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Hipster Holy Grail: Crucible of Terror (1971)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Crucible of Terror hints at no less than three decent premises for a horror movie, but spends so much time on establishing shots and inconsequential atmosphere that it fails at all of them.  In short, it's dull and forgettable.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with Victor Clare (Mike Raven), a sculptor, painting an unconscious woman with a bronze cream, then smothering her in plaster.  As the plaster hardens, he heats up a crucible of molten metal.  The music builds and he hovers the crucible over her body... and just as she opens her eyes, waking up from her stupor, he tilts the crucible.  Cut to credits!

It's a disturbing opening sequence with a grotesque way to kill somebody.  Naturally, nothing else will live up to it.

After the credits, we're treated to an art show hosted by John Davies (James Bolam) and Michael Clare (Ronald Lacey), Victor's son.  Michael has brought some of Victor's works to the show, including a bronze statue that's ostensibly the remains of the woman killed in the opening sequence, and they're selling them for a tidy profit.  Once the show is wrapped up, they make a plan to visit Victor in his cliffside cottage in the country to arrange further sales.

Accompanying them on the trip are their wives: Millie Davies (Mary Maude) and Jane Clare (Beth Morris).  They reach the cottage and nothing proceeds to happen for a long while.

I don't mean to be so dismissive.  It's just that the movie spends so much time setting things up it forgets it needs to build tension and actually pay anything off.

For example, there's a lot of time spent showing the failed marriage between Michael and Jane.  He's got a drinking problem and she's resentful that she's spent so much of her money to support his failed career.  There's also Victor's wife, Dorothy (Betty Alberge), who may be intellectually deficient and is constantly seen playing with stuffed animals and other children's toys.  What's she up to?  Oh, and there's some lip service paid to Victor's model, Marcia (Judy Matheson), who constantly fights with him and is possibly (probably?) sleeping with him.

Or maybe if you're getting tired of the supporting characters and inter-familial dynamics, how about some supernatural mumbo-jumbo?  Michael takes John to a nearby mine and recounts the story of a collapse that killed a bunch of people long ago, and then suggests some mechanism that would make the souls of the dead drift out and re-enter other people's bodies.  Then Millie starts feeling deja vu a bunch and keeps thinking she's been in the cottage before in a past life.  Maybe that's going to be something important?

Eh.  Or they can just sit around and bitch at each other for like an hour.

Eventually the movie enters horror mode and a body count starts to rack up.  First, Jane and Michael have a fight and she is murdered by an unseen assailant.  Then Michael, drunk off his ass, goofs around on a beach and is clubbed to death by an unseen assailant.  And then Marcia has acid thrown in her face by an unseen assailant.  Then Dorothy kills herself.

Then John has to leave for awhile for plot-advancement reasons and Victor tries to turn Millie into a bronze statue.  But she wakes up during the process, as if controlled by some demonic force, and kills Victor.  She dies, and then John, returning from his trip, ruminates on what happened and how while he was gone.

Then Bill - oh, by the way, Victor has this friend named Bill (John Arnatt) who's been hanging out on the sidelines the whole movie - explains the plot.  A long time ago, Victor killed one of his models via the bronzing process we saw in the opening sequence.  Her spirit possessed a kimono she was wearing shortly beforehand, and ever since then, anybody who wears the kimono will become possessed and go into a murderous trance.  All the deaths we've seen up until now were committed by Millie while under supernatural influence, and now everyone's dead.

In retrospect, they probably should've thrown out the kimono.  Whoops.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I liked a lot of the ideas in Crucible of Terror.  The titular crucible is, in fact, full of terror - it's the exact kind of over-the-top, convoluted, horrifying way to die that makes for perfect horror movie fodder.  Millie's flashbacks are intriguing.  The "whodunit?" approach to all the murderers worked in Scream and could've worked here.  And finally, the haunted kimono is a nifty little touch to wrap it all up.

But none of that matters very much because the movie is just so damn boring.

Partly this is because the movie takes a long time to decide who its central protagonist is going to be.  At first it seems like we're going to follow John's misadventures, but then he kinda fades away while Millie takes center stage.  Then Millie takes a backseat to mystery shenanigans until finally we're just stuck watching Victor screw around creepily.  Tension can never build effectively because we keep jumping around to all the different cast members.

I also wasn't a big fan of keeping the murderer in the dark the whole movie.  When you open your film with a character killing somebody, you're telling us that this person is a villain.  So if you later keep it a secret who's killing everyone else, there's only two possible conclusions we can draw:

1) The killer from the opening scene is the killer in the rest of the movie, and you're just being precious about it; or

2) The killer in the rest of the movie is going to be revealed as a totally arbitrary second killer.

For almost all of the movie, I suspected that Bill was the murderer the entire time because he's the exact kind of innocuous, do-nothing character that a movie like this would have on standby.

As a result, the reveal of the revenge spirit is simultaneously the best thing the movie has going for it and the stupidest possible way to implement it.  Why wait until the last three minutes (literally) to bring that up?

The right way to do this is to spend as much time as possible with Millie exploring the cottage and picking up clues about the spirit.  Maybe she sees a photograph of the model that Victor bronzed to death and she thinks the woman is familiar, but then Victor hides the photo and she can't get a clear answer right away.  Or she sees journal entries referencing her name.  Or something.  And then around minute 60, after you've killed half a dozen people, John picks up the investigation torch and realizes what Victor did, and BAM!  Sudden reveal of Millie wearing the kimono and being possessed by the spirit.

From there you can lead into a much more exciting final act.  Instead of John just stumbling into the aftermath, he becomes part of the climax.  Instead of shit randomly happening and then being explained away later, the characters can take part in driving the action.  At the very least, you'd make the movie feel a lot faster - and that could only help.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

This one's a gold mine.  It's from the 1970s, so automatically it's got the "everything that's not modern is better" angle going for it.  It's British, which puts it in the same company as perennial favorites like those from Hammer Films.  But it's from a much smaller production company that only made two movies - this and The Asphyx - so a true hipster can be really stuck up about it.  I'm going to give it 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Crucible of Terror was streaming on DailyMotion the last time I checked.  Alternately, if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for (basically) free.

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