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When it came to the Golden Age of British horror films, it was generally accepted that the undisputed kings were Hammer Films, with their peerless pedigree and occasional venturing into "serious" horror. Coming in second was Amicus, though they lacked the relatively highbrow ideals and degree of public affection that Major Jimmy's company enjoyed, they made up for it with sheer gleeful enthusiasm. Below them were various little companies who also wanted a share of the UK exploitation market, including Tyburn Films, who had as their first production, Tales That Witness Madness.

Croaking J. Hawkins makes an impassioned plea to Donald Pleasance...

Though Tales That Witness Madness was the first release from Tyburn Films, technically it wasn't because the company was founded by Kevin Francis under the name the rather generic moniker of World Film Services, before changing to the catchier Tyburn Films shortly after the release of this portmanteau movie. Kevin Francis' father just happened to be Freddie Francis, who was an awarding-winning cinematographer and had also directed numerous horror films for Hammer and Amicus; who better to direct a film to launch a new British film company than someone whose name had become synonymous with horror?

With anthology tales like these, there is always going to be the stuff in the middle which holds the separate elements together to make a satisfying, unified final whole. It’s the bread and mayo of a club sandwich - without them, you might as well just lay the ham, lettuce, tomato, onion, coleslaw, bacon and chicken out on as a smorgasbord.  They both need something to give them purpose, and sometimes anthologies hardly put the effort in when bringing the stories together (set forward Vault of Horror) there are others where they use it to add another element to the whole, and Tales That Witness Madness does just that. When director of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine Dr Tremayne (Donald Pleasance) eagerly tells his colleague Dr Nicholas (Jack Hawkins) that he has cracked four of the trickiest cases of his career, he delves into their cases and sets out to prove his breakthrough. But all isn’t as it seems, with both men unwilling to tell the whole truth.

With the “filler” material, we have the convergence of two Blofelds, with Pleasance playing him in You Only Live Twice, but with Hawkins having his larynx surgically removed seven years earlier, his voice is dubbed by Charles Gray, who (thanks to Spectre) no longer gets stuck with the title of “Crappiest Screen Blofeld” in Diamonds Are Forever. The guys happily propel the stories as Tremayne introduces the incarcerated central character from each vignette and goes through their case.  It even stops for a nice dose of humour along the way including per-dating Back To The Future Part III’s “ice-tea” gag by inverting the clichéd chemistry set-up often seen in films with experimental medical techniques.

So, what of the first ingredient in this particular sandwich…?

Mr Tiger: Being an only child can be a tough life, but young Paul manages to get through just fine, as long as his best friend is looking out for him. Divorcing himself from the unhappy atmosphere in the fractured family home, all but ignoring his arguing parents screaming at each other through Paul’s bedroom walls in a non-stop barrage of jealousy and frustration. Nope, Paul doesn’t care, because he has his imaginary pet tiger to keep him company. Apologising to his pet for their behaviour, the “tiger” keeps him company a night, sleeping under his bed and occasionally going out of the window always left open for him.

Requests for old bones to keep the “tiger” push his parents past the point of worry, believing their son to be delusional, as opposed to having a vivid imagination. In spite (or because of) living in a fabulous, opulent middle-class home, with servants and a home tutor for their delicate flower of a son, the marriage worsens, and the “tiger” becomes a more pressing issue. With the discovery of Paul’s bedroom covered in muddy prints leads the bickering parents to finally have it out with their son, no longer content to mollycoddle his delusions and have him put away childish things. No, things aren’t going to end well…

With some stories, the end is in sight long before the event, like a drunken uncle at a part standing on a table fumbling with his braces. This is somewhat the case with this tale, but it’s more concerned with a satisfying payoff for those who deserve it. Here, it is Paul’s awful parents, one too drunk to be invested in him, the other a bullying over-achiever, blaming her half-arsed parenting for their wallflower son rather than looking at the way his own actions are having in on him. It’s like a having a ring-side seat at in the Burton/Taylor household during a particularly volcanic barney.  The pathetic parents become increasingly fixated on the “tiger” as their marriage begins to go further down the tubes, with the father wanting to toughen him up via getting duffed-up at school.  The ending becomes less about what’s going to happen, but just how savagely.

The key to a making a tale like this work is the youngster you cast for it, and many projects have sailed down to the sawdust through messing up such a crucial element, so it pleases us to report that the kid is great. Russell Lewis really commits to the notion of having an invisible pet, without any of the twinges of self-consciousness so easy to detect in child actors. He’s instantly likeable, and carries the segment he stars in, and not through the default of being the only likeable main character.  It comes as no surprise that he has made a very respectable career in the business, becoming a very successful writer once he discovered his time in front of the camera was through, even creating the Morse spin-off Endeavour.

Well, it's better than imaginary tiger-shit plastered everywhere.

From memory of such creatures, Georgia Brown expertly essays the role of wine-soaked middle-class mother, going wildly over the top when remembering to spend time with the son she doesn’t know as well as she ought to. She’s too drunk and too “frightfully, frightfully” to be bothered with, and that as good as cements how perfectly she nails the role. Donald Houston plays an aggressive, macho pig – with his customary gusto - in much the same way he did in just about anything on his CV, and is as reliable as ever. There are certainly some of us who can identify with a having such a person as a father, so sure that a bit of “rough and tumble” will straighten out any such creativity in their kids, so we’ll certainly rate Houston’s performance as authentic.

It’s a story told in a refreshingly short amount of time, with nothing in there which isn’t essential to the plot and the motivations of the characters. There is one piece which seems to be a nod to (or a steal from…) The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the mother finds muddy prints which starts to question if there is some truth in the extravagant claims from her son. Coincidence or not, it’s a nice piece which takes us right up to the satisfying conclusion, with a tracking shot along a corridor as everything comes to a head being the perfect touch!  It’s leads into the perfect conclusion to a satisfying look at domestic discord, and the way kids escape it. Some might not like it, but we lean more towards this tiger’s tale being “Grrrrrrreat!”

Penny Farthing: There is something about the lure of antique shops that serve as fertile ground for horror; coming the year after Tales That Witness Madness was Craze (also directed by Freddie Francis), which saw Jack Palance lose his mind as a dealer in antiquities and From Beyond the Grave, which featured stories centred around the objects in a mysterious antiques emporium.

This second story sees antique shop owner Timothy (Peter McEnery) handily inheriting a large amount of knick-knacks from a recently-deceased aunt. Amongst the items are a penny farthing bicycle and a portrait of “Uncle Albert”, both of which lead Timothy down a path of death, destruction, time-travel and eco-friendly propulsion.

The recently-acquired bike turns out to be the vehicle for time-travel in a very literal sense (“if you're going to build a time machine into a bicycle, you might as well do it with some style!”) and the portrait of Uncle Albert has captured more than just a moment in time, it retains the ominous old farts' essence and he exerts his will over his apparent descendant by making him mount the contraption and pedal backwards more than the average UKIP member, through time to a period when Albert was more than just something hanging on the wall.

One of the big problems we personally had with Penny Farthing is that once you have seen the Ronnie Barker silent comedy, Futtock's End, it's VERY difficult to take this sort of thing seriously. The aforementioned Barker vehicle had the star appearing in a portrait as a haughty, aristocratic woman in a portrait hanging in a stately home, which changed to a look of disgust when someone contemplates stubbing out a cigarette on the floor. The changing expressions of Uncle Albert in the portrait can cause mirth, irrespective of whether or not you may have seen Futtock's End, especially when Suzy Kendall walks past the portrait and Uncle Albert looks like he is eyeing up her Khyber Pass. At a couple of points, you expect the portrait to change, having Uncle Albert looking upwards and pursing his lips, as if to whistle innocently. Though not intended, this segment comes across as campy and time has not mellowed the opinion – if anything, it has intensified that feeling.

It's always great to see Suzy Kendall and here she still looks very much the way she did in Argento's seminal Bird With the Crystal Plumage. In a dual role, she plays both Timothy's wife, Ann, along with Beatrice, a woman whom Uncle Albert had been courting in the previous century. Kendall's career had seemingly fallen into a bit of a rut by this time and she would effectively retire from the business four years after appearing this film, sadly going out on a low-point in Stanley Long's Adventures of a Private Eye.

The story doesn't make much in the way of sense – why the hell DOES Uncle Albert want his distant descendant to travel back in time and take his place in attempting to woo a woman Albert fancied, only to watch the action from afar? Still, there is a suitably fiery climax and if there is one positive thing that can be said about this particular story, it's that the flashback scenes to the late 19th century look great, with authentic-looking costumes and director Francis employing his Academy Awarding-winning cinematographic skills to create dream-like, sumptuous-looking images of a bygone age (even if you can see the pattern in the gauze over the lens on the panning shots).

What can we learn from the second entry in this anthology? Firstly: inherited antiques can often be cursed. Secondly: dangerous consequences can result from riding penny farthings. Finally: it's usually a drunken uncle who buggers up a family reunion.

A portrait of hilarity in the form of Uncle Albert...

Mel: Of the stories in this particular anthology, this one has to be the most bizarre – and the most ridiculous. Middle-aged Brian (Michael Jayston) is out jogging one morning and notices a tree-trunk and develops an immediate – and decidedly unhealthy – attraction to it, bringing it in the house and sculptor-like, stripping away the excess until the true form is revealed, and that form is decidedly feminine.

Relatively fresh from her triumph in Amicus' Tales From the Crypt, Joan Collins plays Bella, wife to Brian, who is understandably aghast after twigging that her hubby has inexplicably developed what could most certainly be looked upon as a form of paraphilia. Lust, rather than money would seem to be the root of all evil in Brian's case...

Unfortunately for Bella, Mel's bite turns out to be worse than her bark, as she steadily woodworms her way into Brian's affections. As he steadily prunes and sculpts the trunk, revealing a decidedly feminine appearance, Bella's appeal begins to wither and he finds himself obsessed with the piece of wood and realises that he is still lumbered with his wife.

It's a tough gig, trying to convincingly convey that you have gotten wood for a tree-trunk, and Michael Jayston manages the tricky balance between being deadly serious and sending up the role; his gravelly voice (that graced a thousand TV commercials in the eighties) and the twinkle in his eye help sell the ludicrous premise, even if some of his outfits – including the blue tracksuit that was SO typical of the early seventies -  are offensive to the optic nerves. Collins, in the days before Dynasty or even the Cinzano ads, gets little to do, other than be jealous and pine for her husband's attention. It's a pity really, as Collins was fabulous in the And All Through the House segment of Tales From the Crypt.

This story contains what it probably the most controversial moment in the entire film, which sees Collins – the best part of a decade before The Evil Dead – venturing out into the woods and being assaulted by the flora. What starts out as a dream sequence with Collins yelling abuse at the home-wrecking tree, quickly escalates and pretty soon – much like Starbucks – there are branches everywhere. The vines get to work and rip off her top to expose her breasts, which in the seventies, was a fairly common sight on the silver screen. For the time, it might have been considered pretty risqué, but once you have seen Ellen Sandweiss getting violated by the woods, what is depicted here is fairly tame in comparison.

As Doctor Who fans, it would be remiss of us not to mention that Jayston so memorably portrayed suave and malevolent Valeyard in the 14-part epic Colin Baker story, Trial of a Timelord. That story had the dubious distinction of introducing Bonnie Langford as insufferable companion Melanie Bush. It's really hard to resist pondering if The Valeyard began to have amorous intentions toward a  wooden object named Mel...

Luau: The perils of fighting off day-to-day boredom and trying to throw the most extravagant, elaborate parties are all that plagues the mind of high-flying literary agent Auriol Pageant. Her daughter Ginny is developing a streak of independence and wants to fly the nest, so she is pinning all her hopes on throwing the party to end all soirées. With greater concerns in life is Kimo, a suave, handsome young author with the movie rights to his new book being handled by Auriol. Kimo’s mother is dying, and wants both their souls to ascend to the afterlife, but their ancient religion demands primitive feast of blood to do so. The timing couldn’t be better, and before you can say: “Have you ever had an Egyptian feast?” a party is on course to be the most memorable she’s ever thrown!

Trying to blast away the blues and be top of her social circle, Ms Pageant is talked into hosting a traditional Luau, the centrepiece being the cooking of meat buried in the ground. He curiously foreign family retainer is surprisingly enthusiastic about the upcoming celebrations, and Kimo decides to handle all the arrangements.  Unbeknownst to them, both retainer and MC are working together, with their eyes set on the virginal flesh of Gimmy as the main course to save Kimo’s family from eternal damnation. Why has the loyal manservant got a complete set of butchery equipment in a handy suit-case? Where has Ginny disappeared to, on the eve of the party? More importantly: when will the penny drop that teenage rebel Ginny is about to give her mother the only case of the shits which can be solved with a dose of Pepto Bismol?

Tom Baker probably never got as close to this incarnation of Romana...

Let’s get this right out in the open: it’s essentially a rip-off of Herschel Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast, with the same mix of middle-class ignorance of ancient religions getting what they deserve, made oh so satisfying that their use of such practices are for the most vapid of point-scoring within their social circle. There also something deeply satisfying that the smugness of American culture blindly walks into those which have been around for much longer expecting them to dance to their tune.  Both mother and daughter fall under Kimo’s spell, and you have to wonder if either of them would have been interested if he wasn’t ethic, becoming a feather in the cap among Auriol’s peers and an exotic way for Ginny to lose her virginity, so you can read some great commentary into it.

Unlike most anthology segments, there is no twist to this one - it all hinges on if the mother is going to be able to put all the pieces together and work out what Kimo has in store for the party, if Ginny realises that her intended suitor is only interested in her for her body, and if the daughter is going to slip down a treat at the Luau. This is a pretty strong entry in the movie, given more weight than it might through the excellent choice of actors. There are those who say that Novak was out of place in the movie, and that last-minute drop-out Rita Hayworth would have been a better fit, but this really isn’t the case. Novack is convincing as a shallow socialite, and plays well against the excellent Mary Tamm, who would cause anyone sworn to celibacy to go after them with a big knife.

The only real problems with a very entertaining tale both come from the ethnic nature of the antagonists. A weighty accent causes an unintentional snigger early on, where the pronunciation of the words “…take the God-Stick in your hands” sounds really rather smutty, and could have been avoided with a strategic, split-second pause. The other is the almost unsavoury “blacking-up” of a couple of characters,  with the Spanish-born Michael Patriotic (Kimo) having a little tan added, but Australian-born Leon Lissik really slaps it on as faithful manservant Keoki. Both performances are thoroughly endearing, but might ping the radar of the PC brigade these days.

Of the four stories, it's debatable whether ANY of them have a true twist ending. Most of them can be seen coming a mile off even by Mr Magoo. The end of the Mel story merely leaves the viewer wondering whether or not Michael Jayston is going to get splinters and if he does, will he be using zinc oxide to help draw it out. There is no real twist ending of Penny Farthing in that it reaffirms what was said just before the segment started.

We really should mention the similarity between the basic premise of this film and Amicus' Asylum, which was released the previous year; both feature a centre for the mentally disturbed as the bones  of the story and they have the individual tales of several inmates providing the meat. Both films feature a twist ending, but where Asylum had one that is genuinely surprising and logical, Tales That Witness Madness has surprise ending is somewhat baffling and seems have been hastily concocted and tacked-on because the original climax was a little on the weak side.

It's sad to note that this was the final film appearance of Jack Hawkins; though he would posthumously appear in a television series, QB VII, which would close out his career in style, Tales That Witness Madness just seemed to use Hawkins because he had seemingly become a name to put on a marquee, rather than an actor of distinction.

Video:


Tales That Witness Madness was released on Blu-Ray in America by Olive Films and the release from Fabulous Films appears to utilise the same transfer.

Opening with one of the grottiest-looking Paramount logos in cinema history, things drastically improve immediately afterwards. The image is relatively clean, with the occasional nick and bit of dirt here and there, colours are pretty vibrant, with some of the more gaudy clothing – and the OTT greens of the Joan-Collins-getting-molested-by-a-tree dream sequence - looking quite vivid. There is a noticeable amount of film grain, which is fairly well-rendered and the transfer has a pretty healthy bite rate average of around 28mps.

Audio:


Though it's purely our personal opinion, the Fabulous Films copy scores over the Olive one by having the audio presented in DTS HD-MA 2.0, rather than DTS HD-MA 1.0. The result is a more spacious sound-field, outputting the audio through the left and right speakers, rather than just out of the centre.

The mono audio is pretty clean, but nothing to write home about, in keeping with the vintage of the production. Bernard Ebbinghouse's string-centric score is well-represented here, giving a pleasing amount of fidelity (given the limitations of the materials) and the clarity of the audio is such that Charles Gray's dubbing for Jack Hawkins is more obvious – and somewhat distracting - than ever.

Extras:


None. Not even a theatrical trailer.

"Cor! Look at the bark on that!" drools Michael Jayston.

Overall:


Though Tales That Witness Madness is certainly one of the weaker entries in the British horror anthology sub-genre, it's not the worst (*cough* Torture Garden *cough*). It's also not without its charms, having enough to keep you entertained and we're sure that you'll find at least one of one the four tales of madness will tickle your fancy. We doff our caps to Fabulous Films for bringing this film back out from obscurity in the UK; whilst it's not exactly a forgotten gem, it's certainly misplaced high-end Diamonique.


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