Think of British Horror film and one might recall the films of Hammer or Hitchcock. There was some true genius coming out of British Horror in the 70’s, with some memorably sinister performances by English macabre kings Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and…Mike Raven? Who is Mike Raven you ask? Well, I can tell you that he’s a puzzling figure who snuck onto the English acting scene in the late 60’s into the 70’s, who really doesn’t belong in the same class as Lee or Cushing. In fact, I’m not sure Mike Raven would even be admitted to the same school as these other actors. I never heard of Mike Raven until watching Crucible of Terror, and let me tell you, it was his performance that made this movie as entertaining as it was. In a horror film so porous with plot holes, it’s the weird and unintentionally absurd performances that made Crucible of Terror a head shaking, laugh invoking joy to watch.
The story is like some bizarre hybrid of House of Wax and Psycho, with Raven taxingly channeling the roles of Vincent Price, and Anthony Perkins simultaneously. Apparently, Raven was so into the occult that he only took on roles dealing with occult practices. At one time, he himself worked as a conjurer (seriously). So naturally, Crucible of Terror contains elements of the occult within its plot, but these elements are so ambiguous that I couldn’t help but wonder if they were thrown in there just to appease Raven. The setting is an old and genuinely creepy abandoned tin mine, accentuated by a maze of caves and tunnels and set in the shadow of coastal cliffs. There is mention of a sect of people who believe that the souls of the dead can take over the bodies of the living, and some random East Asian themed ceremonies thrown in for…well, I’m not really sure what their purpose was. Neither the sect, the Eastern influence, or the motives are really entertained beyond mentioning, and it doesn’t really matter, because the real horror lies in the home of Victor Clare (Raven), where he and his eccentric family live and work.
The Clare family is the Danvers equivalent of the Addams Family. They are a lunatic bunch, their house a playground of Freudian clichés. There is Victor’s son Michael, the whiny and bloated drunk with a commanding nature of mommy and daddy issues. Played by Ronald Lacey, a generally capable English actor, Michael is purposefully over-the-top, craving attention from his family and girlfriends by overdoing the flirtation and confidence. Michael is like Austin Powers if Mike Myers tried to play him serious. It just doesn’t work. Victor’s wife Dorothy is perhaps the flakiest of the bunch, a woman-child with pigtails and slippers, who spends her time conversing with her dolls and stuffed dogs. Then there is Marcia, Victors live in model/muse and obvious toy of his sexual appetites. All of these characters are shaped by Victor, the painter, and sometimes sculptor who spends his hours tormenting them with his selfish nihilism. Victor is foremost a pervert of the highest order, using the women in his life to fulfill his own misguided delusions of importance. He works with such confidence, painting and sculpting others like he is their gift from God.
The horror of Crucible of Terror is more psychological than grotesque. While Victor does occasionally kill a woman or two by casting them in bronze, it is his mind-games that really cause the tension and suspense. Unfortunately, both the tension and suspense are often laughable at best. The plot revolves around Victor and his family getting caught up in an art selling scheme with gallery owner John and his girlfriend Millie. Invited to the Clare home for a weekend, things unravel as Victor sets his eyes on Millie, and begins an hour long stalking that pretty much drags the film along. The film has that nice 70’s B-Movie charm, but lacks the real and genuine identity of the Hammer and Amicus films it so obviously strives to be. I found Victor’s wife to be the most creepy and effective element of the whole film. Her detachment was so real and free-wheeling that she quickly became the scariest figure in the house. Unfortunately, the characters potential was wasted as she became nothing more than a patsy for Victor’s infidelity.
Personality is so important in horror, a genre where the villains are the most engaging element of the film. Mike Raven succeeds at delivering personality; however, I fear it may not be the charisma he was aiming for. Raven made only a few films in his short lived film career, failing to embody the foreboding characters he longed to. Vincent Price he is not, and his obvious desire to channel the icon hurts him far more than it helps. Throughout Crucible of Terror he stalks, more a pervert than anything else. With his chest hair showing beneath his black unbuttoned shirt, his dark slick hair and beard, Raven looked like General Zod from Superman 2. Unfortunately, Victor Clare is a far cry from the class of villain Zod belongs in. Mike Raven takes this strange little film and makes it pleasantly stranger by trying so hard to fill a role that is creepy for all of the wrong reasons.