Saturday, October 20, 2007

lightning doesn't always strike thrice...


Last night, in an attempt to re-create the generally uplifting feelings brought upon by my rewatching of "Asylum," I decided to dip once more into the well of Amics anthology horror, this time taking on their "Tales that Witness Madness" (1973), the penultimate Amicus omnibus (before 1980's "The Monster Club"). Like their other films, this has some impressive credentials. The director is Freddie Francis, who helmed a number of great horror pictures for both Amicus and Hammer, including "The Evil of Frankenstein," "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors," "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave," "Trog" (with Joan Crawford), "Tales from the Crypt," and "Legend of the Werewolf." Francis (who died earlier this year at the age of 89) was also an ace cinematographer. He shot Joseph Losey's "Time Without Pity," Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" & "Night Must Fall," Jack Clayton's "The Innocents," plus Scorsese's "Cape Fear," and several films for David Lynch- "The Elephant Man," "Dune," and "The Straight Story." He won Oscars for for Jack Cardiff's "Sons & Lovers" in 1960, and for Edward Zwick's civil war drama "Glory" in 1989. It's interesting that Francis split his time and energy between horror films and more "serious" projects, though he seems to have had a certain discriminating eye in regards to both, primarily taking on projects of some interest (and I'm including, perhaps optimistically, his horror films in this), rather than just churning out this-and-that and such-and-such to pay the rent. The script was by Jennifer Jayne, an English actress who appeared in a few other Amicus films, and worked with Freddie Francis several times. She was also the female lead in 1958's sci-fi classic "The Crawling Eye." Interestingly enough, her only other screenwriting credit was the comedy-horror rock musical "Son of Dracula," starring Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr (with Peter Frampton, John Bonham and Keith Moon), also directed by Francis.

That said, "Tales that Witness Madness" is not exactly a great film, certainly not as much so as "Asylum," of Francis' own superior "Tales from the Crypt." It has some of the elements that work so well in all of the Amicus films- the mod-ish style, creepy atmosphere and a great cast (in this case, Donald Pleasence, Kim Novak, Suzy Kendall and Joan Collins, among others), and all of these elements work here just as they do elsewhere, but the individual stories aren't very strong, and the wraparound doesn't hold together all that well.


The setup at least superficially resembles that of "Asylum," with a doctor visiting an ultra-modern (and very cooly designed in all-white semifuturistic style) facility to check on the progress of his colleague's latest experiments in mental health (Pleasence plays the daffy doc this time around). The doctor visits with four patients and each relates their story of madness. As is often the case, the first tale is the strongest, featuring a child who sics his imaginary tiger friend on his constantly bickering parents. The other stories feature a time-traveling penny-farthing bicycle, a man who falls in love with a tree and a sinister dinner party featuring Hawaiian ritual cannibalism, or something...

Even with a strong visual sense, good acting and a general sense of creepiness, the last three stories just fail to catch, as does the wrap-up of the wraparound, which oddly wastes the talents of Pleasence but just not giving him very much to do. Of course, this film is still pretty entertaining, and you could do a lot worse than curling up with this one on a chilly Halloween eve, but even so, it's just not as good as "Asylum," Tales from the Crypt" or "Vault of Horror."

Dig on it anyway, if you dare (and if it ever shows up on DVD, which it hasn't yet). Until next time, stay spooky...

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