Tales That Witness Madness Review
Here’s a quick(ish) review for one of the lesser regarded of the 70’s portmanteau horror offerings, Freddie Francis’ loopily titled Tales That Witness Madness from 1973 that comes courtesy of Olive Films on US Blu-ray.
With Amicus leading the way with their EC-style pulp anthologies of twisted fates and just desserts (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Dr. Terror’s House of Horror, Asylum), and providing something of a more light-hearted distraction from the lurid excesses of Hammer, who eschewed such nugget-sized stories until Roy Skeggs unleashed their notorious TV series of hour-long horror shows, other studios and filmmakers saw their chance to climb aboard the ‘orrible omnibus.
Ealing may have helped to kick-start the trend with their wonderful little refined shiver-fest of Dead of Night, and the likes of Roger Corman with the Poe quartet of Tales of Terror, and Dan Curtis with his own Trilogy of Terror would dip their toes into the milieu of collected stories too. But Tales That Witness Madness was the only such foray that World Film Ltd made. They had been involved with Tigon for the fun release of The Creeping Flesh with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushingjust before this film went into production, and that is where they came into contact with the great Freddie Francis, who had steered that evocative, finger-ripping ship.
Already a genre luminary, Francis took on the directorial duties for Madness and it is easy to see why with him at the helm, and the popularity of these cheerily gruesome anthology pictures, that such a fine cast could be swiftly assembled. Great British stalwarts such as Donald Pleasance, Michael Jayston, Donald Houston and Jack Hawkins were one thing, but this also boasted Joan Collins, who had already suffered a grisly yuletide fate in Tales from the Crypt, Suzy Kendall (famous for Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and fresh from Sergio Martino’s Euro-shocker, Torso), a young Mary Tamm (who would go on to companion Tom Baker’s Doctor Who and who, sadly, died very recently) and, of course, headlining the roster, the alluring Kim Novak, Hitchcock’s mysterious woman from the classic Vertigo.
Francis, of course, was perfectly suited to such fare, having already made a name for himself as a lauded cinematographer within the genre with Jack Clayton’s aweome adaptation of The Innocents, and then taken to directing as well, with earlier anthology films Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Tales From The Crypt already safely under his belt, and the likes of Paranoiac, The Evil of Frankenstein, The Skull and Dracula Has Risen From The Grave cropping up on a packed résumé. So this was a man who knew how to make the skin crawl, how to bolt various tales and tones into one cohesive whole and, essentially, how to make them look fantastic.
But, with this in mind, it does seem as though his heart wasn’t quite in this one.
The doctor will see you now.
With an incredibly shaky wraparound story that involves the usually extremely reliable Donald Pleasance as a noted shrink attempting to prove his radical breakthrough theories to one of his learned superiors, the film has to stand on the strength of its individual portions, which invite a number of surprisingly eager guest stars to go through the doomed psychological wringer. These take the form of four mental patients in the care of Dr. Tremayne (Pleasance, perhaps doing some professional research before taking on the role of the genre’s greatest and probably clumsiest psychiatrist – Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis), whose case histories are opened-up for us to analyse. A rather confused-looking Jack Hawkins, in his last screen role (who was occasionally voiced by Dennis Grey during this production), struggles with the inane script as the governing board member who has come to this institution for the criminally insane to assess Tremayne’s progress in something of a revolutionary field. Where most movie asylums were decidedly gothic in appearance, this one breaks the mould with sterile SF leanings, monitors and electronic doors.
The first patient that Tremayne introduces him to is a little boy called Paul (Russell Lewis) in a chapter called Mr. Tiger.
Paul had been having a hard time convincing his argumentative, but reasonably well-off parents that his best friend actually exists. They think he has merely created an imaginary playmate, which just happens to be a tiger, as a means of shutting himself away from reality. The problem is that they are the ones who have shut themselves away from what is really happening in their own home. Hurling abuse at one another every night and basically ignoring their son makes them thoroughly unlikeable and unsympathetic characters and nobody, least of all any of us, is going to be surprised when their callous and self-centred ways eventually turn round and bite them on the ass. And quite severely, too.
With Georgia Brown and Donald Houston as the highly strung and exasperated parents – finding curious scratch marks on the furniture and noticing that meat is going missing from the freezer does not go down too well with either of them – it is great to see that Lewis maintains an air of complete calm during the volatile exchanges that rock the household. Indeed, given the theme of child neglect and possible abuse, this matter-of-fact attitude makes the admittedly strange affair so much more enjoyable. When supernature finally fights back, we are the ones who are cheering whilst Paul simply carries on playing his toy keyboard without a real care in the world.
There can be no denying that this is a patently absurd story, but it certainly has its moments. We see the door pushed open by something unseen, and the sudden appearance of the claw-rakings on the door delivers a delicious little frisson of unease. There can’t really be a tiger in the house. Can there? Although this is hardly a nasty film, it is worth saying that there is a little bit of gore splashed about in this episode which really does help to provide it with some that delirious EC feel. Which is something that only one other story is able to properly conjure.
In our second appointment, we meet the burn-scarred Timothy, played by Peter McEnery (Hang about … Peter who? Peter McEne – ahhh, I see), an antique dealer whose recent acquisitions of a penny farthing and snooty portrait of “Uncle Albert” (Frank Forsyth) somehow contrive to whisk him back in time to quaint old Victoriana and get him embroiled in a fiery murder plot with destiny-bound doubles. Or something. Whilst McEnery is a charismatic soul (he was great in the Disney drama, The Moon-Spinners, opposite Hayley Mills and Eli Wallach, andhis brother, John, was a magnificent Mercutio in Franco Zefferelli’s sumptuous screen 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) and Suzy Kendall as his wife, Ann, is a marvellous reason to go peddling in the park on a big daft bike and to wear a tweed deerstalker, the plot itself is an eye-rolling mess. Although the setting of a dusty antique shop is usually a great place in which to stage some spooky goings-on, the supernatural elements witnessed in this one are very unwisely handled. In the oldest cliché in the book, the painting’s eyes move and Uncle Albert’s expression changes, but the way in which the effect is presented here is more prone to make you roar with laughter than shiver with fear. And worse is to come. If the sight of ol’ mutton-chops giving us the evil eye doesn’t crease you up, then the image of poor Timothy getting spectrally picked off his feet and placed upon the high seat of the penny farthing and then compelled to peddle back in time most surely will. Jay’s dialogue may be deliberately arch and stilted when the characters are in the Victorian setting, but there are some absurd moments of dastardly lurking-about taking place in the verdant London park that could have come out of The Two Ronnies … and just wait until you see Kendall’s genre-babe running on the spot in a ridiculous cutaway shot that is supposed to show her running towards us, and then having to suffer the further ignominy of having the camera linger on her Home Alone screaming face for a couple of embarrassing seconds too long.
Penny Farthing, as this episode is labelled, is just wretched.
The third tale, called simply Mel is perhaps my favourite of the bunch.
Mel is the name scratched into the bark of a decidedly Druidic-looking tree-effigy that Michael Jayston’s Brian becomes so smitten with that he hauls it back to his alpine-style house and plonks it down on the rug in the middle of the lounge … much to the dismay of his wife Bella (Joan Collins). Pointing out what is blatantly obvious to everyone – that the tree is a woman - Bella’s jealousy of her man’s unsavoury infatuation with this arboreal femme-fatale becomes a war of attrition between the two. The tree-thing has the ability to sprout little thorn-claws whenever its rival for Brian’s affections draws near, and it can clearly move of its own volition when nobody is looking. Its spindly branches can also be used as arms, and it is apparent that it has staked a claim on the man who brought it in from the cold.
Neither girl likes the competition and … well, let’s just say that Sam Raimi was very definitely influenced by the nightmare sequence in which Bella, in a skimpy negligee, finds herself terrorised by the groping vines and twigs of her nemesis in a spooky wood. There’s some very brief nudity during this “leafy lesbian assault”.
With a final image that is genuinely both hysterical and actually quite disturbing, and the tree, itself, with its apparent breasts and strangely elephantine face, this makes for quite a unique little creature-feature. You also have to love the way that the glamorous Collins, in a desperate bid to win her feller’s green-fingers back in her direction, dons sexy lingerie and entices Jayston to bed with the deceptive promise that they can watch the movie on TV together … “It’s a Western …” she teases, revealing that she does, indeed, know the best way to a man’s heart. Jeez, I’d be there like a shot! You’re darn-tootin, missy! Now pass me that remote.
The fourth story has a bizarre hybridised Hawaiian/Haitian tone. Called Luau, this is the longest, most elaborate and probably the most infuriating of the lot. Kim Novak plays patient Auriol Pageant, once a successful agent (well, she must have been – I mean just look at the size of that country estate!), who was hoping to impress her big league client, author Kimo (Michael Petrovitch, looking a lot like Damian Thomas from Hammer’s Twins of Evil) with a big Polynesian-style party to remind him of home, but bit off more than she could chew. With his trusty assistant (and nefarious henchman) Keoki (the memorable Leon Lissek), Kimo has a few ghastly secrets of his own. A terrible ritual sacrifice must be enacted if he wants to gain the supernatural powers of his magical homeland and hereditary honour and, right now, Pageant’s comely daughter, Virginia (Mary Tamm), looks like she will fit the bill quite nicely.
Although still pretty tame, graphically, this is another grisly chapter, and easily the sexiest with both mother and daughter vying for the attentions of Kimo. But it is also overlong and totally without a satisfying conclusion. Well acted it may be, but it is a case of much ado about nothing. By opening-up the scope of the portmanteau at this point – we are invited to big social parties, and visit some spacious locations – and by involving a few more characters, this is the very low budget film at its most lavish and extravagant. Yet it all boils down to a very simple conceit and one that we all saw coming right from the very start. I can’t say that it is boring – Tamm and Novak are far too easy on the eye for that, and the wicked antics of both Petrovitch and Lissek, sporting tanned makeup and wielding some sharp blades, are agreeably sly and sinister – but its lack of a proper payoff just leaves too many questions hanging in the air. The point of a short, sharp, shock tale is precisely that – to be short, to be sharp and to shock. Luau goes on for so long that it actually comes to feel like we are watching an episode in some ongoing 70’s daytime soap. It wastes too much time setting up a scenario that we’d already completely worked out for ourselves. And the big shock – such as it is – just falls flat because you are left waiting for what you foolishly think will be the real coup de grace to follow … but never arrives.
And my diagnosis is …
Quite frankly, the screenplay is ludicrous, even for this subgenre of bite-sized horror rationing. Amicus, under the auspices of Milton Subotsky, and often working from material by the likes of Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, was infinitely better at this sort of thing, even though playing from the same sort of one-pitch short story ethic of quick scenario/tasty punchline. Writing as Jay Fairbank, Jennifer Jay’s plotting for Madness is neat and interesting, and certainly has a sense of feminine humour about it (a bloke just wouldn’t have written Mel or Luau), but I find it a touch too incoherently developed. In some cases we don’t even know how certain characters ended-up incarcerated even though we’ve seen the events that apparently drove them mad. If indeed they are even mad at all. Luau is a great case in point. Just how would anyone other than Kimo and Keoki know exactly what happened, and what, exactly, has Pageant, or even the little boy, for that matter, been banged-up for, anyway? They have clearly not killed anybody. There is a straining for effect here that convolutes what should, in essence, be a very simple series of mysterious what ifs.
These are nice set of ideas … but the writing then fails to seal the deal in the immaculate manner that fans of this sort of thing had grown accustomed to with Amicus, and the concepts brewed-up by Matheson and Bloch. Jay is just too slapdash with her plotting, almost hoping that we don’t notice her inability to construct endings. It is as if she sent off her script and then closed her eyes and put her fingers in her ears so as not to hear any queries from Francis.
In Tales from the Crypt and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, the unwitting “victims” are already dead and are merely being informed of how that state of affairs came to be. In Torture Garden, they are being shown what evil resides in their hearts and the possible outcome of their avarice. The closest relative to Madness that hails from the Amicus stable is Asylum, which is superior entertainment in every way. Once again we listen to the horrific and fantastical cases of various patients – all of which make sense in the twisted universe of Robert Bloch’s devious script – and receive a clever, and actually quite inspired twist in the wraparound story. With Madness the ultimate twist is a massive letdown and a very sad epitaph for a screen legend like Jack Hawkins.
The screenplay isn’t the only disappointment, however. I have to concede that Freddie Francis fumbles this one, but then again he had precious little of value to work with. The film still looks good, with some moody angles and atmospheric compositions that he surely helped his regular DOP and horror specialist Norman Warwick with. Although I don't rate the story Penny Farthing, it does feature some greatly shot fire effects that decorate the anitque shop like it was Dante's Inferno. Warwick had lensed Torture Garden, The Creeping Flesh and Tales From The Crypt for him. It may not be quite as lurid or as splendidly showcased as those earlier movies, but Madness still has a distinctive veneer and fluidity that is welcome, even if the story leaves a fair bit to be desired.
Nevertheless, Olive Films should be praised for dusting down another often neglected or just plain forgotten genre movie from yesteryear. Their catalogue is rich and varied with such oddities, bizarrities and cult curios, and long may it continue. The celebrated cluster of creepy anthologies has some real gems in it, and let’s just hope that they eventually find a release on Blu-ray too.
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