More films should start with a lighthouse in the distance, a motorboat puttering along in the open sea, and fog as thick as a wheel of cheese. In arranging these and other spooky elements in his 1972 film, TOWER OF EVIL, director Jim O’Connolly creates a creeping sense of dread that just about guarantees something bad has happened and something worse is going to happen repeatedly throughout the runtime.
Hamp (Jack Watson) and his elderly father take their fishing boat (the aptly named “Sea Ghost”) several miles off the English mainland to a heap of jagged rock called Snape Island. Mere seconds after docking, they make a grisly discovery. A severed hand and a trail of fresh blood on the beach leads to a nude male corpse, face-down/ass-up, in a shallow pool of seawater. Upon entering the island’s lonely lighthouse, the pair of fishermen finds more carnage: a decapitated woman, and a man (in a butterfly shirt) fatally pinned to the wall with a golden spear. If that weren’t enough, a screaming nude woman emerges from the shadows to stab Hamp’s father before running off into the dark. Hamp manages to catch up and subdue her for the trip back to the mainland (after knocking her loopy with a piece of rebar).
From a psychiatric hospital, two very serious male doctors attempt to make sense of the woman’s catatonic condition, and infer she experienced a serious trauma. Through paper records, they learn she’s an American from Denver named Penny (Candace Glendenning), who came to England with her friends, Mae (Seretta Wilson), Gary (John Hamill), and Des (Robin Askwith), for a jazz festival; the group then hired a boat to take them to the island. The doctors inject Penny with a “brain stimulation” wonder drug and turn on some hypnotic strobe lights as part of some repressed memory therapy. Through flashback, we see her on the island with her friends. Repeatedly, she states out loud that Mae is frightened. As the therapy continues, she spouts a stream of disconnected word salad: “Hot. Vibrations. Swim. Moon.” In her past memory, there was skinny-dipping and a make-out scene with Gary who awkwardly begs, “can you take care of me now? I’m going insane.” Then, flashing images of murder. The doctors shoot Penny up with more (but different) drugs to ease her panicked screams. Drugs and pretty lights might be a fun way to spend a Friday night but for the moment, they prove futile in addressing Penny’s condition or figuring out what happened.
A rich old square puts a team together to visit the scene at Snape Island to fill in the gaps around Penny’s awful memories. Other than Brent (Bryant Haliday), the private investigator hired by the girl’s parents, the group consists of archaeological academics with familiarity with at least one unique aspect of the island – it’s the burial site of an ancient chief who was entombed with treasures and the sculpture of a Phoenician fertility god called Baal. Dan (Derek Fowlds) and Nora (Anna Palk) are the biting, unhappy married couple charged with leading the expedition. Rose (Jill Haworth) is a Phoenician art expert. Her ex-fiancé, Adam (Mark Edwards), is a bearded adventurer with access to dynamite. To elevate the situation from mild to spicy, almost all of these people were romantically involved in the recent past. Our old seafaring friend, Hamp, will bring the team to the location by boat and Brom (Gary Hamilton) is the young, strapping porter and the most likely target of romantic seduction.
Produced by Joe Solomon (THE LOSERS, ANGELS FROM HELL) and Richard Gordon (INSEMINOID, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE), and based on an original story by George Baxt (THE CITY OF THE DEAD), this film was also known under the alternate titles, BEYOND THE FOG and HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND. Solid in its direction and dramatic performances, it transitions from a whodunit thriller-mystery before teasing something supernatural and finally settling into a rough-and-ready proto-slasher in the explosive last act. For 1972, it’s surprisingly gory and like the slasher films that would come to epitomize the genre in later years, it fluctuates between scenes both violent and horny. The relationship drama among the different principals acts as an additional tension during their island stay, when best-laid plans are derailed, true motives are revealed, and efforts to communicate – both interpersonally and with the outside world – are thwarted by sudden, scary changes.
There are some disappointing aspects, to be sure. At no point throughout the story does any character shout some variation of, “what in the bloody hell happened?!” (This is a specific line delivery I’ve come to expect from films of this origin and vintage). The sense of natural atmosphere that O’Connolly uses to start the film – jagged rocks on the horizon, sea fog, the sound of lapping waves – is mostly sidelined when the action shifts to the island’s lighthouse interiors. It’s a horror movie in spurts but save for some well-edited montage sequences, it’s not especially scary in its visuals. The “monster” design hinges on the absence of grooming or hygiene, e.g., dirt, hair, and gross teeth (though the effects team earns back some points for the appearance of a sea-soaked corpse covered in seaweed, crabs, and slime). Some viewers might shrug at the film’s revealing twist, even if the fiery climax that follows is still impressive from a production value standpoint.
TOWER OF EVIL might lack in deeper themes or effective scares, but its ability to juggle the different trappings of its genre ambitions keeps it afloat to deliver a compelling and bizarre cinematic experience.