The young Oliver Reed was under contract at Hammer Studios just before becoming a major star and Paranoiac is among his best films of the period, providing the actor with one of his earliest chances to play the kind of dangerously charismatic drunken roué that would come to define his onscreen persona. Although part of the series of suspense thrillers written by Jimmy Sangster for the studio in the 1960s, this is a slightly unusual entry because it wasn’t a script that originated with him. In fact, although ultimately it was uncredited on-screen (though official in the sense that they bought the rights), it was an adaptation of Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel, Brat Farrar.
“Auntie dear, my sister’s insane”
The novel was originally bought by the studio in 1952 and announced and cancelled more than once, remaining unmade until the success of Taste of Fear (1961) made it seem commercially viable, though Sangster’s changes to the plot and characters ultimately meant that the book received no on-screen acknowledgement. This was the second of three black and white CinemaScope thrillers scripted by Sangster for Hammer in 1962, all of which are variations on the damsel-in-mental-distress theme. Like its predecessors, it is set in the (then) contemporary 1960s but stylistically has much in common with the studio’s better-known costume horror output. Indeed it even begins in a churchyard …
It is eight years since the reported death of Tony Ashby who at age fifteen left a suicide note and then swam out to sea and drowned, though his body was never recovered. He was, it is said, despondent over the death of his parents three years earlier and the film begins with a remembrance service for them and introduces us to the remaining members of the Ashby family. The focal character is Eleanor, played with winning mixture of neurosis, innocence and winsome charm (not an easy mixture!) by Janette Scott (the daughter of famed character actress Thora Hird and the second wife of Mel Tormé). Especially attached to her brother Tony, she has never really accepted the official circumstances surrounding his apparent death. At the service she is flanked by her stern aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) and her nurse Françoise (Liliane Brousse, as insipid and inexpressive here as she was in the previous film in the cycle, Maniac), while her caddish brother Simon (Reed) plays the church organ.
At the church, Eleanor collapses after she thinks she sees Tony’s spectre in the shadows. Later that evening Janette once again thinks she sees her dead brother in the garden and chases after him fruitlessly until brought back home. We soon learn that she is quite neurotic on the subject of her dead sibling, convinced in fact that Tony has come back to take her with him to the ‘other side’. But of course, there is more to it as Simon has been playing on her nerves with the help of Françoise, his lover, making her even edgier than she already is. Simon in fact is a bad lot all round – a drunk and a spendthrift who likes nothing better than taking foreign holidays and driving around in his jag, spending money recklessly. In three weeks time he will come into his inheritance, worth some £600,000, but at the moment he is subject to the control of the estate by John Kosset, the family solicitor (a typically scene-stealing turn by the great Maurice Denham), who makes no secret of his dislike for Simon and his profligate ways. Simon gets on better with Kossett’s son Keith, from whom he borrows money having hinted fairly unsubtly that otherwise he will audit the estate after he inherits to see if it is a few thousand pounds short. Keith quickly provides a cash ‘loan’ …
Eleanor has reached breaking point and, going to the same cliffs where Tony’s suicide note was found, she decides to join him and jumps in. She is rescued and brought back to the house by a man (a nice understated performance by Alexander Davion) who claims to be Tony – much to Aunt Harriet”s fury and distrust. Simon initially even tries to run him over in his car before apparently accepting him into the family after ‘Tony’ passes old man Kossett’s identity tests. As is customary with Sangster’s stories from this era, it is when the film reaches its halfway mark that it takes its first major plot twist when we discover that ‘Tony’ is actually an impostor in the employ of Keith, who clearly has been cooking the books behind his father’s back. Simon however is having none of this and decides to bump off all those who stand between him and the inheritance, leading to a literal cliffhanger after the cuts the brakes on his sister’s car. It becomes clear that he is truly unhinged and the story takes a Gothic, Poe-inspired turn as the second half of the story largely relocates to the Ashby’s disused chapel where Simon likes nothing better than to practice playing the church organ in the company of a mysterious figure sporting a grotesque mask, a choir boy’s surplice and wielding a butcher’s meat hook.
Director Freddie Francis (in collaboration with the film’s DP, Arthur Grant) reuses many of the stylistic tropes he previously put to good effect when cinematographer on The Innocents (1961), in particular using a filter to create a shade around the edges of the anamorphic frame for scenes of particular intensity or to generate a dream-like atmosphere. As the film shifts from the psychological suspense of the first half to the more overtly Gothic Psycho (1960) style of the second half – which involves a mummified body, a climactic conflagration and several deaths and intimations of incest and sexual perversion which caused prolonged run-ins with the censors – so shadows start to really predominate and there are several smart shocks thanks to the superior handling of the material. With some nice underplaying from its main cast and a performance from Reed that only really goes too far in the OTT climax, which largely abandons plot logic anyway, this is a highly entertaining, fairly well controlled thriller with several nicely executed sequences amongst a plethora of red herrings which shouldn’t dent one’s enjoyment (if you’re in the right mood that is).
The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:
- The Snorkel (1958)
- Taste of Fear / Scream of Fear (1961)
- Maniac (1963)
- Paranoiac (1963)
- Nightmare (1964)
- Hysteria (1965)
- The Nanny (1965)
- Crescendo (1970)
- Fear in the Night (1972)
My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.
This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.