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Tales That Witness Madness (1973)


This horror anthology features four separate stories involving the inmates of the same high security mental institution. Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Tremayne, a psychiatrist at the hospital, who explains his revolutionary new psychiatric techniques to his visitor, Nicholas (Jack Hawkins).

To demonstrate his work, Dr. Tremayne introduces four of his patients. They have all gone through extraordinary experiences, experiences that the audience is shown in flashback as four separate, but vaguely linked, stories. The stories feature a boy's imaginary friend, a black magic sacrifice, a time travelling bicycle and a possessed tree trunk.


Small boy sitting down with blood on the wall behind him
Paul (Russell Lewis) with Mr Tiger's handiwork

British film company Amicus became known for their horror film anthologies in the 1960s and 1970s. The films were popular enough to produce this copycat rival, Tales That Witness Madness. Although it is often lumped in with the Amicus films and readily mistaken for one, Tales That Witness Madness was produced by Norman Priggen for a different company, World Film Services. Priggen had been Joseph Losey's producer in the 1960s and had produced several of his films for this company.

The confusion of this film with the Amicus series is understandable, and was no doubt intentional. If you assumed this was one of their films, then you're in good company. All Movie mistakenly refer to this as an Amicus film, as does my copy of the venerable Halliwell's Film Guide, that lists this as an Amicus production, describing it as an "extreme example of the Amicus compendiums".

Tales That Witness Madness has many similarities to its more established rival Amicus's offerings, but there are also some points of difference. The cast is a little less starry than most contemporary Amicus films, and there is more sex and nudity than you would expect in one of their anthology series.

The film's linking story, based in the psychiatric institution, is noticeably half-hearted, with less set up than you would see in an equivalent Amicus production. The psychiatric hospital setting is also over-familiar, as this was almost an Amicus trademark. They had even based a whole film around this setting only a year before, in 1972's Asylum.

Often in an Amicus film, even the weaker ones, there is also one story that's noticeably better than the others. In the case of Tales That Witness Madness they are all pretty weak, although, true to form, there is one that stands out. But that's mainly because it's so damn weird.


Donald Pleasence and Jack Hawkins
Dr Tremayne (Donald Pleasence) with his guest Nicholas (Jack Hawkins)

The first story is about a young boy, Paul (Russell Lewis) whose imaginary friend is called Mr Tiger. Mr Tiger is supposedly an actual tiger, although no one else can see him or find any evidence of him. But Paul insists he is real and begins to steal food from the fridge to feed him. His bickering parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston) don't know what to do about the boy and only his tutor Philip (David Wood) is indulgent.

This story is very weak and has an obvious resolution, getting the film off to a bad start. As with all the other stories in the film, it's not at all scary either, which is a significant weakness in a horror film.

In the second story, Timothy (Peter McEnery) has inherited a load of furniture from his aunt, which he intends to sell in his antique shop. In amongst all this stuff is a picture of his stern Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth), and an old penny farthing bicycle.

Uncle Albert's expression seems to change, depending on his mood, and the picture appears to possess psychic powers. Timothy is forced onto the penny farthing, which pedals him back in time to the Edwardian era, where he meets a young woman who looks exactly like his current girlfriend (both are played by Suzy Kendall).

This tale almost plays like a parody of a bad horror anthology story, like something from Steve Coogan's spoof Dr Terrible's House of Horrible. A time-travelling penny farthing is so comical that you have to wonder if this is really meant to be a horror film at all, or if the makers are just pulling our legs.

Suspicions are confirmed that this seems to have been intended as a parody with the next story, which is probably the best remembered of the four.

Brian (Michael Jayston) and Bella (Joan Collins) are a trendy young couple living in their trendy, individualist, 1970s house. One day Brian drags an old tree trunk into the house, intending to turn it into an artistic centre piece.


Michael Jayston and a weird-looking tree
A man's best friend is his ... tree. Brian (Michael Jayston) with his new love, Mel

When they find the name "Mel" scratched into the wood, Brian anthropomorphises the tree and refers to it as a "He". Bella, however, thinks that there's something more feminine about it and, on reflection, Brian agrees. In fact, the more he looks at it, the more he realises that it's one sexy tree! Brian begins to polish and caress the tree with sensuousness and care, but the old trunk seems to be taking a dislike to Bella. How will this strange menage a trois develop, and will Brian find that he prefers Bella or his seductive tree?

This story is certainly memorable, with a twist that's fairly predictable, if firmly tongue-in-cheek. It also contains the film's most famous scene, when Joan Collins (or her body double, more likely) is molested by the malevolent tree trunk.

In the last story Kim Novak plays Auriol, an agent whose new client is Kimo (Michael Petrovich), who appears to be a Pacific islander of some kind. Unfortunately, Kimo needs a virgin sacrifice for his black magic ceremony, and Auriol's troublesome young daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) seems to be just what he's looking for.

As with the other episodes in the film, this story is just not scary, and it's more tasteless than frightening. The mysterious primitive tribal figure, ritual or doll is one of the recurring elements in these type of films, although the film is at least vague about where Kimo and his black magic originated.

To make Tales That Witness Madness, Norman Priggen recruited Freddie Francis, an Oscar-winning cinematographer who turned film director in the 1960s. As a director, Francis was especially associated with horror films and the anthology format. He had directed Amicus's earliest horror portmanteaus, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors in 1965 and Torture Garden in 1967, as well as one of their more recent films, 1972's Tales from the Crypt. He had also worked for their rivals Hammer, making Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968).


A man riding a penny farthing surrounded by flames
A penny farthing inferno. And it's not often you get to write those words

Tales That Witness Madness was written by "Jay Fairbank", a pseudonym for the actress Jennifer Jayne. She also wrote Son of Dracula the following year, which was also directed by Freddie Francis. As an actress, Jayne had appeared in Amicus's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and the spy spoof The Liquidator (1965) among others. Her last film as an actress was The Doctor and the Devils (1985) also for Freddie Francis.

A female writer does bring a slightly different sensibility and focus to the film compared to some of its rivals, with the screenplay showing an interest in frustrated wives, troubled marriages and difficult mother-daughter relationships. But it's a weak script, even by the standards of this genre, and the establishing framing story feels like something Amicus would have rejected as too obvious and uninspired.

Tales That Witness Madness was filmed at Shepperton Studios in London and the cast included Joan Collins, who had previously been menaced by a psychopathic Santa Claus in Amicus's Tales from the Crypt, and the distinguished actor Jack Hawkins.

Hawkins had been a big British star in the 1950s, but his later career was badly affected by the loss of his voice as a result of throat cancer. Tales That Witness Madness was his last film and he was dubbed, as in many of his later films, by Charles Gray.

Rita Hayworth was originally cast in the Kim Novak role, but left the production midway through filming and was later sued by the producers. Hayworth's problems on the set were probably caused by her declining health, as she was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Ironically, Tales That Witness Madness, Amicus's first high profile competitor in this area, appeared just as Amicus were making their last anthology films. 1973-74 saw the release of The Vault of Horror and then From Beyond the Grave. After that, the company moved into family-oriented fantasy films with the 1974 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel The Land That Time Forgot.


Kim Novak as Auriol
Kim Novak as Auriol

Perhaps it's not surprising that Amicus eventually had a rival in this genre, because their formula was a good one, even if the execution often left something to be desired. The appeal of these compendiums is partly that, even if you don't like one story very much, you know that a different one and a different set of actors will be along soon. And the economics worked in the makers' favour. The producers could pay decent rates to get top actors, as each actor was working for a relatively small amount of time, enabling them to stretch to some strong casts.

But Tales That Witness Madness is a poor effort, and the makers seem unsure if they want to make a horror film or a comedy. If it's intended to be a horror film, then it doesn't work at all. If it's meant to be a parody of an Amicus film then it's more successful, but it seems like an overly elaborate and slightly pointless in-joke, especially as the Amicus films were often tongue-in-cheek anyway.

The film is slightly gory, but not at all scary, and the stories all proceed in an entirely predictable way with few surprises. Kim Novak's story suffers particularly badly from this, as we see the set up and then just have to wait for the inevitable ending, without any kind of a twist. This makes the film seem more like "Tales of the Much as to be Expected".

Amicus were probably concerned about the appearance of a rival horror compendium, especially one that utilised one of their directors, Freddie Francis, and even one of their stars, Joan Collins. But I expect they were reassured when they actually got to see Tales That Witness Madness. It's tame stuff, even compared to the contemporary Amicus films, and their main concern was probably that their films would be tainted by association. And while it does have one memorable story (yes, the one about the tree), it tends to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.


Tales That Witness Madness

Year: 1973
Genre: Horror Anthology
Country: UK
Director: Freddie Francis

Cast Donald Pleasence (Dr Tremayne), Jack Hawkins (Nicholas), Georgia Brown (Fay), Donald Houston (Sam), Russell Lewis (Paul), David Wood (Philip, Paul's tutor), Peter McEnery (Timothy), Suzy Kendall (Ann/Beatrice), Frank Forsyth (Uncle Albert), Joan Collins (Bella), Michael Jayston (Brian), Kim Novak (Auriol), Michael Petrovich (Kimo), Leon Lissek (Keoki), Mary Tamm (Ginny), Zohra Segal (Malia), Lesley Nunnerley (Vera)

Screenplay Jay Fairbank (Jennifer Jayne)  Producer Norman Priggen  Cinematography Norman Warwick  Art director Roy Walker  Editor Bernard Gribble  Music Bernard Ebbinghouse

Running time 90 mins  Colour Eastmancolor

Production company World Film Services  Distributor Paramount

Comments

  1. Hi Jay. Hope you and yours are doing well and keeping safe.

    Saw this one for the first time recently and had much the same reaction to it as yourself. Is it trying to be serious but is too bad to make it work? Or is supposed to be a parody? I really liked the invisible tiger episode. The tree episode is hilarious and beyond random. Michael Jayston deserved so much better than that script. LOL.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Several of the Amicus films tread a line between humour and horror and it's a difficult thing to do, I think only a few of them do it that well. Maybe the writer, director and producer of this one all had slightly different ideas, which is why it feels like it's not sure what it's doing. Some of it really is indistinguishable from Dr Terrible's House of Horrible! Also, it's Jack Hawkins last film. That's a disappointing ending for a great actor.

      Delete
  2. Kinda weak. Not as good as other anthologies from that era. But that cast! How can anyone resist a movie with that kind of cast? Anyhow, I hope you are doing okay. Please, stay safe!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I'm well thanks, I hope you are too.

      It is weak, but sort of interesting if you're in an indulgent mood.

      Delete

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