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Color Me Bloodless Red: 'Crucible of Terror'

Hammer may have had the superstars and Amicus the leaden leftovers, but it was films like Crucible of Terror that told the true story of British horror -- and it was often a crazy, crooked narrative.

Crucible of Terror

Rated: R
Director: Ted Hooker
Cast: Mike Raven, Mary Maude, James Bolam, Ronald Lacey, Betty Alberge
Extras: 0
Studio: Glendale
Year: 1971
Distributor: Severin Films
Release Date: 2010-10-12

When it comes to British horror, there was Hammer... and well, that's about it. Oh yeah, you can count Amicus as well, though few are caught trumpeting their often cut rate terror takes. No, due to the distinctive cultural differences between the more refined UK and the anarchic apple pie of America, the growth of exploitation in the US and its failure to fully catch on in countries like England, and the overall health of each nation's film industries, the Yanks took fright into places previously unimagined. It many ways, it was "anything goes." With their censorship and personal conduct codes, however, the Brits had to find other ways to deliver the shivers, often focusing on the unusual and the eccentric in place of the bloody and the violent.

Crucible of Terror (new to DVD from Severin Films) is a perfect example of this more laid back approach, a bizarre little attempted frightfest where the idiosyncratic natures of the characters (and in one particular case, the actor portraying one of them) and the nature of the setting substitutes for monsters and mayhem. The story centers around wannabe gallery owner Jack Davies. In debt to some nervous patrons who now want their money back, he hopes that a friendship with Michael Clare will lead to greater rewards. You see, this new associate is the son of Victor Clare, an unknown artist with an amazing flare. Customers are desperate to pay top dollar for his work. With Michael's help, Jack gets a meeting. He packs up his gorgeous gal pal and travels to the man's reclusive estate. There, he discovers an unhinged household full of secrets and a dictatorial Victor violating the sanctity of the artist/model contract -- among other things.

If you read the write-ups of this movie before actually sitting down and watching it, you'd think it was some psychotic combination of House of Wax and Bucket of Blood/Color Me Blood Red. The notion of an artist using human beings as his medium is as old as the cinema itself. But in the case of Crucible of Terror, the casting of a woman in bronze - literally - takes place before the opening credits roll. From then on, it's more or less a bugnuts black comedy of manners where drinking, debauchery, and the occasional death take the place of the sinister and the suspenseful. This is an intriguing film to experience, a 'never know where it's going next' exercise in suggestion and paltry pay-off. Nothing is ever explained very well, which may indicate why the last 10 minutes of the story revolves around a friend of the Clares explaining everything to Jack (and the audience), in vivid, visual detail.

This is really more a story about ancient Asian rites and soul possession than corpses being encased in metal. The initial molten liquid stuff is sensational, but then co-writer/director Ted Hooker backtracks into the story of Jack, his lagging fortunes, and his uneasy friendship with the wildly alcoholic Michael. As played by Ronald Lacey, who would later go on to personify Nazi evil as SS agent Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, this drunken sod is so wimpy, so soaked in booze and the belittling effect of his father's formidable machismo that he makes shrinking violets seems hysterically fierce. It's an amazing performance, lubricated by the actors own love of drink, and often transcends the tacky material at his disposal. Though he's a drip most of the time, Michael makes our time in this narrative relatively easy.

On the opposite end of entertaining is famed pirate radio DJ and "occultist" Mike Raven. As our mad artist lead, the former Churton Fairman and argued renaissance man had hoped to translate his love of the limelight and all things supernatural into a career as a Christopher Lee-like macabre maestro. Sadly, while Raven had the look - dark brooding eyes, devilish goatee, looming stature - he didn't have the same graveyard gravitas as his creepshow competition. After only four films, he would leave film forever to concentrate on farming and, oddly enough, sculpting. Without a strong villain in the center - and Victor is the kind of red herring that makes you hope for a different denouement - Crucible of Terror definitely wobbles.

Luckily, it doesn't fully fall over. Instead, the surreal subtexts and suggestions of madness keep us locked in and longing for a satisfactory conclusion. The killings - and this is an ersatz slasher in terms of one gloved figure terrorizing the rest of the cast - are inventive, and in a couple of cases, rather cruel. The weird way in which Victor's wife walks around in her soiled baby doll dress and frazzled pigtails also peeks (and perverts) our curiosity. There are enough ancillary touches here to make up for the lack of strong central scares. Do we wish there were more moments with the murderer forging raw ore into fiery liquid death? Sure. Will we take the suggested lesbianism and moody Cornwall setting. Absolutely.

In fact, Crucible of Terror is a film that succeeds in spite of itself. Sure, post-modern audiences expecting gallons of spatter and a collection of body parts will be underwhelmed by the meticulous means of dealing death and the central performance is so shallow as to be almost non-existent, and yet these are the very elements that set this film apart. We get lost in the loony bin asylum lite facets of the story, wonder why Victor beds his models if only to "destroy" them later, and why Jack's lady friend is constantly being followed by figures both familiar and shadowy. Indeed, the ending is so out of left field and far flung that it takes a broad laned suspension bridge of disbelief to reach it. But as part of this movie's mad house designs, it actually works. Hammer may have had the superstars and Amicus the leaden leftovers, but it was films like Crucible of Terror that told the true story of British horror - and it was often a crazy, crooked narrative.


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