PHWOAAARRRR!! JANE LAPOTAIRE!!” Now, how many times have you ever uttered that sentence in everyday conversation? Not many, I’ll wager. One look at her sultry performance in Crescendo, and you’ll soon find your perception of this relatively demure character actress altering in a way you hadn’t imagined. That is, of course, unless you’ve seen the movie before, in which case you’ll either agree with me already or, (as in the case of some commentators on IMDB) maybe you won’t.
Crescendo is an oddity to say the least- it follows on directly from Fanatic aka Die, Die, My Darling (1967) the first of Hammer’s psycho thrillers to be lensed in colour, and bears several of the hallmarks of every film in this particular subgenre, but is decidedly different in several ways- most noticeably in that rather than this being a case of “they’re trying to drive me maaaad”, it’s a case of “they’re all stark raving bonkers”. It also features florid and almost hallucinogenic photography (take a bow the late Alan Gibson, the man who would within a year bring us the similarly psychotropic Goodbye Gemini, blow our minds two years later with the now-legendary kitsch piece that is Dracula AD 1972, and even chalk up the trippiest entry in Brian Clemens’ Thriller canon, Sleepwalker) and far more explicit nudity, violence and even close-up heroin addiction (I kid thee not) than one would have expected from a Hammer production. In fact, you might have difficulty believing you were watching a Hammer film without knowing beforehand or at least seeing the opening credits.
Several people have mistakenly credited it with being a made-for-TV movie (which is partially true, I suppose, as it got more of a TV distribution than a theatrical release Stateside) and ironically it does seem like the missing link, both thematically and cinematographically, between the studio’s ‘mini-Hitchcocks’ and the similarly themed US TV productions that followed a year or so later such as John Moxey’s A Taste Of Evil (1971) written by Jimmy Sangster, the man also partially responsible for this, and most obviously Curtis Harrington’ s How Awful About Allan (1970) which starred Anthony Perkins. Here, though, ‘the Sang’ is aided by Alfred Shaughnessy, the man who would go on to write The Flesh And Blood Show and the rarely seen Tiffany Jones for Pete Walker, and his presence noticeably pushes the film in a more modern and less kitsch direction, although ultimately the film never escapes its Grand Guignol origins. One can only surmise, however, what the result would have been had the original choice of director, Michael Reeves, lived long enough to direct it- with his flawless track record of three great movies, he may have just pushed it over the edge into classic ‘head movie’ status. We shall never know…
The film starts promisingly enough with a very eerie dream sequence in which a young man caresses his “beloved” on a lush mountainside beach before looking down to see that his fair maiden is in fact a grinning, rotting corpse, eyes staring out of their crumbling sockets. If that wasn’t enough, an exact body double of himself appears seemingly from nowhere and shoots him, causing him to wake from his fitful slumbers- shortly before the title appears on the screen and we are shown the young heroine (Stefanie Powers, who had also starred in Fanatic and should have known what she was in for by now) making her way along the coast road in a chauffeur-driven vehicle. Did I happen to mention that, as is oft the way with these films, we’re in the South Of France again? We’re in the South Of France again. Good.
As for the plot, well, you won’t be shocked to find that it involves an old country house near the sea, a mad bloke in a wheelchair (James Olson of Space 1999 fame/infamy), his sinister and slightly mad mother (Margaretta Scott in a role that could have easily gone to Margaret Johnston or Brenda Bruce), a sinister, brooding mad butler/chauffeur (Joss Ackland) who strolls around the house a lot in the dark but doesn’t appear to do any actual butling, the aforementioned Lapotaire as a slutty maid par excellence, a room full of disfigured dolls (always a mark of quality where this writer is concerned) and of course a ridiculous twist in the tail which anyone who’s ever seen any horror films or thrillers before in their life can spot coming a mile off. Not that I’m going to spoil it for you by dropping any hints.
Our Stef is a music student who has met Danielle Ryman, a concert pianist’s widow (Scott) before at some grand gala concert, and has taken her up on her offer to spend a summer studying music with her and her disabled son Georges, also a musician but of less than scintillating quality (at least according to his overbearing mother) at their palatial villa. Personally, after having met this lot for five minutes, I would be out the door and on the first train back to Paris, but it says in the script that Stefanie stays (isn’t that a Velvet Underground song or something?) so stay she does. Even though the house is the kind of place that seems scary and uninviting even in blazing summer sunlight, and Lapotaire obviously resents her being there (largely because the hero inevitably finds himself drawn to our American starlet and therefore less inclined to let the sultry frog princess pump his arms full of heroin whilst nibbling his ear off). Even though mysterious piano music plays by itself in the night. Even though there’s something so obviously up with the mother, and the sick ‘hero’, whose haircut beggars belief , is prone to nightmares that constantly involve the same gun-toting body double and a dead woman, which he has no qualms in telling Powers about. Not to mention that his ‘disability’ seems to come and go as it pleases. Or is that something to do with the twist in the plot? Mmmm.
Seriously, though, I must draw your attention to this bloke’s barnet- he has to be the most blatantly balding-yet-in-denial principal male lead I’ve ever seen in any horror film, and his dress sense isn’t up to much for 1969 either (mind you, he is supposed to be a mentalist who lives indoors with his mum) yet the drop-dead-gorgeous Powers falls for him, and not only that, the silly mare believes that his heroin fix is a prescription from the doctor!! If women that beautiful can really go for blokes like that, then it gives hope to us all. Still, it’s not primarily a love story, it’s a horror thriller. And when it finally does get going (it wouldn’t be a horror film unless some people died horribly, and it wouldn’t be a thriller if things weren’t about to build up into some kind of confrontation) the results are actually very entertaining. Things start to build up nicely when Lapotaire makes a pass at Ackland, then berates him for ‘spending most of his life in asylums’ before he practically shoves his fingers into her eyes and throws her bodily onto the sofa but doesn’t have his wicked way with her, thus leaving her to get her small yet pert norks out in blurred focus (again) and jump into the heated pool where she is subsequently stabbed in an orgy of frenzied bloody death that seems positively explicit compared to the bloodless quaintness of the studio’s concurrent output.
There’s also a ridiculous moment when Powers finds a photo album full of what are blatantly shots of herself, only to be told by Scott that they are of Olson’s former love Catherine, who died mysteriously. “You do look somewhat like her”, quoth the menacing matriarch. Of course she does, it’s the same bloody woman!! Do the alarm bells start ringing in our heroine’s head here, maybe? Maybe being asked to come to dinner in a red dress for no apparent reason (except we’ve already seen the dead girl wearing it in the dream sequences) would arouse suspicions? No, it would seem not. Did they remove everyone’s brain cells in the late 60s? They then taper off again for a while (lots of walking about in the dark by people only seen from the waist down, giallo-style, abounds) before a half-nude Powers, now in bed with and planning to marry the hapless Georges, finally works out what the hell is going on and has to fight for her life. From there on the tension does build in a suitably crescendo-like fashion, although watching this again recently it occurred to me how slow it is compared to Hammer’s previous psycho thriller efforts. It’s at least six minutes in before there’s even any proper dialogue, something which would have younger audiences today walking out in their droves. Mind you, the languid, almost watery pace set by director Gibson and orange-meets-puce cinematography by the underrated Paul Beeson, who employed much the same technique on the same year’s Why Would Anyone Want To Kill A Nice Girl Like You? for Don Sharp, do actually suit each other perfectly, so maybe the result was what they set out to achieve in the first place.
A lesser-known entry in Hammer’s resume, even within their run of Hitchcock/ Clouzot/ Castle homage’s (which they take to new heights in this one by blatantly, and I mean BLATANTLY, copying the armchair scene from Psycho with a slight twist) and even in some cases plagiaristic of the other films in the series- always a bad sign when you start ripping off your own rip-offs- Crescendo is by no means a bad film, despite how sarcastically I may have described its contents. At the end of the day, I do take these films seriously but it’s difficult not to see the inherent humour in them, whether by default or by design- and, as I am often keen to argue, isn’t that what part of loving British Horror is all about?