“The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.”
—Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”
You’ll rarely find the words “Hammer horror” and “good taste” in the same sentence. On the whole, the studio’s landmark chillers bequeathed such a lurid legacy of eye-popping color and eroticized violence to the film industry that there’s hardly a post-1960s horror film which doesn’t owe a debt to Hammer’s unabashed excess.
However, Paranoiac, directed by master cameraman Freddie Francis, is something of a black sheep in the Hammer family of spooks. The studio did go in for a touch of class every now and then, as with Taste of Fear, and Paranoiac holds up as one of its best psychological horrors. This sleek Hitchcokian thriller eschews Hammer’s signature bombast in favor of disquieting innuendo and the cool splendor of black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Though rather sedate in terms of what it shows, the film mostly leaves the horrors offscreen, preferring to let a number of unpleasant suggestions fester and multiply in our minds, where they can do the most damage.
Eleven years ago, John and Mary Ashby died in a plane crash leaving three children: Eleanor, Simon, and Tony, the last of whom apparently committed suicide in despair shortly afterward. As siblings go, it’s hard to imagine two more different than Eleanor and Simon. Gentle, romantic Eleanor quietly teeters on the brink of sanity, still pining for her lost brother, whereas rakish reprobate Simon boozes it up, trying to figure out new ways to get at Eleanor’s inheritance. Because this is a Hammer film, there’s also a luscious French nurse living at the Ashby estate, supposedly caring for Eleanor. Sinister battleaxe Auntie Harriet serves as the watchdog of the dysfunctional clan’s reputation.
Shortly before the Ashby heirs are about to come into their money, a mysterious man claiming to be Tony Ashby shows up and begins to suspect that someone’s driving Eleanor mad. Faced with a powerful rival, Simon has to act fast to obtain what he wants… and keep his skeletons in the closet.
Loosely adapted from a novel by Josephine Tey and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, Paranoiac revives the tropes of Gothic literature for a new generation. Starting off with a rather conventional family melodrama scenario, the film progressively focuses on the ever-present undertones of incest, morbid mental states, and sadistic acts of cruelty that lurked between the lines in the novels of Walpole and Lewis.
This film capitalizes on its lugubrious settings—craggy cliffs, a maze-like manor house, ancestral gardens—to place the audience in a receptive state of mind. As I watched, I kept thinking that Ann Radcliffe, the 18th to 19th century queen of the florid British Gothic style, would’ve approved of Paranoiac. In her dialogue essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” she praised the type of literature that “seem[s] to perceive a soul in every thing; and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combination of its incidents, [keeps] the elements and the local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect.”
Though it abandons the supernatural, Paranoiac does a fantastic job of extracting “the soul in every thing,” of wringing its mise-en-scene for every ounce of dread. Even trappings of the modern era, like Simon’s swank E-type Jag, bend to the Gothic agenda. The Jag becomes a harbinger of disaster after Simon crashes it in a flowerbed upon seeing his ostensibly dead brother for the first time in 11 years.
Freddie Francis recycles a trick that he used as cinematographer for The Innocents, cultivating anxiety through the inclusion of frames within frames. The constricted or divided screen spaces contrast with the occasional sweeping outdoor landscape shots, reminding us of the unhealthy, benighted ambiance of the Ashby manor. Tony’s apparition loiters in a doorway or is seen by Eleanor as she looks through the bars of her window, a virtual prisoner to her family’s sordid connivances. As Tony and Eleanor peer into the manor’s spooky music room, we see their faces through a tiny clear spot in a window opaque with dust.
As a literary style, the Gothic is particularly tethered to a sense of place. The architectural features that so often crowd the frame in Paranoiac translate that sensibility, adding tension to important “incidents… heightening their effect” to borrow Radcliffe’s words.
On the other hand, Francis also exploits the full potential of widescreen to arrange engrossing compositions and dignified tableaux. Even in the most static scenes, he amps up the drama and tension by balancing the frame with several figures. The eye wants to travel, to take in all of the faces. For instance, I love how many possible points of interest there are in this shot from the scene where the Ashby family lawyer interrogates Tony, who’s apparently risen from the grave.
Tony stands out as the centerpiece of the shot, but we also have the battered profiles of the lawyer and Aunt Harriet, plus angelic, hopeful Eleanor and diabolic, gargoyle-ish Simon in the background. This otherwise bland scene acquires the gravity of a medieval grisaille, as we watch a conflicted man facing an ordeal, allegorically surrounded by forces of good and evil.
The film’s true standout, Oliver Reed slyly capers through the role of Simon, exuding a heady mixture of charm and menace. Before he destroyed his matinee idol face with years of bad behavior, Reed looked and sounded like a cross between young Orson Welles and young Laurence Olivier.
I can’t top Janine Sakol’s description of this glorious throwback in his prime: “Reed in the living, lusting flesh, actually makes the fiction Gothics seem pale by comparison. He smoulders, a mobile furnace with a low, fierce heat that threatens to explode at any moment.” He carries the movie on his loutish shoulders, transforming what could have been a campy, cardboard loony into a biting portrait of malevolence, a glimpse into the abyss of psychosis.
During an appearance on Parkinson in 1973—back when Reed still did his interviews in a reasonable state of sobriety—he spoke fondly of his Hammer days, claiming that shortly before the making of Paranoiac, Peter Cushing gave him some key advice: “always the understatement.” During his Hammer tutelage, Reed also learned that he didn’t need to overdo it for the camera, since the lenses could accentuate even the smallest gesture. He would later say, instructing another actor how to do villainous parts, “the dangerous man has a great silence about him… Don’t blink… You never see a cobra blink, do you?”
We witness some of that subtle, frozen intensity from our very first glimpse of Simon. The film opens with a church service, where Reverend Exposition recounts the tragedies lowered upon the house of Ashby. As he mentions Eleanor and Aunt Harriet, the camera lights on the solemn pair. However, when the name Simon comes up, we get a cut to sheet music in an organ booth in the church; a plume of smoke billows into the frame from somewhere offscreen. A graceful, sinewy hand reaches into the frame to turn the page of music, and the camera pans to reveal an unmoved Simon, taking a drag on his cigarette and smirking slightly.
Irreverent, secretive, emotionally blunted, and clever: all of these character traits emerge in that single shot, thanks to Francis’s command of camera movement and Reed’s surprisingly inert performance.
Simon’s presence often coincides with a disturbance or some sort of visual eruption. He callously crosses in front of the camera with a snifter of brandy and sardonic quip. Or lounges in the foreground of the frame, intently pulling apart a rose. Or forces the camera to whirl around, as he jabs pub darts towards the audience, threatening to blind a stranger. A poetic underwater shot best conveys his unbalanced psychological state, as he runs his fingers through the current and ripples warp his beautiful face into a grotesquely warped grin.
I really don’t want to include any major spoilers in this post, because I found the film’s circuitous plot tremendously entertaining. Believe me, though, this elegant, aristocratic cousin from the house of Hammer has a few good scares up its tailored sleeves.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.