Scream of Fear is a taut and suspenseful picture, as much a horror as it is a whodunit, with strong dramatic tension and some powerful performances. Starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee, this small quartet brings a story of murder, madness and machinations to the screen in a very stylish manner. During this period of time, Hammer was moving forward with more and more horror films on its slate, yet still had its hand in producing other films that were quite diverse, such as Robin Hood. Taste of Fear, the film’s original name in the United Kingdom, is not a full out horror film, but it has elements of it, mainly those derived from human nature. Sometimes the scariest monster is that which walks upon two legs.
The star of the film was Susan Strasberg by far, outshining her co-stars as the wheelchair-bound Penny, a girl who goes to live with her father and finds him absent. Left to look after her are her stepmother Jane and the chauffeur, Bob whom she starts to have romantic feelings for. While she tries to deal with her newfound surroundings, she starts to see her father in various rooms of the house, appearing to be dead. Jane tries to convince Penny that she is crazy with the help of Doctor Gerrard and soon, things start to spiral out of control with the truth of the matter revealing itself, which in the end, is quite unexpected.
Though this film might have had Christopher Lee in it, and being a Hammer film, one would almost assume that he would be the star of the show, but in truth, he merely had a supporting character role. Instead, the main role went to Susan Strasberg who had only done a handful of movies up until this point, including Picnic from 1955. Susan would give a wonderful performance as Penny, a girl who does not let her affliction temper her in any way other than her legs. She is wary of her stepmother, of the doctor and feels she can only rely upon one other person that is not herself. Part of the horror in this movie comes from her situation and that of being paralyzed, and more from those tormenting her. Soon enough she even starts to doubt her own mind, the one person who she could trust implicitly which was herself. Jimmy Sangster provides a tight script for this film, creating lots of little twists and turns that keep you guessing with some great dialogue present as well. You never know where the film will go and when you think you do, it turns the corner and runs in another direction. There is a little predictability about it, as you can guess what is happening to our heroine, but Sangster suckers you into that trap and reveals that maybe you were right, but you do not know the entire story.
Ronald Lewis and Ann Todd play opposite Strasberg as Bob and Jane respectively and while Bob seems like your everyday, normal kind of guy, Jane is that stepmother who seems to care on the surface, yet you know that deep down, she cannot stand you. Ann Todd is both convincing and conniving as she tries to worm her way into Penny’s trust and though it starts to work, she tries too hard and Penny becomes aware of it. Bob is a straight-shooter and is Penny’s closest confidant throughout the film. He is a nice guy that you grow to care about in the picture and you end up rooting for him and Penny to end up together, though Sangster has other plans in mind. As Doctor Gerrard, Christopher Lee seems most suspect in the film, an outsider who is always trying to find a way in and a person Penny finds most unwelcome. These four people, Lee, Strasberg, Todd and Lewis, deliver some brilliant performances and it is easy to see why with Sangster on the top of his game.
Clifton Parker provides the score for the film which only rears its head in the most dramatic of moments while Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer, paints an eerie atmosphere for director Seth Holt. Together they create a beautiful little horror picture that may show the evils of man, but also the goodness in him too. The movie would seem a bit of an oddity coming from Hammer, as most people associate Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and other horrific fiends with the studio, but Scream of Fear is exactly the type of picture Hammer excels at. What made this feature work even better was that it contained not only horror but equal parts noir, mystery, suspense-thriller and drama. The film was claustrophobic at times, atmospheric, exceedingly well-paced and had all the right elements to make a successful movie. If you have not had a chance to see Taste of Fear/Scream of Fear, then you need to do so and rectify that problem.
4.5 out of 5