One of Hammer Films’ last psychological thrillers, 1970’s CRECENDO has some interesting history behind it. Originally written by Alfred Shaughnessy (director of the Barbara Shelley film, CAT GIRL) in the mid 1960s, young Michael Reeves became interested in directing the project, and even helped to revise the screenplay. After remaining dormant, the project was eventually taken to Hammer, but with Reeves' untimely passing after completing WITCHFINDER GENERAL, veteran writer Jimmy Sangster was summoned to work his magic on the script. Although he was to share screen credit with Shaughnessy, Sangster wouldn’t actually meet the man for another 20 years.
Attractive music student Susan Roberts (Stefanie Powers) travels to a villa in France to visit the family of the late American composer Henry Ryman. Writing a thesis on the famous musician, she is greeted by his widow Danielle (Margaretta Scott) and her wheelchair-bound, paraplegic son Georges (James Olson). While all seems pretty normal and affable on the onset, Susan is soon faced with a household of peculiar activity and morbid sights. Georges, who is hopelessly addicted to heroin, has hallucinations involving his doppelganger assaulting him whenever he’s being intimate with a woman, and Susan has inadvertently taken the place of an ambiguous look-alike known as Catherine (Kirsten Betts) who apparently once lived in the house and may have been a former lover. With mother Danielle making Susan’s visit increasingly awkward, she also has to cope with a trampy, blackmailing French maid (Jane Lapotaire, THE ASPHYX) and a suspiciously subdued servant (Joss Ackland, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD).
Although such names as Bette Davis and Christopher Lee (who apparently was very interested in playing the lead) were at one time attached to the project, the film eventually cast Americans James Olson and Stefanie Powers, both who previously had starring roles in Hammer features – MOON ZERO TWO and DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (aka FANATIC). Due to the fact that it was never released on home video and rarely ever showed up on TV, CRESCENDO is one of Hammer’s most forgotten efforts. As a film, it’s weak in that the story takes quite a while to grab significant attention, and its events are stagy, even though Scott MacGregor’s château set design is impressive (only some brief second unit stuff was actually shot in France). While the story tends to borrow a bit from some of Hammer’s earlier PSYCHO-inspired thrillers, it does pick up quite a bit somewhere before the climax, with the usual twists and turns and several murders tossed in along the way. Canadian born Alan Gibson, who had just helmed several episodes of the Hammer TV series "Journey to the Unknown" and would go on to their final, modern-day Dracula pics (DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) directs with a fair amount of imagination, especially given the fact that the film essentially takes place on one set, with an in-the-ground swimming pool being its most central piece.
Completed in 1969, CRESCENDO was released in England in 1970 on a double bill with TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. Warner Brothers, who reportedly demanded the film have an American lead actor rather than Christopher Lee, didn’t release the film in the U.S. until 1972 where it was completely buried on an ineffective Halloween double bill with DRACULA A.D. 1972. To make matters worse, the film that promised to delight “Lovers of the Macabre” was trimmed by over ten minutes, and given a PG rating, as surely the stronger British cut would have granted it an R. Bringing things up to present, when Warner released their DVDs of the much higher profile Hammer titles TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (mistakenly packaged with its U.S. G rating), they made no mention in the publicity or the packaging that the films were full restored, but fans were delighted nonetheless. Here, the back of the DVD reads, “…available here in its unedited international version” and that’s very much true. Running its full 95 minutes, restored are nude scenes courtesy of both Kirsten Betts and Jane Lapotaire which no doubt ups the appeal of this release even more.
A Hammer film which you thought Warner would never release on DVD, CRESCENDO has just been issued as part of their massive Warner Archive Collection, available for sale online only (at least at the time of this writing). Like all titles in the Archive Collection, the DVD of CRESCENDO is sold on a manufactured-to-order basis, but apparently it still succeeds in delivering high quality and is very different than an ordinary burned DVD-R (if it were a standard burnt disc, you wouldn’t be seeing screen grabs here). Presented anamorphic in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the quality is excellent, on par with most of Warner’s previous Hammer retail DVD releases. Aside from some dirt and blemishes during the opening credit sequence, the presentation is very clean with sharp detail and vivid colors, and the mono audio English is also quite strong. There’s really nothing to complain about here, as it looks like a duck and acts like a duck… you get the picture. The only extra here is a promo trailer for the Archive Collection, and the disc does come completely furnished with professional label and full packaging.
For more information on The Warner Archive Collection, visit www.warnerarchive.com. (George R. Reis)
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