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Paranoiac Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 9, 2010

    Paranoiac Review

    Well, here we go, folks ...the first Blu-ray release of a Hammer Film! Definitely a cause for celebration as far as I am concerned. Coming from the consistently wonderful Eureka label, this was a title that provoked a little bit of head-scratching from fans of the genre and of the notorious Studio That Dripped Blood. One of their earlier and lesser known productions, this is also in ravishing black-and-white as opposed to the more flamboyant, and often outrageous Eastmancolor of the more “popular” titles that many of us grew up with on late night TV, but I feel that 1963's tense Paranoiac is a perfectly fitting hi-def debut just the same. Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster and directed by the great Freddie Francis, Paranoiac hails from the studio's often neglected tangent of psychological thrillers, the vein of intense who- and why-dunnits that was clearly inspired by Hitchcock's remarkable Psycho. Paranoiac is more surreal and scheming than the classic Robert Bloch tale, though, and there is something about it that is fundamentally English, even beyond the sunny cliff-tops and manicured country gardens of Bray Studios. Spoilt rich kids bicker and squabble. Family secrets resurface to cause indelible trauma. The polished veneer of the upper class is ripped asunder and skeletons tumble from closets.

    Two siblings are about to come into the full inheritance of their tragically deceased parents. The brother, Simon Ashby, played with magnificently over-the-top relish by a young Oliver Reed, is obsessed with gaining the loot and seems hell-bent on having his younger sister, Eleanor, certified as insane and put away in a mental institute, thus negating her stake in the estate. Eleanor, a wonderfully vulnerable yet luminous Janette Scott, already appears to be a little more than half way there. Struggling with repeated sightings of their older brother, Tony (Alexander Davion), who apparently drowned himself whilst still only a youth, in the grief over losing their parents, Eleanor becomes a tragic wastrel, clinging to the fatalistic belief that he has returned to take her with him back into the bosom of the family in the afterlife. Residing in their elegant ancestral seat with the starched Aunt Harriet who brought them up (Sheila Burrell, who gives a startling performance) and a live-in nurse called Francoise (the eye-candy of the piece in Liliane Brousse), the family dynamic is decidedly odd and strained almost to the point of snapping. Simon, an aggressive, conceited, drunken, manipulator has been frittering money away in a near-constant state of emotional oblivion and contempt. His attitude is often threatening and his flash-point temper something to watch out for. Eleanor, herself, seems to have developed a death-wish until the spectre of Tony steps in to save her soul - quite literally, as it turns out. Clearly no ghost since he is now unmistakably composed of flesh and blood, the long-lost brother returns from a supposed watery grave to challenge the upcoming inheritance.

    Needless to say, this will put a spanner in the works of Simon's greedy aspirations. So, it's clearly all going to kick off ... and with so many broken minds and desperate obsessions sweeping around the household, it is only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. Or killed.

    Paranoiac was one of several dramas that Hammer made concerning themselves with mental disorders and elaborate schemes. A Taste Of Fear came first, deliciously heinous skulduggery from Ronald Lewis and Ann Todd making poor Susan Strasburg's life a misery, with a couple of great shocks thrown in. Maniac came out almost simultaneously with Paranoiac, and Freddie Francis followed up his Hammer debut with the lacklustre Nightmare in 1964. Silvio Narizzano took Richard Matheson's screenplay and, along with stars like Tallulah Bankhead and a young Stephanie Powers, gave a more Hollywood glamour and sweep to 1965's overblown Fanatic, the studio cornering the market in one-word-titled nut-jobs. But more cerebral twisters would follow, culminating in the plain disturbing Straight On Till Morning from Peter Collinson in 1972 which starred Rita Tushingham and the effeminate but ever-creepy Shane Briant. But it is the conjunction of the quaint with the baroque that flavours Hammer's earliest psycho-dramas and makes them stand out from a crowded gaggle of asylum-bait. And even if it has always seemed strangely overlooked and forgotten, Paranoiac is definitely one of the best that they produced along such deranged lines.

    Oliver Reed had a limited, but forceful tenure with Hammer. Most famously, of course, he had gotten his big break in films by playing the doomed Leon in the superlative Curse Of The Werewolf (apparently even lying about his age, then 22, to get the role), but he had also appeared in Hammer's The Two Faces of Doctor Jeckyll before that. Plus, he would be seen as a teenage aggressor in These Are The Damned, a curiously moody and fascinating SF misfire that he made the same year as Paranoiac and, if you look back a little while earlier, you would have found him acting tough in the otherwise camp Beat Girl alongside Christopher Lee. His arrogance and almost refined tempestuousness would mix well with his insinuating charisma, ensuring that he would never quite fit the bill as the heroic leading man, but that his unpredictable screen demeanour would be effectively bankable and his innate “bad boy” allure endlessly provocative. Here, he is so tightly wound and dangerous, that even we feel that we are walking on egg-shells around him. You can actually feel the temperature and the pressure rise as the poor manservant tells him that there are no more bottles of whiskey in the house, and you are shrinking back even before he starts smashing things in a fury. A subsequent scene of drunken cruelty and violence in a pub is equally unnerving. Just look at how he conveys utter madness even with the calmest eyes you can imagine! Great subjective camera-work in this set-piece keeps us totally on edge, too.

    Scott, on the other hand, had not worked much within the genre, only really enjoying a brief stint on The Day Of The Triffids, in that famous lighthouse sequence that Philip Yordon so hastily wrote into his adaptation of the John Wyndham story when it appeared that director Steve Sekely hadn't shot enough action material. In a strange twist of fate, it would actually be an uncredited Freddie Francis who would shoot and direct these exciting scenes of her trapped alongside Keiron Moore before the resourceful couple find the salty solution that will save the world. Much has been said about Sangster's supposed mishandling of female characters, even citing, himself, that he never knew quite what to do with them. But his treatment of the fairer sex in Paranoiac is astute, intelligent and powerful. As Eleanor, Scott is committed to extremes of behaviour almost as much as Reed, her character pining for divine salvation and then going through a weird euphoria when her beloved elder brother seems to return. What is clever about Sangster's script is that she isn't the damsel in distress. Apart from one rather spectacular scene of vehicular sabotage set on the high cliffs (that seems very definitely inspired by the master-of-suspense, himself, Alfred Hitchcock), she is more of an observer than anything else. But Scott copes well with the severely wacky series of emotional pirouettes that her character is forced to undergo.

    Liliane Brousse is a semi femme-fatale in the proceedings. Eleanor's nurse, she may be, but the Parisian nymph knows a lot more than she is letting on. Veiled meanings float beneath her bedside manner. An air of flagrant indifference suffuses her reactions when Simon allows Aunt Harriet to “accidentally” discover just how close the two of them are. Yet, as with everyone else in this complex saga, she is as much a victim as a suspect. Brousse had a very slight ascendancy to fame with Hammer in 1963. As well as Paranoiac, she also appeared in the lesser, though more successful Maniac, also written by Jimmy Sangster, and also stylishly shot in black-and-white, but directed by Hammer-Head, Michael Carreras. A good actress, so long as pouting and flouncing and looking sultry go, she plays the only role here that could really be construed as a red herring. With her face so heavily made-up that it resembles an emotionless mask - she even reminds of poor disfigured Edith Scob in Georges Franju's excellent Les Yeux Sans Visage! - it is not hard to see that she may not be up to any good. However, it should be said that Sangster is not pandering to the usual conventions of the Agatha Christie-style of murder-mystery. He does not pile on the obvious devices of setting characters up as definitive suspects. He does not try to lead us down the proverbial garden path. The very fact that he opens the story as though it is a ghostly yarn, then very swiftly pulls the narrative rug away to seemingly allow himself time to place all his cards on the table, before then creating a veritable labyrinth of possibilities for how the plot will play out, shows that he is determined not to traipse down a well-worn cul-de-sac of clichés. We know there is madness surrounding the characters. We know that we cannot trust several of the main players and, as events pan out, with mysterious masked figures springing out of the shadows, eerie hymns being sung to the accompaniment of a classically ominous church organ and more cover-ups and malice than in an episode of Dallas, we come to doubt each and every motivation. Sangster even breaks a cardinal rule and actually has us rooting for the only ostensible villain that we do know about. This constantly shifting structure is something that Hammer's later movies - the ones boasting the much more traditional crucifixes and cleavages - would utterly forego. Thus, Paranoiac comes in sort of at the end of the studio's golden run of trend-setters, the films that actually relied on stories and characters over simple sensationalism.

    But against the odds, it is not Reed's ripe and burly overacting that seals the deal. It is actually Davion who carries the majority of the film as the “is he or isn't he?” Tony. Davion would be menaced by the living dead in the infamous nightmare sequence from the classic The Plague Of The Zombies, but his steady, slow-burn refusal to become agitated in Paranoiac is a deceptively languid hook on which to pin our hopes. Can we trust him? Well, even if we know that something is afoot and that he is more than likely involved in it, we side with Davion very easily. He is such a steady presence, almost blankly reassuring that, when he falls afoul of dark deeds, himself, it comes as a genuine shock. It must be stated that Francis handles a couple of jolting moments with meticulous care. Later Hammers would rely too heavily on a monster simply lumbering into view and then “paralysing” us with its fearful countenance. Francis ensures that his sudden stingers elicit immediate and unexpected effects. And the fact that these instances actually do make you jump is all the more impressive considering that Hammer's soon-to-be regular composer, James Bernard, is not the person scoring the film. This task fell to Elisabeth Lutyens (who also supplied the atmospheric music for The Psychopath, The Skull, Theatre Of Death and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors) and her approach is massively more understated. The use of the innocent choirboy vocal and the foreboding organ is possibly the most distinctive element of the soundtrack, in fact. She does supply passages of dread and rising tension but, perhaps wisely, Sangster's film does not got for the throat so overtly as the more familiar Hammer offerings, leaving the score less opportunity for so characteristic and typical an approach.

    Fledgling-director Freddie Francis was already an acclaimed and Academy Award-winning cinematographer. He got the first of two Oscars for Jack Cardiff's Sons And Lovers (the second came for 1989's American Civil War drama Glory), although most genre-fans will lavish more praise upon his achingly gorgeous work on Jack Clayton's classic ghost-story, The Innocents, and on David Lynch's The Elephant Man. Given this acute and studied flair for compositions and for black-and-white photography, you'd have thought that he would have stamped some sort of visual authority over his DOP, but he needn't have had such qualms. Arthur Grant, who carried out the lensing duties, was, in fact, already very experienced with Hammer, having photographed Stranglers Of Bombay, Curse Of The Werewolf, Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures) and Phantom Of The Opera, and he would go on to bring class and screen-dripping atmosphere to the classic double-whammy of the back-to-back productions of The Plague Of The Zombies and The Reptile, and then The Mummy's Shroud, The Devil Rides Out and the awesome Quatermass And The Pit, as well as a clutch of the later Draculas. His style was smooth, painterly and gliding. Exteriors were artfully shot, interiors even more so. He loved the use of shadow and light as much as Francis did and the two of them must have been working in perfect harmony with one another - Grant almost certainly able to second-guess his director's intentions.

    This was the era of such splendidly mounted black-and-white genre productions as The Haunting, The Innocents and Night Of The Eagle, and the Sangster/Grant double-act is definitely trying to evoke the same tone, both thematically and visually as these esteemed mood-pieces. The resulting style of the film is utterly spellbinding. Dreamy camerawork prowls the mansion, the eponymous cliffs and the environs of the isolated 50's enclave of secretive English tranquility. Achingly gorgeous formations of light and shadow decorate each and every frame. The very opening moments are revealed in a sublime tracking shot that floats through the graveyard and reveals the church where the regular service to commemorate the loss of the Ashby elders is taking place. I'm not sure whose idea it was to mask the side of the frame during certain key moments though, but this sort of shadow-curl that folds over the edge and shaves off the top and bottom corners is certainly a curious, though rather fetching device. Paranoiac is, therefore, a visual feast that both reflects the disquiet of the characters and enhances the spectral apprehension that we feel watching them.

    Such control is absolutely necessary, as Sangster's script, folks, is an appropriately manic one. There is an argument that he possibly throws too much into the pot - you can easily reference Psycho, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Black Cat and The Tomb Of Ligeia, and there's even a hint of something here that could have influenced Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, and Alfred Sole's Communion/Alice, Sweet Alice (you'll know it when it comes) - and the whole thing becomes a series of breakneck revelations, twists and convolutions. I like this avant-garde approach to the narrative, though. The story tumbles about, this way and that, building towards one eventuality that you think will be the main one before casually discarding such outcomes and then moving on, and pretty soon everyone is either guilty of something or, at least, acting highly suspiciously. The conflict becomes utterly estranged, almost lifting up, up and away from even the slightest plausibility, but this allows what could have been a very mundane and run-of-the-mill “family plot” type of affair to enter into the realms of the fantastic and the Grand Guignol. To this end, the climactic scenes have a deliriously macabre quality that you truly don't expect. In fact, these moments would have delivered quite a wallop to audiences at the time. Again, the influence of Psycho seems to have burned its way into the celluloid psyche of the film. But this is home-grown horror and we should feel proud of its shudder-inducing ghastliness and applaud both Jimmy Sangster and Freddie Francis for refusing to back down.

    With able support from the likes of Maurice Denham as the family solicitor and the executor of the imminent will, and some conniving double-talk from John Bonney, as his son, Paranoiac is filled with great moments from a cast who give their all to what was, to all intents and purposes, such a little film. Effortlessly entertaining, this is a ripe neo-gothic drama that milks the tension and the seediness of the plot right from the very start. There are some real shivers to be savoured and some cleverly designed elements that could be considered quite controversial. As we've seen, Hammer had explored the theme before in Seth Holt's Taste Of Fear which, if we are honest, was the studio's take on Clouzot's classic Les Diaboliques, which this tale also has a vague whiff of. Oliver Reed was already honing his quirky intensity, that upper class psychosis and simmering contempt, and he excels in the darkly manipulative role of Simon Ashby. He cannot avoid some rather overt gurning and even some odd physical contortions during a couple of scenes that sort of put you in mind of his tortured Leon undergoing his transformation into a werewolf, but this was another foundation stone in the making of a bonafide celebrity who was a true diamond in the rough. And his larger-than-life performance plays marvellously against Alexander Davion's much more steady and understated portrayal.

    Paranoiac is great to see again, and in such quality on Eureka's Blu-ray, Sangster's slice of lunacy becomes a real treat for fans of nostalgic chills. Distributed by Universal upon its original release, the film has previously been released on R1 in the beautiful Hammer Horror Series set for The Franchise Collection, alongside seven other classics, including The Curse Of The Werewolf, Brides Of Dracula, Kiss Of The Vampire and Night Creatures, amongst others. Hammer have arrived in hi-definition ... and let's just hope that many more of their titles will soon follow.

    Well recommended.