Thursday, April 19, 2018

Retro Review: CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (1971)

(UK - 1971)

Directed by Viktors Ritelis. Written by Olaf Pooley. Cast: Michael Gough, Yvonne Mitchell, Sharon Gurney, Olaf Pooley, Simon Gough, David Butler, Nicholas Jones, Mary Hignett. (R, 91 mins)

An early release from the pre-Golan & Globus incarnation of Cannon, and shown in theaters on a double bill in the fall of 1971 with CAULDRON OF BLOOD, a Spanish cheapie that was one of Boris Karloff's several posthumously released films after his death in 1969, the British shocker CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (not to be confused with the same year's CRUCIBLE OF TERROR) has a nostalgic following after being in regular rotation on late-night TV in the '70s and '80s. Nevertheless, it's a frustrating film because there's obviously some thought and ambition that went into it, but it's so leadenly-paced and indecisive over what it's doing--the first 40 minutes are incredibly slow--that it eventually becomes self-defeating. And it's got what might be the ultimate ambiguous ending that's just gonna piss everyone off. But there's something here, particularly its bleak and disturbing depiction of the cycle of abuse in a seriously dysfunctional family. The great Michael Gough is Walter Eastwood, the physically and psychologically abusive patriarch of an upper class family. He constantly berates his wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) and has not-very-subtle incestuous designs on his daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney), while his dutiful and sycophantic son Rupert (Gough's own son Simon) seems to be following in his father's footsteps. Edith and Jane decide they've had enough and plot to kill Walter, with unexpected complications ensuing, namely a corpse that won't stay put, and a nosy neighbor (actor and occasional screenwriter Olaf Pooley, who would also do some uncredited script work on Cannon's insane LIFEFORCE a decade and a half later) whose dog almost exposes the whole scheme.

Michael Gough, a regular presence in countless genre films like HORROR OF DRACULA, KONGA, and DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, but best known to mainstream audiences as Alfred in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher BATMAN movies in the '90s, is so good here that you'll wish it was in service of a more satisfying film.  His character is an absolute creep, whether he's taunting his wife over her favorite pastime of painting, beating his daughter with a riding crop, or sauntering up to her bicycle just after she gets home and feeling and squeezing its warm seat. His issues also manifest with obsessive-compulsive hand-washing, obviously meant to "cleanse" himself of his deranged, impure, self-loathing thoughts and behavior. Perhaps CRUCIBLE OF HORROR had a troubled production--assistant director Nicholas Granby is interviewed on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray, and while he goes off topic a bit, he does reveal one important tidbit in that credited director Viktors Ritelis (who had a long career in British TV; this was his only feature film) left late in production, with shooting completed by producer Gabrielle Beaumont, who would go on to make 1980's OMEN-inspired THE GODSEND, an early hit for Golan-Globus' Cannon that was also written by Pooley.

CRUCIBLE OF HORROR is confused enough that it could very well be two clashing visions haphazardly stitched together, which would certainly explain why it seems to fall flat on its face every time it looks like it's about to get its shit together. There's a lot here to chew on--Mitchell has some heartbreaking moments as Edith, trapped in a prison of Walter's making and almost at a point of resigned acceptance since it's what she's come to know, Jane promiscuously acting out with older men to get back at Walter, and Rupert practically brainwashed to look the other way and even smack his sister around because hey, Father does it--but ultimately, a film must be judged by what it is instead of it what it almost was or what it could've been. And in the end, despite the flashes of something substantive and serious, it's a crushing disappointment that feels like bottom-of-the-barrel Hammer or a really half-baked installment of Brian Clemens' anthology series THRILLER. As far as Scream Factory's Blu-ray is concerned, the image quality is fine but the audio is, to put it mildly, inconsistent, with the first 20 minutes sounding like a muffled mess before getting relatively clear from that point on. Even when you turn on the subtitles, almost every other word is "(mumbles)," which I'm going to assume wasn't in Pooley's script. One interesting trivia bit that made this an important film for the Gough family: while playing dysfunctional siblings, Gurney and Simon Gough fell in love and have been married since 1970. The younger Gough never achieved the cult notoriety of his father (who died in 2011 at the age of 94), and has only made fleeting appearances in movies and TV since the late 1970s, a few years after 24-year-old Gurney (soon to be in the cult classic RAW MEAT) retired from acting altogether in 1974 to focus on raising the couple's (eventually) four children.

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