Freddie Francis, 1964
Starring: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden
A disturbed young woman, Janet, is sent home from boarding school after her nightmares — really memories of her father murdering her mother when she was a child — become uncontrollable. She is sent to her family home and put under the care of her guardian, Henry Baxter, the family attorney, and a pretty young nurse. Janet’s dreams begin to involve a woman with a scar on her face and a birthday cake — which culminates in a fateful birthday celebration, where Janet meets Baxter’s wife and is unable to control her violent impulses.
Nightmare falls roughly in the middle of Hammer’s of suspense films penned by their finest screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, and follows a loosely similar pattern to his earlier efforts like Taste of Fear (1961), Maniac (1963), and Paranoiac (1963), in the sense that each of these films is centered on an unstable damsel in distress. Once you’ve seen a few of these, the formula is clear: a tormented young woman is admittedly a little off her rocker, but is being pushed, violently, towards the brink of hysteria by some unknown antagonist. Much like Psycho — Nightmare’s most obvious influence — the film’s focus shifts about halfway through. Of course there’s a key twist, and as in all of these Hammer suspense films, it’s one that you can guess from pretty early on in the film, but doesn’t end exactly the way you’d expect.
Thanks to Freddie Francis — cinematographer on The Innocents, The Elephant Man, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and director of horror films like The Skull, The Psychopath, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Girly, Tales from the Crypt, and Tales That Witness Madness, among many more — this is one of the better directed entries in Hammer’s suspense series. There’s some dread-inducing black and white cinematography from DP John Wilcox, Francis’s regular collaborator. Francis makes Janet’s nightmares seem real, particularly in the film’s early scenes, and his directorial work emphasizes the wonderful blend of themes in Sangster’s script that include ghosts, nightmares, madness, and murder.
The reemergence of past, often childhood or family-related trauma is one of my favorite cinematic themes; another is the home as a place of terror. While these are often used in the earlier film noir movement or somewhat later giallo film subgenre, they don’t turn up very often in Hammer films. Nightmare, thankfully, has them both and makes use of these tropes in spades — in a strange way, it feels like the stepping stone between Gaslight (1944) and Deep Red (1975), which might be an odd comparison to make, but I can’t help and wonder if Argento saw this film. And like Deep Red, Nightmare has some subtle, possibly unintentional holiday themes; the wintry setting is particularly unusual for Hammer, but is lovely and leaves behind an enhanced sense of Janet’s profound emotional isolation.
The film’s hilarious original title was allegedly Here's the Knife, Dear: Now Use It, and while it never quite this campy, I wish a bit more had been done with Janet’s hysteria. Janet’s attempts to seduce her guardian — who she realizes she is in love with — and equally hysterical suicide attempts are waking acts that don’t quite measure up to her nightmares, but fortunately Sangster and Francis leave it it’s unclear if Janet is insane or, as in some of Sangster’s earlier suspense efforts, if what she is seeng is real, part of some malicious conspiracy against her.
Nightmare really benefits from some strong lead performances, particularly the sweet-looking Jennie Linden (Women in Love) as Janet. She apparently replaced Julie Christie (!), who wisely withdrew to appear in Billy Liar. Theater actor David Knight capably costars as her guardian, Henry, while the film really belongs to Moira Redmond (A Shot in the Dark) as Janet’s nurse. Keep an eye out for Peeping Tom’s Brenda Bruce as Janet’s sympathetic teacher and Clytie Jessop (The Innocents), who has an unsettling cameo as the woman from Janet’s nightmares.
Nightmare might not be the best of these Hammer suspense films — that honor goes to Paranoiac — but this is a solid entry in the series and is well worth watching. Sadly it’s a bit hard to get ahold of for home viewing, but you can pick up the Italian DVD, at least until someone comes along and releases a deluxe Blu-ray box set of all these Sangster suspense titles. It’s definitely proof that the studio could carry on capably without either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee to keep them afloat.