Gordon Hessler, the German born film director who died earlier this year was perhaps best known for a threesome of horror movies made with Vincent Price for AIP in The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Scream and Scream Again (1970). Prior to these he was placed under contract to Alfred Hitchcock where he was a story reader for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. Here he became a story editor for two seasons at the start of the 60s before graduating to the role of associate producer up until the series’ cancellation in 1965. It was in this role that he came across a novel whose adaptation was rejected for the show, but would soon become the basis for his feature film directorial debut – Catacombs.
Raymond Garth (Merrill) exhibits all the symptoms of a downtrodden husband. His wife Ellen is the epitome of domineering, and such behaviour draws many a drained expression from those close to her – not least her secretary Richard (McCallum) who even shares his despair with Raymond when the opportunity arises. To observing friends Ellen and Raymond have the perfect marriage, but one look in Raymond’s eyes sees a resigned exhaustion with his spouse.
One guiding light for Raymond however is the arrival of his niece Alice (Merrow), who with her preference for older men catches the attention of Raymond’s wandering eye, and before long a mere passing interest spirals into a full-blooded infatuation. The problem lies however with Ellen and how Raymond will negotiate operating behind his wife’s back. A pending trip to Italy though proves to be an opportune moment, and with Ellen’s secretary Richard also game for easing her out of the equation the two hatch a cunning plan to facilitate her demise. Like all fanciful proposals though, there’s always a flaw – and in this case it’s the presence of Ellen who exhibits a reluctance to go quietly into the night.
Gary Merrill was a regular of Alfred Hitchcock presents having appeared in five episodes, and you could say that the show was just about the height of what the gravelly voiced former Mr. Bette Davis was likely to achieve. Indeed throughout much of Catacombs you discover that both he and the film find it hard to shake off that episodic television vibe with the expectancy of a mid-episode advert break nagging at your consciousness. Jane Merrow similarly could give a solid performance, but one that again seems destined to excel in a small screen environment at this point in her career.
This negativity however should not diminish the worthiness of Catacombs, as at times it’s an engaging and tense piece of filmmaking. It may seem like an over-extended episode of an anthology series, and perhaps that’s what it should be, but it would be churlish to dismiss it as such. Hessler’s direction indicates a competency that would attract people like AIP in years to come, while Daniel Mainwaring’s script does at times belie the notion that this was the guy that wrote such iconic films as Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). Nevertheless, this curio released by Network as part of The British Film collection is most certainly worth a competitively priced purchase, as all the way to its startling conclusion, Catacombs remains an intriguingly rare slice of British genre filmmaking.