I don’t know the state of her career at the time of SCREAM OF FEAR or if this was considered a step down but it’s hard to ignore that the intensity of her talent makes the film more than it may have been otherwise. The fragility of her persona seems totally believable…Though a supporting part billed below the title, Christopher Lee has one of his better roles of the period, given the chance in his relatively small amount of scenes to be more interesting than he was allowed to be in other Hammer films around this time (helps that he is allowed to play an actual character and given dialogue, for starters).

It’s a fairly creepy film ideal for viewing during the autumn months and its brief running time may make it just the thing to watch late at night, where I can imagine at one point in time it probably played on the late show somewhere, back when such a thing still existed. It’s not the most representative of Hammer from this period but it probably is one of the better ones and, even though the “We earnestly urge you to see this motion picture from the start!” seems to shamelessly pilfer from the PSYCHO campaign, the film itself holds up well in comparison, considering we’re talking about PSYCHO after all. I liked SCREAM OF FEAR when I saw it over a decade ago and I still do. I can’t say that this has been my response to every Hammer film that I’ve returned to, so this counts as a pleasant surprise.


Aaron W. Graham said...

I mostly remember Strasberg as the deaf mute in Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT, but I agree, she's a tremendously underrated actress.

There's scant mention of SCREAM OF FEAR (unseen by me) in Strasberg's memoirs, "Bittersweet", but she does say the screenplay was "well-written".

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Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


SCREAM OF FEAR, much as I like it, just doesn't seem like the sort of film that gets discussed at length in a memoir. She's still very good in it, though. You should take a look at it and I'll make it a point to finally see PSYCH-OUT!

Unknown said...

I caught up with this film on Sony's next boxed set and really enjoyed this one. I thought the scene where a frightened Penny falls into the swimming pool and almost drowns was very effective as we see everything from her point-of-view.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

J.D. --

Yeah, it's a really neat little film with a number of scenes like the one you mentioned that wind up surprisingly effective. It was clearly made by people who knew a few things about building suspense.

Unknown said...

I watched this last night and really enjoyed it -- a strikingly confident piece of filmmaking, almost more resembling a 1940's studio picture vs. a Hammer film. It's really due (as you note) to the contributions of DP Slocombe along with some great direction by Seth Holt -- the scenes of Strasberg exploring the grounds by herself are terrific (what great use of silence!). And she is really committed to her role, fascinating to watch. Having Christopher Lee underlit like Lugosi and speaking with a French accent helps things too. A fun movie that works well in a comfortably low-key, minor way. Good Halloween viewing!