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Tales That Witness Madness

Tales That Witness Madness(1973)

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John Heyman had come to Great Britain as a child refugee from Nazi Germany and as an adult established World Film Services. The independent financing firm had first backed Peter Watkins' Privilege (1967) before settling into a long association with expatriate American director Joseph Losey. Working in concert with one major studio or another, Heyman backed Losey's Boom! (1967), Secret Ceremony (1968), and The Go-Between (1970) - taking a producer's credit for each - but the partnership fractured after the disaster of Losey's Ibsen adaptation, A Doll's House (1973), starring Jane Fonda, which was shunted from the New York Film Festival straight to television in the States. Diversifying with a corporate mind towards less divisive material, World Film Services put its weight behind a Gothic horror film, Tigon Pictures' The Creeping Flesh (1973), which reunited the stars of Hammer's Dracula (US: Horror of Dracula, 1958), Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in a cracking tale of ancient evil bursting through the corseted confines of Victorian England. The film did well enough that Heyman green lighted a like-minded follow-up and retained Creeping Flesh director Freddie Francis to oversee the production.

A portmanteau horror film in the tradition of Ealing's Dead of Night (1947), Tales That Witness Madness is, at least structurally, closer kin to Francis' earlier Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), and Tales from the Crypt (1972). The project had originated with actress-turned-writer Jennifer Jayne (a vampire newlywed in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors), who banged out a quartet of weird tales that she called Witness Madness. With the influx of capital from Paramount Pictures, the title was changed to echo the profitable Tales from the Crypt while additional gore was added in postproduction to shore up the property's horror potential, drawing the viewer's eye away from what was, quite patently, a less conventional spookshow than the studio had bargained for. As had the Roy Ward Baker anthology Asylum (1972), produced by Francis' old bosses at Amicus Productions, Tales That Witness Madness revolves around four institutionalized individuals and their respective tales of the grotesque and arabesque.

Kicking off with a framing segment in which asylum official Jack Hawkins (near death from throat cancer and dubbed by Charles Grey) pays a visit to maverick psychiatrist Donald Pleasence, who boasts a revolutionary breakthrough into understanding the diseased mind. (Pleasence's self-amused performance provides an interesting bookend to his more celebrated turn as the gun-toting headshrinker of John Carpenter's Halloween five years up the road.) The stories-within-the-story kick off with "Mr. Tiger," the tale - influenced by Roald Dahl but patterned a little too closely on Ray Bradbury - of a spoiled but lonely child (Russell Lewis) of affluence who conjures up a new breed of imaginary friend to put paid to his bickering parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston). In "Pennyfarthing," an antiquarian (Peter McEnery) takes possession of the eponymous high-wheeler and is transported into the past. In "Mel," a sculptor (Michael Jayston) fashions a disturbingly feminine shape out of an old stump, much to the chagrin of his autocratic wife (Joan Collins). A cannibal feast provides the sting in the tail of "Luau," in which literary agent Kim Novak uses nubile daughter Mary Tamm to whet the repressed appetite of hunky but celibate Polynesian mystic Michael Petrovich.

Played out mostly in bright light, against a backdrop of antiseptic modernity, Tales That Witness Madness strives (apart from a bit of rain lashing at the windows) to distance itself from the old dark house aspect of previous omnibus spookshows, grounding dread and horror in a seemingly paradoxical milieu of affluence that serves to underscore how isolated and vulnerable people have let themselves become. Clearly, Francis was still working in the black humor mode of his misunderstood satire Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970) and this offering seems interested less in raising gooseflesh than in painting portraits of lopsided and unsatisfying male-female relationships: the boy in "Mr. Tiger" to his absentee dad and aging trophy wife mom, the bachelor antiques dealer in "Pennyfarthing" to his custodial girlfriend (Suzy Kendall), the sculptor in "Mel" to his controlling missus, and the mystic novelist in "Luau" to the dying mother who sends him into the publishing demimonde in search of a virgin sacrifice whose death will spare their family from damnation. Refreshingly absent also is the stamp of judgment that had plagued the Amicus anthologies, in which murderers or other miscreants were served a comic comeuppance.

As stated, "Mr. Tiger" is too baldly patterned after Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" and "Pennyfarthing" similarly owes too great a debt to Jack Finney's story "Second Chance" than it can adequately repay - meaning that Tales That Witness Madness really only starts cooking with the delightfully perverse "Mel," in which Michael Jayston's quietly redundant hubs literally gets wood while running an errand for castrating wife Joan Collins (a year out from playing a husband killer in the first episode of Tales from the Crypt). Unlike the other installments of this portmanteau, "Mel" could have gone feature length but suffers from the too literal-minded postproduction tinkering sanctioned by Paramount (in which a busty body double stands in for Collins to suffer a birching that looks ahead to the evergreen rape scene in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead). Stepping in for an A.W.O.L. Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak gives to the film a certain star wattage but her self-conscious performance is painful to watch, however appropriate to a character hungering for a new experience that will not sit well in her stomach.

Olive Films' Region 1 DVD of Tales That Witness Madness is predictably bare bones, with no extras, but is otherwise highly satisfying for a film that had every expectation of moldering in the Paramount vaults. The 1.85:1 image is clear and colorful, with lifelike flesh tones and vivid hues. The mono soundtrack is on par with image, providing an adequately robust soundscape, which is capped by an at times inappropriate but undeniably infectious score by Bernard Ebbinghouse, his last. The disc is also available in Blu-ray.

For more information about Tales That Witness Madness, visit Olive Films. To order Tales That Witness Madness, go to TCM Shopping.

by Richard Harland Smith