❉ We revisit Christopher Lee’s eighth film for Hammer, a psychological horror Lee later called “very nearly Hammer’s best”.
By 1961, Hammer Film Productions were riding high on their success of modestly budgeted, hugely successful and brilliantly designed gothic horror which had propelled them into the world’s spotlight and delighting (and horrifying) a new generation of cinemagoers. Between 1957 and 1961, they had changed the scope of horror. Made crimson gore, with its technicolour spectrum, lurid and splashed red across the screens. They had shifted the way in which horror could be observed on screen, attracted fans and, also their critics and high box office returns.
Taste of Fear was born from the pen of British screenwriter and director Jimmy Sangster under its original title See No Evil, which coincidentally shares the American title of a later Mia Farrow psychological thriller written by British television and film stalwart, Brian Clemens who would also deliver for Hammer the rather unappreciated, for its time, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974).
By 1961, Sangster had written several big hits for Hammer including Curse and Revenge of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy as well as the effective and rather creative psychological thriller The Snorkel but had wanted to branch out and try something less gothic and more contemporary.
He wrote, what was to become Taste of Fear, on spec and intended to ‘shop’ it around which was a new direction for Sangster rather than being commissioned to write. Already involved with producer, Sydney Box, who ran Gainsborough Studios under Rank Films, Sangster approached and sold the script to him, and Sangster was invited to produce the film. Unfortunately, before a deal could be made, Sydney Box became extremely ill and was unable to work. Box’s brother-in-law, Peter Rodgers took over the planned productions and Sangster was less than confident his script would be included.
Sangster recalled, “Peter was a busy man in his own backyard, and he needed Sydney’s stuff like a hole in the head. I could see that Taste of Fear wasn’t going to get made under his auspices, so I offered to buy it back for the same amount of money that Sydney paid me. Peter was delighted.” *
And so it was, in an almost poetic home-coming, both Jimmy Sangster and his script found themselves back in the hands of Hammer after executive producer, Michael Carreras agreed to back the film and have Sangster produce the picture.
Taste of Fear commenced principal photography on Monday 24 October 1960 with filming taking place at A.B.P.C. Studios, Elstree with sets designed by Bernard Robinson, Nice Cote’ d’Azur Airport and Château de la Garoupe situated on the route de phare in Antibes. Filming concluded Wednesday 7 December 1960 with the opening sequence being shot in Black Park. **
The cast, headed by Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, and Christopher Lee in a role that was certainly designed as a red-herring and one which punctuated a significant moment in his personal life.
Taste of Fear opens in a far more stark and minimalist manner for a Hammer Film than that which audiences are used to. Monochrome picture, lapping of water (water becomes an evident theme throughout the film), and the sounds of birds interrupted by the Police communicating from shore to boat. Gone is the technicolour and dramatic, bold music of James Bernard that we perhaps might expect to open the film. This is reduced, ominously silent and much rawer.
Police recover a body a of girl from a lake in Switzerland (in reality, Black Park, Buckinghamshire) and just who this girl is becomes the very centre of the picture, one that upon rewatching will make you appreciate the film from a much different perspective. It is at this point, the titles begin, and we are provided with a dramatic score that we normally associate with Hammer provided by Clifton Parker under Music Supervisor, John Hollingsworth.
Penny Appleby, a wheelchair bound young woman, (Susan Strasberg) returns to her father’s home in the French Riviera for the first time in ten years. She is escorted by the family chauffeur and caretaker, Robert (Ronald Lewis) and is met at the house by her Stepmother (Ann Todd). Her father is conspicuously absent having had to ‘go away on business’ and Penny is left in a seemingly vulnerable position of neither knowing her own place at home, both emotionally and geographically, faced with a rather cold and disingenuous adoptive mother and a guarded chauffer who seems reluctant to be drawn into any such discussions about where her father might be or rumour of his recent ill health.
Director Seth Holt very much chooses to keep the audience with Penny and uses her point of view as a set up for many a shock and a gasp as Penny is haunted during the night by the sounds of a piano playing (her father being the only one in the household who can play) and, most terrifyingly, being met face to face with her quite dead father who is deliberately positioned and composed in different locations of the chateau. Rather than be a mere observer, we are forced to see as she sees even if at times we don’t quite want to and all the while we are only being shown our perception of what we think Penny is experiencing. This is a very clever directorial tactic where we are being presented, head-on with a version of truth, never being allowed any closer to the film’s secrets and thereby forced to remain with our subjective mind’s eye.
There is also the ominous black watery, rectangle of a pool in the courtyard where we later learn is the central hiding place of her father’s body which directly mirrors Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller Les Diaboliques (1955). As Penny first gazes at the pool we, again, are forced to look with her and instantly we know there is something not quite right about it. It’s too quiet, too dark, dismissed and oppressively small and tight indicating a certain amount of depth. Depths that we can’t quite see yet.
Water features significantly in the film from the opening scene to the rocky Riviera coastline and cliffs where the sea laps to the shores far below and always punctuates death. The theological meaning of water within Christianity symbolises death and rebirth such is the act of baptism as well as spiritual cleansing, purification, and renewal. Penny’s father is submerged and therefore ‘buried’ beneath the murky waters of the swimming pool, which is framed by tomb-like pillars, indicating death both and in a theological sense. He is dead and whilst he is removed from the pool and positioned to deliberately affect Penny’s psychological well-being, he is seen as alive, posed as if he were about to speak, as if he has come back.
Similarly, a dinner conversation between Penny and her stepmother, Jane, signifies an underlying sense of deception as Jane remarks ‘Of course, you must be dead!’ in response to Penny’s tiredness after such a long journey. A clever turn of phrase. Penny, we come to learn, is dead and the only person who can accurately identify Penny is absent and also dead. Unbeknownst to Jane, the woman she sits opposite is, indeed, not “Penny”. It is as if when Penny has been removed from the water at the start of the film it has allowed another person, her friend Maggie, to take her identity and signal another rebirth. This motif is repeated at the end of the second act of the film when Penny (as Jane and Robert believe she is) meets her end as the car she is in topples over a cliff edge and is submerged in the sea only for the Police to later search the vehicle and discover that “Penny” is not there, laying the ground for the film’s final twist.
When it is finally revealed that Jane and Robert have been conspiring to drive Penny insane and ultimately murder her so they can claim inheritance to the estate of Mr. Appleby there is a sudden, shocking depth to Robert’s character. He is clearly psychopathic. Only a few scenes earlier he and Penny were falling in love, his commitment to help her uncover the mystery so sincere that when we finally see his true self with such shocking disregard for someone’s vulnerability, their trauma and then their calculated murder it chills the blood. Playing opposite Ann Todd, both she and Ronald Lewis give an electrifying revelation to the audience, one so devastating that by the time we learn of the film’s final twist we are emotionally cheering the fate of Jane and Robert at the film’s climax.
Taste of Fear remains a frightening film and a lot of this is achieved through the tight direction from Seth Holt and photography by Douglas Slocombe. Out of four scenes where suspense and tension are kept to almost unbearable levels, three of those scenes exhibits outright horror by ending with the reveal of Mr. Appleby’s dead body.
At the age of thirty-nine, this was Christopher Lee’s eighth film for Hammer and one which immediately precedes a significant moment in his life. Following completion of his work on Taste of Fear, he married his wife, Gitte on 17 March 1961 at St. Michael’s, Chester Square, London, and they both remained together until his death on 7 June 2015.
Christopher Lee described Taste of Fear as “very nearly Hammer’s best” *** and, unusually at this time, is cast, as he described, ‘a goody’ for once. His portrayal of the family doctor Pierre Gerrard is deliberately set up to be sinister. His first shot in the movie seems to have been composed to make audiences recall his role of Dracula as he is seen, from Penny’s point of view, leaning over her, as she regains consciousness after falling into the swimming pool. He strikes quite an oppressive character, seems overtly cruel towards Penny suggesting that her inability to walk is more psychosomatic than physical and appears to visit the house and Jane Appleby a little more often than perhaps a family physician should. Towards the end of the film, however, it becomes clear he is on Penny’s side, has grown suspicious of Mr. Appleby’s absence and Jane’s behaviour which perhaps might explain his frequent visits, and that he seems to suspect that ‘Penny’ can walk. It’s a small but effective and important role which eventually becomes key to the film’s final twist.
The climax of the film reveals that it is, in-fact, Jane and Robert who have been wrong-footed. Jane is horrified to discover that Penny took her own life some time ago and thereafter discovers that who she thought was Penny was, instead, her friend, Maggie. She approaches Maggie, who sits in her wheelchair upon the cliff-top where all is revealed. Maggie stands and leaves, and a distraught Jane takes refuge in the chair. Robert, already having learned that Penny/Maggie is alive, returns to the château and spots a figure sitting in the wheelchair. He, at once, runs towards it and kicks the chair off the cliff only to find that he has killed Jane instead. He watches Jane’s body slowly being taken by the sea, another watery grave such as the one that opened the film. Robert is taken away by the police, Dr Gerrard comfort’s Maggie as they walk away, and the true extent of this macabre and twisted plot finally revealed.
Some interesting changes from script to completed film are noted in the notes of John Trevelyan after the script was submitted for approval by the British Board of Film Censors. Upon Penny’s first sighting of her father’s corpse the script describes that she screams in terror ‘as a spider runs across his open eye’. Then with the discovery of her father in her room it is his arm that gives movement, not his head, and suggestion that the body is being manipulated. These same notes seem to suggest that it was Dr Gerrard who was initially involved in the plot against Penny and not Robert. The notes go on to say that ‘this is a fairly good thriller, something on the lines of two French films we had about two or three years ago’. This further cementing the influences of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Georges Franju. The notes conclude that much of the material in the script would be suitable for an ‘A’ certificate. **
The film was eventually rated as an ‘X’ certificate when it was released in the U.K. in April 1961. It was released in the U.S. in August of that same year under the title Scream of Fear.
Taste of Fear holds up remarkably well today. The performances strong, the direction and cinematography solid and a screenplay that cleverly twists and turns as it ratchets up the tension whilst getting away with some minor implausibility’s. It is still, arguably, the best of the Hammer psychological thrillers the heights of which never again seemed to be achieved by the company despite several attempts over the next decade. However, both Seth Holt and Jimmy Sangster would team up once more with Hammer for The Nanny (1965), again produced in black and white, and sees a powerful and extremely frightening portrayal by Bette Davis and in turn became another thriller classic from the studio that dripped blood with sometimes a scream or two of fear.
❉ ‘Taste of Fear’ (AKA Scream of Fear) Director: Seth Holt. Cast: Susan Strasberg, Christopher Lee, Ann Todd, Ronald Lewis. Running time: 81 minutes. Originally released on Blu-ray by Indicator/Powerhouse Films as part of Limited Edition Blu-ray Box Set ‘Hammer Volume Four: Faces Of Fear’ (released 25 November 2019, deleted 24 February 2021); ‘Taste of Fear’ was re-released separately as a Standard Edition Blu-ray on 19 July 2021, RRP £9.99. Widescreen; Soundtrack: English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English (SDH); Special Features: alternate U.S. version; audio commentary; featurettes; photo gallery; theatrical trailer. Cat. No. #PHIBD091. BBFC cert: 12.
❉ Robert Taylor is a Scotland based 80s nostalgist, aficionado of classic film and television, Full time Mental Health Practitioner, and author of the forthcoming indie book ‘Sound Haunting: The Making of Central Films’ The Woman in Black’. Blog: https://soundhaunting.blogspot.com/
*Sangster, J (1997) ‘Do You Want It Good or Tuesday: From Hammer Films to Hollywood! A Life in Movies’, Baltimore, Maryland. Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.
*Kinsey, W (2002) ‘Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years’ London; Reynolds and Hearn
*Lee, C (1977, 1997, 2003) ‘Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee’, London. Orion Books.