After helming THE CREEPING FLESH for World Film Services, Freddie Francis (a legendary cameraman who also became a favorable genre director) passed them along a script entitled “Witness Madness”, written by friend Jennifer Jayne (an actress who had been in Francis’ HYSTERIA, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS and THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE). WFS approved the project, but “Tales From” was added to the title, no doubt due to the recent success of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972). One of the few non-Amicus British omnibus movies from the period, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS now arrives on Blu-Ray disc (as well as DVD) from Olive Films.
In the wraparound segments which works as the framing narrative for a quartet of tales, researcher Dr. Tremayne (Donald Pleasance, RAW MEAT) believes he has uncovered new theories on why four special cases at his asylum are mad. A visiting, skeptical colleague, Dr. Nicholas (Jack Hawkins, THEATRE OF BLOOD) is taken to the cells of each of the four, as their stories unfold. The first inmate is a young boy named Paul (Russell Lewis) and his story, “Mr. Tiger”, concerns his constantly bickering parents Fay (Georgia Brown, NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT) and Sam (Donald Houston, A STUDY IN TERROR). Paul creates an “imaginary” friend who happens to be a ferocious tiger. Mom Fay humors the lad by bringing him a stuffed animal tiger, but the discovery of torn blankets, claw marks on the door, and Paul’s constant snatching of meet out of the fridge to feed his hungry pet, all get to be too much for the squabbling couple. One day, mom and dad go into Paul’s room to give him a much-needed lecture, but they’re in for a rather bloody surprise!
The circumstances of patient Timothy (Peter McEnery, WILD FOR KICKS) are told in “Penny Farthing”, as the young antique dealer acquires a penny-farthing bicycle and a framed portrait of a man from Victorian times. Placing the penny-farthing in an alcove at the front of the store, he hangs the portrait of “Uncle Albert” over it, but doesn’t notice that his expressions constantly change back and forth. The seemingly magical stationary bicycle elevates Timothy on its seat, coaxing him to pedal and winding up in Victorian times as man courting a woman who happens to look exactly like his beautiful girlfriend (Suzy Kendall, TORSO). This time traveling phenomenon occurs several more times, but when Timothy attempts to destroy the antique machine, his troubles are far from over.
The story of Tremayne’s third patient, Brian (Michael Jayston, CRAZE) are revealed in “Mel”. As an architect living in a modern woods-surrounded bungalow with his beautiful wife Bella (Joan Collins, THE DEVIL WITHIN HER), Brian finds the human-sized remains of rooted tree that’s somewhat in the shape of a woman. He stubbornly lugs the dirty thing into his living room, much to the dismay of Bella who is opposed to it (who wouldn’t be?) and its constant leave-shedding and sap tearing. After spotting the name “Mel” carved in it, Brian becomes increasingly obsessed with the shapely, stemmed object, trimming it, petting it, and talking to it. Bella tries desperately to lure her husband away from his tree trunk lady friend and into the bedroom, but being disinterred in the affections of an early 1970s, nightie-attired Joan Collins in favor of such a silly distraction is enough to prove him insane anyway.
The fourth and last patient, is a posh middle-aged literary agent named Auriol (Kim Novak), and her case is told in “Luau”. A handsome but celibate writer from a far-off South Seas island, Kimo (Michael Petrovich, Susan Hampshire’s zombified lover in NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND) needs to fulfill an ancient superstition that will prevent his dying mother from eternal torment. It will take a human sacrifice during the next full moon to carry this out. With Kimo as the houseguest of Auriol and her celebratory Hawaiian luau planned in his honor, the party will be the perfect ruse for the ceremony to be performed. Auriol’s stunning young daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) is supposed to be away on a vacation, but she has actually not left the country and has fallen for Kimo’s charms — fodder for the obscene rites to follow.
In his 1975 softcover, Horrors From Screen to Scream, author Ed Naha describes TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS as “A poor man’s ASYLUM (1972) ”. That may not be entirely true, but the film absolutely has the look and feel of the Amicus-produced anthologies that were so popular at the time, and even boasts a similar stellar British cast (though no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in the house). Francis had just did TALES FROM THE CRYPT (which also featured the sexy Collins) the previous year, and although this film has similarities to your average Amicus omnibus cycle (which Francis himself inaugurated with DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS and TORTURE GARDEN) there also some noticeable differences.
Unlike the Amicus screenplays of producer Milton Subotsky or “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, Jennifer Jayne (who used the nom de plume Jay Fairbank, as I imagine the early 1970s wasn’t ready for a female horror screenwriter), there is a decidedly more perverse, nasty tone here (with the segments all having the expected twists at the end), though the entire spectacle is planted in the black comedy variety. With subjects as grotesque as a man-eating animal devouring adults in front of a small unaffected child, and cannibalism which comprises the unbeknownst consumption of a loved one’s flesh, the stories are fairly diverse and the R-rated film is entertaining as whole, especially for fans or British horror (though the EC Comics-type scares associated with the later Amicus anthologies are absent here). The “Penny Farthing” episode, which features the disturbing image of Frank Forsyth (a veteran of half a dozen Amicus horrors) as a walking corpse with an eye popped out, is probably the most imaginative, while the whole premise of “Mel” is so ridiculous, it almost plays out like a spoof.
Shot at the familiar soundstages of England’s Shepperton Studios, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS offers rather straightforward direction from Francis, who really only lets his creative side show during a dream sequence in “Mel” where Joan Collins is whipped by a tree’s slithering limbs, while multicolored lights accentuate the nightmare (Collins’ breasts, or possibly her stand-in’s breasts, are also exposed here, further ensuring the R rating). Some interesting production notes: Kim Novak (in her first film in almost five years) was a replacement for the ailing Rita Hayworth (suffering from Alzheimer's disease, she wandered off the set, never return or make another movie) and Jack Hawkins, losing his voice to throat cancer, had to be dubbed by an uncredited Charles Gray (this was Hawkins final movie role).
Olive Films has licensed yet another Paramount title (the studio released it theatrically in the States back in '73) for this welcomed Blu-Ray edition. Using the old Paramount Home Video VHS cover (which replicated the poster’s “head on a banquet plate” concept with a new model), the film has been newly transferred in High Definition 1080p resolution, and looks magnificent. It’s in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. As a an early 1970s flick with lots of gaudy schemes and very loud clothes, the colors look absolutely terrific, while detail is vividly sharp and there’s very little in the way of grain, making for an all around fantastic HD transfer of a 40-year-old import. The audio comes in a 1.0 mono English track, encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio, and matches the quality of the visuals in that it’s serviceable and non-problematic. There are no extras, but the film has been divided into six chapters. For anyone who wants to be treated to the original 35mm trailer, they can do so when they attend Drive-In Super Monster-Rama this September. (George R. Reis)
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