Overlooked & Underseen: Scream of Fear (1961)
If you’re like me (and lord help you if you are), sometimes when you’re trying to find something to watch you realize you have too many choices. Of all the problems to have, let’s face it, this shouldn’t be one, but it is. I have so many good movies at my fingertips, I have a hard time choosing. Take last night, for example. It’s a typical night in my house, I’ve got plenty of time to watch movies and I’m ready to take advantage. And then it starts… the pouring over hundreds and hundreds of choices. When I was a kid, I could only dream of having access to all of these movies. Of course, I could spend an hour at the video store trying to decide on what to watch and then, most often, I would pick something I’d seen before. Last night, I did the same thing; instead of watching something new to me, I rewatched Dazed and Confused, The Devil’s Rain, and The Stuff. I should have been finding something to write for this column and, instead, I found myself watching Larry Cohen in the middle of the night. The point is, sometimes it is hard for me to find something for this column that not only meets my criteria but that is also available to me at that moment. I did, finally, find that something; something that was sitting right in front of my face.
We all know Hammer Horror. It’s certainly a name to conjure with and, yeah, most Hammer films aren’t overlooked or underseen but there are several of their early works, shot in black and white, that do fit the bill. These films are often the exact opposite of the movies that the studio is famous for putting out. These underseen movies aren’t the candy-colored, breast heaving, delights we’re used to, no, these early films are quiet little, gorgeously shot, black and white dramas that have, sadly, gone overlooked. This week’s film, Scream of Fear, is just one of these treasures.
Penny Appleby (a very young Susan Strasberg) is returning to her father’s home on the south coast of France. She’s been estranged from him for the past 10 years but has been summoned home by her stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd), someone she’s never met. Penny broke her back a few years prior, so she is paralyzed and in a wheelchair. No one is there to meet Jane at the airport except her father’s chauffeur, Bob (Ronald Lewis). He lets it spill that her father has been ill but tells her she needs to talk to Jane about what is going on.
Jane seems nice enough. They’ve installed ramps around the house for Penny and refurbished one of her father’s studies to be her bedroom. When she asks where her father is, she’s told he is away on business. Jane tells her she doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Penny is getting a weird vibe from the minute she sets foot in the house. That night, she sees a light from across the terrace and goes to investigate. She sees her father sitting across the storage room, dead. She freaks out and rushes to get back to her room. On the way back, she accidentally falls into the pool where she’s rescued by Bob before she drowns. Dr. Gerrard (Christopher Lee), a friend of her father’s, is called to check her out.
Over the next four days, Penny figures out she’s being gaslighted. She turns to Bob to help her out because it seems that Jane and Dr. Gerrard are in cahoots. Bob believes Penny and the two try to figure out exactly what the fuck happened to her father. It’s known that Penny’s dad is filthy rich and all his money will go to Jane if Penny dies or is “incapacitated.” They’ve found the motive (and each other, as it turns out), and now they just need to prove there are shenanigans afoot.
Like all of the Hammer’s films from this time period, this movie just looks great. The legendary Douglas Slocombe was the cinematographer on this and it’s really one of the main reasons to watch this. It is gorgeous looking. The story is interesting as it has several twists and turns on the “gaslight” plot. Susan Strasberg is lovely as “Penny.” I’ve never thought she was the best actress but she does a fine job here against her more polished co-stars. I’m always up for anything starring Christopher Lee and, although he doesn’t have a big part here, he certainly has a presence, as well as a French accent!
When you’re looking for a nice little movie one quiet night, think about popping on Scream of Fear. According to Lee, this movie was the best movie he was ever in that was released by Hammer. If that isn’t a reason to watch it, I don’t know what would be.