Hammer studio was known for reinvigorating the horror film with its revisionist versions of Universal icons Frankenstein and Dracula along with providing a gaggle of sexy semi-dressed female vampires. But Hammer was more than just horror. The studio also made a series of suspense/crime films one of which is the 1961 thriller, “Scream of Fear.” Directed by Seth Holt with a script by Hammer main stay Jimmy Sangster the film contains its share of shocks closer in style to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than Hammer’s better known blend of monsters and vampires. I first watched this eerie atmospheric film years ago on a beat up rented VHS tape and finally got to watch it again recently thanks to a copy I found at a local library. (1)
The film opens with a prologue prior to the opening credits. It takes place in Switzerland; the police dragging a lake for a body, a woman is soon found and identified as Emily Frencham. We later find out she was traveling with her friend Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), together on vacation, when Emily, for reasons never explained, left her hotel during the night and ended up dead in the lake. Sometime later we meet Penny, a wheelchair bound young woman who returns, for the first time in ten years, to the creepy looking villa of her father on the French Riviera. Her father left England years ago moving to France after divorcing Penny’s mother. After her mother’s recent death and with her father remarried to a woman named Jane (Ann Todd), Penny comes to France meeting her step mother for the first time.
The film’s basic plot has been done many times before; a scheming individual or couple attempt to drive another person mad and kill him or her. Henri Georges Clouzot “Les Diaboliques” is arguably the best example, another is the earlier film,” Gaslight.” According to Penny’s stepmother her father was unexpectedly called away on some sort of business deal. Jane makes Penny feel at home but things go sour that very first night when Penny is awaken by banging shutters. She makes her way out of her bed and into her wheelchair then across the pool toward her father’s room. There she eerily sees a corpse sitting in a chair…her father’s! A corpse that no one else, her stepmother nor Bob, the family chauffer (Ronald Lewis) see. A similar situation happens again on another night. Is Penny going crazy? She gets an assists from Bob in hopes of getting to the bottom of just what is happening. Is someone trying to drive her crazy? After all, if her father’s dead, Penny will inherit everything. But if she’s dead, well everything goes to her father’s new wife. Like Clouzot’s classic thriller, this Jimmy Sangster scripted film plays its cards close to the vest, revealing a few surprising twists at its own pace. The film also stars Christopher Lee as the father’s doctor. Lee once made the statement that “Scream of Fear” was best film he ever made at Hammer.
Released only a year after “Psycho” it was considered by some another in the line of “Psycho” imitators. Sangster in his biography is vague about when he wrote the script, however in the early 1960’s a film that came out with any sort of vague suggestion of the Hitchcock classic was accused of being a rip-off. Other films at this time like Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and William Castle’s “Homocidal,” the latter probably a true Hitchcock rip-off, fell into the same bag of accusations.
Susan Strasberg was Broadway/Hollywood royalty. Daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg, Susan received her first recognition on the New York stage appearing in the Broadway version of “Picnic,” and soon after won the lead role in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Susan made her film debut in the Vincent Minnelli film, “The Cobweb” and then recreated her role as the teenager sister in “Picnic.” When George Stevens made the film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the director skipped over Strasberg and went with unknown Millie Perkins. (2) Susan also appeared in “Stage Struck” and “Kapo” before Hammer snagged her for “Scream of Fear.”
Released in England as “Taste of Fear,” the film was a huge hit. In the states, Columbia studios picked up the distribution rights to the film, changed the title and released the film a few months later the same year with the same financial success.
“Scream of Fear” was director Seth Holt’s second film yet his use of the camera and editing (he was a film editor before turning to directing) builds the shock and suspense sequences superbly by using close ups, zooms and some quick cuts. Holt would go on the make a few other interesting films, “Station Six-Sahara”, “The Nanny”, “Danger Route” and “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb”, the last completed by Michael Carreras due to Holt’s premature death at the age of 47. While none of his films are masterpieces they are interesting enough to demonstrate a potentially interesting career was cut short. He keeps this film tightly wound and tense for the entire short 81 minute running time.
(1) TCM had it on earlier this month.
(2) Its been said Stevens was fearful of having to deal with Strasberg’s famous parents if he hired her.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. ( www.classicfilmtvcafe.com) To view the complete blogathon schedule go to http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2013/09/coming-this-october-hammer-halloween.html.