Also known as The Corpse and The Velvet House, 1971’s Crucible of Horror stars Michael Gough (best remembered as Alfred the butler in Tim Burton’s try at the Batman movies) as an overtly strict, controlling, and at times sadistic patriarch of the Eastwood family. As Walter Eastwood, Gough turns in a solid and effective performance, and this is important, as without a steady hand the film would fail horribly. As it is, Crucible of Horror is a relatively lackluster thriller that is only worth watching because of Gough’s performance and the twist that unravels during the film’s sustained climax.
Walter Eastwood is a horrid man. Domineering and controlling, he is also horribly violent (but always still under control), droll, and perverted (the film hints that he wants his daughter very, very much). Living under his oppression are his wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell), son Rupert (played by real-life son Simon Gough), and daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney, real-life wife of Simon’s).
Family dinners are tense gatherings, and when one is interrupted by the head of the social club that Walter attends regularly, things go from tense to intense. It turns out that Jane has stolen some money from the club, and its current president carefully discusses the issue with Walter (after all, this gross man also wants Jane, and makes his intentions clear by kissing her shortly after she answers the door). Walter then confronts Jane, beating her with a horse’s riding crop until she comes clean.
Although Edith is never beaten on screen, her onscreen demeanor indicates that she too has been given the switch. Edith is frail and weak, but underneath this actress Yvonne Mitchell revels suppressed feelings of anger and despondence. Only son Rupert enjoys his father’s company, not only working in the man’s insurance business but also slowly acclimating (and perhaps learning) how to dominate the women of the family.
This latest beating triggers the principal plot of the movie, where Edith and Jane plot to kill Walter. Their scheme consists of poisoning him while he is away on a hunt at a country hunting club, where he is an expected guest every year. The women think they pull off the murder, only to have the corpse appear various times, causing them great terror and angst. The film’s final twist is that Walter is not dead but rather is once again teaching his women a very important lesson: He cannot be killed, and things will never change. Indeed, the film’s closing dinner sequence has the family once again gathered at the table, with Edith this time looking insane (from despondence, no doubt), Jane beginning to look like Edith at the beginning of the film, and father and son exchanging banalities as the horror around them seems to empower their controlling natures.
Subtle and slow-moving, Crucible of Horror is a rare experiment in evoking suppressed terror. There are no supernatural elements or monsters, violence and blood are kept to a minimum, and atmospherics reflect the theme of the film—banality. Such tediousness may put off the bulk of viewers, as this film is designed to create terror from within. There are also some dream sequences that confuse the movie’s key plot; these sequences should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
The core of the film is the acting, and all the actors accord themselves very well. The problem lies with the film’s script, which perhaps pushes the banality and underscored sarcasm of the piece a little too far. Thus, some viewers may be confused as to what the movie is about, and there will be plenty who simply will not care.
For those who can see what director Viktors Ritelis and screenwriter Olaf Pooley are really up to, Crucible of Horror will turn out to be a really good yarn and a solid example of psychological terror. However, it is unlikely that even those who understand the suppressed terror of the film will want to watch it again, as it takes a certain mood to really enjoy the film for what it is.
Crucible of Horror can be purchased as a standalone film or as part of a collection, such as the Pure Terror 50 Movie Pack.