Freddie Francis, 1963
Starring: Oliver Reed, Janette Scott, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion
Wealthy siblings Simon and Eleanor Ashby live an isolated existence in the family estate with their Aunt Harriet and a few servants. Neither sibling has recovered from the deaths of their parents in a plane crash or the subsequent suicide of their older brother, Anthony. An out of control alcoholic, Simon tries to drive the depressed Eleanor insane, but must wait until he is entirely of age to inherit the family fortune. Unfortunately for Simon, a man shows up claiming to be the long lost Tony. Eleanor falls hard for him and is nearly driven to suicide by her incestuous desire, while Simon pretends to be sympathetic, but silently plots Tony’s death.
Out of all writer Jimmy Sangster’s suspense films for Hammer — including titles like Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), and The Nanny (1965) — this film based on Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar is my absolute favorite of the bunch. This is likely due to a young Oliver Reed in the starring role as the totally bonkers Simon. The character starts the film as a sort of parody of Reed himself (or at least what Reed would later become) — raising hell, driving like a maniac, seducing women, and drinking wildly — but eventually twists into a fascinating, very ‘60s version of the charismatic yet raving Gothic villain more often seen in Hammer’s colorful horror films with Victorian, rather than contemporary settings.
And that’s another one of my favorite things about Paranoiac: despite the fact that it is definitely a suspense film and not a horror offering — and has a contemporary setting — it’s one of the finest examples of Gothic melodrama in all of ‘60s cinema. The opulent family estate might as well be Otranto’s ghost-ridden castle and there’s — incredibly — even a family chapel where Eleanor hears phantom organ music at night. The grounds are heavy with the psychological specter of dead parents and family trauma, there’s more than a hint of incest, and the almost constant threat/reminder of suicide. Like some of Hammer’s other suspense films, seaside cliffs factor into not only the visual world, but into the plot as well.
Speaking of plot, it’s pleasantly nuts and hits some of the notes you would maybe expect — such as murder for profit and family trauma — but also has plenty of pleasant surprises. SPOILERS: It’s revealed that Simon has become completely unhinged because he actually murdered Tony all those years ago and forged the suicide note. The real Tony’s body has mummified in the family chapel and Simon regularly enacts a strange ritual — playing organ music to accompany a recording of Tony singing, while a cloaked, masked figure stands nearby with a meathook (!) — to preserve the shreds of his sanity. But the fake Tony’s emergence has caused him to have a full mental breakdown. This pushes him over the edge and he attempts to kill Tony and Eleanor, and succeeds in a killing a few others.
This is yet another case of every character — except the fragile, unstable Eleanor (played by a sort of forgettable, though well cast Janette Scott from The Day of the Triffids) — being absolutely terrible. Alexander Davion (Valley of the Dolls, Plague of the Zombies) is remote but compelling as “Tony,” though of course he winds up being an imposter so Eleanor isn’t stuck falling in love with her brother and so that he can rescue the damsel in distress. The family lawyer’s son — who wanted to steal the Ashby fortune — has hired the fake Tony, a con artist, but his feelings for Eleanor force him to come to her aid.
Fast paced and chock full of red herrings, tightly wound suspense, and some spectacular scenery chewing from Oliver Reed, Paranoiac comes recommended, particularly for those who appreciate unusual thrillers. It’s fortunately available on Blu-ray, and should especially appeal to those critical of Hammer’s reliance on colorful Gothic horror. This is an early example of the assured work of director Freddie Francis, who got his start as a cinematographer on films like The Innocents — which Paranoiac look astonishingly like thanks to great camera work from Hammer regular Arthur Grant — and Night Must Fall before progressing to The French Lieutenant’s Woman and work with David Lynch like The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story. Francis also directed a number of other horror films, including The Day of the Triffids, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, The Skull, The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees, and more.