We recently picked up the Indicator Blu-Ray release of Hammer’s 1961 suspense thriller Taste of Fear (known as Scream of Fear in the US—that’s the name I usually use). This is a film I greatly enjoy, and have written about before: a wonderful and underappreciated movie that should be better known than it is.
After rewatching the film and marvelling at it again, I did a little casual research on the movie, and on its screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster. Sangster is probably best known for writing several of the color gothic horrors in Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, but it seems that suspense and psychological horror were his primary loves. And he also seemed to have some favorite plots and themes. So I discovered, after indulging myself with a Sangster mini-marathon of three films with quite a bit in common.
All of the films I watched feature a young woman, the daughter of a wealthy family, who returns home after a long absence. She has a stepparent she doesn’t quite trust, and someone in the house is missing. When strange things happen, her accounts are dismissed because of her “imaginative”—code for “mentally fragile”—personality. Water motifs figure prominently in all three films, as do exotic locales in two of them (three, if you consider the San Francisco Bay Area “exotic”).
Let’s take a look.
Scream of Fear (1961)
Let’s start with the first (in my viewing history) and the best. After the death of her mother, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasburg) travels from Switzerland to the Cote D’Azur, where her father lives. She’s not seen her father in ten years, since her parents divorced. Her father is away, so his chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis) picks her up from the airport. At her father’s seaside villa she meets her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) for the first time. She also eventually meets Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee), her father’s friend, who seems to constantly show up for lunch or dinner.
While waiting for her father to come back home, Penny begins “hallucinating” his corpse….
I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling it; I will say it’s got some great twists. I’ll also say this film has one of the creepiest villains in my movie-watching experience, and excellent performances from all the leads.
Director Seth Holt keeps firm control of the audience’s point of view; we know everything we need to know, perhaps without realizing it. It’s a testament to Sangster’s screenplay and Holt’s direction that Scream of Fear stands up to multiple watches. The first time seeing it, you get a true shock; on subsequent viewings, you admire how beautifully yet subtly hints and omens are scattered throughout the film. You just interpreted them wrong the first time. Holt didn’t cheat.
Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shoots in noirish monochrome, with lots of high-contrast light and shadow. The camera is always moving, and the scenes are notably three-dimensional. There’s a lovely shot of Jane pushing Penny in her wheelchair down a longish narrow corridor before Penny grabs the wheels and shoots away as Jane stops in shock. It’s like a telescope, and the scene sticks in my mind. Clifton Parker’s eerie soundtrack helps ramp up the tension—sometimes with silence.
So yeah, it’s a great movie. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
The Snorkel (1958)
The Snorkel, another Hammer production, is co-written by Sangster, and based on a novel by actor Anthony Dawson. This one is set in a villa in the Italian Riviera rather than the French Riviera, and we’ve got a sketchy stepfather rather than a sketchy stepmother. Like Scream of Fear, water and the ocean figure prominently in the film—as you might have guessed, from the title.
Candy Brown goes to school in England, and comes home to Italy on a school break. She’s accompanied by her traveling companion/chaperone Jean Edwards. The two arrive to discover that Candy’s mother has been found dead: asphyxiated by gas in a sealed room, locked from the inside, seemingly alone. Naturally, it’s deemed a suicide by everyone—except Candy, who immediately accuses her stepfather, Paul Decker, of murder. Even though he’s supposedly away, in France. Now, Candy has to prove her claims.
The Snorkel doesn’t hold up as well as Scream of Fear, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a Columbo-style inverted mystery: not a “whodunit”, but a “will he get away with it,” with the murder happening before the opening credits roll. As with the pre-credits opening of Scream of Fear, the viewer is dropped in media res, not quite sure what’s going on—though in this case we get the picture quickly enough. Like Columbo, the murder method is devious and implausible, the kind of thing that only shows up in detective fiction. But that’s okay; I like Columbo.
The real tension of the movie is the clash of wills between murderous Paul Decker, and young Candy, who knows Decker murdered her father: she witnessed it, when she was eight. And she’s sure he killed her mother, too. But no one will believe her now, any more than they did then. She’s such an imaginative child, they all say….
Peter Van Eyck’s Paul is handsome, charming, threatening, and creepy. Mandy Miller is quite good as Candy, though she’s a little too old for the part – from Candy’s behavior, and the way the adults treat her, it seems like the role was intended for a girl of maybe ten or twelve, while Miller looks more like she’s fourteen or sixteen. Betta St. John plays Candy’s companion/chaperone Jean, who almost sees something in Candy’s accusations, but is blinded by her attraction to Paul. Paul, of course, puts the moves on her – two days after his wife’s suicide! I said he was creepy.
Director Guy Green does a competent job, and gets fine performances from the actors. Jack Asher’s cinematography is moody and dramatic when it needs to be, though I think not as dynamic as Slocombe’s work on Scream of Fear.
The movie is also flawed by not having the dark, karmic ending it should have had, though the film does tease you with it. But the filmmakers backed off at the last minute, probably to appease the censors.
The Snorkel came out in 1958, right in the middle of The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Blood of the Vampire—all written by Sangster—so as a Hammer film it’s probably even more overlooked than Scream of Fear. That’s too bad, because while it’s not as strong as Stream of Fear, it’s still a suspenseful, if somewhat dated, ninety minutes. Check it out if you get a chance. It’s on YouTube; there’s also an Indicator Blu-ray release.
A Taste of Evil (1971)
As you might guess from the title, this ABC TV movie is Sangster’s American rehash of Taste of Fear (and knowing that is the only way the title makes sense). If you have seen Taste of Fear/Scream of Fear before, then there will be several scenes in A Taste of Evil that will be quite familiar to you. They even throw in a murky pond (and a bathtub, which hearkens back to…. well, let’s just say another film that’s in this movie’s family tree). But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will guess the twist – not too quickly, at least.
Susan, a twelve (or thirteen; they say both in the movie) year old girl, is raped by an unknown man during her wealthy parents’ lawn party. She goes catatonic after the event, unable to recall her assailant’s identity. After spending seven years recovering in a Swiss clinic, she returns to the family’s San Francisco Bay Area estate. In the meantime, her father has died, and her mother has remarried, to Susan’s “Uncle Harold,” who was also at the party on that fateful day. And of course, since this is a Sangster film, Susan immediately begins “hallucinating” and “imagining things”….
It’s pretty good, and quite dark, for a ’70s TV movie. No doubt it packs more punch if you haven’t seen Scream of Fear previously, but even if you have, there are still a few spooky and startling scenes. Director John Lewellyn Moxey also directed The Night Stalker, and he invests A Taste of Evil with a suitably gothic mood, complete with thunder, lightning, gusts of wind, and spooky shots through banisters as women in nightgowns run down hallways and up and down stairs in a darkened mansion. If a movie can chew scenery, this one occasionally does—but I mean that in a good way.
The ending is a bit different from Scream of Fear, an effective variation that I quite enjoyed. I found some remarks in another blog post that suggest Sangster might have ripped this ending off from yet another of his “gaslit young women” films, one that I haven’t yet seen. Apparently, Sangster had no compunction about recycling his plots!
The cast is small, but stellar. Barbara Parkins plays Susan Perkins, radiating the same mix of fragility and steeliness as Penny Appleby, especially as she endures everyone questioning her sanity. Barbara Stanwyck shines (as she always does) playing Susan’s mother Miriam. Parkins and Stanwyck dominate the movie, but the male supporting cast is good, too. William Windom plays Susan’s stepfather Harold; he’s a bit underused here, but gives his customary fine performance. Roddy McDowall is charming as Dr. Michael Lomas, a physician and family friend. Arthur O’Connell rounds out the main cast as the loyal but perhaps not-too-sharp servant, John.
Fun, and definitely worth a watch. You can find it on YouTube.
So there you have it—three interesting suspense films from the pen of Jimmy Sangster. The first one, in my opinion, is not to be missed, and the other two provide pleasant ways to spend a evening. So make yourself a big bowl of popcorn, and have a Sangster mini film fest of your own!
All movie posters/publicity images from IMDB.
2 thoughts on “Three Thrillers by Jimmy Sangster”
Marvelous post. I knew about Jimmy Sangster but I didn’t know about this movie. Thanks.
You’re welcome! Scream of Fear is a wonderful movie. I hope you get a chance to watch it, and that you enjoy it as much as I did!