Seth Holt, 1961
Starring: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee
Penny, a paralyzed young woman, travels alone to her family home after the death of her mother. She hasn’t seen her father in many years and is apprehensive, but her anxiety only grows when she is told that her father has suddenly gone away on business. She’s left alone with her stepmother, the mysterious Dr. Gerrard, and the family chauffeur, Bob. He becomes her only ally when she has a midnight sighting of her father’s corpse and nearly drowns to death in the family pool, though everyone else thinks she’s just suffering from nervous strain. But has someone murdered Penny’s father and are they trying to do away with her too?
Though more of a psychological thriller than an outright horror film, this early Hammer entry is one of my favorites from the studio and will likely appeal to anyone not impressed by their colorful, Gothic horror period pieces. Set in present day and shot in gloomy black and white by Douglas Slocombe (The Lion in Winter, Raiders of the Lost Arc), Taste of Fear is one in a series of suspense films penned by regular Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, along with films like The Snorkel (1958), Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), The Nanny (1965), Crescendo (1970), and Fear in the Night (1972). Obviously influenced by Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1955) — and perhaps less so by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) — Sangster makes great use of a tried and true mystery plot, murder for profit, and a few of the films twists and turns are genuinely surprising.
There are some elements that obviously come right from Les diabolique, such as a dead body that suddenly appears and just as rapidly disappears, a murky swimming pool that serves as the physical base for a character’s seat of psychological terror, and an unstable female character who is known to succumb to frazzled nerves, frail health, and occasional bouts of hysteria. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a French location — a lovely seaside home that would be wholly picturesque if it wasn’t for the foreboding cliffs — and a thoroughly European feel to the film. There is also something about Taste of Fear that reminds me strongly of Patricia Highsmith’s work; her own The Talented Mr. Ripley had only come out six years before. The isolated, damaged, but somehow slightly sociopathic protagonist is in line with many of Highsmith’s lead characters and the eerie clues — an abandoned cottage that is occupied late at night, a car that shouldn’t be there — are other common features. There’s also an underlying thread suggesting mental illness in Penny and several of the other characters. Her father is a sick man who suddenly disappears, while after her mother’s death in Switzerland, Penny’s nurse/companion Emily mysteriously drowned in a lake, giving the family swimming pool a much more terrifying weight.
The underused Susan Strasberg (Kapò) is perfectly cast as Penny and looks radiantly beautiful in the film. With her dark, Audrey Hepburn-like looks, Strasberg was great at playing vulnerable yet not totally helpless characters and she is cut from quite a different cloth than the majority of Hammer’s stereotypical “damsel in distress” female characters. The casting is pretty spot on across the board and makes excellent use of actors who are all fairly ambiguous. Ann Todd of Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case is convincingly sweet as a stepmother who might be trying to hard because she has something to hide, while Christopher Lee — allegedly in one of his favorite films for Hammer — nearly steals the film as a stern doctor who might not have Penny’s best interest in mind. Lee is delightfully creepy and ambiguous, in a way that he rarely repeated throughout his career.
SPOILERS, sort of: But it’s Ronald Lewis (Billy Budd, Mr. Sardonicus) as Bob who really steals the film. Lewis wasn’t a familiar face to me — unlike someone like Lee or Strasbourg — and as a result, he’s something of an unknown quantity throughout the film. His character first works to enhance Penny’s sense of unease and anxiety, then later becomes her touchstone and even her lover. It would be hard to believe in a sunnier, more air headed actress that the family heiress would take up with the rather plain, if convincingly manly chauffeur, but Penny is so alone and defenseless that it becomes plausible. I won’t totally give away the ending, but it gradually becomes clear that Bob is not exactly what he seems.
Taste of Fear comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone who likes psychological terror. It’s available on a region 2 DVD from Sony, though I’d love it if someone would release a Hammer suspense series box set, preferably restored and on Blu-ray. Lee fanatics will love a chance to see this great man in a role not dissimilar from his turn in City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel, though director Seth Holt brilliantly uses Lee’s inherent sternness and imperious manner to his own ends, with great results. And if you weren’t a fan of Strasbourg (or even aware of her presence), you will definitely be after watching this.