*. There are a lot of horror cheapies and bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation flicks out there that are now deservedly forgotten. In our new digital dispensation, however, it appears that nothing will ever be truly lost, at least in the way that so much of the history of early cinema has gone missing. Instead, these movies will go on to enjoy a long afterlife somewhere in the clouds.
*. That’s where I found Crucible of Terror, a film that I came to with very low expectations. It’s not a great, or even a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty lousy all the way through. But for some reason I loved it. I’m so glad it hasn’t disappeared.
*. Explaining why I like it isn’t easy. It’s one of a bunch of Brit horror films from the early ’70s that Kim Newman summed up as “marginal cinema, where double-bill-fillers can be sold either for sex or violence and nothing else really matters. Too cheap for period settings [like the efforts of Hammer], these films, intentionally or not, manage to locate their horrors in a recognisable, seedy British setting unexplored in the movies. The plots are outmoded B melodrama, the girls are mostly pretty and disposable and — very rarely — extraordinary, almost-art films . . . slip out.”
*. I don’t think Crucible of Terror is extraordinary for almost slipping into art-film territory, but it does take the B-picture melodrama plot to new heights (or depths). There’s so much that’s unexpected going on. We start off thinking we’re going to get a House of Wax rip-off, but the shocking opening sequence isn’t really followed up on. Then we visit the London art scene, where we’re introduced to a hustling dealer and his dipso buddy, who also happens to be the son of a reclusive artist (the madman we met earlier). From there we’re whisked off to Cornwall and some coastal lovely scenery, where the mad artist lives with his batty wife. At this point things the plot swerves into murder-mystery territory as a killer in black gloves starts killing off the guests at the artist’s home.
*. Finally, the ending is perhaps the strangest thing of all, yanking us away from the whole mad-artist storyline into supernatural territory with the aid of a possessed kimono that has a hashtag symbol on the back. It’s madness, I tell you. Madness.
*. It’s not that all of this is weird, but rather the character of its weirdness that I enjoyed. It’s weird in a fun way.
*. The cast and characters are a delight. Mike Raven, who was a bit of an eccentric artist himself, does his best Christopher Lee, which is pretty good. James Bolam is suitably hapless as the dealer who has to put out in the back of a Rolls with a wealthy patroness (oh, the things we do for art!). Raven’s wife is a pathetic-comic figure who dresses up like a little girl while lugging around stuffed animals. The girls, I’ll agree with Newman, are mostly pretty and disposable. But then, that’s what they’re for.
*. While I don’t think anything about the film is particularly well done, for the most part it seems competently produced, and there’s such a lot of manic creativity on screen I wonder why writer-director Ted Hooker never went on to anything else. Was this a one off?
*. As I’ve said, there were a lot of not-very-good, low-budget horror films in the ’70s that have now disappeared and aren’t worth hunting down. I think this one is worth checking out though. In addition to the weirdness it has the Cornwall scenery, Raven’s off-beat performance, and some interesting kills. The casting of the model in bronze is amazing. Nothing else in the film matches up with it, but that’s OK. My expectations had already been surpassed.