Freddie Francis‘ Tales That Witness Madness, made for World Film Services in 1973, is clearly patterned after the Amicus horror anthologies. Of course, what better way to emulate the competition than to acquire the man who directed nearly half of the Amicus franchise, along with several of that studio’s top draw actors?
The setup is simple and familiar enough: Donald Pleasance is the resident psychiatrist of an asylum, giving friend Jack Hawkins (in his final film) a tour of the grounds. Along the way, he tells the stories of four inmates.
In “Mr. Tiger,” Russell Lewis’ imaginary feline pet beast takes a sour view of his master’s verbally abusive parents. Just how imaginary the tiger is questioned after some clawing on the door and blood splattering on Oedipal walls.
A time traveling bicycle is at the malevolent heart of “Penny Farthing.” It stars Peter McEnery as an antique shop owner and Suzy Kendall as his wife. Soon, they discover the bike is literally antique and … we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.
“Mel” stretches credibility when Michael Jayston is more interested in an oddly shaped tree than he is in oversexed wife Joan Collins in something pink from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the most remembered segment for a reason—it’s a camp hoot, with Collins channeling her inner jealous diva. The tree tries to upstage the human competition, which is not an easy task against Joan in a flimsy nightie, wielding an axe.
Rita Hayworth was originally cast in the final segment, “Luau,” but bowed out, citing health reasons. Kim Novak replaces her and gives a pallid performance as another jealous diva who happens to be a cannibalistic mother. Although not as well known or as assured as the best Amicus entries,Tales is still an enjoyable example of the genre that confirms Francis as an underrated director.
Most horror anthologies succumb to moralizing. One that avoids that route altogether and revels in its gore and perversity is the underrated From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), Jeff Burr’s first solo feature film. It’s an impressive debut that unfortunately did not lead to bigger and better projects for the director. Vincent Price co-stars with Martine Beswicke, Cameron Mitchell, Rosalind Cash, Terry Kiser, Clu Gulager and the always underrated misfit Susan Tyrrell. Price gives a solid performance in the wraparound as a Tennessee librarian whose knowledge of local history is put to use as he relays four tales to reporter Tyrell, who just came back from the execution of the librarian’s serial killer niece. The cast is uniformly good, especially Gulager who gives a hell of a performance in the first segment as an aging, pathetic grocery clerk whose relationship with his ailing sister (Gulager’s real-life wife Miriam Byrd-Nethery) is clearly incestuous. However, an unrequited love for his boss (Megan McFarland) quickly turns things uncomfortably south, with necrophilia thrown into the sororicidal brew.
White trash thug Terry Kiser is nursed back from the dead by kindly bayou voodoo practitioner Harry Caesar. When Kiser has the chutzpah to bite the hand that feeds him, a horrific fate awaits in this unfathomably grim narrative of dread.
Didi Lanier falls in love with carnival glass eater Ron Brooks, who is trepidatious about running away with her, fearing retaliation from the show’s owner/snakewoman (a delirious Rosalind Cash in her final film appearance). The intestinal finale of imploding razor blades and paper clips is gruesome enough to warrant a shower after. This is also the final film for dwarf Angelo Rossitto, who had most famously starred in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
Cameron Mitchell, once a reliable character actor, emerged from a decade-long slump of in this unsettling Gothic Civil War tale that goes to the “you’re not going there” place. Knowing the war is over, Mitchell and his rogue Union squad take the attitude that it isn’t, but fatefully encounter a band of confederate children. Damien, the Children of the Corn and the killer tykes from that Village of the Damned have nothing on these southern juveniles who reinvent pin-the-tail-on-the donkey and don’t bat an eye at removing one adult limb at a time. Hoping to escape, Mitchell goes pedophile, locking lips with a pubescent and facing a visceral climax.
Reportedly, Price had misgivings about the script and was unhappy with the final edit, feeling it too too extreme and devoid of the sense of nostalgia that drives his screen persona. His is a supporting role, no doubt due in part to his (clearly) failing health. Burr, co-writing with Mike Malone, Darin Scott, and Courtney Joyner, fires on all cylinders, without a weak link, and despite a relatively low budget. Obscure enough to rarely be listed, it’s more refreshingly original than the more familiar fare. Burr considers it as his only authentic film, having since been consigned to commission work.