The Film: Tales That Witness Madness (1973)
The Principles: Freddie Francis (Director). Jack Hawkins. Donald Pleasance. Kim Novak.
The Premise: Dr. Tremayne (Pleasance) and Dr. Nicholas (Hawkins) – two psychiatry colleagues – tour a fancy-ass insane asylum where Tremayne is showcasing his theories on the backstories of four patients who are batshit insane.
Is It Good: It is! It’s fun and it’s well-made and the four individual stories are clever and original-ish. Speaking of …
Leading off we have “Mr. Tiger” which centers around Paul, a little dude who’s become kind of withdrawn after having to deal with his parents’ constant bickering. As such, he befriends an imaginary tiger who (spoiler alert) winds up handily killing both of his parents while he tinkers away on a tiny toy piano. Not the most sophisticated tale, but there’s enough going on just underneath the surface that it has some substance. Plus hi-fives all around for that last shot.
Next up is “Penny Farthing,” in which Timothy, an antiques dealer, winds up with one of those old bicycles with the big front wheel (which, as this movie taught me, is apparently called – you guessed it – a penny farthing) and a weird old portrait of some dude named Uncle Albert. It’s not long before we realize the portrait is haunted by Uncle Albert himself and that the farthing is a sort of time machine-slash-pensieve-slash-quantum leap device that compels Timothy to ride it so it can transport him back to some sort of Victorian past where he finds himself confronted by Uncle Albert’s grieving love interest, stalked by what appears to be Uncle Albert’s corpse and, ultimately, putting his own lover’s life in mortal danger. Perhaps obviously, this one was a little harder to follow – thanks in part to a less-than-stellar script – but the performances work and even when it gets a little tedious the leads keep you from disengaging completely.
In the three spot is “Mel,” in which a fellow named Brian (Michael Jayston) finds himself fascinated by an old dead tree. Once he brings it home fascination turns to infatuation and soon enough he finds himself letting his affections stray from his wife Bella (Joan Collins). The consequences are supposed to be disastrous but wind up being rather predictable. Even so, the big reveal was handled fairly nicely, so kudos for that.
Batting cleanup and rounding out our little collection is “Luau,” which stars Kim Novak as an ambitious literary agent who’s going all out to court a new client. But said client has motives of his own…motives that involve cannibalism and virgin sacrifices. I’ll leave it there because it manages to be one of the more…ballsy (for lack of a better word) entries and even though this isn’t some on-a-pedestal classic of narrative filmmaking we’re talking about here, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the “whaaaaathefuck” moments. But Kim Novak kinda sucks here so ya know – good with the bad and all.
And once we’re through with all that we go back to the whole framing story with Dr.s Tremayne and Nicholas and, for whatever reason, the whole thing just sort of shoves its head up its own ass and gets kind of confusing. So much so that I had to go back and watch the opening scene again just to make sure I didn’t miss anything (spoiler: I didn’t). The good (bad?) thing about that is that even though it stumbles it still manages to very coherently put its ideas out there. I don’t know if it ever gets around to asking a central question (which is where the bad comes in because I think it was really trying to) but it certainly plants a seed and opens the door for any audience member who’s paying attention to ask it themselves.
So yeah – it’s good.
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. And in addition to every good thing I mentioned earlier (and in spite of the few bad things) it’s worth nothing that there’s a certain…let’s say sophisticated quality to it; a very intellectual horror film, so to speak. It’s an important distinction to make since horror isn’t a genre that’s known for its Big Thoughts and Grand Ideas. Granted, it doesn’t always succeed at playing its own game but there’s a certain amount of respect to be earned in at least trying.
Random Anecdotes: I dig the shit out of that poster even though its connection to the film is tenuous at best. Also, nice try Tagline Guy but I think “An orgy of the damned” might have been reaching juuust a bit.
Cinematc Soulmates: Every horror anthology ever.