Intoxicating mayhem unfurls in a forgotten Hammer Horror classic... Paranoiac! (1963)
Paranoiac! opens on a shot of white cliffs hovering over an oily black ocean. It's from these cliffs that Tony Ashby (Alexander Davion) took his own life eight years ago; purity leaping into the waters of sin. Three weeks before his surviving siblings Simon (Oliver Reed) and Eleanor (Janette Scott) are due to inherit their parents money and property (they died eleven years ago) Tony returns from the grave. Simon and Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) suspect him an impostor, but Eleanor - who shows signs of buried incestual emotion - embraces the man claiming to be her lost brother, and tensions dramatically unfold in a classically styled house of horror...
Except that the horror in Paranoiac! is psychological, riffing on the success of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) three years before it, and as such has become rather lost in the canon of the Studio That Dripped Blood, best known for colourful gothic horrors featuring monsters, mummies and cave girls. Francis produced many psychological horrors for Hammer, including Nightmare (1964) and Hysteria (1965), but this is by far his best. Maybe it's because of the stunning shadowy photography by Arthur Grant, or the magnetic lead performance from Oliver Reed? Or maybe because this is a psychological thriller with genuine depth of character and creepy intrigue? More than anything I think it's because this is the most purely entertaining film in the history of Hammer, and almost flawless on every level.
Francis is an economic director, which I intended as a compliment. Paranoiac! was developed on a very tight budget and as such he pared the story down to its most essential elements, leaving us with a brisk 80 minute thriller that never sags or becomes boring. Much of the action is kept to one location, which makes for a more claustrophobic viewing experience, and enhances the feeling of disturbance. The camerawork is often stylish, but you'll never pause to recognize the fact - movement is seamless, exactly as it should be. Whereas many contemporary films have money launched at them in the foolish belief that this will make them better, Paranoiac! succeeds on its very lack of financial stability, which allowed Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster freedom to create a stripped-down, scary and intelligent thriller.
I've already mentioned Reed, who's astonishing, but the performances by Davion and Scott are also confident and believable, especially when their eyes conceal illicit romance, and the lines in their relationship become blurred by small physical actions and facial ticks. Indeed, Scott's smile could launch a thousand ships. This trio of terrific turns also help to keep us involved with the ever twisting plot, which changes course every couple of minutes, ensuring that we can never predict its destination. The plot is really ingenious; there's just so much going on with the relationships that I could re-watch the film tomorrow and see a different story. Just focusing on one particular character will lend the film an entirely different tone. Psychosis, deception and alcoholism are the traits of the siblings, and watching them snap at each other in a house of haunted memory is but one treat on offer in Paranoiac! - a forgotten classic, resurrected.
The film looks absolutely stunning on Blu Ray, where the restored image has a clarity unseen in any Hammer entry before it. Complemented especially is the lighting, a vital element for any horror movie. Extras are slim, sadly, but solid nonetheless. We get the original theatrical trailer and a beautiful collection of 56 production stills. It seems like a good time for all involved.