Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This week’s movie is 1971’s A Taste of Evil.
Many movies are derivative of something else to some extent. Some films don’t even bother trying to hide the similarities to other flicks. A Taste of Evil is a fine example of the latter. But it scores extra points because the screenwriter ripped off his own material. Fans of British chillers from the 1960s will spot the pastiche elements, but that’s all part of the film’s charm. And I use the word “charm” lightly, as this is a dark little movie.
When: October 12, 1971
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (The Night Stalker) from a script by Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein), A Taste of Evil centers around Susan (Barbara Parkins). After being assaulted by a mysterious man when she was 13 years old, Susan was institutionalized. Now she’s returned home to find her mother (Barbara Stanwyck) married to a drunk (Harold Jennings). And while the husband is very much alive, she keeps spotting his corpse all over their estate. Is she hallucinating? Is someone trying to purposely drive her insane? It doesn’t matter. Susan is determined to get better and confront her childhood demons and find out the truth. And she has a shotgun for the occasion.
If the plot seems familiar, that’s because it’s essentially a riff on Taste of Fear, a Hammer movie from 1961 that was also penned by Sangster. In that movie, a wheelchair-bound young woman keeps seeing her father’s body only for her claims to be dismissed as neurotic. Sangster had been working in Hollywood for years by the time A Taste of Evil hit the airwaves. He assumed that no one in the United States was aware of his British output. Aaron Spelling — who produced A Taste of Evil — eventually saw the original film and he wasn’t too pleased with Sangster’s antics.
Sangster recycled an idea to make a few quick bucks but doesn’t mean that A Taste of Evil is a lazy rehash of what came before. While the story and characters boast uncanny similarities to the Hammer film, the movie is still packed with effective suspense and well-executed plot twists. The movie’s exploration of sexual assault, child abuse, and mental health illness is also handled with care and adds and results in some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. For instance, the image of Susan’s attacker standing in the doorway of her childhood playhouse is chilling. Most of the horror takes place off-screen, but seeing a predator in a place of innocence is nightmare fuel.
Moxey (who also directed the excellent Home for the Holidays one year later) was already a veteran of horror and thriller films at the time. He was a practitioner who had a knack for delivering a moody atmosphere and making the most of the setting. These elements are utilized brilliantly here, and fans of Gothic fright fare will find the film very aesthetically pleasing. The estate and the surrounding woodland area are constantly eerie, especially during the film’s thunder and lightning-fueled climax. It’s also worth noting that the finale is reminiscent of the movie Nightmare, which Sangster also wrote. What a cheeky hustler.
Sangster’s script is tight, though, and his story provides an engaging conspiratorial mystery that will keep most viewers intrigued to the end. Some people might predict the final revelations before the film unveils its cards, as the ensemble is small and no one is to be trusted in a ’70s horror movie. But it all unravels in a satisfactory way and the movie earns its dramatic payoff as the central villainous scheme is a creative one.
The cast is also terrific. Especially Stanwyck and Parkins as the film’s mother-daughter pairing. Parkins, however, really stands out as she brings a lot of personality to the role and creates a character who exudes strength. She’s very likable and easy to root for. Roddy McDowall also appears as the family doctor, and it’s another solid effort from a genre stalwart who’s always a welcome presence in a movie.
Given that A Taste of Evil borrowed heavily from one of Sangster’s old Hammer stories, it’s stylistically similar to the films produced by the British studio during its heyday. This is a movie that echoes the traditions of its influences, albeit with an Americanized sheen. But that was a good time for the genre, and this film does an admirable job of delivering a similar type of chill. Seek it out.