Sometimes the plot expediency in British Horror films, even though we love them, beggar’s belief. I’ve heard of people walking right into things, but, if your former boyfriend had committed suicide and you were about to embark on a new relationship with the man you’d finally decided was the true love of your life, would you risk dropping yourself right in it by popping round to visit the dead ex’s batty old actress mum, who even he didn’t care much for, at her crumbling country retreat somewhere on the outskirts of Letchmore Heath?
Like buggery you would. But, of course, this is Hammer, and plot expediency is the order of the day, so that’s exactly what sultry redhead Pat Carroll (Stefanie Powers) does, setting the scene for 96 minutes of largely unbelievable yet somehow essentially enjoyable frippery from the man who gave us the dramatised works of Saki and would later bring you Georgy Girl and The Class Of Miss MacMichael. This may have been the studio’s first psychothriller to be shot in colour (less than a few months after the engrossingly bleak styling’s of The Nanny) but it wasn’t anything the audiences hadn’t seen before: a decaying mansion, spooky plants, some strategically placed staircases, a sinister handyman with a past (Peter Vaughan in this case, setting out a stall which he would work for at least another ten years until finding his niche as Genial Harry Grout) and an endangered heroine. There are no cats this time, at least not in the actual film, but that doesn’t stop Silv crowbarring them into the credit sequence, something which has practically no relation to the storyline regardless of what title you saw it under.
Like all the best leading ladies (as opposed to heroines) in this particular subgenre, which still has no exact name, the scary old lady is a former star of the cakewalk and silver screen, played by someone from a similar real-life background- see both previous and later entries in the canon such as Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, Persecution and What’s The Matter With Helen for further reference. This time, it’s Tallulah “I was almost Scarlet O’Hara you know” Bankhead’s turn to play the nutter in question, Mrs Trefoile, and a suitably hammy job she makes of it too. Never the most likeable of performers either on or offscreen (although fascinating for that very reason), her unpredictable behaviour caused producer Anthony Hinds to almost replace her twice until she agreed to put up half the budget out of her wages: no wonder she turns in what by her standards could be considered the performance of a lifetime. It’s still not one hundred percent- her trademark ‘daahling’ is replaced by a grating over usage of the word ‘child’ (but only when describing Powers or her increasingly put-upon maid, played by a surprisingly youthful Yootha Joyce) and there’s a fair bit of eyeball-rolling, twitching and coughing, almost as if she felt this would be her last major performance and she had to express as many emotions as possible in one sitting- but it’s engrossing enough to keep you wondering what she’ll do next.
What she is doing, for those unfamiliar with the film, is keeping Powers hostage in her home, first as a means of ‘purifying’ her and preventing her from slipping into the “errors of worldly evil” that killed her (Bankhead’s) offspring, then eventually as a punishment when it is discovered how far from righteousness she actually hath strayed. Here the prisoner, like the house, is tended by Vaughan, Joyce and retarded gardener Joseph (a very young Donald Sutherland) but only the former, a cackling brute who thinks he will somehow inherit the house of the Trefoiles and is only staying on to claim his ill-deserved bequest, is a ‘bad un’ in the true sense of the word: Joyce’s only crime is to be married to him, and to be being blackmailed by her employer over some old debts.
As for Donald Sutherland, his presence is never suitably explained (presumably he lives with his family somewhere in the village, or maybe the Trefoiles adopted him) but he does provide several useful dodges and diversions for both Powers and, later on, her easily bemused fiancée Maurice Kaufmann. So that’s alright then. As I have often pointed out before, these films, whilst not to be dismissed in any way as irrelevant rubbish, are made for the sake of entertainment, and whilst it would be ridiculous to have a plot so full of holes that it made no sense at all, the occasional deviation from the realms of logic (such as the sequence when Powers is allowed to run away from Bankhead after a curtailed church service, but instead of legging it to Watford bus or tube station pronto, runs back to the house) can be, if not ignored, at least taken in the spirit in which it was intended.
Further proof is found in the overall mood and delivery of the piece- and, although the film does shift focus somewhat after the first 45 minutes and a particularly nasty accident involving a pair of scissors, you get the feeling whilst viewing that whilst Fanatic is in no way intended as any kind of send-up, Hammer had come so far by this stage that they were allowed to play with and parody their own formula if they so wished. After all, this was the sixth (seventh if you count The Snorkel) film of this kind they’d made out of an entire repertoire dating back some thirty years, so they at least deserved a bit of artistic leeway. This would have been no excuse for making sloppy pictures- but thankfully, it would be a while before they did that. Even so, the tone is markedly different from that of its predecessor The Nanny, or its successor Crescendo, in that Powers, whilst no doubt in fear for her life from at least the middle of the film onwards, takes everything, even every little criticism flung at her by Bankhead for such heinous crimes as wearing lipstick, smoking, eating meat, dressing in red and approving of the local vicar remarrying after bereavement (the old woman thus setting herself up as self-appointed rival arbiter of the village’s religious welfare and subjecting her entire household, but particularly her American guest, to extended Biblical tracts), with the dismissive humour and sarcasm they deserve. She even makes light of the interrogation she undergoes as to her supposed ‘virginal’ status, and is quite rightly unimpressed when told that she has already consented to becoming the dead son’s wife just by the simple act of going out with him- a marked improvement from the simpering of Wendy Craig’s character in the previous film, and one that perversely makes us sympathise with her more, ditsy mare though she is. Mind you, that could just be because I fancy her more. An engaging heroine who few straight men (and possibly even a few women) could resist, she doesn’t seem predisposed to taking things lying down- even after being repeatedly bitchslapped, donkled on the head with blunt things and repeatedly flung down those staircases, she’s still fighting, and not without the occasional well-aimed acid quip either. You can see why they used her again three years later.
Add a volatile eccentric like Bankhead, who hadn’t starred in anything at this point for eleven years and was in full-steam ahead mode, to the recipe, throw in a soupcon of Hammer’s usual chattering village gossips (Gwendolyn Watts, Robert Dorning, Diana King etc) and you have a film which is never in danger of being dull- although at 96 minutes it is definitely overlong, and by the time we’re an hour in, there is the occasional bit of watchgazing to be done as we see Narizzano and scriptwriter Richard Matheson struggling to find ingenious ways for Steffy to effect escape and for old Tallyplops and her Zone 8 minions to catch her in the act. The likes of Clemens, Fuest or any director employed by Butchers would have wrapped it in 65 minutes flat, Castle would have sped it up and Hitch would have simply made it more interesting to look at, although to give the Canadian director (alongside cinematographer Arthur Ibbotson) their dues, they do a pretty mean job of inserting suitably gruesome close-ups of blooded corpses in sinks, zooms of worried/frightened eyes, POVs of hands turning locks on doors (even if the bracelets don’t match from shot to shot!) and some suitably Bava-esque green and red lighting. Elsewhere Peter Proud, presumably not soon to be reincarnated, comes up with interesting production designs which seem to mirror the ramshackle state of Bankhead’s addled mind (“she is barmy”, quoth Vaughan almost an hour in, like we’re supposed to believe he’s worked there for 15 years and only just figured it out) whilst Mary Gibson excels with Talulah’s wardrobe (who I’m sure are a band featured on at least one Bam Caruso popsike compilation), creating a wonderfully raggedy world of old frocks, velvet drapes, chiffon scarves and general satin’n'tat which matches perfectly the photos adorning the walls, taken of course from Bankhead’s real life.
It’s debatable, and thus an interesting subject for a post-movie post-mortem, as to how much of the fading/fallen star’s own personality is included in Mrs Trefoile- whose own first name is never known- or indeed how much Matheson had her in mind when he wrote the part, but, as she slides further into insanity (and a subconscious knowledge that she really is no match for the younger, feistier Powers, even after three days’ starvation) her ‘true’ nature starts to shine through, her conversations with her dead son’s painting (spoken as she smears herself tartily with the dreaded lipstick of a scarlet woman) hinting that their relationship may have been more ‘protective’ and ‘close’ than it really should have been. Compare this duplicity with the two sides of Bankhead- on the one hand, a scholar, a lover of jazz and a gifted humourist, on the other an insecure, Bourbon-sozzled, chain-smoking bisexual who spent half of her life naked and allegedly even flashed her crusty grey ladychops at Sutherland on set during a particularly slow and hazy take- and you have a very interesting picture indeed. These little touches help contribute to the myth of the film, which has grown in status as a result and was eventually released on DVD in 2008. Not that it was in any way obscure, in fact it screened regularly on television during the youths and adolescences of almost everyone who contributed to this book, and even inspired legendary US horror punks The Misfits to write possibly their best known song (other than ‘Last Caress’), Die Die My Darling – but its unavailability in this century had begun to make it seem like a lost relic.
In reality, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, as she liked to be known, passed away in 1968, shortly after notching up two more noteworthy appearances, firstly in Jules Bass’ The Daydreamer, and finally in the role most people of my generation remember her for, The Black Widow in Batman: it seems her fears that Fanatic would be her last performance were at least partially unfounded. In the film, there’s a less satisfying if slightly more inventive (and almost incongruously supernatural) resolution, by which time two major players are dead, and although Mrs Trefoile gets her just desserts, she still avoids the the kind of come-uppance you spend most of the film waiting for. On the other hand, you’ll be pleased to know that Joyce, who would sadly lose her own battle with the bottle 14 years later, and whose character seems like a genuinely good person who got unfairly roped into this situation, comes away at least physically unharmed. There is a slight disappointment in that by this stage, the film has traded the black humour which made its first half so unusual (such as the cheery background music which plays as Powers accompanies her captor to the village church, almost aping her waddling walk, and the priceless delivery of the word “Mirror?” right on cue) for almost Slaughteresque melodrama, but even I have to admit, with those sets, and those costumes, it’s tolerable. It would be wrong to call Fanatic (yet another title which has very little to do with the plot, unless it refers to the religious obsessions on display, and they seem more like delusion) an unqualified success, but it would be equally unfair to write it off as a failure either, and on repeated showings, even during the parts which do drag and make one shout “Get on with it Steff” at the screen in wonder at how many drainpipes to shimmy down or windows to climb out of there can be in one house, it still more or less does the job. File alongside Stolen Face and The Vampire Lovers as one of the studio’s great ‘either ors’.
And no, in case anyone who only knows it by its American title was wondering, it’s not a film about a lovable but deaf Welshman….