I've been enjoying the hell out of revisiting some old Halloween chillers this last week. Much as I'm not that keen on most modern horror, the earlier ones are proving to be a real treat. The latest is the 1961 Hammer Studios film, Scream of Fear (also known as Taste of Fear), more thriller than horror to be sure, but a terrific film on all accounts. I read somewhere that reviewers tend to call Scream of Fear a mini-Hitchcock but producer/screenwriter Jimmy Sangster always identified his model as Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques. It's a better fit quite frankly. The story is deceptively simple - Penny, a wheelchair-bound young woman (played by Susan Strasberg, the daughter of famed acting guru, Lee), returns to her family home and begins to suspect her father's temporary absence maybe isn't so temporary after all. It doesn't help when she begins to see his dead body popping up and then disappearing in all sorts of unusual places around the estate.
The film was directed with immense polish and skill by Seth Holt, a former editor for Ealing Studios who moved to directing with the seldom-seen, but superb, Nowhere To Go (1959), a film we have in the FBW Black Vault. Scream of Fear was his second feature and it already seems like you're watching the work of a seasoned pro. The film also marked a slight departure for Hammer away from the Gothic horrors they were famous for and toward the modern thriller. The ensemble cast is excellent with great turns by Strasberg in a difficult role as Penny Lame (just made that up... the Lame part), Ann Todd (from Hitch's Paradine Case) playing her concerned, but possibly evil-bitch stepmother, Ronald Lewis as the friendly family chauffeur, and Hammer go-to actor Christopher Lee as the doctor who may or may not know more than he is telling.
Daddy?... Is that you?
Scream of Fear was photographed in deep contrast B&W by the Douglas Slocombe (of The Fearless Vampire Killers fame) and the movie drips with mood and atmosphere. Several spooky scenes are played for all they're worth, but Holt never pushes them over the top and into campy overstatement territory. The film succeeds where other thrillers sometimes fall flat due in part to the reserved and deft direction Holt manages to hang onto throughout. Hammer's subsequent black and white thrillers never quite recaptured the adroit refinement of this outstanding debut. Holt died in the early '70s, but not before he directed Bette Davis in another stellar and deeply creepy Hammer film, The Nanny (1965), a film we don't have on DVD, but should get. Christopher Lee called Scream of Fear the best Hammer ever made.... and he should know – he was in most of them.
Scream of Fear is on DVD in Hammer's Icons of Horror Collection with 3 other films. It is the definite standout in the set, but The Gorgon (1964) is probably also worth a look. I didn't love The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and haven't seen The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960).