B&W, 1961, 82m.
Directed by Seth Holt
Starring Susan Strasberg, Ann Todd, Ronald Lewis, Christopher Lee
ViaVision/Madman (Blu-ray) (Australia R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Sony, Mill Creek (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
B&W, 1961, 82m.
The first and finest of Hammer Films' psychological chillers cranked out in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, this stylish and devilishly clever gem actually has little to do with Alfred Hitchcock's often-imitated gimmicky shocker apart from the fact that they're both in black-and-white and feature excellent, whiplash twist endings. This marked the first of three Hammer films for director Seth Holt, followed by The Nanny and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb; though hardly prolific, he certainly left his stamp and, with this title, turned out one of the studio's strongest films from its golden era.
Though her wealthy businessman father is away on business, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Strasberg) jets into the south of France to stay at his seaside home and meet his new wife, Jane (Todd). Penny has been away at boarding school and was primarily raised by her now deceased mother, so the trip carries more than its share of awkwardness and stress. The family chauffeur, Robert (Mr. Sardonicus' Lewis), comes to Penny's aid the first night when she explores a mysterious light n the summerhouse by the estate's swimming pool and falls in after seeing what she believes is her father's dead body. Afterwards she's attended to by the family physician, Dr. Gerrard (Lee), who inquires further about the state of Penny's paralysis. The mystery deepens when Penny's father calls that afternoon to tell her he'll be home soon, but Penny's convinced that something diabolical is afoot...
It's hard to go into too much detail about this film without spoiling the surprises, but let's just say that what seems like a traditional "drive a fragile woman crazy" plot is in fact something entirely different and more satisfying. It's the kind of fun that's great fun to spring on unsuspecting viewers just to watch their expressions during the last ten minutes, as satisfying a wrap up as any in thriller movie history. Method actress supreme Strasberg is excellent as Penny, while Todd and Lewis match her every step of the way in their ambiguous roles with motives that seem to shift back and forth a dozen times. Hammer vet Lee is given less to do and gets saddled with a French accent, but he gets a deliciously downplayed moment in the closing moments that makes it all worth it. In short, this one's a real treat and worth revisiting multiple times to savor its expertly timed shots and wonderfully rich atmosphere.
Originally titled Taste of Fear in England, Scream of Fear has been fairly easy to find over the years with frequent '80s airings on Cinemax and a decent VHS edition from Columbia. Sony released it on DVD in 2008 as part of an "Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films" four-pack, paired up on a disc with The Gorgon and both films supplemented with their original trailers; Mill Creek later bundled it for one of its budget Hammer sets as well, with Sony reissuing it as a standalone MOD Critics Choice disc. This is a title that was screaming out (sorry) for the HD treatment, and in 2016 it finally came out via Madman in Australia. Unfortunately, while some other Aussie Hammer Blu-rays like The Nanny and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter have fared quite well, this one definitely doesn't. The original 1.66:1 framing (as seen on the DVD) has been zoomed in to 1.78:1, resulting in tightened framing that causes actors' heads to scrape past the top of the frame and several compositions to look generally out of whack. There's really no discernible increase in detail; in fact, the zooming makes it look softer and mushier, and the image has been darkened down a lot with detail clotting up badly in darker scenes. The lossy Dolby Digital English mono audio is no improvement either, and no extras are included. This is a title that deserves the red carpet treatment on Blu-ray, but instead it's been given a release that's inferior to the Mill Creek Hammer Blu-rays that offer way more value at a third of the price. Let's hope a better option comes along soon.