Hammer is a studio synonymous with horror…primarily gothic style horror featuring the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Give them Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, a couple of buckets of bright red blood, and some buxom female co-stars in costumes that were a few sizes too small for them and they’ll give you one heck of a scary flick. However, the studio did do some more contemporary tales of horror from time to time…such as our film today. It’s 1961’s Scream of Fear, or as it’s known in its native land, Taste of Fear.
The film centers on a young heiress, Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg). Penny is confined to a wheelchair after a recent accident and is returning home to see her father and meet his new wife, Jane (Ann Todd). Unfortunately, at the time she arrives, Penny’s father is away on business, according to her new stepmother. However, late one night Penny is awakened and rolls her chair out to the estate’s summerhouse where she see’s what appears to be her father’s corpse sitting in a chair.
Of course, nobody believes her. Both Jane and family friend Dr. Gerrard (Christopher Lee) feel she must be hallucinating. However, the sightings of her father continue and she begins to believe that Jane and the Doctor must have murdered the old man and are now trying to make Penny appear insane so they can cash in on the inheritance. Therefore, Penny enlists the help of chauffeur Bob (Ronald Lewis), who she’s also become romantic with, to help locate the body of her father. They do locate the body at the bottom of a murky swimming pool, but as they go to inform the police of their findings, a new twist begins to reveal who the actual culprit is.
I’m going to stop there. Though I’m not someone who usually goes nuts trying to avoid spoilers in my reviews, revealing the twist here would have quite an impact on a new viewers enjoyment of this film. So I’m going to leave a few things a mystery. Since I really dug the twist, it’s the least I can do. This film really does a magnificent job of leading the viewer down a certain course and then pulling the rug out from under you. It’s one of the film’s greatest strengths.
As I said earlier, Hammer was always known more for the gothic style horror films. Those films always have fantastic atmosphere. In this film, even though we have a modern setting, the atmosphere is still a key component to making this creepy little story work. I don’t know if it was for budgetary reasons or style, but the decision to make this movie in black and white was definitely a plus. I usually think of Hammer films as bloody and colorful, but here the black and white is so effectively used…especially in the moments where we get fleeting glimpses of Penny’s dead father.
There’s a part of me that was a bit unsure as to if I should include this film in my Halloween series. It’s a bit more of a psychological thriller that has some horror elements than it is a full-blooded horror fiIm. However, the shock moments in this film work so well, it’s almost a crime not to call it a horror film. Some may find that the film moves slowly, at times, but it does a wonderful job of building the suspense and mystery…which just makes the twist all the more effective.
The cast is wonderful. No surprise, Christopher Lee does a fantastic job bringing his usual creepy charisma to the proceedings. Many sources claim that Lee considered this the best film that Hammer ever made. The real standout, though, is Susan Strasberg. There is both an innocence and an air of mystery about her approach to Penny…not to mention a bit of a sinister streak. Ultimately, whether or not the movie works depends on Strasberg’s performance and she does a superb job.
While I love Hammer’s take on monsters and blood-suckers, it is wonderful to see a bit different approach from them. While this film is unusual compared to the studio’s gothic horror stories, there’s still no denying that it has the Hammer touch when it comes to eerie-ness and atmosphere. It’s proof that the studio didn’t always need bloody fangs and ladies in corsets to make a stylish piece of horror.