Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mini Hitchcocks: Scream of Fear

Any serious fan of Hammer Films knows all about these juicy little gems, but for the more casual viewer who thinks of Hammer’s output as the Christopher Lee Dracula and Peter Cushing Frankenstein series, you’re in for quite a treat.

The film company itself coined the term “mini-Hitchcock” which had a two-fold meaning. These stories were modeled after the suspense films Psycho (and to a lesser degree, Vertigo), and were produced on an even lower budget than Psycho.

I’ve often compared these Women in Peril stories to some of the Gothic Romances of the same era. Scream of Fear (Taste of Fear in Britain) came out in 1961. Its mechanical plot twists borrow heavily from the aforementioned Hitchcock titles, but also from women’s suspense thrillers of the day. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree comes to mind.

Scream of Fear is the first and arguably the best of the series (which also includes Maniac, Paranoiac, and Nightmare, among others). Jimmy Sangster’s script is chock full of red herrings and surprise twists, some of them less plausible than others. Props go to director Seth Holt for making it all look classy and believable.

Susan Strasberg plays Penny Appleby, a wheelchair bound, dark haired waif in oversized Foster Grant sunglasses, who returns to the home on the French Riviera she has not visited in more than ten years. Here she meets her new stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd), Robert, the handsome chauffeur, and Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee), her father’s physician. Papa Appleby, however, seems to be missing. Or is he? Penny talks to him over the phone – the day after seeing his corpse propped up in a chair inside the pool house. Is Papa dead? Is Penny mad, or is something more sinister going on?

I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers and mysteries with clever twists and turns. This sort of movie makes me giddy and I can pop one of them in the DVD player several times a year. Others may throw up their hands in despair crying, “Give me a break!” Whichever the case, if you are unfamiliar with these twisted little thrillers and have a pining for lovely old black and white suspense films, track this one down. And as always, thank me later.

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