OLLIE REED. What a man. The very personification of everything both ‘chap’ and ‘bloke’, fiercely intellectual yet with a burning urge for several pints and a damn good fight. Like his drinking buddies Harris, Hemmings and O ‘Toole, only one of whom at time of writing remains with us, he trod that fine line ‘twixt artist and hooligan, attempted often in modern times by lesser talents with far less convincing results.
Lest we forget, he was also a damned good actor, whose career bestrode several fascinating phases- none more so than the years between 1960 and 1963 as Hammer’s very own male lead, where he made three of their finest films: THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1960), THESE ARE THE DAMNED(1962) and PARANOIAC, the third in their series of Hitchcock-inspired psychological chillers. And while the latter may be the lesser-known of the three, it deserves far more recognition. By the time you read this, my opinion may have even elevated to the point where I think it to be a minor masterpiece.
PARANOIAC is taken from Josephine Tey’s 20th-Century Gothic novel Brat Farrar, which contains all the requisite elements of ‘skulduggery’ and ‘intrigue’ necessary for a good melodrama, such as murder, an inheritance, a lake, a faint whiff of incest, three siblings, one of whom is a nutter ( but which?) and a mistaken identity. But Tey was reportedly less than impressed with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (yes, him again!!) and his adaptation of her work, claiming that it eschewed the subtle and mysterious elements of her novel and turned it into a hack-and-slash horrorthon. You can see her point, as to be honest, that’s exactly what it does- but then again, as horror fans, that’s kind of what we want. And we’re talking Hammer in the early 60s here, so if there is any hacking and slashing afoot, it’s kept to a minimum and done with a degree of taste.
Reed plays Simon Ashby, a canniving wastrel of a young man whose family seem to own most of the local village. That is, what’s left of them- his parents died in a plane crash 11 years previously, and his brother Tony committed suicide because of this three years afterwards. Or did he? Either way, the estate is currently in the hands of the dour, shrewish Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) until “three weeks from now” when Simon and his supposedly ‘insane’ sister Eleanor (Janette Scott), who feels guilt over her brother’s death and receives a lot of ‘looking after’ by her decidedly dodgy French nurse Francoise (Lilianne Brousse), come into their parental bequest of over half a million.
He seems quite pleased about this, especially as he’s pissed half of it up against the wall already, saved from ignominy every time by a combination of the cachet his family name carries and the doings of the traditionally corrupt family lawyer (Maurice Denham- who else?) The only thing that could put a spanner in the works right now would be for ‘Mr Tony’, as the butler calls him, to miraculously rise from the dead and claim his half of the loot. Which is, of course, exactly what happens.
Saving Scott, who has been “seeing ” visions of her departed brother right from the off, from another suicide attempt (this time by flinging herself from some rocks in the way he himself was supposed to have done) he carries her to the house as if he’d never left it, and then promptly buggers off, his air of nonchalance slightly broken by the fact that Reed, already completely trousered behind the wheel of his convertible Triumph (are we seeing the start of life imitating art here?) spots him and subsequently drives straight into a hydrangea. Once he knows, and Auntie knows, we’re in for a rollercoaster ride of suspense, scares and shenanigans- with the already-unhinged Ollie getting progressively drunker, crazier and more violent. Which is just how we like him…
Rather than the usual premise of “trying to drive someone mad”, the plot of PARANOIAC hinges instead on the Ashbys finding out what we know already, namely that ‘Tony’ is merely an impostor after a share of the inheritance (something we see him discussing relatively early on with this co-conspirator, solicitor’s son John Bonney), and that there’s a reason at least one family member, if not two, shares this knowledge. The clever twist is that ‘Tony’ (Alex Davion), whose real identity is never revealed (unlike in the book) actually transpires to be an all-round nice chap who tires of his fiendish purpose, and it’s with him we are supposed to identify.
Unfortunately for him, Reed is so mesmerising (even if one scene, which has yelling unnecessarily at his butler, is slightly overcooked) that though he’s a grade A radio-rentalist with an attitude problem and several dodgy secrets, who throws darts at people whose “pop eyed faces” he takes a dislike to, chats up sleazy tarts in pubs and victimises random winos, we find ourselves rooting for him. On a simple level we’ve seen in a zillion horror films, thrillers and even westerns before, the baddie is more interesting than the goodie- and when it’s Oliver Reed you’re dealing with, you’ve got a baddie more interesting than most. Still young and devilishly handsome at this stage, you can see why the ladies, in particular Brousse, have a thing for him- it will prove her undoing, but then again, the minute you clap eyes on her you know, as you know with all such characters, she’s coffin fodder.
Janette Scott, on the other hand, has our sympathy from the start: as the frail, frightened Eleanor, whose “insanity” is clearly the work of others, she’s the most beautiful she ever was. OK, she may have slightly worrying feelings towards her recently returned brother (the fact that he’s an impostor justifies this to some extent, but I kind of get the feeling that in her mind that’s not the whole story) but she definitely doesn’t deserve the kind of ‘bedside manner’ Brousse is wont to dish out: “He couldn’t come back!! There’s no way!! He’s DEAD!! His body must have been CRUSHED TO PIECES!!” If that’s the kind of treatment private healthcare gets you, I’m glad I’m skint. Of the principal protagonists, a number of them could be the ‘paranoiac’ (whatever one of those is) in question, although ultimately I think we all know who the term really applies to. And a little incest never did anyone any ‘arm. Come on, they had to find something to do in the countryside back in ’63…
Where PARANOIAC succeeds against all odds is in its construction- the editing, even by Hammer’s usual meticulous standards is sharp, snappy and to the point, carrying the story swiftly from scene to scene with confidence and style, and the scares (at least one of which is enough to make the viewer jump readily out of their seat) are deftly positioned, In this respect the film is more powerful as a horror movie than HYSTERIA, FANATIC or MANIAC, although it lacks the humour of the first, the claustrophobic tension of the second or the pastoral, rustic beauty of the latter. Francis is no slouch here on the directorial front either: and, quite unlike NIGHTMARE, it seems like a team effort, with he and Sangster working in tandem.
It’s not perfect: there’s never any real explanation given as to why one character in particular has to go round wearing a mask that looks like a cross between a balloon and a Pink Pearl Light advert, nor where one gets vinyl recordings of one’s own offspring singing hymns slightly off-key, and the vicar in the opening scene fluffs his lines quite noticeably to the point that you wonder why Francis left it in. And Davion, later to resurface as a similarly wet hero (a feature of these films, it would seem) in INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, looks far too mature to be a young man of 21 or 22. But those minor hiccups are more than compensated for by the mixture of elegant poise and understated terror on display. There’s also a dimly-lit corridor, a skeleton and a church organ thrown in for good measure, and anything combination of the above immediately gets my vote. Also commendable is its use of location: unlike many other Hammer films, which tended to be shot in and around the environs of Bray and Black Park, it features several sequences shot on the Isle Of Purbeck in Dorset, one in particular relying on that very setting. Not that I’m suggesting for one minute that the makers of British horror films ever designed things purely for the purposes of plot expediency….
On balance, it’s easy to see why Tey disapproved: a whole chunk of plot and several major players have been jettisoned from her text, and the ending is quite different. Sadly, she never lived to see the more faithful BBC adaptation, BRAT FARRAR itself (1986) which more or less reproduces the novel verbatim bar some adjustments for a more ‘contemporary’ feel (ie big hair and Volvos). I think she would have been impressed. But taken on its own, as a Hammer psychothriller (and trust me, you’ve not seen psychotic till you’ve seen Reed in a bad mood), and one not immediately indebted to or linked in any way with either Hitchcock, Clouzot, Bloch or Matheson, it’s rather spiffing, eh what. Yes, he does talk like that right the way through, but he also pretty much holds the film in his vie-like grip from start to finish, and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way Even if his best work was yet to come, he’s amazing, although what really amazes me is that as I write, he’s been dead for the best part of a decade, and there’s still no-one to take his place.
I’ll probably wobble my hand and debate the whithers and whences for at least another year before making my mind up, but on balance, PARANOIAC might just, although it jostles for its crown with THE NANNY, be the best in this particular series/sub-genre. Rather than retread old ground, and wear its influences on its sleeve, it spawned a few imitators of its own: and to close on a humorous note, if that scene with the car dangling over the cliff didn’t influence the m,akers of SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM, then my name’s Tony Ashby.