Crucible of Terror is a weird mash up of characters tied together through art and antiquities (paintings, vintage clothes, ancient weaponry) who wind up dead as a result from their relationship to art…and the artist. Unlike our dear Walter in A Bucket of Blood, Victor Clare (played by Mike Raven)* is a true artist who can channel his emotions into paintings, sketches, and into one very mysterious sculpture. In the film’s very first scene we see Victor making this piece, forming a lifeless female body into a seductively lounging pose, covering her in a sealant, and then pouring liquid bronze all over her. Voila!
Conscious Money – most rich men have to sell their consciences by buying pictures or being patrons of the arts… – Michael Clare
The next time we see the sculpture it is on display at the opening of new art dealer John Davies’ gallery. Critically lauded, the work has been sold and the art-buying public is eager for more. Only trouble is that Victor’s drunkard son Michael stole the only sculpture he’s ever made. Desperate for money to pay back his ever-demanding patrons and for his business to survive (a constant in the art world), John implores Michael to take him to his father’s countryside studio to get more work. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this seemingly simple deal becomes a lot more complicated than anyone could have imagined.
From this point the rest of the plot is loose, only vaguely revealing the truth at the bitter end. Suficit to say, when John and Michael arrive at Victor’s home with their girlfriend and wife, respectively, a few things happen: 1) Victor gets lecherous 2) art deals are attempted 3) people start dying because a curse has arrive in the form of a kimono brought by Millie (John’s girlfriend). What fuses this crazy mix together is the art and the desire for money and muses it generates.
All great beauty, all great art demands this sacrifice. It is the ultimate price of immortality – Victor Clare
The cultural conflict between old/traditional and new/modern is cinematically expressed through art in Crucible of Terror. Modern abstract art is seen as strange by the older generation while classical figurative is praised. Central to this visual narrative, the film focuses on the body and, specifically, on women’s bodies. From the very start we see the explicit representation of a woman as an object and from there on women supply numerous roles here: the vengeful murdered witch, the old hag wife, the winging young wife, the manipulative benefactor, and the innocent young lady. Sex is used as a commodity to be exploited. This is obvious with Victor’s constant come-ons to the female visitors and his live-in model/muse as well as with John’s benefactress. When John asks her for money in order to buy more of Victor’s paintings, her agreement is contingent on him sleeping with her. Sex in is shown in exchange for inspiration and for money.
Indeed all of the women in Crucible of Terror are viewed in sexual or non-sexual terms. Take for instance Victor’s wife Jane (whom he married for money), once an attractive sexual being she has been reduced to a childlike state. Still Victor continues to objectify her, ‘That mad old hag isn’t the thing I knew’.
Victor’s notions of sacrifice fulfill the cliché that artists must suffer for their art. Though in Crucible of Terror this notion is displaced onto others. Victor’s abusive stance towards his models is apparent but perhaps more telling is John’s insistence that Millie, despite her fear, be amenable while he’s out of town in order not to mess up his financial deal. The power of art rules supreme, either via the artistic integrity of Victor or via the financial dreams of John.
Never underestimate the power of revenge – Bill
Chi-san (a member of a religious sect) is the woman who wound up as Victor’s popular sculpture. Through some sort of witchery she successfully transmits her soul into Millie’s when she purchases a cursed kimono in a London market. With a single-minded purpose to carry out vicious murders on most everyone, including Victor, Chi-san seeks revenge for her death. This idea of soul transference, using an art object as the container of a soul and considering the notion of an evil soul, is similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Victor cannot escape his desire to capture women, literally and in form, and he pays a heavy price for his indiscretions. Tellingly it is Chi-san who ultimately possesses Mille, not Victor. Woman as objects to be possessed, either as artworks or as wife/girlfriend/lover/muse, is at the core of Crucible of Terror. Ultimately we see this as an impossible reality, perhaps mimicking the rising feminist movement in the 1970s in an alternate view than the sublimation seen in The Stepford Wives. All the woman in Crucible of Terror, except for poor Millie, determine their own fate whether it’s taking her own life, leaving the drunk husband, or transcending death for revenge. This sense a woman’s ‘freedom’ is encapsulated around the concept of art objects whose purpose is to be made, sold, and…possessed.
*Mike Raven, who also produced Crucible of Terror, is the oddest combination of Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff.