Made in the style of the anthology films Freddie Francis previously directed for Amicus Productions, 1973’s Tales That Witness Madness is what portmanteau horror in the U.K. resembles without EC Comics fanatic Milton Subotsky producing; the plots are slightly less vengeance-oriented, but the socio-political (non-)commentary is just as vertiginously dense. The Subotsky formula, achieved by appropriating American revenge fantasies with half-hearted British moralism, is at its most hideously magical a fusion of conservative up-tightness and candy-violent catharsis. Interchangeable characters are defined by the mortal sins they commit, and their respective punishments—aside from far outweighing the grisliness of their own wickedness—sarcastically correspond to a musty aphorism. In “Wish You Were Here,” a sequence from Tales from the Crypt, a woman’s inability to soldier through financial ruin provokes the ire of a mod, motorcycling grim reaper, as though to suggest—or mock those who suggest?—that avaricious bourgeoises and leather-clad ruffians are on a mutually destructive collision course.
Tales That Witness Madness, despite Subotsky’s absence, traffics similar themes with similar buoyancy, focusing impishly on unfulfilling filial and marital relationships. The framing device with Donald Pleasance, who plays an eerily becalmed psychiatrist, leads us through a quartet of “cases”—four individuals who become so suffocated by domestic banality that they succumb to their vicious inner lives. And despite the unfailingly anemic performances (Kim Novak, as the jealous mother of a teenager who attracts the attention of an eccentric and dashing Hawaiian author, is particularly monotone), the stories escape triviality by refusing to espouse mere anti-consumerism. In the opening tale, for example, a young boy’s overbearing and husband-pecking mother showers him with frou-frou playthings—stuffed animals and pink pianos—until the lad revolts with an imaginary friend, Mr. Tiger. When this companion materializes at the story’s end as an actual tiger and shreds Mommy’s bosom, the violence is petulantly Oedipal—the result of frustrated nipple and toy gun (phallic encouragement) deprivation.
The third and most understated story also depicts an intrusion of unorthodoxy into a staid, repressive home. A man (Shakespearean actor Michael Jayston) becomes infatuated with a dead tree trunk he finds in the forest; he hacks away at it with a blade (another obvious phallic symbol) in his living room, sculpting a vaguely humanoid form, which incenses his unaffectionate wife (Joan Collins). “It’s unnatural!” she screams at one point from within a proverbial glass house of frigidity. Eventually, the stump becomes animate and, fueled by jealousy, it drags the wife into the backyard to violate her. (Harsh lights alternate between red and green throughout the sequence; it’s as if the wife is being raped by a Christmas tree.) By the following day, the wood has replaced the wife, sprawling beside its pseudo-Pygmalion in bed, and sporting a pair of whittled, petrified breasts. The artisanal impulse has never been so surreally masturbatory, nor presented as such a self-gratifying alternative to the opiate of modern merchandise.
Freddie Francis both began and ended his career as a cinematographer, and his color schemes and lighting effects almost always resonate thematically; despite Tales That Witness Madness's shlocky camera movement, the movie features several adroit visual puns, like the penetration-by-Tannenbaum previously cited. Unfortunately, the print from which Olive Films mastered this Blu-ray represents color especially with surprising weakness; everything appears slightly washed in acid yellow, as though the celluloid had been dipped in a pot of piss. Scratches and scuffs also appear occasionally, though they aren't distracting.
If trees with tits, Hawaiian cannibals, and a muted Kim Novak performance don't drive you mad, nothing will.