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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, among their most iconic being The Mummy. But as a new decade began the formula was starting to wear thin, prompting the powers that be to search for 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 Train, Rear 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 beauty 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 staling money from her company, 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, 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 brand 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 now once again he was taking risks in an effort to avoid recycling old ideas.

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 rest while he recovered. 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 been often 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.’

The body of a young woman is recovered from the depths of a Swiss lake by local police. Three weeks later, wheelchair-bound heiress Penny Appleby arrives in Côte d’Azur in the south of France to visit her father for the first time in ten years, only to discover that he has gone away on business. During the drive from the airport, the family’s handsome chauffeur, Robert, accidentally reveals that her father has been ill for sometime and is under the care of Dr. Pierre Gerrard.

At the house they are greeted by Jane Appleby, Penny’s stepmother, who welcomes her in and tries to make her feel at home. During their supper Penny reveals that it was her personal nanny and close friend, Maggie Frensham, who had drowned in the lake, leaving her alone and scared. When Penny asks about her father’s illness Jane denies knowledge, dismissing his relationship with the doctor as merely two friends who play chess together.

Taste of Fear

Taste of Fear

Later that night, alarmed by the persistent banging of the patio door, Penny climbs from her bed to her wheelchair and investigates, but lights coming from a room across the other side of the pool arouses her curiosity. There she discovers her father sat motionless in a chair, his piercing eyes staring lifelessly at her through the darkness. In a moment of panic, she tries to make her way back to her room but one of her wheels slips over the side of the pool and she crashes down into the water, alerting Robert who appears from his nearby room.

She awakens to find Dr. Gerrard and Jane watching over her, but Penny insists that she saw her dead father in the summerhouse. Neither believe her and so she insists they take her to inspect the room once again, but in her father’s place are ornaments and abandoned furniture. Concerned for her mental state, the doctor administers a sedative and soon afterwards she falls back to sleep.

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 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, 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 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 would be taken by Ronald Lewis, who had started acting while still a child, having 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 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, Hertfordshire, where the internal scenes at the Appleby home would be filmed. It was here that 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 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 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.

The following day Penny seems unsure whether she should trust her stepmother or her own sanity, which may have been playing tricks on her. With the help of Robert, she returns to the summerhouse to inspect the room in the daylight, determined to find clues on her father’s whereabouts and why she may have been hallucinating. Jane then leads her back into the house and hands her the phone, in which she hears a voice claiming to be her father. Penny retreats to her room where she is greeted by Robert and expresses her doubts on both the authenticity of the call and her lack of trust towards the doctor.

Having joined them for dinner, the doctor claims that her father had informed him that when Penny was younger she had an overactive imagination, which could explain why she had seen visions the previous night. Exploring the grounds at evening, Penny notices her father’s car in the garage, but when Jane and Robert return they insist that there was no other car there.

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 Marilyn 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.

Convinced once again that she has seen the dead body of her father, this time in her own room, she screams and begs for Robert to come to the rescue. Moments later Jane arrives, who informs her that Dr. Gerrard has been invited to dinner once again. The doctor insists that his visit has nothing to do with her mental or emotional state but because he would like her to visit a specialist in Zurich who could offer assistance regarding her disability. After Jane and the doctor have left, Penny and Robert agree to search the house for her father’s body, with the most obvious place being the deep freeze, which Jane had recently ordered a new lock for.

Unable to locate the corpse, Robert agrees to keep looking but while they sit by the water they start to kiss, finally accepting their feelings for each other. Jane expresses her concern over how close the two have become, and with the house empty once again, Penny tells Robert that she fears the body may be at the bottom of the swimming pool.

To their horror, Robert discovers her father’s corpse in the depths of the water and they set out on their way to the nearby village to inform the police. But en route they come across Jane’s vehicle and Robert climbs out to confront her, but suddenly the car begins to roll down the hill and as Penny tries to grab hold of the wheel she discovers her father’s corpse in the front seat. The car plunges into the water as Jane and Robert watch from afar, and finally satisfied that she is dead they return to the house.

After the vehicle is retrieved from the lake, Jane is visited by a solicitor, Mr. Spratt, who verifies that now her husband and stepdaughter are dead she will inherit the family fortune. But Mr. Spratt informs her that Penny had taken a holiday in Switzerland with her friend Maggie Frensham, where she had taken her own life. To make events more bizarre, Robert is informed from the police that only one body has been recovered from the car, that of his employer, Mr. Appleby.

Jane is shocked to see the girl she had believed to be Penny sat in her wheelchair at the end of the garden, overlooking the water. Walking out to confront her, Jane discovers that the imposter is Maggie, who had written to Penny’s father come time ago and had received a reply in which he had expressed concern over his wife. When she received another letter claiming to be Penny’s father requesting to see her, despite him knowing that she had already died, Maggie took her identity and asked Dr. Gerrard for help.

Revealing that she is not really bound to a wheelchair, Maggie takes her leave. Jane sits in the wheelchair and buries her head in her hands, but moments later Robert storms out the house and seeing the chair on the side of the cliff, pushes it over the edge and accidentally sending Jane to her death. Maggie and Dr. Gerrard appear behind with the police and Robert is escorted away, while Maggie walks to the edge and looks down at the body of her stepmother.

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

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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