Freddie Francis, 1973
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Joan Collins, Kim Novak
One of the final horror anthology films in Amicus Productions’ relatively extensive series that includes Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and Tales from the Crypt (1972), among others, Tales That Witness Madness feels like the last gasp effort that it undeniably is, but for some reason that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it. Like their later portmanteau movies, this is structured around events that unfold in a house: this time, an asylum where Dr. Tremayne (a strangely subdued Donald Pleasence) is showing four unique cases to another doctor (Jack Hawkins), individuals that he has strange theories about…
The first tale, “Mr. Tiger,” is one that I perhaps should hate, because it centers around a child, but I oddly found myself enjoying it despite its flaws. Paul (Russell Lewis) finds it easy to ignore the increasingly uncomfortable relationship between his parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), because he has a new friend, one who just happens to be a ravenously hungry invisible tiger. There’s something about this that reminded me of my absolute favorite episode of The Night Gallery, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” and despite this entry’s sillier moments, there’s something chilling about an invisible friend that craves bones and raw meat — not to mention the fact that this is really story about a child’s attempts to deal with emotional abuse, something not explored enough by genre cinema. I wish the creature had been more nebulously described, but then I think I’m the target audience for something like Rawhead and Bloody-Bones (a disturbing English/Irish folklore that you should definitely look up if you’re unfamiliar) rather than your average predator from the animal kingdom.
“Penny Farthing,” the second entry, is probably my least favorite of the bunch. Timothy (Peter McEnery), is psychically coerced by a menacing portrait of a man he refers to as “Uncle Albert” (Frank Forsyth), who gets on an antique bicycle (the titular penny farthing), which transports him back into time. Yes, you read that right. In both present and past timelines, his girlfriend Beatrice/Ann (both played by Suzy Kendall of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Torso) is in some sort of danger, but honestly, the less said about this one, the better. Maddeningly, every time Uncle Albert was mentioned, the Paul McCartney song popped into my head and refused to leave for several days, which might explain some of my animosity towards this entry.
My favorite of the anthology is the creepy “Mel,” where a man (Michael Jayston) fond of turning nature into art objects, brings home a very strange looking dead tree, which has some feminine attributes. His wife (Joan Collins, in one of her best short roles) hates the tree, which becomes known as “Mel,” thanks to a carving on the trunk, and it seems that a competition is emerging between she and the sculpture. This premise is a lot less stupid than it actually is and there’s something genuinely unsettling about the tree in a way that reminds me of the type of weird horror found in the stories of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. There is a also a bizarre sexual element and this might just be the only horror anthology tale to flirt with dendrophilia.
The final tale, “Luau,” incredibly features Kim Novak (even more incredibly, apparently replacing Rita Hayworth) as a literary agent whose newest client, a handsome Hawaiian celebrity named Kimo (Michael Petrovich), seems to be falling in love with her daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm). But during a luau held in Kimo’s honor, he plans a ritual sacrifice that involves far more than some meat from the local butcher shop… Though this one has been panned quite a bit by critics over the years, I will never not be enchanted by Novak, who ended a lengthy career break for god knows what reason to film this. She isn’t given much to do here, but she and Petrovich are plenty entertaining and the segment has a few pleasantly grisly moments. And, again, it must be one of the few instances in horror cinema of ritual sacrifice taking place during a Hawaiian luau party.
I’m not going to spoil the conclusion of the framing device, which is a bit nonsensical, but suffice it to say that Pleasence should be allowed to chew the scenery more than he does. Overall Tales That Witness Madness can be recommended more as a curio than a particularly knock-out example of the horror anthology film, but there’s assured if workmanlike direction from the wonderful Freddie Francis, and an usual, bold script from lovely actress Jennifer Jayne (The Crawling Eye, They Came from Beyond Space, The Medusa Touch) and it’s nice to see such a break with the studio’s anthology conventions. If you’re a British horror fanatic, as I am, you’ll find plenty to love and it’s definitely worth watching if you enjoy portmanteau genre films but tire of the same old formulas. Pick it up on Blu-ray.