This ABC TV Movie of the Week stars Barbara Stanwyck, that classiest of all Golden Age Hollywood leading ladies. After 25 years as a movie star and the eccentric highpoint that was Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), she gracefully made the transition to TV and supporting roles. Always a beautiful and commanding presence, this elaborate mystery movie gives her plenty of scope as Miriam, the concerned mother of Susan Wilcox (Barbara Parkins) who, after several years in a Swiss clinic, has returned home. But has she recovered from the breakdown caused by a childhood trauma? Or is someone really out to get her? It begins with a prologue with an eerie, fairytale quality …
This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“Once upon a time there was a family who lived in a big house all by itself in the middle of a great, big woods. There was Mummy – she was very beautiful. Everyone loved her, especially Uncle Harold. He wasn’t my real Uncle, just make-believe. Mummy made people laugh because she was so happy herself. Then there was Daddy, who was very handsome and very kind. Everybody said that about him. And last of all, because she was the youngest, there was Susan. She had no brothers or sisters, so she was on her own a lot. But she didn’t mind this because she had her own special house in the woods that her Daddy had built for her when she was a very little girl. Sometimes, when the grownups were all busy, Susan would go there and do what she liked most of all … ” – from the opening narration
One afternoon during one of her parents’ lawn parties at their country estate outside San Francisco, Susan is attacked in her playhouse (this is discretely depicted off-screen in fairy tale fashion during Susan’s opening prologue), leading to her breakdown. After being shipped off to Switzerland for seven years of treatment Susan is now back home again. Her father in the interim has died and her mother has married Harold (William Windom), a devoted old friend of the family who unfortunately is usually ‘in his cups.’ After an argument with Miriam about his drinking he walks out, leaving her and Susan alone in the house except for their faithful servant, John (Arthur O’Connell). Susan is still haunted by her past but is determined to get better so makes a point of visiting her old playhouse in the middle of the woods – but panics when she thinks she is being followed. She starts hearing noises in the house at night and seeing the figure of a man out of her window apparently prowling the grounds, though nobody else does.
One wind-swept night Susan is awoken by the sound of water running in her bath - she investigates and finds Harold’s drowned body. She passes out but when revived by the family doctor (Roddy McDowell), the bath is dry and empty. She then thinks she sees Harold’s body again, this time at the wheel of a car, but by the time she gets John to come see, the car of course has gone. Then Harold phones, very much alive, saying he will be back soon. Is she imagining it? Is the doctor right in thinking that her unconscious is playing tricks on her, rejecting Harold as her new ‘father’? Or is the fact that she is about to turn 21 (something you might miss unless you add up the dates sprinkled around the story and have seen a few of these sorts of films before) also have something to do with it? When she finds a body near a lake in the woods, which then tries to grab her, she gets John’s shotgun, runs back to her playhouse, the ‘primal scene’ of the story, and lies in wait, terrified. A man approaches and two shots ring out …
“I made around 35 movies, but Taste of Fear has always been my favourite” - Jimmy Sangster
Does the storyline seem a little bit familiar? Well, it should, because it’s an uncredited remake of Taste of Fear, the atmospheric Hammer chiller from 1961 (and which was itself a reworking of the 1954 man-in-a-bath classic, Les Diaboliques). Ten years after his original movie came out, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was working in Hollywood and rather naughtily dusted off his old script and, without saying it was a remake, sold it to Aaron Spelling (who apparently was not best pleased when he caught the Hammer original on late night TV). The main characters – the returning daughter from Switzerland, the dead father, her mother, the kindly gardener-chauffeur, the doctor – all have their counterparts in the original though much of the plot has been altered, while the third act is in fact really taken from Sangster’s own later Hammer variant, Nightmare. This has the real benefit of putting Stanwyck centre-stage for a barnstorming finale in which lightning and thunder threaten to blow the house down and the dead really do seem to have come back from the grave while she prowls though the estate, shotgun at the ready, for a final showdown with the guilty party responsible for the ghostly goings on.
Even if you have a longish memory and know what’s coming, this is still a highly amusing suspense thriller that at 74 minutes just about manages to sustain its length. Sangster always seemed to have trouble keeping his thriller plots going for more than about 60 minutes and usually just started the story all over again but from a different character’s point of view, which he does here too though the abbreviated running time for a 90-minute TV-movie (minus adverts) works very much in his favour. In addition John Llewellyn Moxey directs with a very sure hand, as you would expect from such an expert practitioner (he made dozens of such films, all technically impeccable), so with the help of two fine leading ladies, this is a modern-day gothic suspense mystery that works just great in the grand Hammer tradition.
The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers, to which this is definitely a pendant from the other side of the pond, is as follows (linked to my reviews):
- The Snorkel (1958)
- Taste of Fear / Scream of Fear (1961)
- Maniac (1963)
- Paranoiac (1963)
- Nightmare (1964)
- Hysteria (1965)
- The Nanny (1965)
- Crescendo (1970)
- Fear in the Night (1972)
My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.
DVD Availability: Nope but for the moment you can watch it all on YouTube (in five chunks), though it is all illegal I’m afraid …
A Taste of Evil (1971)
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Producer: Aaron Spelling
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Archie R. Dalzell
Art Direction: Paul Sylos
Music: Robert Drasnin
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barbara Parkins, Roddy McDowall, William Windom, Arthur O’Connell, Dawn Frame (young Susan)