Taste of Fear (1961) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Susan Strasberg strikes a classic scream queen pose for ‘Taste of Fear’.

This film, released more prosaically in the US as Scream of Fear, is a psychological suspense yarn plainly inspired by Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) but offering several neat twists and turns of its own. A superior Hammer movie – from its well-crafted script to its inventive direction and fabulous monochrome cinematography from the great Douglas Slocombe, it features a stand out performance from young star Susan Strasberg as well as great support from Ann Todd and Hammer Studios stalwart Christopher Lee.

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.

“I made around 35 movies, but Taste of Fear has always been my favourite” – Jimmy Sangster

This was the first of a distinctive crop of mysteries that Jimmy Sangster wrote for Hammer Studios in the wake of the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and, to a lesser extent, his own 1958 thriller The Snorkel. Right from the outset though, with its setting in France and references to submerged bodies and the central image of a dank swimming pool, for most viewers and critics it was clear even then that this film was heavily inspired by Les Diaboliques, the classic 1955 adaptation of a typically tricksy Boileau and Narcejac’s novel. That film incidentally, under its English-language release title ‘The Fiends’, was initially released in the US on a double bill with the Sangster-scripted Hammer monster movie, X The Unknown. But this is a film with several aces nicely concealed up its sleeve and well deserves its reputation as among the very best of the non-horror output of the celebrated British studio.

Jimmy Sangster and Susan Strasberg on the set of ‘Taste of Fear’ in 1960.

We begin in Switzerland with a title sequence depicting the recovery of the drowned body of a young girl, then cut to the South of France where the rest of the story will take place (and where the film was partially shot). Susan Strasberg is every inch the film’s star as she makes a grand entrance, arriving at the airport in a wheelchair, sporting pearls and sun glasses. Penny Appleby has been invited home after spending nearly ten years away in Switzerland following a riding accident that left her paralysed. She has never met Jane, her father’s new wife (played with class by Ann Todd), nor the family chauffeur Robert (square-jawed and dependable-looking Ronald Lewis), but they quickly make their best to make the girl feel at home, especially as Mr Appleby seems to have made a sudden decision to leave on business for a few days. Strasberg plays Penny as a level-headed, intelligent young woman who refuses to be defined by her disability – and although she is placed in jeopardy throughout, she always looks thoroughly glamorous. Strasberg was rarely lit as well and as carefully as she is in this film, looking ravishing throughout.

She tells Jane that she was very attached to her nurse, who recently drowned back in Switzerland and so was very glad to receive the invitation from her father to finally come home. She is clearly still grieving and the swimming pool at the centre of the Appleby home seems to hold a strange fascination for her. That night she sees a light emanating from one of the rooms on the other side of the pool – going in, she is shocked to see her father sitting on a chair with a candle at his feet – his eyes are wide open and he is clearly dead. She flees in horror and in her agitation falls into the pool. She is rescued by Robert and revived by the local doctor, played by Christopher Lee with just the right mixture of concern and ambivalence.When they go back to the room, there is no one there. The Doctor believes that it was all a hallucination, but Robert later finds evidence to the contrary in the form of wax found on the floor of the room.

Lee would later claim that this was in fact one the best of his roles at Hammer, the same company that cast his as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy! He does give a great performance in fact in an equivocal role, especially in a dinner scene after Penny confesses to Robert that she suspects the doctor of having an affair with her step-mother. The doctor patronises the young girl about her condition, suggesting that even her paralysis may only be in her mind and she fires back and (verbally) shoots him down. She is no mere damsel in distress waiting to be rescued – her wheelchair makes her vulnerable of course but she is also resourceful and intelligent, refusing to kowtow to anyone. She and Robert start to investigate, believing that the stepmother has killed her husband and is attempting to drive Penny insane to get control of the Appleby estate. But all the characters have secrets in this film and as the story progresses and the murders pile up there are several clever reversals in the story before its conclusion.

This is one of the best of the Hammer films of the 60s, but is also a highly atypical one. The script, originally titled ‘See No Evil’ and then for a time known as ‘Hell Hath No Fury’, wasn’t developed in-house but was an original, written on spec by Sangster and he first offered it to Rank. After it went through the hands of two producers there, he bought it back and offered it to Tempean, a smaller company he had already worked with, as a way to also get his first credit as a producer. As they were unwilling to let him do this, he finally took it to his old friends at Hammer, who were prepared to take a chance on him. Also new to the studio were director Seth Holt and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (later to shoot the Indiana Jones trilogy for Steven Spielberg as well as the original version of The Italian Job), who were in fact mainly associated with Ealing Studios, which had recently closed its doors. In addition, due to the need to use a tank to create the swimming pool, which is the focus of two very eerie sequences, the decision was made not to shoot at the company’s regular Bray Studios but at nearby Elstree instead, which was much bigger and better-equipped for this. The result is a plusher looking film than the studio’s standard fare, tightly controlled by its director – benefiting enormously from his skill as a former film editor – and Slocombe’s expert use of wide-angle lenses to create tension, not least for his masterful use of black and white at a time when Hammer were best known for the lurid use of colour.

Although a bigger hit on the Continent than in the UK, the film was a big money spinner for Hammer so they quickly asked Sangster to make many more. Over the next couple of years there would nearly a dozen suspense thrillers, usually with one-word titles – such as Nightmare (1963) and Hysteria (1964) – which would suggest an air of the supernatural with a modern-day (well, 1960s anyway) Gothic atmosphere but which would all eventually all be explained rationally in the end. I plan to review all of these soon as they are readily available on DVD (either in the US or the UK) usually in excellent editions.

The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:

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

DVD Availability: As a standalone release in Europe (Region 2) or as part of the Sony DVD Hammer Films: Icons of Horror

Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear)
Director: Seth Holt
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Susan Strasberg (Penny Appleby), Ann Todd (Jane Appleby), Ronald Lewis (Robert), Christopher Lee (Doctor Gerrard), John Serret (Inspector Legrand), Leonard Sachs (Spratt)

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

This entry was posted in Hammer Studios, Jimmy Sangster, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Taste of Fear (1961) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Pingback: Jimmy Sangster (1927 – 2011) | Tipping My Fedora

  2. Yvette says:

    This sounds really good, Sergio. I’m not sure that I’m the biggest fan of Hammer-fare, but this one seems, as you say, atypical. Looks like a great mystery. If I get a chance, I will definitely be watching it.

  3. That is a fine review of TASTE OF FEAR, Sergio. Truth is I hadn’t heard of this film until I read your post. I want to know what happens in the end. So I hope to watch it soon along with NIGHTMARE and HYSTERIA—my kind of black-and-white movies. Fortunately, TCM shows these kind of films often through the week.

    • Thanks for the commments Prashant, much appreciated. I’ll be reviewing MANIAC, PARANOIAC, NIGHTMARE and HYSTERIA over December for the Tuesday Forgotten Movies so I hope you’ll enjoy reading those reviews too and I greatly look forward to your comments. They are all great fun and I agree with you: I can’t think of anything more utterly enjoyable than a well plotted black and white mystery movie, especially when given excellent presentation on video (which all of the above have I am glad to say – PARANOIAC is even available on Blu-ray!).



  4. Todd Mason says:

    Strasberg certainly never looked lovelier…she tended to overact, but I take it she was well-suited to this film (which I need to see)…thanks.

  5. John says:

    I need to try this again, Sergio. Your write-up leads me to believe I was unduly harsh and dismissive. I think I must’ve been exhausted and in a lousy mood the night I tried to watch it. I did fall asleep after all and it doesn’t seem like the movie is boring the way you describe it.

    Can you help me recall a film title? It’s along the same plot lines as this (let’s-drive-the-woman-mad kind of story). I can’t, however, recall a single actor or actress in the cast. It is a black and white British movie, probably a Hammer film, probably one that was included on a double-sided or double feature DVD. I know I saw it within the last year on DVD, but when I went to hunt for it in my Netflix history I couldn’t find it. So I probably rented it from a store here in Chicago. There is a blond actress who is killed, there is a birthday party in the movie (I think), there is a child in the cast, and the villainess is a silky voiced brunette who gets her comeuppance (she is fingered as a murderess by the “ghost” of the first victim and loses her mind). Have you perhaps seen this and do you remember the title? I wanted to watch it again and write it up on my blog. The title of course would be immensely helpful.

    • Hi John – well, I only hope that when you do see it again, it really lives up to my hype! But let me offer apologies in advance if you end up asleep again …

      I think the other movie you mean is NIGHTMARE. It starts with a blonde girl walking down a long corridor and eventually she meets up with a vision of her own mother wielding a knife – at which point she wakes up. She is at a school and is sent home as her nightmares are disturbing the other students, accompanied buy a teacher, played by Brenda Bruce (the prostitute from the opening scene of PEEPING TOM). Rather than spoil for the story for other readers, here is a link to the Wikipedia page which has a decent plot summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightmare_%281964_film%29

      It is another one of the Hammer titles released on DVD as double bills – assuming it was the commercial DVD then it would have had THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE as the other title on one side and then NIGHT CREATURES and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN on the other. If that’s not it I’ll put my thinking cap on, but this sounds like the right one to me!

      All the best mate, and thanks as always for the insightful comments.


  6. John says:

    That’s it! Don’t know how I missed it as I pored over all the Hammer Horror DVDs available at their website. Thanks. I knew I had rented it from Netflix. It was indeed on a double feature DVD with THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (which I thought was laughable). And here is my brief Netflix review. Once upon a time I used to be terse!

    Nightmare is the much better movie in this Hammer double feature. This is a kind of a British HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE with a bits of THE NIGHT WALKER thrown in. The scenes with Janet following the spectral scarred woman are some of the best parts in this effectively told, atmospherically filmed, but familiar entry in the “Let’s drive her crazy” thriller subgenre. The second half of the film bogs down a bit when the point of view switches from victim to villain. There is lots of annoying, histrionic acting from the actress playing Mrs. Baxter as she begins to get a taste of her own medicine. Having seen so many of these types of movies it wasn’t hard to figure out how it would end, so there weren’t any surprises for me. But I did enjoy it and always like seeing cruelty punished with more cruelty.”

    • Excellent stuff John and I agree with you about it losing momentum after the switcheroo at the halfway mark (Sangster always seems to run out of plot after 45 minutes and then has to start again) – that moment with the mask being peeled off was very nicely handled I thought. I hope to get round to doing a review too at some point – and thanks for reminding me that I not only have to track down THE NIGHT WALKER (after 20 years I can still remember that Vic Mizzy theme tune) but that Robert Bloch is long overdue a review here at Fedora – thanks mate.

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  17. neer says:

    This is real good, isn’t it? And I agree, Susan Strasberg really looks very good.

  18. Pingback: The Full Treatment (1960) – Tuesday’s overlooked film | Tipping My Fedora

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