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The Wicked Stepmother – How Hammer Turned to Murder Mysteries with Taste of Fear

By the end of the 1950s Hammer Films had overtaken Ealing Studios as the dominant force in British cinema. Following the popularity of their BBC serial The Quartermass Experiment in 1955, Hammer discovered fame and fortune with a string of gothic horror pictures starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, commencing with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and reaching their commercial peak the following year with an adaptation of Dracula. With no other British companies set to rival their new brand of horror, Hammer wasted no time in capitalising on their newfound success with a host of sequels, spinoffs and reworkings of Universal classics. But as a new decade began the formula was starting to wear thin, prompting the powers that be to search for fresh inspiration. And that came in the form of Psycho.

British-born Alfred Hitchcock had enjoyed considerable success and acclaim in his native country during the 1930s, before relocating to Hollywood for the chance to work with some of the most respected artists in the industry. The 1950s would prove to be his defining era, during which time he would produce such classics as Strangers on a TrainRear Window and Vertigo. But following the success of his spy caper North by Northwest, Hitchcock had attempted to develop an adaptation of Henry Cecil’s novel No Bail for the Judge, with one of the principal roles intended for screen icon Audrey Hepburn.

Disturbed by the screenplay’s graphic violence, Hepburn eventually backed out of the project and, following the birth of her first child, landed the infamous role of Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards’ stylish Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hitchcock, meanwhile, purchased the rights to a recently released novel entitled Psycho, which told of a young woman on the run after stealing money from her employer, who takes up residence in an out-of-the-way motel, only to be butchered by the disturbed owner. Hitchcock’s low budget movie, released in the summer of 1960, would change the face of horror forever, with the gothic European castles and long-dormant mummified remains coming back to life being replaced by the human face of mental illness.

Hitchcock was not the first to flirt with the darkness that lurks inside the mind of man but the controversy surrounding his atmospheric thriller would usher in a new, lucrative genre: the psychological thriller. Hammer wasted no time in producing its own series of murder mysteries, often black-and-white and based around betrayal among rich or respected families. The first of these would be Seth Holt’s 1961 shocker Taste of Fear. The man most responsible for the company’s change of direction was Jimmy Sangster, who had already steered the studio to success once before with their Frankenstein and Dracula movies and was now once again taking risks in an effort to avoid recycling old products.

While Psycho was an obvious inspiration, Sangster drew more influence from the 1955 French thriller Les Diaboliques, a story that Hitchcock himself had tried to gain the rights for, only to lose out to Henri-Georges Clouzot. Sangster’s introduction to the movie had been when Les Diaboliques had been released on a double-bill with his Hammer debut X: The Unknown and from this the first seeds were sown. Slowly a treatment began to take shape entitled See No Evil, in which a beautiful young woman is haunted by visions of her recently deceased father.

After developing the first draft of the script Sangster approached independent filmmaker Sydney Box, owner of the recently-formed production company Orbit Films and part-shareholder of Tyne Tees Television. Impressed with his pitch, Box agreed to purchase three scripts from the young writer, while also allowing Sangster the chance to produce See No Evil himself. But no sooner had the ball started rolling tragedy struck when Box suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was forced to take him away from the industry to recover. After discussions with other producers Sangster decided that he would offer the same deal to Hammer, who by that point had grown into an empire on the strength of the movies he had written.

Michael Carreras, son of the studio’s co-founder James Carreras, had taken over as executive producer of the company in the mid-1950s and had been the main driving force in rebranding Hammer as Britain’s home of horror. With their support and Carreras’ creative input, Sangster commenced work on rewriting his script while Hammer submitted their intentions to the British Board of Film Censors, the independent body responsible for granting or denying all motion pictures the right to be distributed in the United Kingdom.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison had recently taken over as president of the organisation, which had often been criticised for its occasionally severe reactions to films of questionable content. The same year that Hammer had submitted the screenplay for See No Evil, acclaimed filmmaker Michael Powell would try a similar method with his own psychological thriller Peeping Tom, which the board would declare as having a ‘morbid concentration on fear.’

Fresh from her critically acclaimed performance in the Holocaust drama Kapò, twenty-two-year-old American actress Susan Strasberg was awarded the role of Penny, the wheelchair-bound protagonist investigating the disappearance of her father, at the insistence of Columbia Pictures, who had entered into a deal with Hammer to distribute the movie. The daughter of noted drama coach Lee Strasberg and close friend of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, her introduction to the public had come in 1955 with both the Academy Award-winning drama Picnic and the eponymous role in the Broadway biopic The Diary of Anne Frank.

Ann Todd, in one of her more sinister performances, was cast as Penny’s stepmother Jane Appleby. Having made her screen debut thirty years earlier, Todd appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, before marrying filmmaker David Lean the same year that he directed her in the romantic drama The Passionate Friends. The part of Robert, the family’s handsome chauffeur, would be taken by Ronald Lewis, who started acting while still a child and had already appeared in over a dozen feature films before Taste of Fear.

Principal photography on the movie, with the name having now changed from See No Evil to Hell Hath No Fury, commenced on 24 October 1960 in the south of France, with locations including the Villa de la Garoupe and Nice Airport. Two weeks later the production relocated to ABPC Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire where the internal scenes at the Appleby home would be filmed. It was here that the ominous psychiatrist Dr. Gerrard would be introduced and for the small but pivotal role the producers decided to cast Hammer regular Christopher Lee who, to horror fans, was still most famous for his iconic turn as Dracula released just a few years earlier.

Looking back on Taste of Fear many years later Lee would admit that it was the best Hammer film that he had ever worked on and, in his autobiography Lord of Misrule, claimed that it was Hammer’s second-best offering after 1960′s Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. A few months before his involvement in the movie Lee had married model and painter Birgit Kroencke, just ten days before his thirty-ninth birthday.

In less talented hands Sangster’s script could have become an incoherent mess or, even worse, simply dull, yet Hammer wisely selected a crew that were more than able to handle a claustrophobic thriller. In the director’s chair was Seth Holt, who had started out as in the editing department for Ealing, working on such classics as Dead of Night and Kind Hearts and Coronets for his brother-in-law Robert Hamer. Another veteran from Ealing’s golden era was Douglas Clocombe, the director of photography responsible for lensing many of the studio’s most known works.

The central performance from Strasberg would also lend the movie a lot of credibility, despite unwelcome interference from her mother. Perhaps most famous for being Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg would often appear on the set and dictate her daughter’s performance, subjecting the young actress to numerous takes and eventually forcing Holt to give Sangster an ultimatum: either Paula Strasberg was removed from the set or he would walk from the production.

Hell Hath No Fury was finally retitled Taste of Fear and released with an X certificated on 30 March 1961 to mixed reviews, earning almost £100,000 at the U.K. box office. For its North American debut, Columbia decided to rename the movie once again, releasing Scream of Fear to an underwhelming reception. Strasberg’s performance was universally praised, while many critics agreed that Lee’s casting against type was an inspired move, but the majority of the negative criticism was levelled at Sangster’s screenplay. Regardless, Hammer were impressed with the finished product and felt inspired to produce several other psychological thrillers, the first of which was Michael Casseras’ Maniac. Others would soon follow, including Paranoiac, which starred Oliver Reed as a drunk whose inheritance feels threatened when a man arrives claiming to be his long-dead brother and Hysteria, both of which were also written by Sangster.

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