Reginald Le Borg, 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Nancy Kovack, Lewis Martin, Ian Wolfe
"The vulture has eaten the pigeon; the wolf has eaten the lamb; the lion has devoured the sharp-tongued buffalo; man has killed the lion with an arrow, with spear, with gun-powder; but the Horla will make of man what man has made of the horse and of the ox; His chattel, His slave, and His food, but the mere power of His will. Woe to us!"
-Guy de Maupassant, “The Horla”
After the funeral of Magistrate Simon Cordier, a group of people read his diary and learn about the horrific events of the past few weeks. It seems that after Cordier condemned a murderer to death, the man died in prison from some sort of fit while trying to attack Cordier. Soon after this, Cordier meets what was really plaguing the man: an invisible, evil entity known as the Horla. It begins to psychologically torture and occasionally possess him, and he grows afraid that he’s going mad. For awhile, Cordier focuses on his hobby, sculpting, and meets a beautiful model named Odette that he gradually falls in love with. The time he spends with Odette brings him peace and he learns that she returns his feelings, despite the fact that she is married to a poor artist.
The Horla convinces him that Odette is evil and manipulative. He struggles not to believe it, but is eventually possessed and kills Odette. Her husband, Paul, is the only obvious suspect and he is quickly arrested. His friend, Jeanne, pleads to Cordier to come forward and vouch for Paul’s innocence. Can he break free from the Horla’s influence long enough to do what’s right?
Diary of a Madman was one of Price’s two films for Admiral Pictures along with Roger Corman’s remake of Tower of London. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, this is an obvious attempt to cash in on Price’s successful films for American International Pictures, most of which were based on the short fiction of Edgar Allen Poe. This is by no means Price’s best film and suffers from a dull, lackluster script and some awful dialogue. The Horla would have been more terrifying as a more subdued, subtle presence; instead it is represented by a booming voice that only haunts Cordier when he is alone.
There are some things to recommend, such as Price’s performance as Magistrate Cordier and Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts) as Odette. Though her character is portrayed as being money grubbing -- she is ready to leave her husband for Cordier seemingly just because he is richer -- there is still something likable and vulnerable about her. There are also decent supporting roles from Ian Wolfe (Mad Love, The Return of Dr. X) as Cordier’s suspicious servant, Chris Warfield (Teenage Seductress) as Odette’s downtrodden husband, Elaine Devry (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf) as the husband’s new love interest, and Stephen Roberts (At War With the Army), who is quite good as a police inspector and Cordier’s friend.
With art direction from Daniel Haller (The Dunwich Horror), the film does look beautiful, but director Reginald Le Borg (The Mummy’s Ghost, The Black Sheep) doesn’t do it a whole lot of favors. There are some nice horror moments, including a scene where Cordier discovers, to his horror, that he has murdered Odette by stabbing and decapitating her. The Horla has hidden her head under the clay bust of her that he’s been working on for weeks.
Though this film bears relatively little in common with the source story, “The Horla,” horror fans may want to check it out. French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) is known as one of the creators of the short story and had a fascinating life. Though a lot of his fiction is concerned with the horrors of war, he occasionally delved into fantasy and the supernatural. His fiction also took a weirder turn towards the later years of his life, when syphilis began to overtake his brain and he became increasingly paranoid. Read “The Horla” here along with a few of his other stories.
Diary of a Madman is really only recommended for die-hard Price fans, but it is entertaining enough that anyone interested in ‘60s literary horror might also want to check it out. It is not available on DVD as far as I can tell, but there is a DVD-R on sale on Amazon and it’s floating around online.