Scream of Fear (1961) Selt Holt

Scream

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.

scream-fear-corpseThe 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.

Scream1Released 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.

FOOTNOTES:

(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.

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14 comments on “Scream of Fear (1961) Selt Holt

  1. This is my favorite of the “Hitchcockian” Hammer suspense thrillers, and I have a poster for the film hanging in my house. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen about ten years ago at a repertory theater in Milwaukee (it was part of a double-bill with “Revenge of Frankenstein” – a perfect Friday night at the movies!). The audience became engrossed in the film very quickly, with lots of heated discussion as they filed out afterward. Thanks for the great write-up!

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    • John Greco says:

      Jeff, This was my third viewing of this film and it still works well. The atmosphere and the many twists in the storyline continue to hold your attention. Too bad about Seth Holt’s premature death, I think he had a nice feel for the genre.

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  2. Rick says:

    John, in my house, this is known as “the swimming pool movie” because we found that dark, foreboding swimming pool to be the centerpiece of this well-written, tension-filled drama. For me, this rates with THE SNORKEL as Hammer’s best twisty suspense film (NIGHTMARE isn’t far behind). The DVD of SCREAM OF FEAR is available in an excellent boxed set called HAMMER FILMS: THE ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION. It also includes the aforementioned SNORKEL, the powerful NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER (ignore the title!), the nifty CASH ON DEMAND (also reviewed part of this blogathon), Joseph Losey’s cult film THERE ARE THE DAMNED, and others. This was a great pick for the Hammer blogathon.

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    • John Greco says:

      Rick, A library copy of the box set was my second viewing of this film. Also watched most of the others at the time. NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, CASH ON DEMAND and THESE ARE THE DAMNED are all fascinating films. For some reason I did not watch SNORKEL. WIll have to search it out.

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  3. John, I saw SCREAM OF FEAR a while back, and I agree, it’s a nifty little thriller! It’s always nice to see Susan Strasberg onscreen with wonderfully wicked twists. No wonder it’s compared favorably to DIABOLIQUE! Excellent review, John, as always, and Happy Halloween for the Hammer Blogathon!

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    • John Greco says:

      Hey Dorian, thanks for stopping by. I have seen this film about three times, maybe four and it never get old or boring. I agree about Strasberg, She is always a treat to watch. Thanks and Happy Halloween!!!!

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  4. Kevin Deany says:

    Probably the best of their black and white suspense thrillers. I’m telling you the old noggin is fading in its old age – I’ve seen this several times but I always forget the twist, and it floors me every time. (Or maybe I’ve just seen too many movies, and unlike my younger years, I don’t recall so easily. )So I’ve seen the film three times now and am always impressed by the clever, Swiss watch-like plotting. A true gem. Thanks for picking this one.

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    • John Greco says:

      Kevin, thanks for the comments. I too think this may be Hammer’s best B&W suspense film though I have to admit I like CASH ON DEMAND quite a bit too. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. I have not seen this movie since I was a kid. I remember not being altogether certain of what was going on, but, geesh it scared me. Never forgot that feeling.

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  6. John Greco says:

    I can definitely see a young kid being spooked out by this film. It’s all pretty cool. Hope you get the opportunity to see this one again. Thanks Patricia!!!

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  7. John, one of the things I have realized during this blogathon is that I have not seen many Hammer films! Particularly, I haven’t seen the crime films such as this one. It sounds yummy, suspense-wise, and I think I have been missing out. It’s very telling that Christopher Lee believed it to be his best film for Hammer — amazing! I’m going to have to search my library too! Wonderful review — thanks for the heads-up for something new-to-me that I know I will like a lot.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hammer’s suspense/crime films are quite good. Above Rick mentions Hammer’s THE ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION which is a great set to dig into. I still have a lot of Hammer films to catch up on. THanks and sorry for the delayed response.

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  8. Judy says:

    I’m no fan of Hammer horror, but their suspense films do sound interesting from your reviews of them, John. Sounds as if Psycho sparked quite a trend!

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy, As I mentioned to Becky the HAMMER ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION has some very good choices including SCREAM OF FEAR. Thanks!

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