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.
Paranoiac is available on DVD.