Crucible of Terror

Crucible of Terror (Ted Hooker, 1971)

 When backer Brent (Kenneth Keeling) is told he cannot have a mysterious bronze nude of a Japanese woman, he demands a return on his investment from gallery owner Davis (James Bolam, O LUCKY MAN!) before he returns from his business trip (we later see Brent break into the gallery to steal the bronze only to be murdered by an unseen assailant).  Davis decides that he must get his hands on more work by the artist Victor Clare (Mike Raven, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE) but the artist’s son Mike (Ronald Lacey, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) is reluctant to approach his father since he had stolen the bronze.  Davis suggests that cold hard cash might do the trick so he, his girlfriend Millie (Mary Maude, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED), Mike, and his wife Jane (Beth Morris) head down to Cornwall to the artist’s remote home near a condemned mine where the artist lives with his wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge, who also appeared with Raven in DISCIPLE OF DEATH) who has been driven mad by his cruelty, family friend Bill (John Arnatt, HYSTERIA), and model Marcia (Judy Matheson, TWINS OF EVIL).

Davis discovers that Victor is a painter and learns from Mike that the bronze was his only sculpture, that the model Chi-San (Me Me Lai, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME) belonged to a strange religious cult that believed the dead could control the living and that she mysteriously disappeared after the sculpture was made (hmm…).  Although Victor is less than hospitable to his son, his daughter-in-law, and Davis, Millie catches his eye and he wants her to model for him (much to the annoyance of Marcia).  That night after a failed seduction of Jane by Victor, she is murdered and her body hidden.  Victor endeavours to separate Davis from Millie by telling him he’ll make a deal with him if he can get the cash right away.  Davis drives back to London to ask Brent’s wife (Melissa Stribling, HORROR OF DRACULA) for another loan.  Meanwhile, more houseguests are taken out by an unseen killer as Victor tries to convince Millie to model for his next sculpture.

The only directorial effort of former editor Ted Hooker, CRUCIBLE OF TERROR is a mess of thriller and supernatural elements.  We know who is responsible for the opening credits murder but then the film builds up suspense out of the subsequent killings with a bunch of suspects (dotty Dorothy with a fascination for razors, jealous Marcia, Bill polishing his Japanese swords) who are obviously red herrings.  Other critics have cited (in its uncut form) its seeming influence on the gorier Italian gialli of the mid seventies and onwards but the killer’s identity and motive here are linked to an early incident so trivial it is forgotten as irrelevant by the ending and it has to be explained with flashbacks by someone who was not present at any of those scenes.

Shot and produced by former cinematographer Peter Newbrook, the film wrings some wonderful atmosphere out of the Cornish seaside exteriors (although the incompetent use of a diffusing scrim in front of the camera lens makes one wonder if Newbrook actually looked through the lens to frame the shot).  Raven is not as menacing as he would like to be and Maude has little to do but run around (she fared better as the sadistic head girl in Narcisco Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED and in her witch-burner cameo in Norman Warren’s TERROR).  Only Alberge and Lacey make impressions as mad mother and drunk son but some of the killings are striking for an early seventies British pic and its certainly better than Raven’s self-financed 16mm blow-up period horror pic DISCIPLE OF DEATH.

Seemingly in the public domain, it appeared on several videotape editions in a horrendously cut version (whether this reflected a US theatrical version or a TV version is not known).  Even Video Gems’ lovely clamshell cased “UNCENSORED” version was the cut edition.  Of course, few were aware that this film had anything more to offer until it appeared on US DVD from Image Entertainment in 2000 with some rarely seen gore and extended scenes.  The colour and sharpness of that release was an improvement over previous versions but the unmatted (although framed at 1.44:1 with side mattes), single-layer image was interlaced.

Severin’s single-layer anamorphic version features a progressive image from a rare 35mm print that is a noticeable improvement over the Image release (reportedly loaned to Severin by “a Bodmin Moor coven”).  Audio is louder with some hiss and some rare high-end distortion on the score and sound effects.  References cite a 1.66:1 OAR but the 1.78:1 framing does not impede any of the compositions.  The disc has no extras while the earlier Image disc featured a Spanish track and a Music and Effects track (it’s really not that great a score).  The Image disc runs slightly longer due to the inclusion of the licensor logo.                                                                                                                  (Eric Cotenas)