Alan Gibson, 1970
Starring: Stefanie Powers, James Olson, Margaretta Scott
An American graduate student, Susan Roberts, is invited to travel to France to do research for her thesis at the home of celebrate late composer Henry Ryman. Susan will be staying at Ryman’s home, an isolated villa in the countryside, with the composer’s widow and wheelchair bound son, Georges. The household is rounded out by a creepy valet and a rude French maid, who has a strange hold over Georges. As Susan and Georges grow closer, a number of strange events occur around the villa: a piano plays by itself at night, Susan finds a smashed mannequin that disappears, and she learns that she’s identical to Georges’ former girlfriend.
Crescendo is sort of a strange throwback to writer Jimmy Sangster’s run of 1960s suspense films for Hammer — titles like Taste of Fear, The Maniac, Nightmare, and Hysteria — which were nearly the complete opposite of the studio’s lushly colorful Gothic horror films. Sangster’s thrillers were primarily all contemporary, black and white affairs set in Europe and involving stories of past trauma, disturbed families, and protagonists being driven to madness. The project was actually in development for a few years before it actually went into production and was supposed to be directed by Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General), but instead later-era Hammer regular Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D. 1972, Satanic Rites of Dracula) took the helm.
And while Crescendo has much in common with Taste of Fear, Nightmare, and Hysteria — at least on the surface — it is really a failed attempt at the weird sort of ‘70s horror themes that would appear in more obscure giallo films like Lisa and the Devil (1973) and even Macabre (1980). Like the earlier Hammer suspense films, there is a lack of nudity or gore, though Crescendo had to compete with a much bustier effort from the same year, The Vampire Lovers. There is really only one key murder sequence, a nicely shot but reserved underwater death that sort of makes you wonder why Gibson thought so much restraint was necessary.
There are also more sleazy elements than your average Hammer film, many of which are exemplified by actress Jane Lapotaire (The Asphyx), who plays the household’s slutty French maid. She plays some strange sexual games with Georges — despite the fact that he later claims to be impotent — which include shooting him up with heroin, and in one scene she prances around the house in a negligee, “practicing” for when she’s going to be the lady of the house. On the other hand, Joss Ackland (The Hunt for Red October) is wasted as a sinister-looking servant who at first seems to be a red herring, but whose role quickly peters out.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that while Crescendo includes a number of elements that should work in its favor, none of them really do. It suffers from a story that’s just not gripping with dull characters and a lackluster twist — SPOILERS, not that you’ll care — involving an evil twin, which just feels impossibly lazy. There’s an interesting dream sequence that opens the film, but this is repeated seemingly any time Sangster didn’t know what to do with the plot. An effectively eerie scene where Susan sees a mannequin with a smashed face that disappears just moments later is a teaser for what the film should have been, but sadly failed to be. It doesn’t help that the protagonist is played by Stefanie Powers, one of my least favorite Hammer actresses, who nearly managed to ruin Fanatic, which she would have done if it hadn’t been for Tallulah Bankhead.
I’m sad to say that I can’t recommend Crescendo, but Hammer completists will definitely want to check it out, if only to appease their curiosity. Luckily it’s available on DVD, though it would be a nice curio to include in the Hammer suspense film Blu-ray box set of my dreams — more as a special feature than as a substantial reminder of Hammer’s lesser seen but still worthy forays into the world of thrillers.