Taste of Fear-1961
Starring-Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis
Scott’s Review #901
Reviewed May 21, 2019
Though Taste of Fear (1961) is a Hammer Production, a British film company primarily known hefty offerings in the horror genre, the film plays more like an intense and chilling thriller with a Gothic, ghostly feel rather than a full throttled horror display. The title was changed for US marketing purposes to Scream of Fear and neither the US nor the UK title quite works, both lacking the appropriate pizzazz that the film warrants. The result is a razor edge spellbinder with marvelous cinematography and more than a few surprise twists.
The action gets off to an exciting start as a female body is suddenly discovered in the waters of coastal Italy; a young woman has taken her own life by drowning. Soon after a wheelchair-bound heiress, Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) arrives at her father’s estate in the lavish French Riviera to bond with her new stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd), and await her father’s return from vacation. It is explained that the deceased woman was a close friend of Penny’s.
Penny distrusts her stepmother immensely but is not sure why since the woman is more than accommodating during her stay. Immediately, strange events begin to occur at a rapid rate, most notably seeing her father’s corpse in odd places around the house and the grounds. The body disappears when Penny calls for help leaving the members of the household questioning her sanity and Penny starting to agree. She befriends the handsome family chauffeur, Robert (Ronald Lewis) and the pair become determined to figure out what is going on.
In clever fashion, the audience knows that something is amiss but not what the entire puzzle will add up to, which is a great part of the viewing pleasure. Director Seth Holt enjoys toying with his viewers, keeping them guessing at every dark turn. The biggest questions are these: If Penny’s father is dead where is the body being hidden? Who is responsible and why? Why does Jane leave the house for drives every night? What does the family doctor (Christopher Lee) have to do with the story?
The best visual aspect of Taste of Fear is the black and white cinematography. This quality adds foreboding and brooding elements during the entire short running time of eighty minutes. The grand estate with its creepy nooks and crannies provides plenty of prop potential. A grand piano that seems to play by itself is pivotal to the story as is a murky pool, shockingly deep and unkempt for such a residence. Finally, the mansion boat house that may or may not contain lit candles takes center stage during the film.
The story telling is quick-paced and robust, never dragging. Layers unfold as the story progresses, but instead of overkill the developments are necessary as the conclusion comes into view. Assumptions as to which character’s motivations are devious begin to unravel. The illustrious dialogue crackles with spunk so that by the time we figure out what is going on we scratch our heads in disbelief finally surrendering to the film’s manipulations.
Where Taste of Fear falters slightly is only when an attempt to make the story completely add up is pondered. Liberties must be taken, happily so, as what could be deemed silly or superfluous instead results in thrilling fun. Only once or twice I thought the setup was too contrived, but just as quickly tabled the inquisition instead choosing to revel in the story.
The more than adequate cast performs their roles with professionalism and energy, always careful to make the unbelievable believable. Any film starring the legendary Christopher Lee is worthy of praise despite the actor only having a supporting role. Justice is eventually served though as his character becomes central to the plot. A fun fact is that Lee was quoted as saying: “Taste of Fear was the best film that I was in that Hammer ever made. It had the best director, the best cast and the best story.” This is not to be easily dismissed given the actor’s catalog of treasures.
A forgotten delight, Taste of Fear (1961) is a prime example of a film that does everything correctly. An excellent story, Gothic gloominess, and a foray for Hammer Production company into the then new genre of the psychological thriller. The piece is never over-the-top and is a production sure to make Hitchcock himself quite impressed.