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... a couple of solid shocks here ...
1971's Crucible of Terror is an eccentric horror offering that's really a murder mystery with an unsure foot in occult territory. With the British film industry falling to pieces in the early 70s, plenty of cinema professionals fell back on whatever genre work might attract an audience. Executive producer / cinematographer Peter Newbrook is the biggest name in the credits, having worked camera on a number of David Lean classics; he directed the classy fright film The Asphyx around this time as well. The cast lists a number of notables, like Ronald Lacey (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Melissa Stribling (Horror of Dracula) and popular TV name James Bolam (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). In the lead role as a mad artist-sculptor is ex- pirate radio DJ Mike Raven, one of several English actors who tried and failed to establish themselves as a horror specialist. A follow-up production, Disciple of Death again starred Raven, with Tom Parkinson taking over directing chores. This film's director is Ted Hooker. Previously an editor, Hooker directs action and exteriors well enough but tends to block dialogue scenes indifferently.
Art gallery proprietor Jack Davies (John Bolam) promotes a trip to Cornwall to meet the reclusive artist Victor Clare (Mike Raven), whose work is beginning to sell. Clare's son Michael (Ronald Lacey) shows the way, bringing his unhappy wife Jane (Beth Morris) and Jack's girlfriend Millie (Mary Maude) along as well. Taking an interest in his two new female visitors, Victor ignores his steady model / lover Marcia (Judy Matheson, of Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil). Victor also behaves cruelly toward his wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge), who has adjusted to his inattention by regressing to an infantile state and playing with baby dolls. Back in London, the boorish husband of arts patron Joanna Brent (Melissa Stribling) has already been killed while attempting to steal one of Victor's erotic sculptures. Bizarre killings continue out in Victor's cottage on the Cornwall cliffs of Jericho Valley, but somebody's hiding the bodies. What exactly is Victor up to? Why is Millie so disturbed by his antique pagan crucible, a vessel meant to hold sacrificial wine ... or blood?
Crucible of Terror gets off to a queasy start with the spectacle of Chi-Sin (Me Me Lay of Au Pair Girls and Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime) permitting artist Victor Clare to cover her with wet plaster. After she is imprisoned in the hardened plaster shell, Victor pours a smelting cauldron of molten metal into the one hole in the plaster, over her eye. This is indeed a major shock moment, even if we can't understand how Victor could end up with the perfect bronze of Chi-Sin displayed some time later in the art gallery.
Victor entreats his female guests to pose nude for him, and is often seen lurking about when the murders occur. Despite a superior attitude and an intimidating goatee, Victor doesn't strike one as much of a horror icon in the making ... there's no real mystery or irony in his voice, just a soft lisp. That said, the players take their roles seriously, and the quality of the acting is reasonable overall. Ronald Lacey pretty much acts circles around his co-stars. In the painfully obvious part of the dotty wife pushed aside while Victor pursues younger women, Betty Alberge emerges as a potential killer. Perhaps because the dialogue often telegraphs events, the tension level doesn't seem to build, even as the various guests begin to disappear. Somebody is stabbing them to death, battering them with stones and tossing acid in their faces. When the mystery is finally revealed, it turns out to be complicated combination of sadism, spiritual possession and a revenge motif. Although Victor Clare's belief in the immortalizing effects of art is revealed as humbug, more than one form of supernatural influence seems to be at work.
Crucible of Terror is not to be confused with previous year's Crucible of Horror, a Satanism tale starring Michael Gogh & Yvonne Mitchell. Remote Cornwall seems an ideal location for a horror film. Doctor Blood's Coffin from ten years before also imagined a disused tin mine as a place for abominable experiments, and Hammer's Plague of the Zombies proposed a madman converting deceased miners into an undead army. Most of the murders work well enough, but we wonder why nobody seems to miss the people that disappear after walks on the beach, etc. A final reveal of a horror-face is a jolting, creepy transformation that can't exactly be explained. Apparently this demonic presence both inhabits and obliterates the person it possesses, making an exorcism impractical. The fantastic setup is more than a little confusing, even with a Psycho-like windup explanation illustrated with helpful flashbacks.
Severin's DVD of Crucible of Terror is a good enhanced widescreen encoding of what is described as the only known complete print of the film. The transfer retains an original X-rating card. Color values and sharpness are reasonably good, with only some pulsing in a few exterior scenes (possibly an issue with the camera's shutter) sticking out as a flaw. The atmospheric Cornwall locations really help to make the film attractive, along with ace cameraman Newbrook's atmospheric lighting in madman Victor Clare's art studio. The deep-cave studio must be well ventilated, with all that liquid metal bubbling about in there!
Severin's disc carries no extras. I'll be following up this review with a look at the company's new release Psychomania, which is billed as the best movie ever about undead zombie bikers. Is that a positive distinction? We're still waiting for the company's promised deluxe special edition of the excellent chiller Pánico en el Transiberiano aka Horror Express, said to be from uncut perfect original elements.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crucible of Terror rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.