Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Seth Holt
Starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee
US Release Aug. 22, 1961
RT 81 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear in the United States) was written by the prolific Hammer Films screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster. However, it was directed by newcomer Seth Holt, and was one of three films he did for Hammer before his untimely death in 1971. The duo works magic here, with a suspense thriller that’s one of the best. Granted, the story isn’t necessarily original for its kind, but I doubt you can see the twist coming. If you do, I can’t imagine it’s delivered in the way you’d expect.
At the Nice-Cote D’Azur airport, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) arrives to visit her father (Fred Johnson), whom she hasn’t seen in the 10 years since he divorced her mother and married Jane (Ann Todd). Robert (Ronald Lewis), her father’s chauffeur, greets her and tells her Mr. Appleby left town on a business trip four days ago and that he’s a very sick man. This is news to Penny, who must look at a photograph to say that she remembers what her father looks like.
Penny is distraught because her companion, Maggie, recently drowned and her friend was all she had. In a movie where you assume strange things are going to happen at the big house on a cliff by the sea, you’d also assume Penny’s stepmother is going to be behind some murderous plot. Instead, Jane is as sweet and accommodating as she can be, never giving us a hint if she is indeed up to no good. Penny even seems surprised that the woman she never met is as kind to her as she is.
During her first night at the house, Penny awakens with the banging of her door in the wind. She sees a light flickering in the summerhouse across the way from the swimming pool and wheels herself over to investigate. Inside, she finds her dead father sitting in a chair. After a blood-curdling scream of fear, she “races” back to her room, accidentally falling into the pool on the way. When she wakes, Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee) is standing over her and, of course, there’s no evidence that her story’s true.
Gerrard is a mystery man. He’s supposedly Mr. Appleby’s doctor, but frequently comes round to visit or share a meal in her father’s absence. He’s number two on our lists of suspects for devious behavior. Through conversations between him and the other characters, we learn that he believes Penny has manufactured her own paralysis with a “self-created mental block.” Penny responds, “Was the horse that fell on me imagined, too? You say my mind is affecting my legs; it’s my legs affecting my mind.”
Her long-term diagnosis is really secondary to the issue at hand and the fact that she continues to see and hear things that indicate her father’s dead body is wandering the house. Lesser characters might dismiss the phenomena as tricks of her mind, but Penny is resolute, confident about what she witnesses. She doesn’t think she’s going mad, but Gerrard is always nearby to question her sanity. Robert may not be convinced otherwise, but he tells her, “I believe you believe you saw something.”
About this time, romance blooms between “Bob” and Penny. He becomes her ally in finding evidence that will expose a plot to drive Penny crazy so that her father’s inheritance, if he dies before her, will go entirely to Jane. It’s enough motive to convince the amateur detectives that Jane and Gerrard have already killed Mr. Appleby and made it look like an accident. They’re very clever about where to look for the body, because it must be hidden somewhere in the house, right?
Now is a good time to mention how Taste of Fear is so creatively filmed. When Penny awakes to find Gerrard hovering over her, the camera is placed low, looking up. During one particularly suspenseful scene, the camera seems attached to the wheelchair, a reverse POV of Penny speeding along. Then, it switches to her POV of where she’s headed. When Bob and Penny break into the deep freeze to look for her father’s body, we watch every turn of the screwdriver as he removes three long screws from the lock.
From here through the end, the surprises come fast and furiously. I failed to mention Ronald Lewis in my previous review of Stop Me Before I Kill! I’m not sure how good an actor he is, but I’m distracted by the fact that he resembles from some angles David Hasselhoff, and from others, the recently buff Zac Efron. Taste of Fear is mostly a suspense-thriller; however, it also has the flavor of horror. It’s a combination that would be prevalent into the 1970s, but rarely done as effectively.