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Paranoiac (1963)

by Steve Habrat

In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s slasher-thriller classic Psycho, British horror production company Hammer quickly tried to copy the slasher-thriller’s formula and success with a number of films that dealt with maniacs wielding a knife. While none of them were able to match the intelligence of Psycho, one did come close to matching it entertainment wise. Director Freddie Francis’ 1963 gothic thriller Paranoiac may not have bird-like nutjob Norman Bates but it does have enough chuckle-worthy melodrama, wild-eyed overacting, and creepy killers for every slasher fan out there. Francis, who never applies the attention to smaller details like Mr. Hitchcock so memorable did, still makes a luxuriant picture that holds itself together with plenty of nail-biting anticipation (When will that crazy Simon really snap?) and cobwebbed gothic atmospherics that was a must for nearly every single Hammer horror offering. Paranoiac never achieves the level of intensity of Psycho and you really can’t blame it because the film is riding a bloody wave that was becoming overly familiar.

Paranoiac begins during a shadowy anniversary service for three fallen members of the wealthy Ashby family. In attendance are drunken playboy Simon (Played by Oliver Reed) and emotionally fragile Eleanor (Played by Janette Scott) Ashby, the two children of the deceased heads of the Ashby family. Simon and Eleanor are also there to mourn over their brother, Tony, who apparently committed suicide after the death of their parents. It is said that Tony left a suicide note at the top of a seaside cliff and then plunged himself into a watery grave eight years earlier but a body has never been discovered. Meanwhile, a clause in their parent’s will prevented the large inheritance to fall into the hands of Simon and Eleanor earlier but the time has come for them to get the money. Recently, Eleanor has been suffering from chilling sightings of a man that she believes to be Tony although no one will believer her except her loving nurse Francoise (Played by Liliane Brousse). Simon launches a campaign to convince Aunt Harriet (Played by Sheila Burrell), who has taken care of Simon and Eleanor since the death of their parents, to lock Eleanor away in a mental institution and give him all of the money. Simon is on the verge of accomplishing this when a mysterious man (Played by Alexander Davion), who claims to be Tony, arrives at the Ashby doorstep. Eleanor is delighted by the return and doesn’t sense anything to be out of the ordinary but Aunt Harriet and Simon suspect that there is more to this return than they are being led to believe.

Paranoiac is skillfully photographed, the crisp black and white brought to gothic life through the moaning organ echoing through the scenic cliffs and dilapidated chapels. There is no question that Paranoiac is heavy on mood even though the story often times feels like it would have been more at home in an episode of Dark Shadows. Things really get nice and scary at the end, when our revealed maniac sits at an organ with mummified remains watching the ghastly performance. While all of this is just fine and dandy, nothing compares to the appearance of the knife-wielding killer with a mask that will make you loose more than a few nights of sleep. Going in to Paranoiac, I knew the film had a masked killer on the loose but wait till you get an eye full of this menace. Looking like a demonic angel in a cherub mask, the killer drifts about the old chapel armed with a bale hook and makes the disguise that Norman Bates hides behind look tame by comparison. This bloodthirsty maniac is certainly the macabre visual highlight of this thriller.

In addition to the soapy dramatics of the storyline, Paranoiac has plenty of soap opera style acting to fuel a dozen afternoon dramas. Oliver Reed gives a performance for the ages as Simon, a belligerent drunk who smells something fishy about the sudden reappearance of Tony. He screams bloody murder over the fact that he has run out of brandy and he picks drunken fights in a bar that leads to him waving darts around like a lunatic. Equally batty is Scott as the emotionally unstable Eleanor, who attempts suicide to free herself from her daily torment. She isn’t as hysterical as Reed but there is plenty of crazy in her character. Her dramatics come to a screeching halt with the reappearance of Tony, the only character who seems to have both feet on the ground. Then there is the chilling Burrell as Aunt Harriet, a frigid force in the Ashby household who keeps Simon and Eleanor in line. Harriet is only successful half the time but like any domineering force, you will straighten up when she enters the room and has had her say. The frame is given more eye candy in Brousse, a French fox who is carrying on an affair with the unhinged Simon. Rounding out the main players is Maurice Denham as Ashby family attorney John Kossett, a man who has slowly been growing more and more exasperated with the actions of Simon.

With surprisingly solid acting, wonderfully rich sets, and wisely placed twists that spring themselves on the viewer at just the right moment, Paranoiac generates enough tension and dread to become a must for fans of the slasher subgenre while Hammer horror fanatics will gush over it for hours after they have watched it. Francis masterfully delivers a number of moments to send your heart into your throat. An attempted double murder during a cliff-side picnic will grab a few gasps and the ghostly sightings that Eleanor suffers from will keep you on the edge of your couch. The film runs a brief eighty minutes so you don’t have to worry about the film overstaying its welcome or the pacing getting thrown off with a bunch of unnecessary filler. It may not come close to sly genius of what Hitchcock came up with in 1960 but as a British alternative, it gets the job done. I can promise that it would have Norman Bates kicking himself that he didn’t decide to make a quick trip overseas to raid this killer closet and don this killer’s attire while terrorizing Marion Crane. Maybe next time, Norman.

Grade: B

Paranoiac is available on DVD.

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

by Steve Habrat

If you took Reagan from The Exorcist, the demon children from Earserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, and the chanting score from The Omen, mixed all of them up with Christopher Lee, you’d have 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, Hammer Film Productions’ last venture into the realm of supernatural terror. Probably best known for dialogue clips that were used on heavy metal band White Zombie’s Astro Creep: 2000 album and for a sequence where then 17-year-old star Nastassja Kinski treats us all to the most awkward full frontal nude scene ever put on screen, To the Devil a Daughter isn’t one of the best productions that Hammer ever delivered to horror gurus but it certainly isn’t the worst from the British horror company. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, director Peter Sykes thinks his film is a high art offering within the demonic horror realm but what he doesn’t seem to pick up on is the fact that he is basically making a veiled exploitation film knock off of The Exorcist with only a small handful of effective scares. The film is pretty gross, delusional, convoluted, and, at times, borderline pornographic but it still manages to paint a number of jarring images to make it worthwhile for anyone who fancies a bloody horror flick. Just make sure you go in with a notebook so you can jot notes down because the plotline here is an absolute mess.

To the Devil a Daughter introduces us to Catherine Beddows (Played by Nastassja Kinski), who believes she has been raised in a Christian convent called “The Children of the Lord.” It turns out that this convent is actually a satanic coven, which is led by the sinister Fr. Michael Rayner (Played by Christopher Lee), created for the worship of Astaroth. On the day that Catherine was born, her father, Henry (Played by Denholm Elliott), made a deal with Rayner that would allow him to give Catherine over to Astaroth on her eighteenth birthday. Now filled with fear and regret, Henry seeks out the help of occult writer John Verney (Played by Richard Widmark), who may be the only one who knows who to protect Catherine from Rayner and his associates. As Catherine’s behavior grows more and more bizarre, Verney begins to suspect that he is dealing with some very dangerous and determined people. Soon, the bizarre events turn into grisly murder and horrific hallucinations, leading Verney to brush up on his knowledge of Astaroth and prepare himself for a battle with Rayner.

Vaguely creepy and ever so slightly off-putting, To the Devil a Daughter never really flat out terrifies you like say Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist but it does have a fair share of impressive moments. Still, the film is thrown off by some poor pacing and a head scratching final showdown between Rayner and Verney, a scene that you expect to be more of a nail biter than it actually is. Throughout the film, Catherine suffers hallucinations of a strange, Eraserhead/It’s Alive-like fetus that is covered in red slime and looks sort of like an alien, another creepy addition but one that is never fully developed so we understand just what the hell it’s supposed to be. The film also suffers from some unintentional humor in certain spots, especially a scene where an ally of Verney’s is killed and Verney’s only response is “DAMN YOU” before passing out. To make things even worse, the film has one of the messiest scripts that you will ever come across, half the film making zero sense at all. It is frustrating because when the film shows some coherency, it is actually a pretty eerie demonic horror offering, one that could have edged its way to the front of the demonic horror pack. There is also the random orgy thrown in to the middle of the movie, another strange flashback/hallucination/repressed memory that has Christopher Lee stripping down his birthday suit while frantic editing shows us graphic sex scenes. Well, The Exorcist never had the balls to throw that at us!

I can say that despite the number of flaws to be found in To the Devil a Daughter, the acting is outstanding, a shocker considering this material. Christopher Lee is just the right amount of wicked as Rayner, a gentleman with a razor-sharp edge of evil. Lee was always game to do whatever was asked of him in the Hammer horror films and in this offering, it is no different. Lee’s Rayner is pitted against Widmark’s Verney, a sly and informed hero who needs to be one step ahead of his demonic enemy. It has been said that Widmark was difficult to work with on set and that he loathed this production but you would never guess by his performance. He is always top notch and nothing less, even when he has to battle a demonic windstorm with nothing but a rock. Then there is Kinski as Catherine, an innocent but erratic force in the middle of the film. One moment, she is a whispery and naïve child but the next moment, she is a howling banshee who is a witness to pure evil. Denholm Elliott is superb as a wounded father who has no one else to turn to. The end of the film frames him as a withering soul seeking shelter in a chalk pentagram. Anthony Valentine and Honor Blackman also nab honorable mentions as David and Anna, friends of Verney who end up aiding him in his quest to stop Rayner.

While I have sounded like I really disliked To the Devil a Daughter, there are several scenes that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. A scene where a rope is dangled over a phone to get a character to hallucinate a snake coiled around their hand was pretty effective and the film also has one hell of an unnerving suicide scene. The most shocking comes when a woman, who is about to give birth, has her legs bound together so the demon seed can claw its way through her belly (yes, you read that correctly). It was easily the most intense sequence of the film and without question the most unforgettable. Another creepy moment comes when Catherine, who is caught in a murderous trance, wanders the streets of London as people who pass look on in bewilderment at her bizarre behavior. The film also has some wonderful gothic structures to marvel at and compliment the supernatural events. Still, the messy screenplay, convoluted plot, and the trippy end battle leave quite a bit to be desired. As far as the climax is concerned, I still have a hard to believing that the forces of evil could be vanquished with a rock. Overall, if you are a Hammer horror enthusiast or one who really gets the willies from demonic horror films (I know there are those of you who really fear this stuff), To the Devil a Daughter is a horror film that you shouldn’t miss. The rest of us will be re-watching The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen and when we get sick of those, maybe we will join you.

Grade: C

To the Devil a Daughter is available on DVD.

The Woman in Black (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.

Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.

Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.

In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult.  I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and  distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.

The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.

Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.

Grade: B+