Scream of Fear
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Thanks to a clever ad campaign, England's Hammer Studios and their partners at Columbia Pictures had one of the most profitable hits of 1961. It was devastatingly simple: the face of Susan Strasberg, screaming her fool head off, and the caption "Management and staff of this theatre have been pledged to an oath of secrecy concerning the electrifying climax! For maximum excitement, we earnestly recommend that you see this motion picture from the start!"
Scream of Fear had genuine secrets to protect-multiple twists that defied logic but delivered emotional satisfaction and riveting drama.
For many commentators, this was Hammer's Pyscho, which had been marketed the previous year with a similar warning to audiences to come early and keep their traps shut when they left. Psycho's success prompted a host of imitators, and Hammer cranked out Psycho copycats with the best of them, but the real inspiration here was the film that hid behind Hitchcock as Psycho's inspiration, the French classic that started it all: Les Diaboliques (1955). Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 masterpiece so moved Hitch he poached its writers - Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac - for Vertigo (1958), and set out to make Psycho in the same Spartan black and white B-movie aesthetic.
The extent to which Hammer's Scream of Fear (released as Taste of Fear in Britain) mimics Psycho is debatable: Psycho hit theaters in the US in July of 1960, and didn't make it to England until the fall. Scream of Fear went before cameras in October of the same year, which doesn't leave much if any time for Jimmy Sangster to have seen Hitchcock's film, written his own screenplay, then shopped the project around, made his deal and gotten production underway...Indeed, some sources claim that Sangster had written the script years before Psycho came down the pike, but Sangster's autobiography is vague on that count.
What we do know is this: Sangster had been the primary go-to screenwriter for Hammer's gothic horrors. Eventually all those Draculas and Frankensteins start to take their toll, and being billed as "Jimmy 'Frankenstein' Sangster" in ads for The Trollenberg Terror didn't help either. He wanted to break out of the gothic horror mold, and noted that most professional screenwriters didn't work on commission as he was, but wrote original works on speculation of being able to sell them to producers--"spec scripts." Sangster wrote a spec script of his own, about a fragile young woman who fears her step-mother has killed her father and hidden the body.
It closely followed Les Diaboliques' pace car: a scheming couple decides to scare an invalid to death, even down to hiding a corpse in a swimming pool. Still, Sangster punched up his take on the idea with enough distinctive touches and razor-sharp suspense to confidently stand in the same ring as the French champion.
Looking to escape Hammer and the Carreras family that ran the studio, Sangster sold his script to producer Sidney Box, who generously offered to let the neophyte produce the film. Sadly, Box suffered a heart attack almost immediately and Sangster was obliged to buy his film back to keep it from vanishing into obscurity. To get it made, he sold it to the producer most willing to give it a home-yes, Hammer's Michael Carreras!
At the time, Hammer was forging an alliance with Columbia Pictures. The scrappy little British upstart got production financing, access to better stars, and superior American distribution. In turn, the Hollywood megastudio got impeccably crafted low-budget profit-makers. Columbia agreed to let Sangster cut his teeth as producer, but dictated the lead be played by Susan Strasberg.
Daughter of venerated acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Susan was "Hollywood royalty," even if her experience had been almost exclusively on the Broadway stage. She was talented, beautiful, and a rising star-and Sangster's twisty script gave her plenty to do to show off her skills.
Sangster demanded that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shoot the picture in black and white-he did, and rendered images so crisp you could eat them with milk. The money that was saved by filming in monochrome was poured into other areas, such as luxurious location shooting in Nice and the French Riviera, and indoor shoots at the upscale Elstree Studios. In the director's chair sat Seth Holt, then a prodigious thriller director often compared favorably to Hitchcock-but in ten years' time his alcoholism would cost him first his career and then his life. As Sangster said, though, "But that was later." For now, Holt showed off why he was so well-regarded - and occasionally popped next door to Stanley Kubrick's Lolita set for a little inspiration.
Sangster had not managed to leave Hammer, but he'd broken out of the Hammer Horror mold. He was now a producer, on a fairly prestigious project of his own devising. Cannily trading on audience expectations, he cast Christopher Lee in a small supporting role, knowing the man's mere presence would serve as a red herring. Aside from Lee, though, there was little that would connect this taut psychological thriller with the lurid monster flicks about Dracula and werewolves that otherwise typified the studio's output.
Taste of Fear opened in the UK to good reviews and great box office. Four months later it came to the states, retitled Scream of Fear and missing about ten minutes of footage but not appreciably missing any of its kick. Columbia pocketed some of their best ticket sales for the year, and Hammer basked in one of the best hits of their entire studio's existence.
Over the next ten years, Sangster returned to the same well, and wrote numerous other psychological thrillers in the same vein (all of which copied the same narrative formula), but none were as popular or as memorable as the first.
Producer: Michael Carreras, Jimmy Sangster
Director: Seth Holt
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Film Editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Art Direction: Thomas Goswell
Music: Clifton Parker
Cast: Susan Strasberg (Penny Appleby), Ronald Lewis (Bob), Ann Todd (Jane Appleby), Christopher Lee (Doctor Gerrard), John Serret (Inspector Legrand), Leonard Sachs (Spratt).
by David Kalat
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
Allen Eyles et al, The House of Horror: The Complete Story of Hammer Films
Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography
Howard Maxford, Hammer, House of Horror: Behind the Screams
Jonathan Rigby, English Gothic
Jimmy Sangster, Do You Want it Good or Tuesday? A Life in the Movies