Zombos Says: Good
Normally, Tower of Evil, also known as Beyond the Fog and Horror on Snape Island, a Shepperton Studios' budget-minder with process shots (you know them as phony background scenes), get-it-done scene lighting, and enough bare buttocks and breasts to raise an eyebrow's--if nothing else--worth of attention, wouldn't be worth a critical mention. The story, however, does warrant one.
Attractive young people running around au naturel looking for action, then getting more action they hoped for, would become a staple of popcorn-munching horror fans later in the 1970s, when cutting up nubile teenagers in ever more creative ways became the box-office drawing power to emulate. Here we see an inkling of that direction to come, salted with supernatural and Gothic elements, making Tower a notable transitional horror movie if nothing else.
Gurney and his father, John (George Coulouris), are heading to Snape Island in the opening scene. It's late at night, or too early in the morning, with darkness and dense fog obscuring the many rocks aiming to cripple their small boat as they approach the island. They have important business to finish that couldn't wait. On the island, more gory business greets them with one severed hand, one severed head, two dead males, and an understandably upset survivor wielding a mean knife in her frenzied breakdown. The mystery begins, and it's added to when the large, solid gold, and ancient sword used to pin one of the victims to a door, like a bug to a board, perks the interest of the police and archaeologists who believe it's part of a sizable Phoenician burial treasure. The impaled, door-hanging, male reminded me of a similar door-hanging murder seen in Carpenter's Halloween.
The survivor, Penny (Candace Glendenning), is comatose and placed under psychiatric evaluation. The police have to wait for answers as a very progressive psychiatrist rolls out a syringe and flashing colored lights to hypnotize Penny into recalling what happened. Given the long sideburns, bell-bottom pants, and Barrymore-collared shirts worn in this movie, the flashing lights fit right in. Her brief but vivid recollections provide flashbacks that exploit the gore and nudity. Each flashback digs deeper into Penny's mind allowing O'Connolly to cut back and forth between what happened to her and what is happening on the island, now that the archaeologists and Gurney have returned to it to find the hidden treasure. The gruesome deaths, the mystery of the sword, the isolation of the lighthouse, and hints of the former lighthouse keeper's family tragedy provide plot depth that goes beyond simply waiting and watching for people to be killed. Equal attention is also given to male and female nudity, a savvy move that broadens the movie's audience appeal. We get to see John Hamill's tight bum as much as Glendenning's perky breasts. Murderous intent also is equally distributed among the sexes and not driven by the undercurrent of misogynistic contempt seen in later slasher slaughterfests.
It's easy to forgive the obvious pandering to the audience; many horror movies do it to pad weak storylines while titillating audiences anyway, but the sexual display and tension here works with the movie, not against it, especially when you've written a horny Phoenician god into the subplot. Of course, slasher enthusiasts will reason that lusting and groping is necessary to initiate the morality-righting vengeance of the killer, which brings back propriety and social stability by butchering its flaunters. Bouncing bare breasts and firm derrières do little to bring in box office, of course, so the enthusiasts may have a point. Hard to excuse is the cheap trick of re-releasing Tower in 1981, re-titled Beyond the Fog, in hopes of cashing in on The Fog's success by faking Tower as a sequel to John Carpenter's more studious movie. That's pretty low, even by today's standards of marketing.
I can be fairly lenient with Jim O'Connolly's (Valley of Gwangi) direction. It's tight and sufficient for generating enough atmosphere to move his (and George Baxt's) story along at a no-dawdling pace. He makes good use of his studio-bound frame depth and the few sets where the events take place, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere suitable for terror with his close camera and its angles, especially in the caves running under the lighthouse. Bolstering the ensemble of frisky and bickering characters is Jack Watson's Hamp Gurney. He's steady as a rock while everyone else is being chipped away around him. His heavily-lined face, strong masculine presence, and ability to move effortlessly to the foreground or background of a scene is always impressive to watch. His classy presence benefits every movie he's in. The usual bickering and libidinous undercurrents break out among the boys and the girls, but he's just along for the ride. Or is he? His secret agenda adds a little more suspense and mystery as everyone does what they shouldn't by opening doors best left closed, walking up to rocking chairs that shouldn't be rocking in the dark by themselves, investigating odd sounds alone, and meandering through damp caves after splitting up.
I must be less lenient with Desmond Dickinson's (City of the Dead, Horrors of the Black Museum) set lighting. Moonlit scenes are shown in bright, full color, and the lighthouse model isn't lit in such a way as to help camouflage that it is a model--and it's not helped by the dry ice haze, either. The lighthouse interiors are overly lit--you can't get that much steady light from paraffin lamps--but the narrow stairway, small rooms, and the abandoned condition they're in, along with the creaky furnishings, provide an adequate level of unease for us as much as it does for the archaeologists and investigator (Bryant Haliday) hoping to either find the gold or the truth. To be fair to Dickinson, using the Technicolor process could have reduced the amount of light hitting the film stock, requiring increased lighting on the set. Given his black-and-white background, Dickinson may have overcompensated with too much lighting for his color scenes given the film stock used. Or he simply had no choice and did the best he could with what he had to work with. But I have no reservations in recommending Tower of Evil to the slasher fan who thinks he or she's seen it all, or any horror fan not satisfied, so far, by 2014's paucity of decent horror fare to scream at.