Scream of Fear
You get a lot of horrifying sounds in Hammer films; the hiss of an angry vampire, the moan of a lonely monster, the yell of a triumphant scientist, or the murmuring of a pub full of scaredy-cats. But there aren’t many what you might call ‘scary’ sounds. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of ‘Bah! Baaaah!’ when the orchestra plays the musical equivalent of ‘look out!’ but nothing where just the sound of something happening is meant to scare you.
This is decidedly not the case with Scream of Fear which is full of the unnerving sounds of mundane things creaking and whistling in the silence of horrific possibilities. For the life of me I can’t think why they called this movie ‘Taste of Fear’ in the UK, Scream of Fear is a much more accurate title. There’s so much going on with sound in it; even the normally soothing sounds of crickets and waves around the house, where all the action’s set, only serve to highlight how lonely the place is, how far away from people and therefore help. So when the nice young lady in the wheelchair starts seeing her supposedly absent, and also unbelievably spooky faced, father cropping up and glaring like a waxwork dummy of the ghost of a vengeful relative, she is completely reliant on only three people, the only other people in this house. There’s the chauffeur, the stepmother and a local doctor with the fizzog of doom played by good old Christopher Lee who has never made a more unnerving facial expression than the one he makes when you first see him in the film. And how are you supposed to trust any of them when every sound in the movie reminds you of how utterly alone and dangerously fragile you are.
Because everything that makes a sound is bloody eerie. Even her wheelchair goes ‘Squeak, squeak, squeak’, which is like nails on a chalkboard as she slowly wheels herself towards another encounter with the incredible appearing/disappearing of her ‘away on business’ father. And sure, she screams a few times when she rolls into a room and there he is, frozen and angry like a supermarket fish determined not to let you forget his eyes before you eat him. But anybody would frankly, and one of the reasons that the film’s sounds get to breathe and crawl and tingle and stab is because the woman at the centre of the terror is not continually screaming, gibbering and pleading at full volume.
You have to admire how the wheelchair girl copes with what seems pretty certain is an attempted gaslighting. She does not go to pieces, she does not doubt her sanity, and she deals calmly and rationally with all the terrifying things going on around her. In the other Hammer gaslight movies like Nightmare and Paranoiac, the heroine goes to pieces in a matter of minutes, not strictly speaking their fault as they’re already pretty barking before the ordeal begins but still, it’s very heartening to see a Hammer heroine stubbornly refuse to give up the ghost. One scene where Christopher Lee implies her paralysis might be all in her mind leads to the only time I can think of where old Chris gets to be made to look weak and small. It’s a really terrific scene.
The whole movie is a corker in fact. It’s so claustrophobic, it could almost be done as a play there’s so little action outside of her room and the courtyard beyond. And it’s brilliantly directed by some chap called Seth Holt who a lot of people rated very highly apparently, and his two other Hammer films The Nanny, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb are also well regarded, so it’s a damn shame he died so young, halfway through the filming of Blood, because everything in this one is spot on. Christopher Lee felt this was the best film he ever did for Hammer which given he’s hardly in it and sports a dodgy French accent, that I doubt he’s very proud of, is pretty high praise I would say. And I can see exactly what he means too. There’s something so deceptively simple and effective about the tight terror of the movie, exactly like the feeling you get in your throat when black silence around you is frightening you out of your wits. The camera moves and swoops in between Film Noir shadows and Expressionist faces, and all the while the waves crash far away, the crickets chirp from some unknown place, and the squeak, squeak, squeak of the wheelchair unnerves you more than it does the poor lass in the chair.
I’d have to go along with Christopher I think. This is one of the best straight-up films Hammer ever made. It’s not iconic, there’s not a lot of entertainment, nothing to cheer, nothing to make you laugh, and a distinct absence of triumph. All it is really is a story of a failed plan. But as a film it’s a cracker, a little unexpected gem of suspense, horror and outright yelling at the screen ‘I don’t know who to trust!’
Course, they could have used a few more blokes in pubs, but you can’t have everything can you?
Speaking of which, another pint?