Written by: Jennifer Jayne
Directed by: Freddie Francis
Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Pleasence and Kim Novak
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
An orgy of the damned!
If there's a horror anthology auteur, it has to be Freddie Francis; while the stalwart British director directed over thirty movies, he is perhaps best remembered for his portmanteau horrors. Both he and fellow Brit Roy Ward Baker popularized the format, but Francis arguably defined it at Amicus Studios by both ushering it in with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and by crafting one of the greatest in Tales from The Crypt. Few directors, however, are without an also-ran, and Tales that Witness Madness would be Francis’s; it wasn’t an Amicus production, though it’s easy to mistake it as one given the impressive cast and the general feel of the film.
It even has a similar setup to one of Amicus’s better anthologies, Asylum (Baker was responsible for that one). Like that film, Tales that Witness Madness’s frame story involves a sanitarium, where Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence) has a quartet of patients that he’s using in an experiment to prove the nature of truth and perception. He’s visited by a fellow doctor (Jack Hawkins), who is witness to the patients’ various bizarre and macabre tales that also unfold before our eyes.
The stories are a mixed bag, with only the first and third segments really soaring due to their alchemic blend of weirdness and meanness. Tremayne’s first patient is a young Paul (Russell Lewis), a boy who invents an imaginary friend much to the dismay of his perpetually bickering parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston). It’s not just any imaginary friend, either, as Paul claims to be visited by a tiger and goes so far as to leave him slabs of meat overnight. This all seems to be an elaborate coping mechanism given Paul’s tumultuous home environment, but the tenor of the film alerts you that something is just a little off-kilter. One of the film’s genuinely eerie moments comes here--as Brown is tucking her son into bed, she assures him that she’ll leave the door open downstairs so his friend can visit, and it’s inter-cut with a shot of the door already opening, seemingly on its own. The story ends up paying off rather predictably (a problem with much of the film), but it’s both vicious and strange enough to almost recall the black-hearted greatness of previous anthology works.
The same is true of the third patient’s (Michael Jayston) segment, which details his bizarre infatuation with a tree when he finds its remains sitting outside. He brings it into his home and plops it down right in the middle of the living room, a move that befuddles his wife (Joan Collins), who ends up developing a rivalry with the shorn stump known as “Mel.” This segment asks you to believe that a man would rather bed a dead tree than Joan Collins, but it all leads to the film’s most outlandish and memorable moment that finds Collins at the mercy of Mel’s gnarl of branches as she’s raped in a surreal, nightmarish sequence that may have struck a chord with a young Sam Raimi. “Mel” is the most gleefully demented segment of the film, and it’s the only one that fully embraces the weird vibe surrounding Tales that Witness Madness. There’s a directness and punchiness to the episode that never blinks in the face of its absurdity, and the image of Mel resting comfortably in both the living room and Jayston’s bed is wonderfully deadpanned.
The remaining sequences miss out on this a little bit, particularly the second one, which involves an antiques dealer (Peter McEnery) who purchases a mysterious portrait of a distant ancestor and a penny farthing bike, an acquisition that leads to some nonsense involving time travel and recurring events between past and present. An odd duck in terms of tone, “Penny Farthing” is the most Twilight Zone-styled segment in Tales that Witness Madness, as it’s more weird than perverse, but it’s just a little dry and uninspired outside of the portrait’s creepily shifting eyes and an undead corpse lurching around. “Luau,” the film’s closing chapter, doesn’t skimp on the perversity, as it involves an author (Michael Petrovich) from a remote island village visiting a literary agent (Kim Novak), who decides to throw a party in his honor. Little does she know, he has a hidden agenda, which is presented as a mystery that slowly unravels (though shrewd viewers will have it figured out). Novak gives one of the film’s more inspired performances as the insecure middle-aged woman who’s dismayed at her daughter’s (Mary Tamm) budding sexuality. When the exotic author takes an interest in her, “Luau” taps into some lurid creepiness, as Tamm is forced to undress for a totem when she’s unwittingly caught up in a mysterious ritual.
Of course, the ritual isn’t all that surprising--as soon as Pterovich’s assistant starts talking up his skills in marinating and preparing meat, you know where it’s going. This is indicative of the film as a whole--none of its segments really culminate with any revelatory twists, including the frame story that dangles that possibility as Pleasence repeatedly assures his guest (and, by extension, the audience) that this is all leading somewhere interesting. It doesn’t, though, so we’re left with an auto-piloted anthology that marches to an obligatory beat and rarely has a spring in its step. The performances are all fine, and Pleasence is especially a delight in a subdued role, and the film is precisely refined to the point of being a little lethargic. Most disappointing is the lack of visual flair since that was Francis’s forte--before directing, he was an award winning cinematographer (and he ended up returning to that capacity later in his career), so it’s surprising that the film is as bland as whitewashed as its clinical sanitarium walls.
Tales that Witness Madness almost finds a thematic and tonal unity in its off-kilter, black humored look at the subtle viciousness of the modern milieu, but the “Penny Farthing” episode disrupts this a bit. The film ends up being one of those anthologies that never has a real, sustained breakthrough due to its peaks and valleys of quality. There’s a sense that Francis had hit his peak a year earlier with Tales from the Crypt and couldn’t be bothered to rival it, so the whole thing comes off as feeling like poor man’s Amicus. Maybe this explains its absence from region one digital formats until recently; while it’s been available for streaming on Netflix (albeit with a full-frame presentation) for a while, Paramount and Olive Films just brought it to DVD and Blu-ray this week. Both offerings are bare-bones, but the presentation features a sterling restored widescreen transfer and a solid mono soundtrack (the high def offering’s track is uncompressed). Tales that Witness Madness is a perfunctory anthology, one that’s worth seeing for completion’s sake after you've seen its more impressive contemporaries. Rent it!
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