‘Scream of Fear’ (1961): Nightmarish, unnerving Hammer thriller

A sensuous, suspense-filled nightmare from Hammer horror!

By Paul Mavis

Mill Creek Entertainment recently released two fab Hammer Film double features in crisp, sparkling Blu-ray transfers: Maniac and Die! Die! My Darling!, and Never Take Candy From a Stranger and Scream of Fear. We already reviewed Never Take Candy From a Stranger, so let’s look at the lush, scary Scream of Fear, starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, and Christopher Lee.

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At the chic, modernistic Nice/Cote D’Azur airport, gorgeous invalid Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), has come home to France after ten long years. Estranged from her wealthy father (Fred Johnson) when her parents divorced, Penny, confined to a wheelchair for the past nine years (riding accident), has returned now that her mother and her nurse/best friend have both died. Picked up—literally—by strong, handsome chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis), Penny is momentarily reassured by Bob’s solid presence; however, she’s troubled by his revelation that her father, being ill for some time, is not at the mansion, having left suddenly on a business matter.

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Penny’s growing uncertainty is exacerbated when she meets for the first time her step-mother, Jane Appleby (Ann Todd). Outwardly pleasant, Jane seems to be interested only in Penny’s welfare, but something’s wrong when Jane insists that Penny’s father was never ill, contradicting Bob’s account. Jane’s frequent house guest, Doctor Gerrard (Christopher Lee), a former friend of Penny’s father, seems concerned for Penny, as well…particularly after Penny freaks out one evening, insisting she saw her father’s corpse in the summer house—right before her wheelchair took a dive into the fetid, swampy swimming pool. Who’s telling the truth around the Appleby estate, and what does it mean for our wealthy, lovely—and highly vulnerable—young heiress?

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Unlike many of my other reviews here at Movies & Drinks, I won’t go too deeply into the weeds with Scream of Fear (was that a scream of joy I just heard?), mostly because I can’t…unless I give away the double-twist ending (which I don’t think is well-known enough to reveal, unlike say Psycho’s). I’m not sure deeper analysis is needed, anyway, for Scream of Fear. It’s first and last a suspense thriller (with horror elements, I would argue), with a straightaway approach to unnerving the viewer. No sociology. No gender issues (well…maybe we’ll get to that), and no subtextual profundities to amplify the terror. Scream of Fear wants to scare us the way a fairytale gone very, very wrong can frighten us, and it’s the better for this narrow, focused, undiluted approach.

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Of course, you can make a case for psychological concerns underpinning many fairy tales, and if you wanted, you might get a good term paper out of Scream of Fear’s narrative semiotics of the gorgeous-yet-impaired daughter, the distant father held in confused esteem/anger, the dark, handsome stranger who may or may not be a rescuer, and the younger, evil (or not?) step-mother who poses as an “obstacle,” if you will, to daughter and father’s reconciliation (throw in Scream of Fear constant water imagery and you can page, “Calling Dr. Freud! Dr. Howard! Dr. Fine!” right now). But again, that kind of parlor game, while fun, is entirely unnecessary with Scream of Fear (even more so when you see how it ends). Nightmares don’t have to mean anything to resonate with us (contrary to what that expensive headshrinker told you last week). Dreams and nightmares (in this case) can just be, and Scream of Fear is a highly effective one (the opening shot sets us right up: a lake surrounded by impossibly high mountains looks like an illustration from a fairy tale book…until we see them fish a body out of the water).

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Having been exposed to many similiar types of thrillers (particularly in this case, Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques), the average viewer will understand fairly quickly that someone is trying to gaslight poor Strasberg (there’s another one: Cukor’s Gaslight). The fun of this particular outing—outside of the stylish direction and the performances—is trying to figure out who is doing the gaslighting, and how. I’m sure no Charlie Chan or Poirot, but I’ve seen thousands of these kinds of whodunits…and I never saw that double-twist coming.

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Scripted by Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster (who never seems to get the critical credit he deserves—probably because of his easy industriousness), Scream of Fear effortlessly lays out one red herring after another until we’re thoroughly snagged on its mystery hook.

RELATED | Read more Hammer film reviews

While the mystery elements of Scream of Fear are neatly arranged for our appropriate puzzlement, frankly, cult director Seth Holt (Station Six-Sahara, Danger Route) and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Servant, Rollerball, Raiders of the Lost Ark) gets most of the suspense mileage out of just focusing on Strasberg’s dark, erotic presence being increasingly threatened (which is now deemed visual shorthand for something feminist critics and beta male millennials who know their places call, “misogyny.” Priceless).

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A beautiful, expressive, empathetic actress, Strasberg gets the widescreen black and white glamor treatment from Slocombe and Holt, looking simultaneously chic and cool in her Ray-Bans and cloture black weeds, and tremulous and scared out of her mind when confronted with Daddy’s dead body popping up everywhere she wheels around. We can’t help but identify with her predicament, and we completely buy talented Strasberg’s nuanced unease…and growing terror.

RELATED | Read more 1960s film reviews

If, as constantly threatened in the press, the #MeToo “movement” is somehow going to mutate into eliminating all jerk off-worthy cinematic eroticism featuring beautiful women in peril, well…then all I can say is good luck to filmmakers trying to scare audiences with a shirtless, cowering Ryan Gosling as he screams his fool head off in a haunted house. It ain’t gonna fly (that kind of reversal isn’t new—check out Still of the Night, for instance, where they laughably tried to make tough guy Roy Scheider, menaced by an insane Meryl Streep, afraid of his own shadow).

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The rest of Scream of Fear’s cast is perfectly suited to the script’s requirements. Glacially still, cooly perverted Ann Todd repeatedly tries to reassure Strasberg that everything is everything…but her reptilian chilliness cues us in time and again that everything is not everything, baby (watch her get off sexually on being forced to acknowledge what she didn’t and did know about her husband’s death—can’t say anymore). Ronald Lewis is just handsome and stalwart enough for us to buy him as a hero…and somehow weak and soft at his center to make us think he might be in on the whole thing (can’t say anymore). Christopher Lee’s inclusion, in a strictly supporting role, is a brilliant bit of counter-casting (we expect Hammer’s biggest star to take center stage, not just observe from the sidelines). Can’t say anymore, though….

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Historians and writers put Scream of Fear in U.K. Hammer’s subgroup of 1960s Psycho-like suspensers, when the studio, flush with money from their horror outings, was open to trying to diversify their offerings in an effort to increase international market share (reports vary as to how successful this strategy was—you can’t even get a straight answer on whether or not Scream of Fear was profitable). Certainly it’s a suspense thriller by design, but the inclusion of the dead body always reappearing definitely lends Scream of Fear some horror element credibility—particularly the way director Holt and lenser Slocombe shoot their scare scenes.

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There is some kind of indefinable “X” factor to those scenes—a combination of the jet-black, shadowy lighting, Strasberg’s palpable beauty/terror, the intensely close but slightly off-center framing, the absolute silence of the scenes, and the slow, slow camera pans and tracks—that make Scream of Fear’s shocks so memorably nightmarish. That midnight swimming pool sequence, with Lewis—in an equally frightening French bikini—pushing through those improbable swamp weeds, will make you jump, while a at-first-glance more predictable sequence—a p.o.v. track of Strasberg entering a darkened room—is simply, brilliantly unsettling. I rewatched it at least 5 or 6 times, and the only way I can describe the seemingly invisible effect, is that it visually plays exactly like how we experience similar events in our dreams…and nightmares. For thriller fans who want something genuinely unnerving, Scream of Fear is necessary viewing (and a can’t-miss, teamed up here with Never Take Candy From a Stranger, on this Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray double feature disc).

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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