Director: Freddie Francis
Cast: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion, Lilian Brousse, Maurice Denham
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
80 mins. Not Rated.
Hammer Horror is a term that seems to specifically reference the big horror icons through the lens of the Hammer: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. It goes much further, though, and dives into a wide berth of creepy tales from the legendary studio. Today, we’ll talk about one of the thrillers where the monsters are human: Paranoiac.
It’s been eleven years since the dual tragedies of the Ashby family. First, the parents died in an airplane crash. Soon after, son Tony (Alexander Davion, Valley of the Dolls, The Plague of the Zombies) committed suicide. In the years since, the Ashby family has remained quite reclusive, but now, with the inheritance about to be delivered to Simon (Oliver Reed, Gladiator, The Brood), a man shows up at the homestead claiming to be Tony, but is it really? While several family members doubt Tony’s survival, his sister Eleanor (Janette Scott, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Day of the Triffids) wants more than anything to believe him. Is this man really Tony, or someone after the inheritance?
Director Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt, Dracula Has Returned From the Grave) started his career in cinematography, and he spent a lot of time in the tail end of his career doing the same, but during this time period, he helmed quite a few Hammer Horror films, both in color and also in Black-and-White. Paranoiac is a perfect B&W film because it has a lot of elements of classic horror/thrillers. This is a horror film of dialogue and character-driven thrills. Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, Fear in the Night) keep a number of secrets and reveals close to the chest, and the 80-minute run time allows for all killer, no filler. We are quickly given all the main players to the narrative in Simon, Eleanor, and Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell, Cold Comfort Farm, Afraid of the Dark), who controls the inheritance as our film opens. As we see, the family is full of conflict before Tony even enters the narrative. It’s interesting to see how Tony exacerbates the situation for everyone involved, and then discovering the layers behind each of them beginning to unravel, it’s clear that, whether or not Tony is real, his presence here will change the individual family members forever.
The standout here is, as always, Oliver Reed as Simon. A drunk, womanizing, space-waster, Simon is the one blessed with the more layered character, and he makes use of it. He’s wasted every little bit of money that Aunt Harriet has given him on booze and good times, and now his goodwill is gone, and he’s getting by on IOUs and credit. He’s even trying to get Eleanor committed in order to gain on her portion of the inheritance. He’s a man who has lost his parents, forfeited his good standing in town, and now seeks to betray his remaining allies in order to get a step ahead.
Eleanor has an unusual relationship with Tony. She’s the most-affected by his absence, and she’s the first one to see him initially, and he only officially appears to her when she tries to commit suicide the same way he supposedly did. Their relationship is complicated by his return because she’s lifted him to this high pedestal, evolving a love for him that pushes past familial into the realm of romantic entanglement. It creates a complexity in their engagements and also furthers the question of the identity of Tony.
The film unfolds at a nice enough pace until the final minutes, when every story point is concluded very quickly, some of them satisfactory, some not. It’s a shame that some of these story threads are not fully concluded when the rest of the film moves along quite nicely. It doesn’t derail the story, but I wish the final moments were worthy of the preceding 75 minutes
Paranoiac gets comparisons to Psycho, but I think the film stands on its own as a thrilling and exciting little mystery that shows its cards at the right time and, barring a few missteps in the finale, creates an eerie mood where no one can be trusted, least of all our lead characters. It’s a compelling narrative that’s well worth the time.
-Kyle A. Goethe