Sunday, November 29, 2009

Excellent thriller from the Britain's Premiere House of Horror

Scream of Fear (aka "Taste of Fear") (1961)
Starring: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee
Director: Seth Holt

Wheelchair-bound Penny (Strasberg) returns to her wealthy father's house for the first time in ten years, only to be told by his new wife Jane (Todd) that he has gone away suddenly on a business trip. When her father's corpse starts to appear and disappear around the property, Penny enlists the help of hunky chauffeur Robert (Lewis) to help her prove her sanity.

"Scream of Fear" is a plot any fan of suspense and horror movies has encountered at least twice--a vulnerable woman seems to be losing her mind but in truth someone is trying to drive her insane--but it's rarely been done as well as it is here. This is truly one Hammer Films' great films and it's a crime that it took so long to get it on DVD.

Extremely well acted and brilliantly cast, every performer and every line they deliver in the film plays into the fact that no one in the household is quite who they seem and everyone is keeping at least one secret. Take Christopher Lee for example. He plays a French doctor who is a very insensitive cold fish, but is he cohoots with the bad guys or is he just a jerk? Or is there something going on under the surface that has yet to be revealed? With Lee, who split his screen time evenly between playing heroes and villains, it's impossible to guess until the Big Reveal at the end.

The film is also very well constructed and finely paced from a story perspective. From the opening scene to the twist-laden climactic final few minutes, "Scream of Fear" builds the tension and terror not with the "gotcha!" scares that are so popular with filmmakers these days, but through storytelling methods that are almost entirely relegated to the written medium these days; it builds its tension through character development and by continuially deeping the film's mysteries and by reversing, double-reversing and triple reversing the audience's expectations about exactly what is going on in the film. (I've seen a dozen or so movies built around the same formula as this one, so I thought I had the story figured out fairly early on, but then a twist made me doubt my conclusing... the a little seemingly throwaway detail made me think I'd been right... and another twist showed I was completely wrong... but then a third twist got me thinking I had been right from the outset... and so on, right up to the point where various plots, schemes and deceptions of the film's characters are revealed. (Although even after that, the film has one more twist to deliver....)

Too many writers these days are turning out suspense and horror scripts with "twist endings" that they think show how clever they are. Instead, all they end up showing is how little talent or how lazy they are, because their twist endings are hardly ever based in the story and their stories are weak and badly structured. Perhaps, if these hacks would use "Scream of Fear" instead of simply "Scream" as the film to emulate, they might be able to turn out decent work.

"Scream of Fear" is only available on DVD as part of the "Icons of Horror: Hammer Films" four movie pack, a collection of excellent movies that is well-worth the asking price.