There are certain films you always feel a fondness for, no matter how many people, both trusted colleagues and refusenik hacks think of you as utterly bonkers for exactly that reason. Freddie Francis’ HYSTERIA, the fifth in Hammer’s popular series of Hitchcock/Clouzot homage’s, is without a doubt for me one of those.
The film marks a departure from its predecessors in several ways. For one thing, it’s set mainly in London, and even its ‘French’ segment is quite clearly filmed in Buckinghamshire (presumably the budget had all been spent on the obligatory American leading man, in this case Robert Webber) Secondly, there’s no spooky manor house involved, but a rather swish art deco apartment in Richmond, and both hero and heroine’s origins are distinctly more rough and ready than usual. But more than anything else, the whole tone of the piece is undercut with a distinct current of wry humour- something the previous four films in the series distinctly lacked. This humour is largely due to the performance of Webber himself- rather than hamming it up like Oliver Reed in Paranoiac, or delivering a somewhat workmanlike performance ala Kerwin Matthews’ turn in Maniac, our man from the Dirty Dozen is incredibly easy to like.
He begins, as does the film after a remarkable ‘swirly’ credit sequence (replete with ‘car crash’ inserts) that seems to have predated Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Something Weird by two years, as Chris Smith, a man with no memory. He’s in England for reasons unclear to everyone including himself, just about to be released from (psychiatric?) hospital, and his therapist (the impeccably dubious Anthony Newlands) is at a loss as to what to do with him- except to impart the good news that the mysterious Magwitch-style ’benefactor’ who has been paying for his healthcare has not missed a single payment, and has gone to the trouble of setting him up a flat, the previously mentioned Richmond Court residence, to be used upon his dismissal. I would say ‘jammy git’, but this is a Hammer film, so, of course, things aren’t quite as rosy as one would hope.
The only thing he has to go on which might lead him to unlock both his identity and his past is a half-burned photograph of a beautiful, Hepburnesque vamp who seems to be some sort of actress or model. Armed with nothing but this one artefact, some optimism and a compliment of All-American muscles (which have already been put to good use in finagling him into a relationship with his nurse, played by the ever-beautiful and now sadly deceased Jennifer Jayne), he must enter the outside world and begin looking for clues. So far, a fairly original premise considering the derivative nature of the previous films in the series.
His first step is to employ a typically flea-bitten, gabardine-clad private eye on his behalf (Maurice Denham- YAAAAY!!) Mozzer seems reticent to take the case at first, understandably believing our man to be several gloves short of a giallo, but we soon find out that this was merely subterfuge, as he is clearly seen lurking in the shadows as the story progresses. In the time-honoured ”they’re trying to drive me maaaaad” style expected from such films, it becomes obvious that someone is having a merry jape at Webber’s expense- the allegedly dead (at least according to Peter Woodthorpe’s wonderfully poncy fashion designer, who gets strong-armed by the American in the most jovial, casual and blasé manner) femme fatale starts to appear in various locations around South West London, and every time he goes home he hears sinister arguments emanating from what appears to be the flat next door.
This causes him to reel around the corridors in a semi-hallucinogenic daze (only semi though, remember it was 1965) stumbling as he goes upon such genre staples as a mysteriously swaying birdcage (check!) plants with large tendrils (check!) and eventually the inevitable body in a shower (MATCH BALL!!) Cynics may well point out the formulaic predictability inherent in such things, but when they’re in a film as entertaining as this, they’re rather welcome.
And cliché or not, under the masterful camera of Freddie Francis and director of photography John Wilcox every single one of those elements looks amazing. Hysteria may not be one of the greatest Brit horrors ever, or even one of the greatest Hammers (and in truth it’s probably the closest to a straight thriller out of all their psychodramas) but it’s definitely one of the most beautifully filmed. Every single monochrome shot looks like some kind of photographic art, the architecture has the appearance of an advert for Frank Lloyd Wright, and the girls could have easily stepped off any catwalk after an hour posing for David Bailey or Terence Donovan. So, when the horror plot devices appear, they seem less like the work of a cynical Hitch impersonator (although the influence of William Castle is also writ large all over the shop) and more the product of an inspired mind painting a picture. All we need now is a wheelchair and a swimming pool…
It’s not just the cinematic aspect that elevates the film above the mundane. Writer Jimmy Sangster (yes, him again) throws us a major curveball by deviating halfway through the narrative into an extended flashback (the ‘French’ sequence I described earlier on) with an almost comedic tone, which allows both us and ‘Chris’ to unravel more of his past and manages to take in a sex thief (Sue Lloyd) a passing English do-gooder in a sports car (Sandra Boize, who appears to have been in literally nothing else) and an amusing brute thug played by wrestler Kiwi Kingston, which makes sense as the film was shot literally back to back with The Evil Of Frankenstein.
Webber jumps out of windows into passing vehicles, smuggles himself in the boot of a car, drives through Lydd (as most people are wont to do should they find themselves in the area) and spins a Cary Grant-style web of good old fashioned charm and bullshit to get himself to the next step until we arrive back at the car accident that led to his ‘amnesia’, which of course is where we came in…
Needless to say both the vamp (Leila Goldoni, fresh from two very influential stints with Cassavetes and at time of writing still very much a fixture on American screens) and someone else central to the plot are in on whatever fiendish puppetry Smith/Webber has become slave to (or has he?) and the evil perpetrators get their come-uppance thanks to the diligence of Denham, who in this case transpires to be playing against type as a man not to be messed with unless you want several unfortunate bruises!! There’s obviously a twist or two in there as well, but you can have fun trying to figure that out for yourself without my help.
At only 80 minutes compared to the usual 86 or 90, it does seem a trifle on the short side, and yes, anyone who’s seen even one horror movie or thriller before at any point in their life will have the plot sussed within half an hour of hearing the snazzy bebop score that accompanies the opening credits. In terms of impact, it probably didn’t make much at all (and no, Def Leppard did not name their bestselling album after it), although it did exactly as well at the box office as Sangster (in his secondary role as occasional producer) expected it to, thus clearing the path for its successor The Nanny a mere six months later. Odds bodkins, they didn’t ‘arf knock ‘em ‘aht back then!! Can you imagine any British studio in 2008 having such a prolific rate of production?
Thankfully, it’s easy enough to see these days (not available on DVD yet, but regularly screened on TCM and various late-night channels, some even terrestrial) so, unlike half the other films in this book, you should be able to make up your own mind as to its merits. If it’s any indication of my affection for it, and for Webber’s personable performance, it gets aired at least twice a year at Shimon Towers. Mind you, so do Beyond the Darkness and Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, so maybe I’m not the person whose opinion you should be trusting. You could always ask the ‘refusenik hacks’ mentioned in the first paragraph, I suppose, but you’d be doing yourself out of an immensely enjoyable evening.
You probably won’t be actually scared at any point, unless the sight of empty parrot cages and white walls still terrifies you as much as it did when you were ten (in which case, may I suggest you possibly avoid horror films altogether and discover the joys of Annette Funicello instead) but I guarantee thrills and spills aplenty. And some posh birds with beehive hairdos. Surely just for once that’s enough?