A Taste of Evil (1971)

A young woman returns home from a lengthy stay in an overseas psychiatric facility after being brutally assaulted as a child. Can she confront and overcome her demons, or is her sanity once again slipping away?

In a prologue, a young girl provides a voice-over during a garden party on her family’s expansive estate. The scene shifts to a playhouse in the woods on the property, built by her father. The girl, Susan, is drawing when the silhouetted figure of a man appears in the doorway. She can’t see his face due to the position of the sun, and he refuses to answer when she asks who it is. He advances, the sounds of a struggle are heard, the girl screams. ToE1

Seven years later, Susan, now a young woman, returns home after spending years in a European psychiatric hospital. While driving home from the airport with her mother, Miriam, their conversation provides exposition; Susan was catatonic for two years after being raped, and she’s still blocking the identity of her attacker. Her father died while she was hospitalized, and her mother married an old friend of the family, Harold Jennings, who’s already imbibing when Susan and Miriam arrive at the house. Later that night, Susan hears her mother and step-father arguing before he angrily storms out. The following morning, Miriam tells Susan he’s gone away on business. Susan begins to reacquaint herself with the grounds and the only remaining servant from the old days, John, the caretaker.

It’s not long before strange things begin to happen. Susan hears someone moving around the house at night, and she sees a shadowy figure standing on the lawn when looking out her bedroom window. One afternoon, when she walks to the playhouse, she’s stopped in her tracks at the sound of rustling in nearby bushes, frightened when no one responds to her calls. Things take a stranger turn when she awakens one night to the sound of her bath running. Going to investigate, she finds Harold’s drowned body in the tub, causing her to faint. When she regains consciousness, she’s being attended to by Dr. Michael Lomas, whose family was friendly with hers back in the day. Much to Susan’s dismay, there’s no trace of Harold’s dead and water-logged body.

Odd things continue to happen. Doors are heard opening and closing, breathing emanates from a darkened doorway, and step-father Harold keeps showing up dead, then disappearing, which is only seen by Susan, who’s quite surprised when Harold phones to say he’s coming home. When he does, a set of circumstances lead the terrified Susan to take drastic action in a setting reminiscent of the attack all those years ago. A Taste of Evil was written by Jimmy Sangster, known for his many Hammer Horror films, who admitted he recycled the screenplay from the ten-year-old Hammer movie Scream of Fear. It was produced by Aaron Spelling, who already had a resume of made-for-TV movies and series, but wasn’t quite the household name yet. The movie was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, another television veteran, who would go on to direct the made-for-TV movie ratings blockbuster The Night Stalker the following year.

The cast is a small one, but boasts some known names and faces. Barbara Parkins (Anne in Valley of the Dolls), plays Susan. She manages to convey she’s a young woman determined to heal, but also maintains a touch of the child in her voice without sounding childish. John Shea plays the somewhat slow-witted caretaker, John, the least developed character who probably needed the most fleshing out, there’s a number of unanswered questions with him. William Windom is seen too briefly as Harold, but I liked his initial scenes. The ever dependable Roddy McDowall plays Dr. Lomas. One of my favorite scenes is when Susan pays him a visit on his day off, wanting to talk about the odd occurrences. He’s tinkering with a classic car while they talk and, even though he states he’s not a psychiatrist, sounds exactly like one while they converse. Last, but certainly not least, is Barbara Stanwyck as Miriam. Her performance may not seem like much in the first two acts, but come the third, she pulls out all the stops and really delivers, most notably during what’s essentially a monologue.

The movie hits a lot of the usual Gothic notes; large mansion, expansive estate, sheer curtains fluttering on windy nights, a thunderstorm, strange noises and sightings, and a young woman searching for answers. Though average, the movie is enjoyable, but certainly requires suspension of disbelief; there are a few plot holes along the way, with one or two edging into sink hole territory. Time constraints obviously hampered both character development and interaction between characters, which would have added a welcome, complex layer to the proceedings. It could be argued the movie is more about creating a mood, but there’s also some weighty subject matter at the movie’s core, not uncommon for the era.

The ’70’s was the decade in which made-for-TV movies were king, and I didn’t regret revisiting this one. I saw it as a kid several times back then, and there were certain scenes, like the menacing silhouette in the playhouse doorway, that I’ve never forgotten. A Taste of Evil is worth a watch if you’re a fan of Stanwyck, McDowall, or ’70’s TV movies.

 

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