Freddie Francis, 1966
Starring: Patrick Wymark, Margaret Johnston, John Standing, Alexander Knox
Inspector Holloway is put on a strange murder case where a man is run down with a car and a doll made in his image is left behind at the scene of the crime. Soon other similar murders occur, seemingly surrounding a group of business associates who worked together during WWII. The trail eventually leads back to a handicapped German woman, Mrs. Von Sturm, whose husband committed suicide after some dark accusations implying he took advantage of slave labor during wartime. The obviously disturbed Mrs. Von Sturm lives with her adult son Mark in a house coincidentally full of strange dolls…
While the majority of Amicus’s films are widely available on home video release, The Psychopath is one of the rare titles that has seemed to slip through the cracks, possibly because it’s such a strange beast. Written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, the sort of unfortunately titled The Psychopath does bare some things in common with Hitchcock’s superior film — namely a troubled relationship between parents and children — but is a strange transitional entry between Hammer’s black and white suspense films that inspired it and some of the early giallo films. It’s not quite as lurid or over the top as similar later titles like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969) or Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974), but it has a number of unexpected giallo-like elements.
First and foremost are the series of killings with a specific modus operandi — the dolls left behind — that is obviously connected to past trauma, but there is a female character in a bright red raincoat, a number of suspicious side characters, and the uncanny use of dolls and mannequins that also appear in so many giallo films. There’s even a vaguely sinister European painter/sculptor (Robert Crewdson of Her Private Hell), one of my favorite bizarre Euroocult tropes. He gets some of his art materials from a junkyard, which is of course where he meets his sticky end.
The Psychopath of course also has plenty of British genre elements. In addition to director Freddie Francis, cinematographer John Wilcox, and screenwriter Robert Bloch, there are some links to previous Amicus film The Deadly Bees. While Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood appeared briefly in The Deadly Bees, here he apparently contributed some music, though regular Amicus composer Elisabeth Lutyens — one of the few female composers in genre cinema — provides the excellent score. Side character Gina Gianelli, here the woman in the red raincoat and doll factory employee, also met a sticky end in The Deadly Bees.
The film’s main problem is that it’s not sure what type of horror films it wants to be. It sometimes seems to be a straightforward murder mystery with the central protagonist as the detective (British horror staple Patrick Wymark of everything from The Skull and Repulsion to Witchfinder General). But other times it’s a much stranger, more giallo-like film and would benefit from the same structure as British psychopath films from the period — such as The Collector — that make the killer’s identity obvious from the beginning. I don’t really think I’m giving anything away here by saying that the murderer is indeed the disturbed Mark Von Sturm (John Standing of The Elephant Man). Mark is basically “Norman Bates, the early years,” and his relationship with his mother is truly unsettling.
The real psychopath of The Psychopath is actually Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston of Torture Garden), who is fittingly menacing. Though she is not the killer, she gets the last laugh in a truly fucked up ending sequence where it’s revealed (SPOILERS) that she has “rescued” an injured Mark and has turned him into a human doll, where he will never be able to escape her maternal clutches. In a sort of inversion of Psycho, she gets up out of the wheelchair at the last minute, ready for one final act of maniacal violence.
There are some colorful side performances, namely from Thorley Walters (Vampire Circus) and Judy Huxtable (Scream and Scream Again), who is almost given a meaty roll as the daughter of Frank Saville (Alexander Knox of Modesty Blaise). In an interesting parallel to the relationship between Mrs. Von Sturm and Mark, Saville is also in poor health, a fact that he uses to manipulate his daughter into responding to his every whim.
It’s not without its issues, but I certainly enjoyed the film and I have trouble understanding why it’s still so obscure. The Psychopath comes recommended for anyone who enjoys more obscure giallo films, krimis, or some of the more unusual British horror entries from the period. It’s available on an Italian DVD, though hopefully it will see the light of day on Blu-ray sometime soon. This is not the movie for anyone who hates dolls — which I admittedly kind of do — as they are absolutely everywhere. Various characters collect them, make them, or work in a doll shop. It’s this sort of improbably, even zany link between visual and plot themes that makes The Psychopath feel so much more like a giallo film than a lesser seen entry in British horror.