Some middle-aged guy (the body of Jack Hawkins and the awkwardly dubbed voice of Charles Gray) visits the high-tech – by way of what looks a bit like a set from a cost-effective (but awesome) SF TV show – psychiatric clinic of one Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). Tremayne shows off his four favourite patients while mumbling something about how his deep research into the cases and the truth about them will change everything.
This being a British horror anthology movie, with each patient lies a tale. There’s little Paul (Russell Lewis), who has a pair of permanently warring parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), a nice private tutor (David Wood), and an imaginary friend who just happens to be an invisible tiger cleverly named “Mr. Tiger”. The obvious thing happens.
Next up is Timothy Patrick (Peter McEnery). His tale involves the inheritance of quite a few antiquities, among them the (soon to be moving) picture of one Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth) and a penny-farthing that once belonged to the man. The unicylce or the picture or both have telekinetic powers that violently draw Timothy onto the cycle, make him cycle quite hard and transport him into the unicycling past where he takes the place of Albert and repeats a scene or two from a doomed romance (his past adventure love and present day love both being played by Suzy Kendall, the former one in a hilariously melodramatic manner) while being observed by what looks like mud zombie Uncle Albert. Obviously, past and future catastrophe looms.
Patient number three is Brian (Michael Jayston). Brian lives peacefully in a large house in the woods with his mildly irascible –she’s being played by Joan Collins after all – wife/girlfriend Bella until he finds an about human-sized and vaguely woman-shaped piece of a tree in the woods. Obviously, he’s dragging it home and putting it in his living room. Soon, the age-old tale of a man’s affections split between a piece of wood and a woman repeats again.
Last but not least, we witness the tale of Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent who’s rather fond of her best client, the “Polynesian” – or “Hawaiian”, going by the whole luau thing – writer Keoki (Leon Lissek, obviously neither Polynesian nor Hawaiian but then it is rather difficult to imagine somebody with the appropriate ethnicity taking on this particular role). Little does she expect that Keoki is in the process of fulfilling the last wish of his dear old mum, namely, to sacrifice a virgin to their favourite god and have a nice cannibalistic get-together afterwards. As luck will have it, Auriol’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) just happens to be a virgin. And wow, isn’t it quite the coincidence Auriol is actually planning a little luau for him! Accidental inter-family cannibalism just might ensue.
As the observant reader might have noticed, the stories contained in this not Amicus produced (despite being directed by dear old Freddie Francis and featuring a structure and actors you might know all too well from the Amicus films) British horror anthology are utter, preposterous tosh, ending on notes as obvious as moonlight, while still managing to be flat-out crazy.
If you’re looking for something moody, thoughtful or just vaguely believable, you’ve come to the wrong film. Like a lot of these anthologies, this one’s a horror comic made flesh, but – apart from tale number four – it’s less EC style horror than the sort of thing Charlton Comics would have put out in comics code times (with perhaps a bit more blood than would have been allowed there on screen), stuff that at the best of times distracts from how pedestrian it should be by being outright crazy. Which is pretty much exactly what Tales That Witness Madness does after the somewhat useless first story, adding utterly peculiar elements to the stories that would seem ill-advised in a film actually out to scare its audience. Seriously, a haunted penny-farthing? And let’s not even talk about the whole of story number three, which just might be one of the major achievements of human arts.
Talking of ill-advised, it is rather difficult not to realize – even if you pretend very hard not to notice – how much of a racist fever dream the film’s last tale is, with its evil brown people killing a white virgin and feeding her to her own mother, and there’s really nothing I can find to excuse it, so if that sort of thing offends you (and good on you), you’ll loathe the rest of the film for it, too, I suppose. On the other hand, I found this tale so preposterous and silly in tone while also being gloriously lurid I couldn’t help but enjoy it more than a little. It’s just very difficult for me to look at this sort of thing (particularly in a film made more than forty years ago) and take it seriously enough to get angry or even very annoyed at the dead people responsible; not that I approve of it, mind you.
Be that as it may, Francis is pretty much the ideal director for this whole beautiful mess, combining his usual wonderful sense of visual style with the appropriate shamelessness to actually bring these deeply stupid tales to glowing life. Francis has just the right sense for movement and colour to turn this into a moving comic strip, clearly realizing that attempting to add class to this stuff would be a fool’s errand and opting for being as lurid and peculiar as possible, a task he fulfils with aplomb (as well as, one assumes, on time and on a not very large budget). Despite being quite so silly, the film also shows a wonderful sense of the telling (yet weird) detail that is best demonstrated by how the tree thing in tale number three is a bit more shaped like a woman in every scene, until the rip-roaring denouement that suggests a piece of tree is preferable to poor Joan Collins.
Clearly, it pays off putting effort even into the silliest things.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?