Susan StrasbergAnn ToddChristopher LeeLeonard Sachs
Taste of Fear
Also known as: Scream of Fear
Medium: film
Year: 1961
Director: Seth Holt
Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Country: UK
Language: English, French [a few words], German [opening scene]
Actor: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee, John Serret, Leonard Sachs, Anne Blake, Fred Johnson
Format: 81 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 18 April 2013
Christopher Lee has said, "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."
That's a very reasonable opinion.
Forget the title, which is bland and unhelpful. I'm even less fond of its American title, Scream of Fear. Susan Strasberg is a beautiful young cripple who returns to her father's house after a ten year absence. She's never even met her stepmother (Ann Todd), let alone any of the other people there, such as Ronald Lewis (the family chauffeur) and Christopher Lee (a local doctor). Everyone there is impeccably courteous and pleasant to her... but dad's disappeared on business, despite the fact that it was only at his request that Strasberg came back in the first place.
This isn't a horror film and it doesn't even feel much like Hammer. It's directed by Seth Holt, who also made The Nanny for them with Bette Davis. That's another film with an excellent reputation and atypical of the normal output of that studio.
As for Taste of Fear, it's cool and elegant. Strasberg's father is wealthy and the film takes place in gorgeous locations, with mountains, lakes and a luxurious house by the sea. The dialogue's mostly in English, but it's set in Europe and you'll also hear French and German spoken. Being in black-and-white also helps it feel classier.
There's also no supernatural element, instead being set in the real world. When weird things happen, the film presents them dispassionately and keeps its focus on the characters. Strasberg will experience things that she can't prove and will be assured afterwards must have been impossible. After this has happened twice, she stops even trying to convince people of what she saw in the first place. This is well presented and intriguing, since the film never gets hysterical and instead lets its characters think it through rationally. All this I liked a lot... but I did get a little impatient with Strasberg. If what you've seen keeps disappearing, stay there to keep tabs on it! Don't just run off. Shout for help, by all means, but then park your wheelchair in a prominent spot and watch with interest to see what happens next.
After all, it's a bit of a cliche, isn't it? Even when it's being made to look this classy, it's still a well-worn formula. Someone sees something and runs off to fetch witnesses, whereupon the only surprise for the audience would be for the evidence not to disappear. "I'll go with you" is the film's most exasperating line from this point of view, I think.
The cast is excellent. (a) Susan Strasberg is American, complete with gentle accent, but she's no mere headline star. She was the daughter of Lee Strasberg ("the father of method acting") and had been nominated for a Tony Award at age eighteen for The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. (b) Ann Todd was Gregory Peck's wife in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case and also starred in several of the films of her third husband, David Lean. (c) Ronald Lewis was a busy chap in British films of 1950s and 60s, although his career declined later and he committed suicide in 1982. (d) Top-billed Christopher Lee is actually just a supporting role, but at least you can enjoy his French accent. That's not me being snide, by the way. Lee's fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German, plus proficient in Swedish, Russian and Greek.
The film really kicks into gear in the final act. We learn what's going on and it's very cool indeed, ending with a slab of black irony that had me laughing out loud.
A remake has been announced, to be directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, on which my feelings are that The Orphanage was sufficiently impressive that he might be able to live up to the original.
In short, outstanding. The Hammer name suggests lurid for its time, slightly camp horror, but this is a million miles away from that. I'm not convinced that Jimmy Sangster's script would hold up to detailed nitpicking, but its third act is excellent and at the very least it's a solid foundation on which Seth Holt built a fine film. There are clever touches here (e.g. the casting) that I can't discuss because they'd be spoilers. I'm not yet sure if there's any thematic significance to all the deaths being in water, but it's a film that feels intelligent enough to encourage you to think along such lines.