Sunday, April 14, 2024

House in Marsh Road, The (1960)

... aka: Invisible Creature
... aka: La casa vengadora (The Avenging House)
... aka: O Fantasma da Mansão (The Ghost of the Mansion)

Directed by:
Montgomery Tully

There are actual writers and then there are eternally aspiring writers. The former tend to actually write things. It doesn't matter what they're writing, if they ever complete whatever it is they're writing, whether or not anyone actually reads whatever it is they're writing, or if they even feel the need to share whatever it is they're writing in the first place. They are simply compelled to write. Whatever. Whenever. It's sort of a compulsion. As for the terminal aspirants, they stay in a perpetual planning stage. No, not today, tomorrow and, if not tomorrow, then next week, or next year. One day. Some day. When they've got the time, or the energy, or the inspiration, or the support. These poor, misunderstood souls have all of this talent and all of these brilliant ideas swimming inside of their heads, yet can never seem to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard to prove it. Really, the bottom line is that some people do while others do not, and probably don't ever even actually plan on it regardless of what they claim.

Having dreams is a great thing, but sometimes real life responsibilities prevent us from fully achieving those, or make us only be able to work toward them incrementally, hoping the clock doesn't run out before it happens. I totally get it. But the thing with otherwise unemployed aspiring whatever's in a lengthy state of neutrality is that someone in their immediate orbit is going to have those beleaguered career ambitions hoisted upon their shoulders. Planning on writing the next big story or novel or script doesn't pay the bills, after all. Someone else is going to need to literally buy that person time, whether it be a friend, family member or lover / spouse. It's a long standing joke in Hollywood that every other person you meet is an aspiring screenwriter yet none of these "next big things" can seem to produce a single completed script when pressed. Makes one wonder if most of these permanently idle aspiring artists aren't really just run of the mill scammers feigning interest in the arts as a means to be lazy and take advantage of others.

You may be wondering what any of the above has to do with an old, creaky British horror film, but it's simple: The person I've just described above is the epitome of the would-be writer at the center of this particular film. David Linton (Tony Wright) is planning on writing a novel. And it's gonna be a great one, he swears! Meanwhile his bitter and understandably fed-up wife, Jean (Patricia Dainton), is the one who's had to continually pick up odd jobs (her current one is a part time gig at a dress shop) and put food on the table as David discusses and discusses some more what his big plans are. But he promises, just six more months of peace and quiet and he'll finally have his long-overdue masterpiece. David uses the standard "If only you'd believe in me..." guilt trip gaslighting routine to make his wife feel like she's the bad guy in this scenario for expecting anything out of him. In actuality, she's been patient and very supportive. Too supportive, in fact.

As the couple wait for David to actually do something, they've had to essentially live as squatters, going from hotel to hotel, never paying for it and then just running off to the next place whenever the bill finally arrives. Oh yeah, and David also happens to be a big drunk of top of all that. What little money he does bring in is spent entirely on booze.

The couple catch a lucky break when Jean's aunt passes away and bequeaths a residential property called Four Winds along with a thousand pounds to her niece. Now they'll at least have a roof over their heads and a little bit of money to get settled in. Jean agrees to give her husband (even more) time to write his book, while his grumpy ass just sulks around complaining about all of the dust and "old junk" (which actually looks pretty nice!) that's been left there. Any redeeming qualities this man supposedly has are completely lost on me, and he only gets worse from here. Come on Jeanie, you can do way better than this!

On move-in day, attorney Richard Foster (Derek Aylward), who's tasked with giving them the keys to their new home and showing them around, is curiously leery and can't get the hell out of there soon enough. He ignores strange noises, a door closing on its own, a chair scooting across the floor and inexplicable gusts of cold wind that seem to come from nowhere. Housekeeper Mrs. O'Brien (Anita Sharp-Bolster), who used to work for the late aunt, is hired to help straighten the place up, and apparently she's the only lady in town who's willing to come there. Even so, she insists on leaving before dark. As she explains, the home is haunted by a poltergeist called Patrick, who is generally benevolent but can be nasty toward people who deserve it.

David is, of course, above such "supernatural nonsense" and he also can't seem to keep out of a local pub called The Plough long enough to help around the house or start his book. While out drinking and socializing, he strikes up a conversation with builder and property dealer Morris Lumley (Sam Kydd - ISLAND OF TERROR). When David mentions that he's a writer but can't really type, his new drinking buddy recommends a local divorcee named Valerie Stockley (Sandra Dorne - ALIAS JOHN PRESTON), who he add is quite the "dish." Morris also makes an offer on the property, claiming he'd be willing to purchase it for 6 thousand pounds (140K today), which has David arching his eyebrows in interest. When he later discusses selling the home and moving to London, Jean refuses. Four Winds means something to her and she's not going to give up her newfound stability just so David can blow through the money.

While his wife is out of town, David decides to give Valerie a ring and, when he finally lays eyes on the voluptuous platinum blonde, he's instantly smitten. The only problem is that they're both still married. Though she's in the process of divorcing, he's not even broached the subject with Jean. In fact, he can't. What she's inherited is all that he really has going for him at the moment. Valerie, on the other hand, is broke and needs 20 pounds to pay off her lawyer to finalize her divorce. David tries to bum the money off of his wife under false pretenses, but she refuses. He then tries to get it from Morris, who also turns him down and wisely intones, "If you want to keep a friend, never borrow, never lend." He's then reduced to breaking into Jean's desk and just stealing it.

As all of this is going on, Patrick the poltergeist seems to be growing angrier. He trashes the study where David works repeatedly and makes sure Jean gets to see a love letter Valerie has written to her husband. While ghosts are typically the heavies in films like this, the one here assigns himself as a protector of sorts to Jean. The real villain is the POS husband.

While never exceptional in any way, a few things elevate this slightly above your usual low budget programmer, starting with a decent script by Maurice J. Wilson (adapted from a story by Laurence Meynell). Though slow-moving, dialogue-heavy, set-bound and light on the horror elements (which mostly come into play at the very end), there's enough drama, snappy exchanges and characterization to keep you tuned in. The dialogue is also surprisingly well-written, with lots of biting, barbed comments being lobbed back and forth between characters, which have the most sting (because they're actually coming from a place of honesty) when they're being delivered by Dainton.

Speaking of Dainton, she and Wilson make sure Jean is a strong, sympathetic central figure we the audience can get behind. As the film opens she's pretty much reached her "put up or shut up" tough love phase with her spouse. She expresses her feelings like a mature adult, and is snarky and cutting about it like he deserves. After all, being supportive, loving and nice has clearly gotten her nowhere with this man, and she's now nearing the end of her rope.

Her Achilles heel is that she unfortunately does love this jerk and wants to make her marriage work, even so much that she's willing to forgive his habitual lying, stealing and affair, which he never really admits to. As a way to butter her up, he starts playing the role of good spouse; being attentive, finally working on his book, making those grand promises... But behind the scenes, he's planning her demise so he can get his hands on her money and be with his mistress. Then again, with Patrick in the picture, maybe he won't be getting his way...

The director only made a few other real horror films, such as The Electronic Monster (1958) and THE TERRORNAUTS (1967), but made many other low budget mysteries, film noir, crime and science fiction films that may dip their toes in the genre. First assistant director Douglas Hickox went on to make the Vincent Price classic Theater of Blood (1973). Geoffrey Denton (The Snake Woman) and an uncredited Olga Dickey (Horror of Dracula) have tiny roles.

While this was a theatrical release in the UK, it bypassed big screen distribution in the U.S. altogether and was sold (under the new title Invisible Creature) directly to TV as part of a package deal by American International. The first (and I think only) home video release here was from Sinister Cinema, who offered it on VHS and DVD. In the UK, it was given a 2011 DVD release through Renown Pictures, who've paired it with The Monkey's Paw (1948).


Saturday, April 13, 2024

Scream of Fear (1961)

... aka: Ein Toter spielt Klavier (A Dead Man Plays the Piano)
... aka: Kyôfu (Fear)
... aka: La casa del terrore (The House of Terror)
... aka: Pelon tunne (A Feeling of Fear)
... aka: Taste of Fear, A
... aka: Un grito de terror (A Scream of Terror)

Directed by:
Seth Holt

Director Seth Holt started out as an actor before transitioning into editing at Ealing Studios, where he worked as an assistant (usually sans credit) on such classics as Dead of Night (1945) and, one of my personal favorites, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1948). From there, he moved on to primary editing, producing and, finally, a single shot at directing (the crime drama Nowhere to Go) at Ealing before the studio was absorbed by the BBC in the late 1950s. While Nowhere to Go was a box office flop and critical failure, it was enough to get his foot in the door with Hammer, who hired him for Scream of Fear (originally titled Taste of Fear). Instead of suffering from a sophomore slump, Scream was both a commercial and critical success in the UK, U.S. and throughout much of Europe. Despite that, he'd have a difficult time securing directing jobs until his death and was involved in a number of projects that either ultimately got assigned to other filmmakers or were abandoned altogether.

Holt is almost exclusively known these days for a trio of genre films he was able to make with Hammer, which also included the excellent The Nanny (1965) starring Bette Davis, and the lesser but still not bad Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), which he was never able to finish because he died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack at the age of just 47 (producer Michael Carreras had to step in and complete the final week of shooting). What's obvious in retrospect is that he clearly should have been given far more chances to direct than he was, and Hammer in particular should have utilized him far more than what they did.

Having spent ten years away in Italy, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), who was crippled in a horse-riding accident, returns to France to stay with her estranged father (Fred Johnson). Expecting him to meet her at the airport, she's surprised to instead see he's sent his chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis, who also starred in William Castle's MR. SARDONICUS this same year) to retrieve her. On the drive to the family villa, Robert informs Penny that her father went away four days earlier, he doesn't know where he went, doesn't know when he'll be back and that he has recently been ill but is now apparently doing better, at least well enough to travel abroad.

Upon arriving at her new home, Penny meets her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) for the very first time and, bucking the evil stepmother stereotype, she seems friendly, affectionate, compassionate and even a bit motherly. They've transformed the father's sitting room into a bedroom for her, purchased new furnishings, put in ramps for her chair and even installed a buzzer that rings down to the kitchen and the parents' bedroom if she ever needs anything. As for the whereabouts of the father, Jane informs her that he went out out of town on a "business deal," even though she pleaded with him not to. Seeing how he's not seen her for an entire decade, it's basically impossible for Penny to not feel just a little hurt by his absence.

Penny has recently been through a lot of trauma and is in an especially vulnerable, perhaps even emotionally unstable, state. She didn't want to leave Italy, which has been her home since her parent's divorce, but felt she had no other choice after the passing of her mother and then the death of her nurse / best friend (perhaps even lover) in a mysterious drowning accident. After losing the two closest people to her, she grew depressed and suicidal, and that's when she received a letter from her father asking for her to return to France. It doesn't take her long to regret taking him up on the offer.

Her first night there, she gets up to fix a rattling shutter, sees a candlelight flickering in the summer house across the courtyard and goes to investigate. Inside, she's startled to discover what appears to be the corpse of her father. Panicking, she tries to wheel away and ends up falling into a swimming pool. She's saved by Robert and, when she awakens, she's being tended to by local physician Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee), who also happens to be her father's personal doctor (and his chess buddy). Robert had made mention already that Gerrard has recently been a regular presence in the home, and he appears to be plotting something with the stepmother. Determined to prove she's not a "mental defective," Penny insists they all go to where she saw the corpse, but no body is there and everyone claims the summer house is always kept locked up, anyway.

Unlike most other victimized, weepy heroines in films like this, Penny is refreshingly not about to just roll over and play the victim. While she's emotional and a bit neurotic, she's also smart, plucky, headstrong and maintains her wits. She knows what she sees isn't a delusion, senses some scheming going on behind her back and acts accordingly, approaching everyone around her with suspicion and distrust. She snoops around. She asks questions. She refuses pills from Dr. Gerrard, starts growing a bit distant from Jane and, while Robert seems like a potential ally (and a potential love interest), she has her apprehensions about him, as well. She's also careful about giving certain characters information that may conceivably be used against her, including additional sightings of her father's corpse around the house. Strasberg is one of those actresses who usually doesn't make an overwhelmingly positive nor negative impression on me, but she's pretty wonderful in this particular role.

Though Lee spoke highly of this film and the director in interviews, and said it was perhaps Hammer's best overall production, he's interestingly the weakest link of the central cast. That's due in part to his failed attempt at a French accent and in part to the fact his character simply isn't all that interesting. Thankfully, the other three stars are all great. Lewis is extremely magnetic as the chauffeur and had all that it took to become an A List leading man. Sadly, that never happened due to his alcoholism, which eventually led to bad press, troubles with the law, divorces, bankruptcy and a damaged career, culminating in his suicide in the early 80s. Often unfairly overlooked here is Todd, who gives an excellent performance; perhaps the best performance. The way she uses subtle facial expressions and body language to show cracks beneath the surface of her warm, caring exterior tells you this woman was a complete pro.

In addition to the strong direction and acting, this excels in the screenplay department too, with fine dialogue, characterizations and plotting. Just when you think you're getting a handle on what's going on and working out who's conspiring with who to get what (a sizable inheritance is naturally at stake), Jimmy Sangster's script pulls the rug out from under you and unleashes some genuine surprises in the last 20 or so minutes. These aren't surprises pulled out of thin air either, but one's carefully built into the story. This is also a handsome looking film. Multi-BAFTA winner and three time Oscar nominee Douglas Slocombe (who'd go on to work with Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski and other notables) does a great job shooting it, using lots of low lighting, shadows and lush soft focus. Other production people, from composer Clifton Parker to production designer Bernard Robinson, offer up strong work, as well.

This film's success led Hammer to branch out from their usual period-set classic monster movies to produce more modern psychological genre films. The initial cycle of these (there would be another in the early 70s) included Maniac, Paranoiac (both 1963), Nightmare (1964), Fanatic (aka Die! Die! My Darling!), Hysteria and the aforementioned The Nanny (all 1965). Though some of these are better than others, all of them are at least decent.

Released theatrically here in the U.S. by Columbia (who also handled the British, Canadian and Mexican releases), this then turned up on home video (with rather horrible-looking box art) by RCA / Columbia in 1989. Since, there have been quite a few Blu-ray and DVD releases, including from Sony (as part of their "Icons of Horror" series) and Mill Creek (as part of their "Hammer Horror Collection" series).

Easily besting the above is the 2019 BR release on the UK label Indicator ("Volume Four" in their Hammer line of box sets). It not only comes with three other films; THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960) and The Damned (1962), plus plenty of accompanying materials for each of those, but also a wealth of Scream of Fear extras. Included are over three hours of archival interview material with Sangster (some video, some audio), an 82-minute archival audio interview with Slocombe, new interviews with Desmond Davis (the camera operator) and John Crome (the assistant sound editor), a rare condensed Super 8 version, profiles on actress Todd and composer Parker, a 36-page booklet and much, much more.

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