Paranoiac (1963)

Freddie Francis has built up an amazing career in cinematography earning multiple prizes and awards thanks to his excellent visual work in movies like “The Elephant Man” (1980) and “The Straight Story” (1999), but he also has a less known (but not less interesting) career as a director that started in 1962 when he co-directed “The Day of the Triffids”. Later he would become a regular name in the horror genre, directing films for both Hammer and Amicus, the two most important horror film production companies of the 60s. “Paranoiac” was the first film he did for Hammer, and in many ways ranks as one of his best works.

“Paranoiac” is the tale of the Ashby family, a wealthy clan that has been struck by tragedy twice; first with the death of both parents and later with the suicide of the youngest member of the family, Tony Ashby. The remaining siblings, Simon (Oliver Reed) and Eleanor (Janette Scott) have grown under the care of their Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell), but both are emotionally (and psychologically) unstable as Simon is a drunk sociopath who enjoys torturing the weakened Eleanor, who lost the will to live after Tony’s death. However, one day a man appears claiming to be Tony (Alexander Davion), and his appearance will shock the Asby’s world to its core.

This obscure thriller about death and insanity may not be one of Hammer’s best known films, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. Written by Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster (loosely based on Josephine Tey’s novel Brat Farrar), the film explores the reactions of the Ashbys when Tony reappears, and it certainly honors its title as the film’s theme of Paranoia surrounds every member of the Ashby family. Sangster builds up an interesting tale of mystery and suspense that gets benefited by a well-developed group of characters.

Director Freddie Francis once again excels with the cinematography (by Hammer regular Arthur Grant) of the film and gives the movie a style that mixes British melodrama with old school Gothic horror. The use of black and white (totally against Hammer style) enhances the feeling of paranoia and isolation that surrounds the Ashby family (Francis would return to this in his next film, “Nightmare”), and while it’s not what one would expect from a Hammer film, it actually suits the movie better than color.

It’s true that Jimmy Sangster’s characters carry the film, but a lot of the credit should also go to those who performed them. Oliver Reed gives a tour-de-force performance as Simon, in a brutal, raw and realistic way that one wonders how much of the real Reed was there. Janette Scott gives an appropriate performance, although her over-the-top melodrama at times goes on too much. Alexander Davion is quite effective as the mysterious Tony, and Liliane Brousse adds the film the sensuality and glamor needed. Finally, Sheila Burrell completes the cast with an excellent performance as Aunt Harriet.

This low-key thriller is an excellent example that Hammer was more than Van Helsing and Frankenstein, and has withstood the test of time very well. Hammer fans may miss the typical “Hammer style” elements but the film manages to work very well without them and arguably, is better that way. It has a nice rhythm and pace for the tale, but at times it moves on too fast leaving the feeling that the film is quite short (it has in fact, a runtime of only 80 minutes). The melodrama of the film may turn off viewers expecting a scare-fest, but it gives the film a personality of its own and gives space for the characters to develop.

Francis’ career as director may be uneven but “Paranoiac” is a solid thriller that still delivers the chills and along with the superior “Nightmare”, is part of a less-known side of Hammer films that explored the horror genre away from Monsters and vampires. Fans of Gothic horror and mystery films will be definitely pleased with this two films.