TASTE OF FEAR: Gothic Family Secrets

Taste of Fear. 1961. Directed by Seth Holt. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster.
Starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee, & Fred Johnson.
Hammer Films/Falcon Films.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.

posterFrom about the mid ’50s up and into the ’70s, Hammer Films were known well for their often Gothic-styled horror movies, known affectionately then and certainly now as Hammer Horror. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who plays the role of Dr. Pierre Gerrard in this film, were staples of these movies, as well as directors like Terence Fisher and others. Too many good titles to name. However, those of us horror hounds who’ve seen more than our fair share probably know Hammer best from their versions of stories about the classic monsters like Dracula (in various forms), Frankenstein, The Mummy, and then there’s stuff like One Million Years B.C. and Rasputin, the Mad Monk.
In fact, Lee is quoted as saying that he felt Taste of Fear was Hammer Films’ best production, from the top on down. And I have to say, much as I love a lot of Hammer Horror this Seth Holt-directed, Jimmy Sangster-scripted Gothic mystery is at the top of the heap; if not the decorative star.
Both chilling and also sly, the further you get into the plot, the less sure you are of who’s keeping the biggest secret from whom. And that’s not frustrating, it is totally compelling. With a grimly fun story that keeps you guessing and the backdrop of a perfect Gothic estate, Taste of Fear also contains a measured performance from Susan Strasberg as the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleboy; her journey towards the truth is the viewer’s next nightmare.
pic3That Gothic feel is twofold. First in terms of the large house, the type of place you’d expect to be in a film such as this one. It gives Holt and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (1945’s Dead of Night, later went on to do Raiders of the Lost ArkIndiana Jones and the Temple of DoomIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade; plus plenty more) one huge location to turn into a haunted playground of memories. Furthermore, the characters make for a perfect Gothic cast, from the jet-set father supposedly away on business, his paralysed daughter who gets left with her new stepmother, a chauffeur who may or may not know of deeper, darker family secrets, and a suspicious doctor. Sangster’s writing is excellent. These characters alone are interesting enough to propel the simple plot. And in no way is simple a bad thing. Sangster is able to give us interesting characters and tons of suspense, which Holt draws out to grasp the viewer.
Cinematography is the biggest reason to love this movie. Slocombe is a genius, and Holt’s directorial choices only help make his work better. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is striking. More than that the camerawork itself should be noted. At certain points in a few scenes, Slocombe puts us directly in the perspective of Penny using POV shots. One is after she topples into the pool, a very neat shot from out of the water; another while she rolls in her chair, slowly, so that you almost feel your heart pound in place of hers. Also, there are these intense closeup shots of eyes and faces throughout the film, such as when we watch Penny discovering the corpse of her father around the house and her scream literally fills the screen. But what these shots of the eyes and faces, notably in fear, do is make that fear real for the viewer. It’s a great technique and heightens the frayed emotion of Penny at every turn.
pic1The overall haunting imagery is what will keep this movie fresh in your mind. After Penny starts to see her father’s corpse, apparently, staring at her in a deathly pose, she naturally begins to have emotional and mental troubles. This begins her awful paranoia, the questioning of her own sanity. Using those POV shots, Holt and Slocombe place us in a very psychologically fragile perspective. This imagery helps us feel embedded in the story and the idea of secrets. Everybody is hiding something, and until late in the story we’re not entirely sure whose is what or exactly why they’re hiding anything. Without spoiling anything, as the story unfolds nobody is who they seem, and the writing keeps us figuratively in the dark, right to the most tense, effective moment when the rug gets pulled out from under our feet. There’s a reason for everything.
Even if you feel a little tricked by what you’ve seen, isn’t that the job of a film: to trick you into believing that what you’re seeing is real?
My favourite scene is the underwater pool scene when Mr. Appleby is seemingly found at the bottom. The cinematography is perfect, as we wade through the water with the character. The actor playing Appleby is stone-faced, eyes open, with a snarl which slowly settles over the viewer. We gaze into his stare to a point it becomes terribly unsettling. This scene has always stuck with me since seeing the film a few years back.
pic2-1Taste of Fear has a great performance as its crowned jewel: Susan Strasberg. She doesn’t oversell the screams or the paranoia, she hits every note so beautifully on the head. Moreover, her convincing portrayal of a young woman going mad – or is she? – plays to the writing so well that most viewers, now and then, probably would never guess the big twist. If you do it’s still an enjoyable ride.
Too many people pass over classic movies these days because they’re far too immersed in shitty modern style. Lots of great modern horror, I don’t mean there isn’t, but I’ve come across too many supposed film fans who’ve barely seen anything before 1985. It’s absurd. So go back and watch some of these Hammer flicks, especially this one. I forgot to mention that it’s also got one of my favourite scores from the ’60s, so that’s another added bonus – Clifton Parker (Night of the Demon) gives us a load of cracking pieces that pound away, relentless, attacking the nerves and at other moments whisks us away to a dreamy landscape.
Do yourself a favour, experience Taste of Fear, which is also known under the title Scream of Fear. It’s a Gothic horror with a solid dose of psychological terror to boot. The actors will keep you sticking around for the story, and the writing’s fantastic. A underrated bit of cinema from 1961 that we should all be revisiting. Particularly during late October.

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