Saturday, 30 June 2012



BBC Ghost Stories Volume One: Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968 + 2010)

A film by Jonathan Miller (1968) Andy De Emmony (2010)

As a Christmas treat in the late 1960s and 70s, the BBC produced adaptations of ghost stories based on the works of MR James, the Cambridge academic and author of some of the most spine-tingling tales in the English language, which were broadcast to terrified viewers in the dead of winter. This was a tradition that was briefly revived by the BBC between 2007 and 2010.

These adaptations, which have a subtlety and style all of their own, have been a major influence on many contemporary British horror filmmakers and have come to be some of the most sought after British TV titles by their legions of eager fans.

Volume One in the BFI's BBC Ghost Stories collection pairs both versions of the terrifying Whistle and I'll Come to You : the 1968 adaptation directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Sir Michael Hordern, and the more recent reinterpretation, starring the legendary John Hurt, from 2010.

Thursday, 28 June 2012


John Philip Law (Sinbad), Tom Baker (Koura), Douglas Wilmer (The Grand Vizier), Caroline Munro (Marigiana), Martin Shaw (Rachid), Kurt Christian (Haroun), Takis Emmanuel (Achmed)

Director – Gordon Hessler, Screenplay – Brian Clemens, Story – Brian Clemens & Ray Harryhausen, Producers – Ray Harryhausen & Charles H. Schneer, Photography – Ted Moore, Music – Miklos Rosza, Visual Effects – Ray Harryhausen, Production Design – John Stoll. Production Company – Morningside. USA 1973

Sinbad fires an arrow at a strange creature that flies over his ship, causing it to drop the amulet it is carrying. Ashore, the sorcerer Koura attempts to forcibly take the amulet from Sinbad. Sinbad is granted refuge by the benevolent ruler of the city, the Grand Vizier, who has been forced to hide his face behind a beaten gold mask after Koura burnt it with a fireball. The Vizier shows Sinbad a companion amulet and the drawing of a third one. All three form a map that leads to a fountain of youth on the island of Lemuria. With the complete amulet, The Grand Vizier will be able to stop Koura’s ravages on the kingdom. And so Sinbad and the Vizier set sail on an expedition to Lemuria. However, Koura desires the amulet too, wanting to regain the youth that each spell he casts steals from him, and sets sail determined to stop them.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was a landmark in fantasy cinema. It was often imitated over the next decade. Most importantly, it brought to prominence the name of special effects man Ray Harryhausen and his fantastical creatures. Ray Harryhausen was a specialist in the process of stop-motion animation where models are meticulously moved and photographed one frame at a time. Harryhausen went onto a substantial career over the next two decades, creating similar flights of fantasy. (See below for Ray Harryhausen’s other films). He would revisit the Sinbad mythos twice, here and later with the disappointing Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one of Ray Harryhausen’s most acclaimed works and one that shows him at the height of his art.

With The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen employed director Gordon Hessler, who emerged out of the English horror cycle in the late 1960s (see below for Gordon Hessler’s other titles) and Brian Clemens on script. Brian Clemens had worked as script editor on tv’s The Avengers (1962-9), wrote a number of films during the English horror cycle and went on to create series such as The New Avengers (1976-8), The Professionals (1977-83) and Bugs (1995-8). (See below also for Brian Clemens’s other titles). Most Ray Harryhausen films tend to be set around Harryhausen’s provision of creature effects, with the intervening action being stolid and his leading men tending to a uniform woodenness. Although the dialogue here has a tendency to fall in clunky pseudo-profound aphorisms at times, Brian Clemens creates probably one of the more nuanced scripts for any Ray Harryhausen film. Particularly original is the character of the sorcerer Koura who ages every time he casts a spell.

Brian Clemens and Ray Harryhausen also plunder world mythology somewhat indiscriminately, ending up with what often seems a peculiar multi-cultural polyglot – there is Kali from Hindu religion, a griffin and combination centaur/cyclops from the Greek myths, the homunculus from mediaeval alchemy, Lemuria (an idea that was posited by biologist Ernst Haeckel in the 1870s, preceding the notion of continental drift, of a sunken land in order to explain how lemurs managed to get between Africa and India and one that was quickly appropriated by the 19th Century Theosophist movement), and of course the backdrop from the Arabian Nights cycle. This is the less important than the spectacular beauty of Ray Harryhausen’s various set-pieces which, by this time, were at the absolute peak of their form. Harryhausen offers us a six-armed statue of Kali brought to life in a sword-duel; a to-the-death battle between a griffin and a cyclopean centaur; a magically animated ship’s figurehead; and, best of all, the homunculus that Tom Baker brings to life, teasing and prodding it, as it lies pinned to a table.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is also notable for many of the up-and-coming stars. There is Tom Baker who, the following year, would become the fourth incarnation of tv’s Doctor Who (1963-89); cult queen Caroline Munro; and Martin Shaw, later hunk hero of Clemens’ superior action man tv show The Professionals.

Ray Harryhausen’s other films are:– The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the granddaddy of all atomic monster films; the giant atomic octopus film It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955); the alien invader film Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956); the alien monster film 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957); The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958); The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960); the Jules Verne adaptation Mysterious Island (1961); the Greek myth adventure Jason and the Argonauts (1963); the H.G. Wells adaptation The First Men in the Moon (1964); the caveman vs dinosaurs epic One Million Years B.C. (1966); the dinosaur film The Valley of Gwangi (1969); Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977); and the Greek myth adventure Clash of the Titans (1981).

Brian Clemens’s other scripts are:– The Tell-Tale Heart (1960), Curse of the Voodoo/Curse of Simba (1965), And Soon the Darkness (1970), See No Evil/Blind Terror (1971), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), the Disney ghost story The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and Highlander II: The Quickening (1991). Clemens also wrote and directed Hammer’s Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1972). He has acted as script editor and producer on the tv series’ The Avengers, The New Avengers, The Professionals and Bugs.

Gordon Hessler’s other films are:– Scream and Scream Again (1969), The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), Kiss Meets the Phantom/Kiss in the Attack of the Phantom (1978) and The Girl in a Swing (1988)

Caroline Munro 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad Gallery: CLICK HERE

REVIEW: Richard Scheib
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks



Monday, 25 June 2012




James Olson (Bill Kemp), Catherina von Schell [later Catherine Schell] (Clem Taplin), Warren Mitchell (J.J. Hubbard), Ori Levy (Dmitri Karminsky), Adrienne Corri (Liz Murphy), Bernard Bresslaw (Harry), Dudley Foster (Whitsun)

Director – Roy Ward Baker, Screenplay/Producer – Michael Carreras, Story – Martin Davidson, Frank Hardmann & Gavin Lyall, Photography – Paul Beeson, Music – Don Ellis, Special Effects – Nick Allder, Les Bowie & Kit West, Art Direction – Scott MacGregor. Production Company – Hammer/Warner Brothers/Seven Arts.UK. 1969.

The year 2121. Bill Kemp, once the first man to land on Mars, now works as a lunar salvage pilot in his antiquated, ramshackle ship ‘Moon 02’. He meets Clem Taplin, a new arrivee on the Moon, and becomes involved with her as he helps her investigate the disappearance of her missing prospector brother. At the same time, he is hired by J.J. Hubbard, a crooked billionaire who wants to charter his ship to go and plant rocket boosters aboard an asteroid of pure sapphire so as to land it on the Moon for ready exploitation.

Following their rise in the late 1950s with hits like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958), the name of Hammer Films had become synonymous with horror. Around the time that they made this, Hammer were making numerous Frankenstein and Dracula sequels with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and assorted other horror films, usually in period settings. Moon Zero Two was one of their rare ventures into science-fiction and is very different to what one had come to expect from a Hammer film.

Moon Zero Two was released two months after the Moon Landing and was clearly an attempt to exploit the then interest in matters Lunar. Alas, it finds Hammer ill at ease in knowing exactly how to handle futurist science-fiction. While they had made various ventures into science-fiction such as X the Unknown (1956), The Damned/These are the Damned (1961) and the Quatermass films – in fact, director Roy Ward Baker had just come from directing the third of these, Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth (1967) – most of these are sf-horror hybrids and do not involved speculative future scenarios.

As a result of Hammer’s seeming uncertainty, Moon Zero Two was billed with the unappealing concept of “the first space western”. The characters are stock types drawn from the Western – the ruthless land baron, the good sheriff, the prospector. The wild frontier aspect is played up with anti-gravity barroom brawls, astronauts riding asteroids that look suspiciously like horses, while even the Farside general-store looks incongruously like it has a tethering post outside it in the vacuum.

Many people look down on Moon Zero Two as a result of the ‘space western’ thing, but it actually isn’t a bad film. In fact, one is prepared to argue its merits as an unsung science-fiction gem. The space western silliness doesn’t intrude too much on the otherwise serious story. It has a more-than-credible screenplay that develops a worthwhile and intelligent story out of a credible Lunar scenario, giving a realistic seeming speculative glimpse of life on The Moon, imaginatively extrapolating facets of technology for dealing with the lunar frontier, which is exactly what a good science-fiction film should do. The journey across the lunar sunrise is an evocative, impressive sequence. Unfortunately, the film is made on one of Hammer’s usual economy budgets and the effects and sets don’t have what they need to fully carry the vision, especially in having to ignore depiction of the effects of the Moon’s one-sixth gravity. The animated credits and jazz score incongruously mimic the absurdities of 1960s films like The Pink Panther (1964).

Amid the cast line-up, this was the first English-language leading role for Hungarian-born Catherina von Schell [born Catherina Schell von Bauschlott]. She later anglicised her name to Catherine Schell, appeared in various of the James Bond and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films, before attaining fame as the perkily sexy shape-changer Maya in the second season of tv’s Space: 1999 (1975-7).

Roy Ward Baker became one of the prominent directors to rise in the latter decade of the Anglo-horror industry. Elsewhere, Baker made Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth (1967), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Scars of Dracula (1971), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) at Hammer; Asylum (1972), ... And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973) and The Vault of Horror (1973) at Amicus; and the post-Amicus The Monster Club (1980). 

REVIEW: Richard Scheib
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks

Sunday, 24 June 2012


THE VIKING QUEEN was originally released in 1967. During that time, Hammer Films was at it’s creative peak with the continual production of Dracula, Mummy, and Frankenstein (and other horror and monster) films. But in the 1970’s, Hammer studios would see a downward spiral in film budgets and quality projects that would eventually lead to the studio closing shop. But who can forget how great the studios output during the 1960s. Besides their franchise horror films, Hammer explored other genres including Greek mythology (THE GORGON), prehistoric tales (ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.), and ancient civilizations (THE LOST CONTINENT), among others. During that time they produced the mini-epic THE VIKING QUEEN. Although I do not know why the sexy lead character is called a Viking Queen; the movie has nothing to do with Vikings and doesn’t even touch upon Norse mythology whatsoever. But it does make for a dramatic title. Anchor Bay does the home video world a favor by bringing this underrated Hammer film to the starved DVD masses.

The movie is directed by Don Chaffey who fantasy film fans will remember as the director of two classic films of fantastic cinema, namely JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and the awesome ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. With those credits alone on the man’s resume you know he’s a filmmaker to be reckoned with. He cast European make-up artist/model turned actress Carita (no last name, kind of like Madonna I guess) in the title roll as Queen Salina. Her love interest/enemy is Don (THE PLAINSMAN) Murray as Roman commander Justinian. Donald (CLASH OF THE TITANS) Houston plays Maelgan, a Druid high priest. Andrew (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) Keir is the evil Octavian, who is Justinian’s second in command. Patrick (SCARS OF DRACULA) Troughton plays wise man Tristram.

The movie is set centuries ago, after the death of Julius Caesar and when England was made up of remote kingdoms. The Romans were on their way to conquering all of Europe and dispatched their armies to see that no one opposed them. One of these kingdoms was Iceni, whose king had signed a treaty of surrender with Rome to save the lives of his people. But the king is on his deathbed, and of his three daughters, selected Salina (the one whom he believed to be the most conscientious) to be the new queen. She didn’t want the prestigious position but she had to trust her fathers judgment. Since her fathers death she has attempted to keep peace as her father had envisioned, but this is difficult because of an ancient Druid clan led by Maelgan which has a powerful grip on her people.

A Roman envoy led by Justinian takes a liking to the beautiful new queen, and during some chariot races, it turns out that Salina has feelings for him as well. They quickly have a whirlwind romance and talk of marriage. Meanwhile Octavian, Justinian’s second in command makes no bones that he wants to conquer the people of Iceni by force, and notices his leaders relationship with Salina. The Druid priest Maelgan refuses to marry Salina and Justinian and predicts bloodshed for the people of Iceni. Sure enough, Octavian hatches a plan to that will send Justinian away from the kingdom, upon which Octavian and his troops rape and pillage the people of Iceni.

After the devastation, the Roman troops depart, leaving the kingdom a shambles. Salina survives though brutally beaten. She goes to visit the Druid priests for advice, and Maelgan presents her with a sacred sword and proclaims her "The Viking Queen" who must fight for her people’s freedom. She gathers an army from the survivors and prepares them for battle. Meanwhile, her lover Justinian returns knowing he has been duped, and he wants the fighting mad Viking Queen to surrender to the superior Roman troops. But the people of Iceni choose not to live as slaves for the Roman Empire. And so the war begins. And war is hell.

There is a lot of action in the film and a lot of cheesecake which was pretty risqué for the sixties. Carita gives a good performance as Queen Salina, and she manages to hold her own with the other professionally trained actors. And the fact that she is gorgeous as well can’t hurt. Too bad she never went on to another film besides this one. The other actors all give credible performances and the dialog is very authentic and true to the time period (unlike most Hollywood productions that take place in the past). The costuming and set design all contribute to the authenticity level.

There is some tremendous action set pieces in the film (for the time), including chariot races, battle scenes, and Druid ceremonies. Director Chaffey utilizes some great camerawork to capture this action on film. The war scenes consist of a the Roman troops battling the Viking Queen’s army who use swords, rocks, and sticks as weapons. Salina drives a chariot with large blades protruding from the sides which take down the fleeing Roman troops. In a sacrificial Druid ceremony, the Druids throw Roman soldiers into a cage and roast them alive. There is a lot of brutality and death in the film, although none of it is too graphic, so gore hounds may want to look elsewhere. The film does not have a happy ending and realistically depicts the cost of senseless war.


THE VIKING QUEEN is presented in a 1.85.1 widescreen transfer. This transfer faithfully restores the incredible cinematography. The action scenes are beautifully rendered and depicted Much of the movie takes place in the hills, mountains, and woods and the transfer depicts these panoramic vistas with breathtaking clarity. Exterior scenes are excellent with perfectly balanced coloring. Interiors, though darker, are visually astounding due to the lighting of the film using multi-colored back lighting and gives the interiors sets sharp detail and clarity. The entire look of the film is pleasing. The image is very sharp with excellent detail. Colors are genuinely bright and appear accurate. Contrast and brightness are excellent with good shadow detail. The detail level is remarkable. The exteriors are full of detail and natural colors with lots of greens, blues, browns to contrast the bright colors like reds and oranges. From the leaves on the wind blown trees, and the authentic designs on the chariots, to the climatic battle scenes consisting of hundreds of extras, the detail level is phenomenal. Despite the typical Hammer medium budget, the filmmakers managed to provide superior visuals including authentic sets, vehicles, and costumes, all believably rendered, and they look great on this transfer.


Anchor Bay serves up a nice Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 soundtrack. This mono track has a good range and clarity. The highs are crisp and clear, and the lows are stronger than expected. There is no hiss, dropouts, or distortion. This is as good as a mono soundtrack gets. The chariot racing and war scenes sound convincing in the mix, but you can’t help but wonder what a 5.1 remix would have sounded like. The highlight of the soundtrack with out a doubt is Gary Hugh’s emotional symphonic score. The score soars during the battle scenes and becomes full of emotion and excitement when the narrative calls for it. The score also reverberates with authentic period sounding music, kind of like what you would hear at King Arthur’s Faire.


Trailer fans rejoice. The excellent trailer here is in as good shape as the feature itself. The trailer is letterboxed at 1.85.1, is in 2 channel mono, and runs 2:18. The video quality is immaculate and full of detail. The other extra is an exclusive documentary from The World of Hammer called LANDS BEFORE TIME. The documentary is full frame, 2 channel mono, and runs 24:58 and is narrated by the late Oliver Reed. The documentary is very interesting as it is made up of scenes from numerous Hammer movies, but most notably their films that depict other periods in time like ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., THE VIKING QUEEN, PREHISTORIC WOMEN, CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT, THE LOST CONTINENT, et al.


A forgotten Hammer film finally gets it’s due on DVD. This is one of those films that I was going to rate a 3.5. but the video presentation is so pleasing I’m upping it to 4.0. People into Hammer Films and prehistory should check this out as it is one of the better sword and sandal films I’ve seen. Not just because of the authentic action set pieces and beautiful women, but because of the great performances by the proven cast. Anchor Bay presents the film in a crisp, uncut widescreen version. Also you gotta love the cover artwork for this DVD.

Review: HERE
Images: Marcus Brooks

Friday, 22 June 2012



The Anniversary was the second movie that Bette Davis made in Britain for Hammer Films, and it’s classic Bette Davis. This one is not a horror film, it’s a black comedy, but she still plays a monster. Mrs Taggart (Davis) is about to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary with her family. It's going to be quite a celebration. Her idea of a good time is psychologically torturing her three sons and any woman unwise enough to marry into the bizarre family (her husband is long dead). Mostly it's just too easy. Her sons are so down-trodden they rarely put up much resistance, which is why Mrs Taggart is grateful for the presence of second son Terry's wife Karen (Shelia Hancock). Karen is more spirited than the sons and she hates her mother-in-law like poison. That makes things much more fun.

Although we don’t know this at the beginning of the film, there’s a weird annual ritual associated with the anniversary. Each year her youngest son Tom brings along his intended bride. It’s a different one each year. And each year Ma Taggart psychologically disembowels the luckless fiancée, which is why it’s a different one each year. Mrs Taggart particularly looks forward to this part of the celebration. This year it’s Shirley (Elaine Taylor), but this time the bride-to-be is pregnant which promises to add some spice to the evening.

Terry and Karen have finally had enough and are emigrating to Canada with their five children. That’s the plan anyway. Even they don’t really believe they’ll get away with it. Mrs Taggart has no intention of allowing any escapes from her queendom. Eldest son Henry has found his own way to deal with this. He has a hobby. Unfortunately his hobby is cross-dressing. As you might imagine, being a transvestite makes him an appealing target for his mother's awesome vicious wit.

Shirley realises early on that she’s wandered into the family from Hell but she doesn’t realise just how crazy things are until she goes upstairs to the guest room to change and finds Henry lying on the bed in her lingerie. The family business is part of the hold Mrs Taggart has over her sons. Taggart Homes specialises in erecting jerry-built houses that have usually already started falling to pieces before their unfortunate purchasers have even moved in. This shonky building business only adds to the self-loathing of the Taggart brothers.

Mrs Taggart’s idea of an amusing joke is to tell Karen that she’s had a telephone call informing her that Karen’s children have been involved in a horrific car accident are now in hospital in a critical condition. And she’s only just started the evening’s festivities - she’s just warming up. Shirley will be her main target. Shirley turns out to be more feisty than expected. Mrs Taggart is delighted. This will be a challenge. This evening will be even more entertaining than she anticipated.

Davis is magnificent. With Bette Davis in full flight you might think the other players would be overshadowed but fortunately, the film has a very strong cast.The movie is based on a stage play and while it's theatrical, it doesn't seem excessively stagey. Director Roy Ward Baker wisely avoids doing anything fancy. With a sparkling script by Jimmy Sangster and a great cast he doesn't need to. Anything ostentatious in the directing would have distracted the audience from the performances. Production designer Reece Pemberton provides a wonderful set.

Hammer had a success with their first Bette Davis star vehicle in 1965, the superb psychological horror thriller The Nanny. Perhaps this explains the commercial failure of The Anniversary - it wasn’t the movie audiences were expecting. But it’s aged extremely well, like a very fine very rich port.

The humour is dark and cruel but this is a very funny movie which never becomes depressing. This is a true camp classic and a must for Bette Davis fans.

Review: HERE
Images: Marcus Brooks


Elaine Taylor as Shirley in Hammer Film Productions 'THE ANNIVERSARY' (1968)

Thursday, 21 June 2012




The early film career of Freddie Francis gave him a central role in the development of some of the most noted innovations and success stories of sixties British cinema. As a cinematographer, he played an important part in defining the ‘gritty’ aesthetic of the first round of British ‘New Wave’ pictures: photographing Jack Clayton’s “Room At The Top” in 1959 and Karl Reisz’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” in 1960. In 1961 he was reunited with Clayton for the director’s adaptation of The Turn of the Screw,  Henry James’s disturbing psychological ghost story. Re-titled the “The Innocents”, the film saw Francis providing some of the most icily sumptuous monochromatic photography of sixties horror cinema.

While, in his capacity as a cinematographer, Francis helped to forge the earthy look and downbeat style of Britain’s important prestige cinema of the decade, as a director he was also to play an equally defining role in the production of some of its (at the time) less celebrated output -- thanks in the main to a long-term association with Hammer and Amicus studios, who seemed always willing to let him develop his skills in this area when seemingly no one else would.

Francis began his directorial career for Hammer with a trio of  formulaic black & white ‘pyscho-thrillers’ shot virtually back-to-back from 1963 to 1965,  all of which were scripted by the prolific screenwriter Jimmy Sangster -- who was to become something of an expert practitioner in the realm of this limited sub-genre after the first of them (the Seth Holt directed “Taste of Fear”) proved itself a marketable domestic alternative to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. “Paranoiac” became one of the first of Francis’s three stints at the helm for Hammer in this genre, to be followed closely by “Nightmare” (1964) and “Hysteria” (1965). Sangster, meanwhile, managed to bump out yet another one in between -- “Maniac” (1964) --  which was directed by Michael Carreras.

All of Sangster’s scripts ply minute variations on the twist-laden psychological suspense formula established by novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and brought to cinematic prominence in 1955 with French auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot’s adaptation of their story “Les diaboliques”. “Paranoiac” turns out to be one of the better entries in Hammer’s catalogue of dealings with this form, though. Despite a resolutely sixties setting it’s as traditionally ‘Gothic’ as anything the company ever produced, Sangster’s screenplay ticking off every Gothic trope on the list, one by one. In fact, the story could have been transplanted wholesale to the 18th or early 19th centuries where it shares much of its make-up with Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu -- and very few details would had to have been changed: the looming threat of disinheritance; a dark family secret dredged up from the past; simmering repressed passions and obsessive desires turned to murderous madness; while that old Victorian sensation fiction staple, the (possible) doppelganger, is made the crux of the film’s traditionally structured plot . And that’s not to mention its impossibly romantic setting of rambling Victorian manor house perched upon wild, windswept cliff tops. The Hitchcock element turns out to take as much from “Rebecca” (his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Bronte-influenced classic) as it does from “Psycho”, and although Sangster might be accused of  not sufficiently shaking off the shackles of English Gothic romanticism in what is supposed to be an impeccably modern thriller, the most memorable and bloody sequence in the film, which involves a wild eyed, hook-wielding assailant dressed in a child chorister’s gown and wearing a grotesquely-featured papier-mâché mask, is rendered all the more jolting for being surrounded by such tastefully traditional material.

Like all good gloomy Gothic romances, the film starts in a church graveyard, from where we can hear the progress of the annual memorial service arranged by Harriet Ashby (Sheila Burrell) to commemorate her dead sister and her sister’s husband -- both of whom perished in a plane crash ten years ago. Left behind were their three children, whom Harriet has raised alone in her rambling Gothic pile. And there is one other grave whose occupant those in attendance also mourn: soon after the accident, the elder brother of the three siblings, Anthony Ashby,  was so stricken by grief for his dead parents that he killed himself by hurling himself from a cliff top near his aunt’s mansion into the stormy seas and rocky tides below. His body was never found. But he was presumed dead, leaving only his nervously inclined sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) and his violent, selfish and drunken brother Simon (Oliver Reed) to inherent the vast family fortune that is due to be divided between them in only three weeks time. The vicar’s service very conveniently fills us in on all these facts, and also hints at some other troublesome family relations: we learn that Eleanor was always more than usually close to her dead brother, and we observe Simon, a rather unlikely church organ player since childhood, is nonchalantly smoking a cigarette behind the organ screen while the service is still in progress. 

Simon is a cruel and pitiless gambler and drinker and has already been illegally raiding the family fortune for years by blackmailing the son of the family lawyer, a junior partner in his father’s law firm. He also wants to see his sister Eleanor declared insane because of her nervous condition, which would leave the way open for him to inherit the entire fortune rather than have to make do with just half of it. The French nurse, Françoise (Liliane Brousse), employed by Aunt Harriet to take care of the ailing Eleanor and also living in the house, is secretly conducting an affair with Simon and is doping her up with his connivance. But, when Eleanor starts to claim that she is seeing visions of her dead brother (first of all, lurking in the shadows at the memorial service and causing her to faint and for it to be cut short; and then in the garden of the family mansion, at the French windows) Simon thinks at first that his plans are beginning to take effect at last. In fact, so overwrought is she from the memories stirred up by these experiences, that Eleanor carries herself to the spot of her brother’s suicide and plunges over the face of the cliff in despair.

Happily, a stranger (Alexander Davion) is watching the scene from a short distance away, and immediately dives in after her, prevents her from perishing upon the rocks and carries her home in his arms; silently he marches through the front door and up the stairs, deposits her upon her bed and leaves without saying another world. Aunt Harriet asks the astonished manservant who this person was, and he can only answer that it was young Anthony -- Eleanor’s supposedly long dead brother! Simon almost mows the man down in his sports car as he leaves the house and is struck dumb when he actually sees the face of his almost-victim: with Tony now apparently returned from the grave, the fortune will have to be divided three ways, not just two; and now she has her beloved older brother back, Eleanor soon makes a rapid recovery. All Simon’s plans seem to be unravelling before his eyes. But Aunt Harriet remains stubbornly insistent that this cannot be the real Anthony Ashby. She insists he is an impostor, and she is determined to prove that fact. Simon, meanwhile, appears to play nice and accept his brother back into the fold; but it is not long before he’s up to no good again as well.

Sangster’s script is structured along conventional gothic melodramatic lines, as has already been pointed out. The returning Tony is cast as the ideal romantic lead; tall, dark and handsome in the traditional sense, he uncovers the cracks and strains in the genteel family setup: a classic fairy tale arrangement with the terse stepmother-aunt figure presiding over two very obviously messed up siblings. But a twisted subversive element is introduced by the fact that the relationship between Tony and Eleanor quickly displays all the signs of becoming a romantically inclined one -- something that would be normal and expected in any other thriller of this type but here, of course, the two in question are supposed to be brother and sister -- at least if the newcomer’s claims are to be believed. This hint of unspoken incest was clearly what was behind Eleanor’s ‘madness’ to begin with; manifesting itself in the form of a generalised, unnamed malady tending towards listlessness and a nervous weakness of mind. The visions start out being treated as eruptions from her troubled unconscious, until they suddenly become as real and as apparent to everyone else as they are to her; at which point the unconscious drives and mental instabilities of the rest of the family are exposed as well, particularly those of the now out-of-control Simon. 

The casting of the young Oliver Reed turns out to be perfect for conveying the necessary tension between the modernity of the contemporary mystery drama element of the story and the Gothic archetypes it mostly leans upon. Reed had already starred in the lead role in Hammer’s “Curse of the Werewolf” (a traditional Gothic foundling role)  and was to go on to appear as various beatnik-style youth villains in films such as Guy Hamilton’s “The Party’s Over” or the weird and paranoid Hammer thriller “We Are The Damned”, but his role and his performance in “Paranoiac is the definitive realisation of what was to become the Oliver Reed image: he’s the brooding, cruel, but sexually attractive Heathcliffian presence one minute and an inadequate, Norman Bates-style nutcase the next, who nevertheless manages to retain an air of smoldering Byronic glamour in his drunken dissolution. In a story that is all about perception of identity and misidentifications, the rather artificial contortions the plot must perform as it cavorts from restrained manor house mystery towards its macabre, ‘Bizarro’ denouement in the family chapel, require his dark commanding presence to hold the two strands simultaneously together. 

The film is, ultimately, rather too slow in cutting to the chase, and is never quite as twisted and grotesque as it perhaps should  have been. There is far too much time spent on conventional thriller fare of the period, such as the attempt to murder Tony and Eleanor by tampering with the breaks of her car (leading to a tense car-dangling-off-edge-of-cliff sequence that looks rather naive to a modern audience through its over-reliance on back projection) at the expense of the more offbeat constituents of the story. When the horror element does finally kick in though, it is extremely effectively and powerfully rendered, with Francis making the most out of the film’s eerie climactic sequence, when the full extent of the sickness at the heart of the family is finally revealed: a mummified body bricked up behind a  wall, a masked madman swinging a hook, and a moon-lit raid on the family chapel where an ethereal choirboy’s voice can be heard drifting on the night air, are the main ingredients of what then becomes a curiously hasty conclusion. The weird, hook-wielding assailant is one of the most genuinely scary apparitions in all of Hammer  Studio’s filmography though, with  hideous, leering, distorted papier-mâché features  highlighting the wide, staring eyes of the attacker beneath. The whole thing simply rushes to readily into a clichéd conflagration (already all too familiar from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of films starring Vincent Price, which had the habit of always ending with a conveniently fiery maelstrom) and ends with indecent abruptness, thus spoiling a skilfully built air of menace and suspense.

“Paranoiac” comes to Blu-ray as the first Hammer film to feature in the medium, and it sets the bar high, making one hungry for more Hammer in high def. It’s a spine-chillingly gorgeous-looking transfer, with a level of detail that gives many modern releases a real run for their money. Sure, there are brief instances when the print displays signs of wear and tear, but for the most part this looks absolutely pin sharp (with such detail evident that you can even see the dust floating in the air!) and the balance between the blacks and the whites couldn't be bettered. A magnificent job -- and the un-showy but always clear audio is excellent as well.

The disc is light on extras, but there is what turns out to be a fascinating collection of stills provided that includes lots of informal behind-the-scenes shots among the 56 high definition photographs presented. There are shots of the cast rehearsing their upcoming scenes, some joky exchanges between cast members and crew on a busy-looking set, and some shots of the car-on-the-cliff sequence which reveal the prosaic nature of the illusion. The U.S. trailer (which looks like it's been culled from a VHS source) is the only other extra. Still, this release is warmly recommended to all Hammer horror fans.

Review: Horrorview Here
Images: Marcus Brooks
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