Yesterday’s Monsters Are Today’s Punchlines

10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

Despite its histrionic title and a handful of unsettling sequences, Scream of Fear is less a horror movie than a mystery: not Carnival of Souls so much as an episode of Scooby Doo. Its alternate title, Taste of Fear, might be more accurate: just a nibble, not much more. Susan Strasberg, daughter of acting-coach legend Lee, stars as Penny, a young woman in a wheelchair who leaves Italy, after the death of her beloved nurse, to live in the South of France (rough life, kid!) with the father she hasn’t spoken to in ten years. Holt begins by setting a mood of deceptive tranquility, meant to lull viewers into a calm out of which he can then unloose them: snowcapped peaks; a lakeside idyll; the swaying palms of Nice; the cricket-chirping solitude of Penny’s father’s baroque mountaintop manor.

That house, with its gilded moldings and ornate candelabras—all the trappings for a Victorian ghost story!—becomes the setting for Penny’s unfolding and unlikely madness: though her stepmother (Ann Todd) tells her that her father has been called away on business, the old man’s corpse has a habit of turning up, when she’s the only one to bear witness, in the strangest places: in a chair by her bed, or propped up in the summerhouse (a cottage bursting with macabre artifacts, like a voodoo Xanadu in miniature). Anytime she sees him, Strasberg screams-blood-curdlingly. (See: title.) Is Penny imagining things? Or is she the victim of conspiring forces?

As this is this is Hammer Films, not The Innocents, the answer is actually pretty clear from early on—I wonder if a will is involved?—but Holt, with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, still works in a few delicious plot twists. In fact, Scream of Fear is almost ready for the opera house, with all of its surprises, coincidences, and mistaken identities-its tragedies—while, visually, it’s a descendant of Welles and Clouzot. It doesn’t all add up to a lost masterpiece. But it’s at least an eerie and efficient guessing game.