Freddie Francis, 1965
Starring: Robert Webber, Anthony Newlands, Jennifer Jayne, Lelia Goldoni
When he wakes up after a car accident, an American amnesiac dubbed Chris Smith by hospital attendees in England struggles to remember who he is or what happened in his past. A sympathetic nurse named Gina vows to help him, but he becomes obsessed with the only clue found on him: a picture of a beautiful woman that seems to have been torn from a magazine. He tracks her down and though the photographer says she was found murdered in a shower, Chris soon meets her and learns that she is the wife of the man responsible for the car accident Chris was in. But Chris begins hearing voices from the apartment next store and fears his sanity is slipping away from him…
Hysteria is the last of the black and white, contemporary set, European flavored suspense films written (and occasionally directed) by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer Films that began with titles like The Shadow of the Cat and (1961) and Scream of Fear (1961). I thoroughly enjoyed this relatively short run of Psycho and Les diaboliques inspired films, but I’m sad to say that the series goes out on a weak note with Hysteria and the most disappointing entry, though Sangster would continue to write strong Gothic horror scripts for the studio and would pen a few more unrelated thrillers in the upcoming years, like The Nanny (1965), The Anniversary (1968), and Crescendo (1970).
Director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox returned from two of my favorite entries in Sangster’s suspense series, Paranoiac and Nightmare, but can’t make up for an uneven script filled with non-sequiturs and strange plot holes. Sure, there’s an ominous bloody knife, a beautiful woman clearly up to no good, corpses that appear and disappear in the shower, and a couple reenacting a violent argument in an apartment next door that doesn’t exist, but there’s also a hilarious flashback sequence where Chris seems to be constantly on the run from the law — or from women he has scorned. Chris begins the flashback in the middle of an affair with a French woman who is actually conning him and sends a number of gangsters after him when he tries to reclaim the wallet that she stole. In a scene with an almost inappropriate amount of slapstick comedy, he jumps out the window and into the car of an unsuspecting British woman, who agrees to take him on a cross-country road trip with her like she picks up strangers all the time. They begin an affair and he stows away in her car during a flight to England — like you do — and then just as abruptly leaves her at a gas station and fatefully gets into the car where he will crash and lose his memory.
Robert Webber (12 Angry Men, The Dirty Dozen) is likable enough, he just can’t get away with this kind of role. He’s far too much of an everyman and lacks the charm and charisma needed to keep this kind of film afloat. Lelia Goldoni (Shadows, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) steals the film as the sultry object of Chris’s affections and there are some nice supporting performances from Jennifer Jayne (The Crawling Eye), as the lovestruck nurse, and Maurice Denham (Curse of the Demon) as a salty private investigator. It’s a shame Hammer wasn’t able to supply one of their regular stars — even Oliver Reed would have made this more compelling, though admittedly a bit more hysteria-fueled — and the film’s low budget hampers a lot of areas where it probably could have succeeded. For example, Hammer regular Bernard Robinson was also not responsible for the set design, much to the film’s detriment. The look of Hysteria is surprisingly flat and largely sequestered to a dull penthouse apartment.
Hysteria only comes recommended to die-hard Hammer completists or anyone just obsessed with ‘60s suspense films. There are some nice moments, such as the jazzy score, an attempt at a psychedelic opening sequence, and a revolving series of bodies in the shower. Though the ending takes an amusing turn, it’s also frustrating. Somewhat bafflingly, we never learn Chris’s real name or identity, even though he admits that has memory has returned to him. The film is available on DVD if you’re so inclined.