The early film career of Freddie Francis gives him a central role in the development of some of the most noted innovations and success stories of sixties British cinema. As a cinematographer, he played an important part in defining the ‘gritty’ aesthetic of the first round of British ‘New Wave’ pictures: photographing Jack Clayton’s “Room At The Top” in 1959 and Karl Reisz’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” in 1960. In 1961 he was reunited with Clayton for the director’s adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s disturbing psychological ghost story. Re-titled the “The Innocents”, the film saw Francis providing some of the most icily sumptuous monochromatic photography of sixties horror cinema.
While, in his capacity as a cinematographer, Francis helped to forge the earthy look and downbeat style of Britain’s important prestige cinema of the decade, as a director he was also to play an equally defining role in the production of some of its (at the time) less celebrated output -- thanks in the main to a long-term association with Hammer and Amicus studios, who seemed always willing to let him develop his skills in this area when seemingly no one else would.
Francis began his directorial career for Hammer with a trio of formulaic black & white ‘pyscho-thrillers’ shot virtually back-to-back from 1963 to 1965, all of which were scripted by the prolific screenwriter Jimmy Sangster -- who was to become something of an expert practitioner in the realm of this limited sub-genre after the first of them (the Seth Holt directed “Taste of Fear”) proved itself a marketable domestic alternative to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. “Paranoiac” became one of the first of Francis’s three stints at the helm for Hammer in this genre, to be followed closely by “Nightmare” (1964) and “Hysteria” (1965). Sangster, meanwhile, managed to bump out yet another one in between -- “Maniac” (1964) -- which was directed by Michael Carreras.
All of Sangster’s scripts ply minute variations on the twist-laden psychological suspense formula established by novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and brought to cinematic prominence in 1955 with French auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot’s adaptation of their story “Les diaboliques”. “Paranoiac” turns out to be one of the better entries in Hammer’s catalogue of dealings with this form, though. Despite a resolutely sixties setting it’s as traditionally ‘Gothic’ as anything the company ever produced, Sangster’s screenplay ticking off every Gothic trope on the list, one by one. In fact, the story could have been transplanted wholesale to the 18th or early 19th centuries where it shares much of its make-up with Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu -- and very few details would had to have been changed: the looming threat of disinheritance; a dark family secret dredged up from the past; simmering repressed passions and obsessive desires turned to murderous madness; while that old Victorian sensation fiction staple, the (possible) doppelganger, is made the crux of the film’s traditionally structured plot . And that’s not to mention its impossibly romantic setting of rambling Victorian manor house perched upon wild, windswept cliff tops. The Hitchcock element turns out to take as much from “Rebecca” (his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Bronte-influenced classic) as it does from “Psycho”, and although Sangster might be accused of not sufficiently shaking off the shackles of English Gothic romanticism in what is supposed to be an impeccably modern thriller, the most memorable and bloody sequence in the film, which involves a wild eyed, hook-wielding assailant dressed in a child chorister’s gown and wearing a grotesquely-featured papier-mâché mask, is rendered all the more jolting for being surrounded by such tastefully traditional material.
Like all good gloomy Gothic romances, the film starts in a church graveyard, from where we can hear the progress of the annual memorial service arranged by Harriet Ashby (Sheila Burrell) to commemorate her dead sister and her sister’s husband -- both of whom perished in a plane crash ten years ago. Left behind were their three children, whom Harriet has raised alone in her rambling Gothic pile. And there is one other grave whose occupant those in attendance also mourn: soon after the accident, the elder brother of the three siblings, Anthony Ashby, was so stricken by grief for his dead parents that he killed himself by hurling himself from a cliff top near his aunt’s mansion into the stormy seas and rocky tides below. His body was never found. But he was presumed dead, leaving only his nervously inclined sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) and his violent, selfish and drunken brother Simon (Oliver Reed) to inherent the vast family fortune that is due to be divided between them in only three weeks time. The vicar’s service very conveniently fills us in on all these facts, and also hints at some other troublesome family relations: we learn that Eleanor was always more than usually close to her dead brother, and we observe Simon, a rather unlikely church organ player since childhood, is nonchalantly smoking a cigarette behind the organ screen while the service is still in progress.
Simon is a cruel and pitiless gambler and drinker and has already been illegally raiding the family fortune for years by blackmailing the son of the family lawyer, a junior partner in his father’s law firm. He also wants to see his sister Eleanor declared insane because of her nervous condition, which would leave the way open for him to inherit the entire fortune rather than have to make do with just half of it. The French nurse, Françoise (Liliane Brousse), employed by Aunt Harriet to take care of the ailing Eleanor and also living in the house, is secretly conducting an affair with Simon and is doping her up with his connivance. But, when Eleanor starts to claim that she is seeing visions of her dead brother (first of all, lurking in the shadows at the memorial service and causing her to faint and for it to be cut short; and then in the garden of the family mansion, at the French windows) Simon thinks at first that his plans are beginning to take effect at last. In fact, so overwrought is she from the memories stirred up by these experiences, that Eleanor carries herself to the spot of her brother’s suicide and plunges over the face of the cliff in despair.
Happily, a stranger (Alexander Davion) is watching the scene from a short distance away, and immediately dives in after her, prevents her from perishing upon the rocks and carries her home in his arms; silently he marches through the front door and up the stairs, deposits her upon her bed and leaves without saying another world. Aunt Harriet asks the astonished manservant who this person was, and he can only answer that it was young Anthony -- Eleanor’s supposedly long dead brother! Simon almost mows the man down in his sports car as he leaves the house and is struck dumb when he actually sees the face of his almost-victim: with Tony now apparently returned from the grave, the fortune will have to be divided three ways, not just two; and now she has her beloved older brother back, Eleanor soon makes a rapid recovery. All Simon’s plans seem to be unravelling before his eyes. But Aunt Harriet remains stubbornly insistent that this cannot be the real Anthony Ashby. She insists he is an impostor, and she is determined to prove that fact. Simon, meanwhile, appears to play nice and accept his brother back into the fold; but it is not long before he’s up to no good again as well.
Sangster’s script is structured along conventional gothic melodramatic lines, as has already been pointed out. The returning Tony is cast as the ideal romantic lead; tall, dark and handsome in the traditional sense, he uncovers the cracks and strains in the genteel family setup: a classic fairy tale arrangement with the terse stepmother-aunt figure presiding over two very obviously messed up siblings. But a twisted subversive element is introduced by the fact that the relationship between Tony and Eleanor quickly displays all the signs of becoming a romantically inclined one -- something that would be normal and expected in any other thriller of this type but here, of course, the two in question are supposed to be brother and sister -- at least if the newcomer’s claims are to be believed. This hint of unspoken incest was clearly what was behind Eleanor’s ‘madness’ to begin with; manifesting itself in the form of a generalised, unnamed malady tending towards listlessness and a nervous weakness of mind. The visions start out being treated as eruptions from her troubled unconscious, until they suddenly become as real and as apparent to everyone else as they are to her; at which point the unconscious drives and mental instabilities of the rest of the family are exposed as well, particularly those of the now out-of-control Simon.
The casting of the young Oliver Reed turns out to be perfect for conveying the necessary tension between the modernity of the contemporary mystery drama element of the story and the Gothic archetypes it mostly leans upon. Reed had already starred in the lead role in Hammer’s “Curse of the Werewolf” (a traditional Gothic foundling role) and was to go on to appear as various beatnik-style youth villains in films such as Guy Hamilton’s “The Party’s Over” or the weird and paranoid Hammer thriller “We Are The Damned”, but his role and his performance in “Paranoiac is the definitive realisation of what was to become the Oliver Reed image: he’s the brooding, cruel, but sexually attractive Heathcliffian presence one minute and an inadequate, Norman Bates-style nutcase the next, who nevertheless manages to retain an air of smoldering Byronic glamour in his drunken dissolution. In a story that is all about perception of identity and misidentifications, the rather artificial contortions the plot must perform as it cavorts from restrained manor house mystery towards its macabre, ‘Bizarro’ denouement in the family chapel, require his dark commanding presence to hold the two strands simultaneously together.
The film is, ultimately, rather too slow in cutting to the chase, and is never quite as twisted and grotesque as it perhaps should have been. There is far too much time spent on conventional thriller fare of the period, such as the attempt to murder Tony and Eleanor by tampering with the breaks of her car (leading to a tense car-dangling-off-edge-of-cliff sequence that looks rather naive to a modern audience through its over-reliance on back projection) at the expense of the more offbeat constituents of the story. When the horror element does finally kick in though, it is extremely effectively and powerfully rendered, with Francis making the most out of the film’s eerie climactic sequence, when the full extent of the sickness at the heart of the family is finally revealed: a mummified body bricked up behind a wall, a masked madman swinging a hook, and a moon-lit raid on the family chapel where an ethereal choirboy’s voice can be heard drifting on the night air, are the main ingredients of what then becomes a curiously hasty conclusion. The weird, hook-wielding assailant is one of the most genuinely scary apparitions in all of Hammer Studio’s filmography though, with hideous, leering, distorted papier-mâché features highlighting the wide, staring eyes of the attacker beneath. The whole thing simply rushes to readily into a clichéd conflagration (already all too familiar from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of films starring Vincent Price, which had the habit of always ending with a conveniently fiery maelstrom) and ends with indecent abruptness, thus spoiling a skilfully built air of menace and suspense.
“Paranoiac” comes to Blu-ray as the first Hammer film to feature in the medium, and it sets the bar high, making one hungry for more Hammer in high def. It’s a spine-chillingly gorgeous-looking transfer, with a level of detail that gives many modern releases a real run for their money. Sure, there are brief instances when the print displays signs of wear and tear, but for the most part this looks absolutely pin sharp (with such detail evident that you can even see the dust floating in the air!) and the balance between the blacks and the whites couldn't be bettered. A magnificent job -- and the un-showy but always clear audio is excellent as well.
The disc is light on extras, but there is what turns out to be a fascinating collection of stills provided that includes lots of informal behind-the-scenes shots among the 56 high definition photographs presented. There are shots of the cast rehearsing their upcoming scenes, some joky exchanges between cast members and crew on a busy-looking set, and some shots of the car-on-the-cliff sequence which reveal the prosaic nature of the illusion. The U.S. trailer (which looks like it's been culled from a VHS source) is the only other extra. Still, this release is warmly recommended to all Hammer horror fans.