January 2, 2017

Taste of Fear (1961)

For some, it all began here.

The immense impact of PSYCHO, which shook the world of horror and suspense in a manner largely unexpected, meant that even Hammer, previously seen as world leaders, realised they were going to have to pull something spectacular out of the bag in order to stay on top. In the last three years, the American filmmakers that had influenced the studio so much, presumably galvanised by the success of their Brit protégés (not to mention the regular appearances of Stateside talent in UK productions) had not rested on their laurels, and ‘urban horror’ films were beginning to rival the Gothic’s for popularity.

Film stillAnd now the expatriate Hitchcock, arguably the single most respected director in the whole world, had got in on the act. Fatal, if you weren’t willing to follow by example. Luckily for Michael and James Carreras, they had on their staff a director with the quick-fire talents of Seth Holt, and in Jimmy Sangster, a screenwriter who knew how to take a cliché and turn it into something new, fresh and exciting. And so, the die was cast. With a formula that’s 55 percent Hitch, 40 percent Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and 5 percent Andre De Toth’s Dark Waters (1946), Hammer (whether by default or by design, but in truth the argument is redundant) made one of the most significant films in British horror history, if only because its own rampant plagiarism allowed several other directors (and, if we’re honest, the same ones that made it) to return to its themes time and time again, adding variations as and when the mood suited.

Viewing Taste Of Fear (or to give it its American title, Scream Of Fear) in its historical context, however, allows one to be much kinder to the film than many historians have been: we must remember that few English-speaking people had seen Clouzot’s film at this point, as the concept of ‘world cinema’ was still a fairly new one, and the French New Wave itself had only just begun. Therefore, Hitchcock aside, the first exposure many will have had to such a film will have been this one, or those that followed it, genuinely believing it to be in some way original and innovative. In truth, derivative it may be, but it cannot be possibly called predictable, because in the eyes of those (and there are many) who may still baulk at a film in a foreign language or who were simply unlucky enough in the 1960s to not see any, it invents half the things that late-night trash screenings are renowned for.

Film stillEvery single cliché that viewers of a certain age group (i.e. my own) will be familiar with is here: an old house in the countryside (often in the “South of France”, represented in this case by, yup, you guessed it, Black Park), a swimming pool and/or lake that seems to herald some dark, murky secret (indeed, the opening scene features several frogmen foraging in such a place), a dead relative or fiancée, a sinister doctor (Christopher Lee, and they don’t get more sinister than that) an uninhabited yet strangely moving wheelchair, a birdcage in a conservatory, an inheritance, a mentally fragile heroine and a case of  possible mistaken identity. You know the drill by now, as it’s been drilled in so many times. Not that it’s any less enjoyable for it.

What it is, without doubt, is an entertaining 90 minutes of suspense, atmosphere and beautiful photography that shrouds one firmly in its misty, watery world, and keeps even the most hardened viewer of such fare guessing right till the final five minutes. Is it a horror film? Well, yes, as much as Psycho, Homicidal or Cape Fear are. One can almost hear the advertising hyperbole, screaming promises of ‘thrills enough to jolt you out of your seat!!’ ‘new dimensions in terror!’ ‘shocks every five minutes!’ etc, and whilst these may have been overstating the case somewhat (the film is in no way as scary, by comparison, as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Sydney Hayers’ masterful Night Of The Eagle, both released the same year) it’s obvious that the intent on Hammer’s part was to frighten the audience every bit as much as they had with Dracula or The Curse Of Frankenstein, and that it’s fans of these films the movie is aimed at, whilst hoping to pick up the odd stray noir buff along the way. The actual campaign read “for maximum thrill, we earnestly urge you to see this motion picture from the start”- one wonders exactly how else they assumed one might attempt to see it, but apparently it was common practice then for people to enter the cinema halfway through the main feature, see the end, and then stay to see it all over again. Strange times indeed.

Film stillPart of the success of any film lies in the casting, and whilst her profile would never be this high again, the late Susan Strasberg (not that she was late, one should stress,  at the time of filming) makes a convincing leading lady. Always frail enough to gain the audience’s sympathy each time her late boyfriend’s extended family, with whom she has gone to stay, attempt to drive her ‘maaaaad’ and convince her she’s ‘seeing things’, she’s also strong enough to not be a total wet blanket (even in the obligatory slushy love moments) and duplicitous enough to keep her would-be-tormentors on their toes. Ann Todd excels in the role of the batty old matriarch: the first of many that would see as many fading Hollywood starlets of bygone decades drafted in as possible to up the profile, and to this day probably the best.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for hero Ronald Lewis, whose performance errs somewhere between disinterested, autopilot and charisma black hole here, never really making the viewer care about his intentions or his fate one way or the other. I should point out that in subsequent films, such as William Castle’s Mr Sardonicus (talk about sticking to what one knows!), which he clinched through Hammer’s Columbia connection, he actually acquits himself as a more forceful presence, but sadly, it doesn’t seem to have been enough to guarantee him a safe career (other than supporting appearances in several crime dramas) or a sense of personal happiness, something further demonstrated by his death by suicide in 1982 aged 53.  And then there’s Lee. What more can be said about Christopher Lee that hasn’t already been covered? Quite a lot actually, and this is one of the films in which he yields up a few surprises: if you want to find out more, watch it.

Film stillTo give Hammer (and their ad execs) their due here, they do actually pile on enough shocks to justify their somewhat overstated campaign, and one moment in particular will have you jumping out of your seat with alarming alacrity should you not be expecting it. I sort of half-was, but then again, underneath my supposedly ‘cynical’ (I can never see it myself) critic’s exterior, I’m a fan at heart and I’m always secretly hoping that such things will happen. Therefore I’m glad when they do.

It’s a shame TASTE OF FEAR has seemingly slipped into some kind of limbo, only creeping out onto DVD in 2008 a part of the poorly-distributed Region 1 ‘Icons Of Horror’ box set, as it really is a rather underrated chiller-thriller that actually seems, maybe due to its unreal ‘foreign’ setting’ to have worn better with time than some of its successors, love them though I do. One could almost imagine a modern-day remake being quite easy (although such things shouldn’t be encouraged- did you see what the sods did to The Initiation Of Sarah?) as the plot more or less revolves around the bare bones of one of the most popular strands of the post-modern horror/suspense film.

Film stillOne might argue, of course, that its immediate success didn’t mean Sangster had to repeat practically the same plot ad infinitum for the next thirteen-fifteen years on both sides of the Atlantic, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You can modify it slightly though- Fear In The Night, A Taste Of Evil, the list is (almost) endless. And for those of you who’d still rather watch Diabolique, then watch Diabolique. Just don’t keep going on about it every five minutes. Yes, that’s right- like wot I do.

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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.