(1973) Directed by Freddie Francis; Written by Jennifer Jayne; Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence, Georgia Brown, Suzy Kendall, Peter McEnery, Joan Collins, Kim Novak and Michael Petrovitch; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Up until now, apart from the patients, I’m the only person to have seen the truth. I was prepared for it. Of course, I wanted to see it. I don’t know how such a revelation would affect the mind of another human being.” – Tremayne (Donald Pleasence)
Much appreciation to Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidgetReviews for inviting me to the Joan Collins Blogathon, celebrating a talented thespian who’s worked in virtually every genre, playing antagonists and protagonists with equal panache. Collins made a memorable appearance in the 1972 Amicus portmanteau, Tales from the Crypt (“And All Through the House” segment), returning the following year to the horror anthology format (albeit not an Amicus production) with today’s selection.
Tales that Witness Madness was helmed by noted cinematographer/director Freddie Francis (although this time around, he left the cinematography chores to Norman Warwick) and written by Jennifer Jayne.* The framing story, set in a state-of-the-art maximum-security psychiatric hospital, bears a superficial resemblance to the Amicus anthology, Asylum (1972). Both films introduce us to the various patients, and the circumstances that led to their institutionalization. In this movie, Jack Hawkins (in his final film role)** stars as an official evaluating the facility and its director, Dr. Tremayne (Donald Pleasence).
* Fun Fact: Jennifer Jayne, credited as Jay Fairbank, was no stranger to Amicus portmanteau films, having appeared in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).
** Interesting Fact: Due to an operation for throat cancer in the late ‘60s, which rendered the actor speechless, Hawkins’ lines were dubbed by Charles Gray.
The first segment, “Mr. Tiger,” features Paul, a young boy (Russell Lewis) with an unusual imaginary friend, a bloodthirsty tiger. It’s not too difficult to discern why he retreats into a fantasy world, to escape the awful reality of his self-obsessed, constantly squabbling parents. Scanning around his well-furnished room, it’s clear that his material needs are met, but at the expense of everything else. Despite his mother’s (Georgia Brown) admonitions that Paul is a sensitive boy, his father’s only reaction is to toughen him up (“I’d bless the day he came home with a dirty face and a bloody nose.”). Instead of attempting to understand Paul on his terms, his obtuse parents believe Paul’s friend is simply a ploy to disrupt their lives.
“Mr. Tiger” works best as a metaphor for childhood neglect, faltering only when the invisible tiger in the room makes an appearance. It’s a letdown when we finally see the big cat, through the magic of some sloppily edited footage of a real tiger that’s probably three counties away, and a fake animal head that wouldn’t have passed muster as a plush toy – proof that some horror is best left to the imagination.
In the second story, “Penny Farthing,” Timothy (Peter McEnery) an antiques dealer, acquires a selection of knickknacks, including a vintage penny-farthing cycle and a portrait of his long-deceased Uncle Albert. As we soon discover, the spirit of his dead relative is alive and well, transporting him back in time (via the ancient cycle) to a point in Albert’s Victorian past. There are some amusing touches, with Albert’s picture changing expressions, and the sound of a tuba that precedes each supernatural event, but these are only moments in a tale that seems more silly than scary.
The third segment, “Mel,” is an improvement, featuring our woman of the hour, Joan Collins, as Bella, a frustrated housewife. She reaches the end of her rope when her husband Brian (Michael Jayston) drags part of a tree into the house, presumably so he can transform it into some piece of artwork. Brian becomes infatuated with the weird tree trunk, which has some distinctly feminine curves. Bella, however, is less than enamored with the dirty tree sitting in her living room (“It’s about as attractive as a petrified forest.”).
Collins, who’s made a career out of playing more than her share of villains evokes our sympathies this time around, as her character is forced to compete with a tree for her bland husband’s affections. It’s easier to swallow that some flora would develop sentience than a man would choose a tree over his wife (especially if she’s Joan Collins), but I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. “Mel” is an appropriately unnerving entry, which explores the Freudian implications of its weird little premise.
“Luau,” the fourth and final story, is the longest, and most troublesome, from a thematic standpoint. Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent, invites her star client, Kimo (Michael Petrovitch) to her house for a surprise luau, although we learn the surprise will be on her (the pork isn’t pork, if you catch my drift). Prior to his arrival, Kimo has made an oath to his dying mother. As part of his rite of passage, he must perform a ritual sacrifice. Much to Auriol’s chagrin, he sets his sights on her “teenage” daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm).
“Luau” ticks all the boxes for Xenophobia Bingo: Handsome man from an exotic, vague locale? Check. Strange customs from said region that involve an offering to the gods? Check. A virgin daughter, just ripe for the picking? Check. Shadowy henchman with false charm? Check (I’ll assume you’ve used your Free Space to get five across).
On the one hand, this segment comes closest to evoking horror, with its cannibalistic theme. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an authentic representation of Pacific Islander culture, you’re liable to find more veracity at Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction. I suppose it has something to say about family enmeshment and emotional blackmail, but it gets its message across in the most circuitous, ham-handed way, reducing a culture to an over-glorified fraternity pledge (do this terrible thing or terrible things will happen). In the end, the scariest things about this segment are the culturally insensitive depictions of native Pacific Islanders and Kim Novak’s polyester outfits.
Tales that Witness Madness attempts to wrap everything up in a neat little package, with Tremayne accounting for the bizarre events. He calls himself a “detective,” who’s the only one fully versed in each case. Due to the patients’ distorted perceptions, their minds are affecting the outcome (His pseudo-psychological explanation is that “…truth manifests itself as belief, devoid of reasoning…”). Needless to say, his little spiel fails to convince his superior (Who would’ve thought that bad science with no discernible controls would backfire?).
Although Tales that Witness Madness never quite gets out of the starting gate, it’s not without its fleeting moments. Joan Collins sparkles in her brief appearance, and it’s always great to see Donald Pleasence playing an authority figure with questionable sanity (It’s undeniably fun to see him playing a psychiatrist, five years before his iconic role as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween). It’s too bad the film promises more terror than it delivers. Perhaps some more accurate titles might have been Tales of Mild Unease or Tales of Slight Distraction, but it’s a diverting enough way to spend 90 minutes. Of course, you could just watch Ms. Collins in the superior Tales from Crypt instead.