A violinist is brutally murdered and a lookalike doll left at the crime scene. More killings follow, and it seems that the murderer is targeting a small group of respectable, middle-aged friends. A dogged police inspector investigates…
After their script for Hammer Studio’s breakthrough movie ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957) was rejected, Americans Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg took their revenge by forming Amicus Pictures and competing for the same audience over the next decade and a half. Without access to franchise icons such as ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’, they never reached the same level of recognition as the Bray Studio outfit but did find their own niche with multi-story ‘compendium’ scarefests, most notably ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’ (1965), ‘The House That Dripped Blood’ (1970) and the highly effective ‘Asylum’ (1972). Like Hammer, they also delivered a number of psychological thrillers that flirted with the horror genre, and this project was taken from a script by Robert Bloch, author of ‘Psycho’ (1960).
The story follows cynical, jaded police detective Patrick Wymark as he attempts to track down this mysterious killer in a 1960’s London which doesn’t swing so much as potter around a bit in respectable old town houses, dark alleyways and dank factory sites. Wymark was a reliable character player who had featured roles in Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965), balls to the wall classic ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968) and boys-own adventure ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1969). This role is hardly a stretch for his talents, but he does provide a solid foundation to anchor the story. And it needs that. It really does.
For a start, our roll call of potential victims are a group of businessmen led by Alexander Knox, who meet one night a week to play chamber music. What’s wrong with that? Well, they were all members of a government commission that reallocated Nazi-held real estate after the war. So, were they appointed to that commission because they all played in an orchestra together? Or did some of them learn to play instruments over the subsequent couple of decades so they could all stay in touch? It’s a small point, to be sure, but somewhat indicative of the kind of slapdash approach of logic that the film exhibits.
Wymark’s main suspect is Margaret Johnson, an elderly German noble living in London after her husband’s estates were confiscated by the commission in question. Her main preoccupation seems to be with her considerable collection of dolls and director Freddie Francis exploits their creepy presence to the full. She also has an arrogant young nephew (John Standing) who seems more than a little too big for his boots. Rounding out the pool of potential killers is brash American Don Borisenko, the pushy boyfriend of Knox’s daughter, played by Judy Huxtable. Unfortunately, that’s about as complex as it gets; a handful of suspects, only one clear and apparent motive, and little else for an audience to chew on.
On the plus side, it is a decent cast, with theatre actress Johnson particularly catching the eye. Lead damsel in distress Huxtable gets an ‘introducing’ credit, although she did have a handful of previous bits on T\/ and in a couple of films. A few significant roles followed; in the impenetrable Price-Lee-Cushing cold war mish-mash ‘Scream and Scream Again’ (1969), and second lead behind Susan George in Pete Walker’s ‘Die Screaming Marianne’ (1971). She retired after marrying British satirical comedian Peter Cook, which was probably a full-time job in itself.
Knox isn’t given nearly enough to do considering his pedigree from ﬁlms like Hollywood classic ‘The Sea Wolf’ (1941), the title role in Presidential drama ‘Wilson’ (1944) and memorable turns in later pictures such as ‘The Damned’ (1962) and ‘Woman of Straw’ (1964). There is a small role for Colin Gordon though, who was excellent as one of Patrick McGoohan’s adversaries on ‘The Prisoner.’
In the end, the film is frustrating experience; the plot has insufficient twists and the climax asks for a level of suspension of disbelief which is so unreasonable that proceedings almost lurch into comedy. lts main virtue lies in a decent level of atmosphere, courtesy of director Francis. He began his career as a cinematographer and it remained his principal job, winning Oscars for ‘Sons and Lovers’ (1960) and ‘Glory’ (1990), as well as many other award nominations for his work on ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980), ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (1981) and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Cape Fear’ (1991). His output as a director was far more variable, though; everything from dreadfully cheesy science fiction such as ‘They Came From Beyond Space’ (1967) and ‘Trog’ (1970), to unremarkable projects such as ‘The Deadly Bees’ (1966), to the surprisingly good Cushing-Lee double header ‘The Creeping Flesh’ (1972).
This is a disappointing effort, hamstrung by a underdeveloped story, the elements of which often seem contrived and more than a little implausible.