A Taste of Evil (1971) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

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.

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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 …

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“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.

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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):

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

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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)

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to A Taste of Evil (1971) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Kelly says:

    This sounds REALLY familiar, and not because of the Hammer version. I would have been too little to remember it from ’71 — I wonder if they re-ran it?

    • Hi Kelly – i’m sure it’s been run plenty of times though the plot will also sound familiar to viewers of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte too (for instance) – than ‘guy in a bathtub’ motif from Les Diaboliques certainly proved very influential though in this one it is given a nice (if slightly daffy) new wrinkle (no SCUBA equipment required, that’s all I’m saying)

  2. Sergio – As ever, a thorough and interesting review. I know I’ve seen this one too, ‘though I think only perhaps once. It’s ringing a bell, but not a loud one. I do like Barbara Stanwyck’s work, so I’ll have to give this one a look again. Perhaps it’ll come out in DVD format, or some TV network will run it…

  3. MikeMike says:

    Never seen it, nor I regret to say heard of it, but Jimmy Sangster ticks the box and a remake of Scream of Fear combined with Nightmare definitely puts it on the ‘to see’ list. Both the old Hammer titles are among my very favourites from the studio, so it’s over to YouTube for some ‘under the counter’ viewing. Nice review.

  4. Colin says:

    I also find this awfully familiar. OK, the Hammer connection is part of that but the cast (isn’t that just one terrific line up) has me thinking I may have seen this at some point.

    I’m a bit of a sucker for these old TVMs, partly through for nostalgia of course although the depth of talent involved is quite a draw in itself. I’d love some of these to get proper official releases.

    • This film works pretty well – it slows down just a little too much at the end but apart from chopping about 5 minutes (and therefore springing the twist later in the narrative) it works extremely well. Stanwyck was always very classy and very ballsy and is great here. No idea when it was lost shown on the telly in the UK though. A DVD collection of ABC Movies of the Week doesn’t seem like a lot to ask though I have no idea what the rihts issues might be …

      • Colin says:

        I imagine such a collection would draw in fans. as you say, the re may be other issues involved though.

        As for television screenings of these movies, I think ITV in the UK tended to show this kind of stuff back in the day. Of course, where I grew up we also received Irish TV broadcasts and TVMs appeared there too, often in late night mid-week slots or during the holidays.

        • I’m sure you’re right – I think even the likes of Columbo tended to be put in a generic ‘Mystery Movie’ slot on ITV – I know there are at least three books out there on ABC’s TV-movie output so it seems very well documented (the most expensive one yet by Michael McKenna seems pretty good, which is annoying from a fiscal standpoint)

          • Colin says:

            Looks like a great book – priced way, way too high for me though.

          • Unfortunately all the books from Scarecrow are priced that way – it’s the academic publishing model (they don’t do paperbacks) – the second edition of the guide by Michael Karol is much more sensibly priced thankfully. Hate the cover though …

          • Colin says:

            Much more attractive price. That cover though – Trilogy of Terror? – really is foul!

          • Yes, it’s the doll from the ‘Prey’ segment from the the classic Dan Curtis / Richard Matheson anthology – it certainly made an impression on me as a kid but it seems an odd way to pitch a book on primetime US TV movies of the 70s. Still, made it to a second edition so must have worked at least a little bit – a lot fo the films are on YouTube but some of them are technically so poor (not to mention illegally posted …). Trilogy of Terror is apparently available ina pretty decent special edition at least.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I probably saw it because I loved Stanwyck and Barbara Parkins. Although with an infant and one- year old, I may have fallen asleep.

  6. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I haven’t seen either the original or the remake and nor am I really familiar with Barbara Stanwyck and Barbara Parkins. But I owe it to you for taking me through the Sangster/Hammer films that I hope to watch on YouTube some day. I’ve had bandwidth problems in office and a slow internet at home, hence the delay in responding to posts on most of the blogs I visit daily. But things are getting better.

    • Thanks Prashant – glad to hear the Internet is coming back! It is scary how hard it is to try and go back to not having it! Stanwyck was an amazing actress – virtually any of her films is worth watching and she worked in practically every genre – musicals, comedy, mysteries, melodrama, westerns and worked with everyone from John Wayne to Elvis Presley! My personal top 10 would have to include:
      Double Indemnity (film noir)
      The Lady Eve (screwball comedy)
      The Furies (western)
      Remember the Night (romance)
      Sorry, Wrong Number (suspense)
      Ball of Fire (screwball)
      Executive Suite (boardroom drama)
      The Mad Miss Manton (mystery)
      Stella Dallas (melodrama)
      The Bitter Tea of General Yen (romance)
      BARBARA STANWYCK

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