Peter Sykes, 1972
Starring: Gillian Hills, Robert Hardy, Patrick Magee, Michael Hordern
The Baron Zorn locks up his two children, Emil and Elizabeth, who are both young adults, because he believes they will go mad as their mother did when they were children. Since her suicide, the household has been in disarray with Emil and Elizabeth kept as prisoners, though they are desperate to be in each other’s company. Zorn enlists the aid of Dr. Falkenberg, a self-proclaimed genius whose methods are unreliable at best. Meanwhile, a raving priest and a band of local villagers are trying to find a murderer in their mist, as young girls keep disappearing in the woods near the Zorn estate…
Along with Hand of the Ripper, with which this makes a solid companion piece, Demons of the Mind is one of Hammer’s most hallucinatory, bleak films with some inspired visual flourishes from director Peter Sykes. He was allegedly chosen for this film based on his work on Venom — which is one of my favorites and I can’t really express how excited I am by this fact — but it’s nice to have a fresh perspective, despite the fact that this is late in the game for Hammer. The film’s main problem, but part of what I like so much about it, is that it veers back and forth between the studio’s somewhat formulaic earlier Gothic horror films and the sort of Freudian psychological horror that Hammer flirted with in their later years.
There is a fairytale element and the lush forest setting of some of Hammer’s best films, as well as a misguided ending that involves a mob of villagers getting fiery vengeance on the Baron, the overused theme of villainous aristocracy, and even a bizarre pagan ritual that the locals refer to as “calling out death.” The beautiful but troubled siblings locked up in a musty castle could just as easily be vampires as they could be mad and it’s a little disappointing that Hammer turns to the same old buxom blondes as victims — though when the reason for this is unveiled, it makes things a bit more interesting. Like Brides of Dracula, the plot hints at incest but, to my dismay, never fully delivers.
Speaking of the siblings, there are subdued but strangely charismatic central performances from Shane Briant and Gillian Hills. Briant, quite easy on the eyes, was something of an up and coming Hammer star, with performances from around this time also in Straight on Till Morning (1972), Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1974), and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). Actress and singer Gillian Hills — amazing replacing Marianne Faithful, who was originally considered for the role — was not only a yé-yé pop icon in France, but was fresh off small but noteworthy roles in Blow-Up (1966) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t develop a bigger cult film following, and she’s great here even though she’s given very little to do.
Briant and Hills are overshadowed — actually completely blown out of the water — by the insane amount of scenery chewing from a fantastic supporting cast. Robert Hardy (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) as Baron Zorn and Patrick Magee (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) as Dr. Falkenberg chew scenery with a gusto rarely matched throughout Hammer’s years of admittedly superb scenery chewing. They’re matched only by the wonderful Michael Hordern (Where Eagles Dare), who must be seen to be believes as a totally wacko priest, who preaches forgiveness but winds up staking someone to death with a burning cross.
Yes, you read that right.
This is undoubtedly one of the studio’s most unhinged, hysterical films, though it helps that the main theme is madness. Based sort of vaguely on the life of Franz Mesmer, this has more gore and nudity than the studio’s earlier films and those skeptical of Hammer’s restrained Gothic horror may find a lot to love here. I wish they had kept going further throughout the ‘70s, as I love this period where they begin to experiment with their own tropes. For example, they relied firmly on the cold scientist trope — most notably with Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing — but here there are two versions: an insane, possibly schizophrenic priest capable of brutal violence, and Dr. Falkenberg, who may have some genuine ideas but overall is a brash faker, a man seduced by his own theories and methods, not unlike the psychiatrist in Hands of the Ripper. Demons of the Mind is available on DVD and though you may not love it as much as I do, it comes recommended.