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May 2010

Crucible Of Terror

cast: Mike Raven, James Bolam, Mary Maude, Ronald Lacey, and Betty Alberge

director: Ted Hooker

91 minutes (18) 1971
Cinema Club DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Crucible Of Terror

The opening credits are accompanied by a series of perspectives of a naked bronze 'statue'. Oddly, in yet a further bizarre career-change, Mike Raven would later become a for-real sculptor. His images of copulating angels, the Fall, and the crucifixion of Eve reflect his tortured mix of beliefs in witchcraft, Christianity, astrology, the occult... and R&B.

After the credits there are shimmering images of white-heat, flames, a forge, a crucible of bubbling molten metal, and a girl's body draped in a yellow kimono. The kimono is ripped aside, her naked body smeared, coated in plaster. Through a small hole in the plaster her eye opens in horror... as the crucible that has been winched over her body, upends to pour down onto her.

Crucible Of Terror (aka: Unholy Terror) is an uneasy hybrid of art, art-satire and aspiration, with sex, the supernatural, and the art of murder. "Beauty demands total sacrifice," declares the artist, "even while it burns, it consumes its own heart." It's possible to tease out thematic parallels with the House Of Wax franchise, in which human corpses become the inner core of exhibits, or Roger Corman's uniquely nasty Beatnik sculptor-horror A Bucket Of Blood (1959), none of which detracts from this film, or diminishes what happens next.

James (The Likely Lads) Bolam in drooping moustache and poseur's cravat is the venal agent John Davies, at the opening of a trendy London gallery strung with hanging Perspex mobiles. Gruff northern philistine George Brent is initially derisive, then smitten by the bronze cast of the naked girl, the result of the sinister preceding sequence. His wife Joanna sees herself as a 'patron of the arts'. She funds the gallery through her husband's wealth, although she's more interested in artistic toy-boys than their artwork.

He wants to buy the life-size bronze, which attracts John's financial interest. He sniffs the motherlode, and although he's warned of the artist's 'violent nature', wants more saleable work from this reclusive 'Victor Clare'. So, four of them, John and girlfriend Millie, plus gallery-owner Mike Clare and his blonde wife Jane, head out from their Edwardian mews to the remote Cornish family seat in Jericho valley. John offers the errant artist's son some advice for his marital feuding, "all she wants is a good hiding," he suggests, "I know women!"

Victor is played by brooding bearded Mike Raven, whose real life began as Austin Churton Fairman, the name he returned to for the final phase of his life, as a sculptor. After army service he'd done pioneering work for the offshore pirate radio stations, announcing himself as "the oldest living teenager in captivity," born 15 November 1924, he'd already turned 40. Even those who weren't around at the time have probably seen the Richard Curtis celluloid romp The Boat That Rocked (2009), so they'll know the score.

From May 1964 he hosted 'All Systems Go' on Radio Atlanta based on the Red Sands Fort above the shifting tides of the Thames estuary. Owned by his cousin, Liberal MP Oliver Smedley the station mutated into Invicta and K.I.N.G., Raven opening his shows 'Hi kids' while co-presenting with second wife Mandy. Investment and boosted transmitter-power in September 1965 led to the station's widest audience figures as 'Radio 390'. Following the outlawing of the pirates with the 'Marine Broadcasting Offences Act' he moved onshore for Radio One from October 1967 to November 1971, where his dry committed radio-delivery exactly suited the time, in much the way that John Peel's did.

His cult Saturday night 'Mike Raven Show' specialised in blues and R&B streaming Tampa Red, Memphis Slim and Inez & Charlie Foxx alongside a gospel slot. But in Spain he'd encountered director Peter Brook, a meeting that induced him into acting roles, and he decisively quit radio work in favour of his unique entry in the history of UK horror. His forays into film began with a role as Count Karnstein in late-Hammer's Lust For A Vampire (1971), with Ralph Bates and Barbara Jefford. "A vampire's lust knows no boundaries," ran the poster-blurbs. But he was less than happy with the studio's treatment, or the way his voice had been dubbed.

So he switched to rival Amicus studio for Stephen Weeks' Jekyll & Hyde variant, I, Monster. Next, he invested his own money in two independent films, starting with Crucible Of Terror, promoting the project by building his reputation as a devotee of the dark arts by being seen in black, with matching cape. And his powerful presence very much provides the film's focus. There's something vaguely 'Christopher Lee' about his threatening presence as the obsessed artist.

He's inspired to capture Millie's luminous beauty 'in bronze'; to him she represents the elemental forces of "earth, fire and air of creation." He probably used the same "a beautiful woman is worth more than rubies," chat-up line on his current model, Marcia, and before that on Dorothy, the "mad senile old hag" who started out as model, became wife, and now wanders round dressed like Grayson Perry with her stuffed dog Tom-Tom. Victor tries it on with Jane too, but she walks out when he gets a little too hands-on. Is someone stalking Millie on her cliff-top walk?

Yes, Victor profiled against archaeological masonry as she strolls the wild coastline, but there's other creepiness. On the shingle beach after spying on Marcia and Millie's bikini frolic, Mike is battered to death with a huge stone. And Jane is brutally stabbed through a screen, her bloodied body thrown out of the window by her unseen assailant. Then Marcia opens her bedroom door, smiles at her unseen visitor, who promptly throws acid in her face. As John returns to London to raise funds to buy examples of Victor's art, Millie finds herself alone in escalating weirdness.

Earlier she'd bought a yellow kimono from Portabello street market. Vigilant viewers will perhaps have zapped it back to the opening sequence? Now she has visions of blood-spattered rituals. It all comes to a head when, she agrees to pose for Victor in her yellow kimono, and his attentions become a little too physical. She escapes into a cave leading to the old mine-workings where she first stumbles over Mike's corrupting corpse, then finds Dorothy in her secret cave of dolls and soft-toys, where she's slashed her wrists. Millie passes out, and Victor carries her to his forge to lay her out on slab, inspired to repeat his naked bronze 'statue' art.

Her death will be "the price of immortality." It doesn't work out that way. "Never underestimate the power of revenge." It is Chi-San, the girl in the original bronze who is using cult powers to wreak lethal posthumous havoc. Her vengeful spirit possesses the body of whoever wears the kimono. It is her - occupying Millie, who is responsible for the cellophane death of George, and all the deaths since. Now Millie-as-Chi-San gets up off the slab, her face unrecognisably distorted, and attacks Victor with his oxy-acetylene torch, forcing him relentlessly back into his own furnace. He burns.

Vengeance is fulfilled in a neat narrative loop, making the film an oddly effective maverick entry in the annals of independent British fright-flicks. For Mike Raven, it was also the high point of his slight movie CV. The often-incoherent Disciple Of Death (1972) was even more of a personal project for which he wrote the screenplay - disguised as Austin Churton Fairman, and acted as producer, which made the critical savaging it received even more wounding.

He retired from films, hurt. Retreating to his home on Bodmin Moor, near Cornwall's St Agnes, the wild remote locations haunted by the ghosts of post-disaster tin-miners that you see in Crucible Of Terror. He died 4th April 1997. It's just possible to see the doomed obsessive Victor Clare as maybe a trial run for his late sculptor career-phase, fusing tortured religious and erotic themes into his art.

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