A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #12: “Tales That Witness Madness” (1973)
by A.J. Hakari
Anthology horror flicks are easy to make but excruciating to get right. It’s rare that one of these endeavors ever comes across as anything but a 90-minute clearing house for paper-thin campfire stories that couldn’t make it as feature films. So often do these movies make folks go, “That’s it?” — and Tales That Witness Madness is no different. It’s one of the sloppiest examples of its kind that I’ve seen yet, with a weak line-up of vignettes that don’t come close to leaving a frightful impression and an even lazier conceit that tries in vain to tie them all together. There really is nothing to Tales That Witness Madness, a product content to coast by on clichés and without imparting any wicked flourishes with which viewers can delight themselves.
Somewhere in England lies an ultra-modern, chrome-encrusted asylum, where a curious doctor (Donald Pleasence) presides over a rather strange roster of patients. Four of them have especially bizarre incidents to recount, which the doc attempts to convince a colleague (Jack Hawkins) are completely true. First up to bat is Paul (Russell Lewis), a little boy whose imaginary tiger friend is more real than his quarreling parents think. Next is an antique store owner (Peter McEnery) who inherits a treasure trove of old joke, only to be forced by a strange old painting to travel back in time. Joan Collins stars in the third segment as a woman who finds herself battling a humanoid tree stump for her husband’s affections (just roll with it). Last up is top-billed Kim Novak, who plays a publicity agent dead set on wooing her dashing client…unaware of his nefarious designs on her daughter.
The problem with Tales That Witness Madness is that everything’s been way too compacted, starting with the framing story. Remember how Tales from the Crypt had condemned souls being shown their past misdeeds, or how Asylum had the added mystery of which raving lunatic had once ran the hospital? Well, this movie literally has Pleasence’s character talking to some other guy about some crazy people — that’s all. Let this set the tone for the amount of ambition you can expect out of Tales That Witness Madness. It isn’t enough that each of the segments can be sufficiently summarized in a single sentence; they also put forth the bare minimum of effort towards being unique and original. Okay, the one with the guy who falls for a tree is pretty out-there, but like the other stories, its conclusion is painfully foregone, having nothing to offer but a “shocking” ending that even the least savvy of horror buffs can anticipate a mile away.
Before I lay into Tales That Witness Madness any further, let me accentuate what positives the film can claim. Though all the shorts are empty and disappointing to some degree, the highlight would probably have to be the one that kicks things off, with the boy and the incorporeal carnivore he calls pal. It comes the closest to escaping the confines of its brief running time, playing out as a tragic domestic drama that results in supernatural consequences. Again, the tree love triangle story gets bonus points for originality, and Kim Novak has a ball hamming it up as an aging beauty in the final vignette. Other than that, all of our tales are pretty much in the same boat, featuring mostly forgettable acting and predictable finales borrowed from whatever Amicus didn’t want. Memorably macabre imagery is scarce (if you’re waiting to see what happens in that poster in the movie, don’t hold your breath), replaced by lame stabs at humor and the pulse-quickening capabilities of a 4-H Halloween lock-in.
I have to admit that coming up with five paragraphs of material in which to kvetch about Tales That Witness Madness was an unexpected challenge. One is almost infected by the film’s own laziness, seeing the lack of imagination put into making it and being compelled to reply with an equally apathetic, shoulder-shrugging response. I guess I don’t totally hate the flick (if anything, it at least looks really good), but Tales That Witness Madness is still one of the most sluggish tomes of deadtime stories I’ve ever flipped through.