Tales That Witness Madness director Freddie Francis is one of the greats of British horror, helming classic features like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave whilst also being a highly successful cinematographer on films like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Scorsese’s Cape Fear. Tales That Witness Madness marked Francis’ second venture into anthology horror after 1972’s Amicus-produced Tales from the Crypt. It would be silly not to point out that Francis has obviously been influenced by the other fantastic Amicus 1972 anthology; Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum, which follows the same structure as Francis’ film right up to its twist ending, albeit without the edge imparted by Psycho-author Robert Bloch who wrote the script.
Francis’ Tales that Witness Madness is an altogether camper, more fantastical, collection than Baker’s. From its opening story ‘Mr Tiger’ about a boy and his imaginary friend, a tiger who hates the boy’s parents, Francis wants to have a laugh before he ever really wants to scare us, even then he seems happier shocking than scaring. The final shots prove as much: the camera draws closer to the boy’s bedroom, his parents lecturing him for his over-active imagination, the door slams shut in our face. As his parents are mauled to death, the boy plays his kiddy piano, blood spraying all around him.
That’s about as nasty as the film is willing to get unfortunately, but the stories are pleasing enough. The second film ‘Penny Farthing’ is the only duff turn, managing to dull the edges of an in initially intriguing antique store haunting. In it, an antiques dealer is subjected to supernatural terrorization by a menacing portrait marked “Uncle Albert”, who forces the man back in time via a Penny Farthing. The tale proves too damn silly: it’s just difficult to make a man being levitated onto a preposterous bicycle look anything but ridiculous, worse still a surplus time travel thing proves dull as Hell.
Segment three, ‘Mel’, tells the story of a man (Michael Jayston) and wife (Joan Collins) who come to blows after he finds an oddly shaped piece of wood and insists it become part of their décor. Sounds daft but it actually works really well as an example of camp horror. The use of a heartbeat whenever the log is in sight, along with the fact it looks vaguely like something out of Zulawski’s Possession, pull off really well.
‘Luau’, the final segment, tells the story of a literary agent (played by Kim Novak) trying to court a new client who seems more interested in her young daughter (Doctor Who’s Mary Tamm). The story is one of the more eventually horrifying tales, dealing with cannibalism and ritual sacrifice in the English suburbs with surprising glee.
The connecting narrative is dull for anyone who’s seen Asylum, but the fact that Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and Jack Hawkins (Ben Hur) are the central players should lessen the load. More interestingly, Hawkins lack of voice (thanks to surgery) had him dubbed by Charles Gray so, essentially, you can hear two Blofelds charmingly navigate a house of mad stories. The hospital itself is actually something of interest; a quasi-futuristic space designed by The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut production designer Roy Walker. Tales That Witness Madness is also the final composing credit of Bernard Ebbinghouse, whose stand-out piece plays over the film’s wonderful opening credit sequence of coloured X-Rays, a sequence which plays out like an Amicus perversion of a James Bond title sequence.
Not as scary as other Amicus anthologies, Tales That Witness Madness is way more appreciable as a celebration of camp, though not overtly hilarious, British horror, furthered by a great cast, and solid direction from one of the greats.