“ Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy - Fantasy / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Freddie Francis / Actors: Oliver Reed, Janette Scott ... / Blu-ray released 2010-07-26 at Eureka Entertainment / Features of the Blu-ray: Anamorphic, Black & White, Widescreen „
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Although Hammer are best known for their brightly coloured gothic horrors starring Peter Cushing, they also made several black and white 'psychological thrillers'. These were set in modern times, usually involved conspiracies to drive fragile young women insane, and relied perhaps a bit too heavily on plot twists. The key influence on these films was Hitchcock's Psycho (Hammer apparently referred to them as 'mini-Hitchcocks'). Paranoiac (1963) is not the best known example of these, but it is the first (and so far only) of them to get a Blu-ray release.
The plot is complicated, and difficult to discuss without spoilers. The wealthy Ashby family has been blighted by tragedy. After the parents died in a plane crash, one of their three children committed suicide a few years later. Now, brash young Simon Ashby and frail, neurotic sister Eleanor are about to come into their inheritance. Simon drinks too much and seems to be in cahoots with the son of the family solicitor; Eleanor is prone to hysteria and attended by a saucy French nurse. The nurse isn't really a nurse at all, but Simon's lover, and he intends to have his sister committed so he can inherit her share of the loot. There's also a disapproving aunt. But everything is thrown into chaos when supposedly dead brother Tony turns up alive and well, claiming he only faked his suicide...
That's all established within the first ten minutes or so - there's a useful if slightly unlikely chunk of exposition delivered by the vicar at a memorial service. The surprising thing about this film is that each time you think you've figured out what the twist is going to be, that twist happens way too early, and you have to try to figure out where the film's going to go next. Early on, Eleanor seems to keep seeing Tony, despite everyone else's assurances that he's dead. At that point you assume that the big reveal will be either that Tony didn't really die, or that someone's hired a Tony impersonator to drive Eleanor mad (my money was on the latter, it's the kind of silly scheme that films like this always plump for). But then he turns up about five minutes later alive and well and the next twist starts to develop. And on it goes - every time you think you've second-guessed the film, it proves you right but then sets up a whole new set of questions to keep you busy.
This is all very well, and it's fairly ingenious. But it ultimately fails in that some of the plot twists are just too bloody ludicrous to be anything other than silly. As new developments are piled on top of one another with complete abandon, the film comes close to collapsing under the weight of its own cleverness. In the end you stop trying to guess what's going to happen next, and instead start trying to figure out If it all actually makes sense, and the answer is 'not really'.
It is filmed in beautifully atmospheric black and white. The country mansion setting replete with dark family secrets suggests that Hitchcock's Rebecca was another influence. Director Freddie Francis was never necessarily Hammer's best director - he did better work for other studios - but he manages a few nice moments among all the frenzied plotting. The music is a little conventional, but not too bad. There are a couple of awful superimposition special effects, but the film doesn't rely on effects for its mood, so that's not a problem.
There's no real blood to speak of, but the film does contain one genuinely great shock moment, which is then followed up with a sequence of truly uncanny horror, coming close to the kind of confused, off-balance dread you normally associate with David Lynch's best work. The fact that it's then explained away in the most ludicrous manner imaginable only partly spoils it. If the film is worth watching for one thing, it is that sequence.
It doesn't have any big stars in it. Oliver Reed gets the most attention on the cover of the Blu-ray, because he went on to become a big success, but here he is still in his supporting actor days. He's not brilliant as the unstable, cruel Simon. His voice is too clipped, and you feel he's straining for effect. He was never the greatest actor in the world, but at least in the right material, Reed had great, brooding presence. Here he feels too lightweight to play the part as written. He plays the organ a few times, and his finger movements are woefully unconvincing. He gets to act drunk a lot, which will doubtless amuse people who only know him for the supposedly funny drunk antics of his later life. He lacks his distinctive facial scars, as he had not acquired them when this was made (they came about as a result of a pub brawl a little later).
Eleanor is played by Janette Scott, who is a bit too over-the-top in her hysterical scenes. She also blinks a lot, presumably to convey her character's fragility or something. I found her annoying at first, but she gets better as the film progresses. Sheila Burrell is good as scheming Aunt Harriet, and Maurice Denham his usual, reliable self as the family solicitor. But Liliane Brousse, as the sexy nurse is slightly weak, and Alexander Davion as the returned Tony is too much of a blank. It's a small, ensemble cast, and everyone does more or less OK, but no one really stands out.
High definition seems to suit some black and white films very well, and this is one of them. It looks great, with a high level of detail (perhaps too much - Tony has unnervingly hairy ears in a couple of shots). There's occasionally that odd digital sheen you get on some of the whites, but on the whole this is a great transfer.
It's a slightly weird movie to have gone for, mind, especially from a heavyweight arthouse label like Eureka. There's precious little Hammer available on Blu-ray thus far - just this and Quatermass and the Pit as far as I know - and it's always welcome to see films like Paranoiac get this sort of upscale treatment. But I'd have thought there were more immediate options available - I could name a dozen Hammer horrors I'd rather see in high def than this one.
Extras wise, there's a US trailer with a mildly amusing voice over (watch the trailer after the film, though, as it spoils some of the best bits). The picture quality on the trailer is poor. There's also an extensive gallery of production photos, publicity stills and lobby cards. This is better than most similar image galleries. Eureka also have a jolly nice copyright notice which gently points out that ripping off films on the internet will likely result in fewer films like Paranoiac being re-released. This is much better than the strident finger-pointing most DVD companies employ.
I enjoyed Paranoiac, which I'd never seen before, and appreciated the Blu-ray quality. Whether it's something to rush out and buy is another matter. It's a bit too daft to quite work on its own terms, and lacks an obvious cult hook like the presence of one of the big horror stars. Check it out if you're a Hammer fan, anyway.