Sunday 11 December 2016

Tunnel of hate… Catacombs (1965)

The poster for this film promises much: a line about “The woman who wouldn’t die!” next to a leggy wraith with skeletal head and yet it’s a lot more down to earth than the come-on suggests.

It’s a very studio-bound exercise with little of the supernatural but plenty of suspenseful human interplay from a fine cast.

Directed by Gordon Hessler, who went on to direct Scream and Scream Again (1970) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) it’s a moody pot-boiler that throws plenty of distractions before twisting for a final time in the most satisfactory way: honestly, you probably won’t see the ending coming.

The Boss of them
A successful businesswoman Ellen Garth (Georgina Cookson), is driven by an iron will that enables her to dominate all those around her in spite of acute hip problems that she can only overcome through painkillers and a strange meditative technique. She throws herself into a deep trance that is almost indistinguishable from death.

She enjoys a health sexual appetite though and her husband Raymond (Gary Merrill) is at her beck and call; very much the junior partner in their relationship and yet happy to put up with it all for the sake of her wealth and his own good fortune.

Self-hypnosis... or something more?
Her business relationships are also slightly dysfunctional with her assistant Dick Corbett (Irish actor Neil McCallum here playing American) a convicted fraudster who has tried to forge her cheques in the past and whose dishonesty somehow make her trust him more: she knows where she stands.

Back into their lives comes Ellen’s beloved niece, Alice Taylor (Jane Merrow; she of the ace face) who has been studying art in Paris. Dick is sent out to bring her home and almost as soon as she arrives there’s a chemistry between this blossomed flower and her step-uncle, a man in desperate need of some free-wheeling free-will.

Jane Merrow: ace face
Alice insists on sculpting her hairy-lairy step-dad and it doesn’t take long before the older man slips and embraces the warmth and youth he’s been missing.

This cannot be good and Ellen, who is so controlling and insightful, knows her pawns well enough to realise when something’s a-foot. She catches the incestuous-by-marriage, couple and kicks out Alice.

Dick and Raymond have already had an only-slightly theoretical conversation about killing their boos/wife and now the matter becomes pressing as Ellen threatens to tighten the screws on them all.

Ellen calls the shots
They have a plan involving two murders, a look-a-like and a motor-car accident in Italy and it looks fool proof… Raymond drowns Ellen as she washes her hair – a particularly desperate death all the more so for being only partially glimpsed. He drags her body to the garden shed in their country cottage and buries her in a metal cabinet just under the floor… he walks back to the house looking like he’s left something behind.

The next stage of the men’s plan kicks in now as they hire an actress who looks very like Ellen – played by Georgina Cookson clearly relishing the chance to put on cockney airs – and fly her over to Italy where she is to meet with an unfortunate auto-accident.

The plan unravels?
So, one murder a-piece and all looks done and dusted. But Raymond is uneasy and starts to have doubts that he completed his part of the deal: there’s odd sounds around the cottage, the bed where he lay the drowned Ellen becomes inexplicably wet and her walking stick arrives out of nowhere.

Is Ellen still alive? Did she use her self-hypnosis to fake her own death? Raymond becomes obsessed and the moods darkens and he is joined by Alice in sensing the presence of the dead.

It is now when the film has to decide between suspense and horror…

Bumps in the night
Dusty Verdict: None of this would work if the actors didn’t perform well and the cast, especially Merrill and Merrow (sounds like a country and western act), reach an impressive critical mass of nervous excitement as they are haunted by the woman who seemingly refuses to die. There's also a strong cameo from Rachel Thomas as Ellen's housekeeper... she knows her emploer best of all.

No spoilers though, the film’s mystery is its power and its power is its mystery to quote Stan Lee’s Doctor Strange

It’s worth watching, as is any film with Jane Merrow, a fine actress who is still making films today both as director and performer. Here she is vibrant portraying her complex character with subtle conviction.

There’s a recently-released Network DVD and whilst the story never quite matches up to the promise of its poster it is engaging.

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