A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #8: “Crescendo” (1970)

by A.J. Hakari

"Crescendo" poster

Crescendo is the rare Hammer film that’s not so easy to pin down on first glance. With no sign of Christopher Lee, becobwebbed castles, or buxom blood-nymphs, one would have some difficulty pegging what it’d be about. As it turns out, Crescendo is a rather romantically-inclined thriller with aspirations of Alfred Hitchcock in mind. Its violence is subdued, its horrors are psychological, and the tone skews somber over sensational, a surprise coming from the same production house that released button-pushers like Never Take Candy from a Stranger and These Are the Damned just a decade earlier. I certainly perked up at the prospect of a classier Hammer chiller than usual, but in the case of Crescendo, “classier” gradually devolved into “duller,” “sloppier,” and “good lord, just kill something already.”

Susan Roberts (Stefanie Powers) is a music student who’s one thesis from walking away a graduate. For her topic, she’s chosen a famous composer whose final piece was left unfinished before his death. Thankfully, Susan has gotten hold of the man’s family, who are kind enough to let her stay at their fancy villa while she finishes up her paper. At first, nothing seems too peculiar, aside from the composer’s wife, Danielle (Margaretta Scott), seeming a tad too eager to hook Susan up with her disabled son, Georges (James Olson). But wicked forces are afoot on the grounds, terrible secrets from the family’s past that have risen once again and are intent on dragging Susan into a neverending nightmare.

Although Crescendo wasn’t one of Hammer’s prestige titles (having opened in the UK on a double bill with Taste the Blood of Dracula), efforts to help it stand out stylistically are abound. The opening credits introduce a soft jazz score that carries on throughout the movie, bolstering the dreamlike atmosphere that director Alan Gibson had in mind. Also popping up often are hallucinatory sequences in which Georges has nightmares of withered cadavers and a shotgun-wielding doppelganger. Crescendo does a pretty impressive job of making you wonder what the hell is going on, but its most gaping fault lies in the frankly piss-poor job of explaining what everyone’s deal is. The script writes itself into a corner on a number of occasions, with no other means of driving things forward than inventing some crazy red herring to distract us and forget about within a couple scenes.

Crescendo is a big fan of the “because they’re crazy” excuse to justify character motivations. It’s hard to mention why without trekking into Spoiler Country, but the reasons we’re given for why certain players act the way they do are some of the most weakly-detailed you’ll ever come across. People being arbitrarily spooky in horror movies is nothing new, but Crescendo pulls this often enough to cripple any mysterious effect it hoped to achieve. It makes the entire turn of events look half-assed, with the stuff about the unfinished composition, Danielle’s bizarre behavior, and how come Georges is a tortured soul one second and a creeper the next feeling added in as afterthoughts. Stefanie Powers’ Susan is the worst casualty of this narrative clustercuss, written so passively as to not only be totally oblivious to all the suspicious stuff going down at the villa but to even fall in love with Georges with nothing driving her to do so.

I can admire Crescendo‘s restraint in terms of violence (the few on-screen murders aren’t very graphic to begin with), and when the script isn’t casting the actors as spastic idiots, you’ll come across an effective performance or two. But even with Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster credited as co-author, the film has both a hard time making sense and making you care about it making sense. Britain’s famous house of horrors has plenty of great, low-key thrillers to its name, but perhaps Crescendo is better left chained up in the basement.

(Note: This review refers to the uncut international version available to purchase via the Warner Archive Collection.)

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