Paranoiac (1963)

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Oliver Reed has good reason to be paranoid in this superior Hammer thriller. 

Paranoiac (1963) is one of my favourite films. The story is about the Ashby family, who have experienced their share of tragedy. First, mother and father died in a car wreck and then a few years later their teenage son, unable to live with the grief, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff and into the sea. Left behind are a brother and sister whom we meet as adults as the movie begins. Oliver Reed plays the son, a hot tempered, heavy drinking, big-spending man-child, impatient with the drama created by his fragile and neurotic sister, played by Janette Scott, who cannot let go of her dead family members.

They Ashbys are in church when Scott faints at the sight of some shadowy man in the doorway. She is looked after by the family nurse (Liliane Brousse) while Reed and his aunt (Sheila Burrell) have what must be their umpteenth argument over Scott’s sanity and if it’s time to have her committed. She’s been doing this a lot lately, having visions of her dead brother and she has yet another one that evening that prompts her to wander the grounds in a sorry state. She finally decides to kill herself and jumps off the same cliff as her late brother, but is saved by an onlooker. When the rescuer brings Scott to the mansion, the butler turns white as a sheet at the sight of the man, who knows exactly which bedroom upstairs is Scott’s. Tony Ashby (Alexander Davion) has returned from the grave.

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As the family try to wrap their heads around Davion’s return, they’re shocked and incredulous. Davion explains that he faked his suicide to get away from horrid aunty Burrell and would never have returned to this house he hates, had he not witnessed Scott’s suicide attempt during his visit to check on them from afar. To all appearances and every type of question, Davion seems to be the real deal, and his presence thrills Scott but horrifies Reed and Burrell. Those two initially just seem to be doing the math on how the inheritance must now be split, but we learn they also have long buried secrets and guilty consciences which they fear will be excavated now that Davion’s back.

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I won’t say anything more about the plot because there are a couple big twists and lots of little clues to keep you guessing about identities, motives and mysteries in the Ashby past, such as: what was Davion’s real reason for faking his death, is aunty Burrell really as evil as she seems, is that bartender right when he says Reed is no ordinary drunk, what do the French nurse, the family lawyer and his son have to do with it all, how did the parents really die all those years ago, and where is that church music and choirboy singing coming from in the middle of the night? The movie starts out as a rather classy and sedate gothic tale about a clan with disturbing eccentricities and dysfunctions, and then becomes full horror once you shake the family tree; out fall literal skeletons, masked creeps and murderers.

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Reed looked great here, and not only chews the scenery but destroys the garden by driving his beautiful Jag into, back over and out the other side of it. He’s such an overgrown brat and a bully. He explodes at the butler when the liquor runs out and then at the lawyer who refuses to give any more allowance to throw away on spirits, yachts, parties and women. Reed resorts to threatening the lawyer’s son to get him to pay his bills. He was banking on that inheritance, the time was almost near, and all he had to do was keep up his “gaslighting” of sister Scott to get her share as well. If only his brother hadn’t returned.

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Scott is such a pretty presence in this strange and brutal home, a sweet but shaky soul ready to shatter at any moment and clutching to her beloved brother, her saviour. She starts clutching a little too closely, however, which sends her sanity into yet another downward spiral. Davion is handsome with a serious but unreadable face that can be taken as either sensitive or secretive, a demeanour as ambiguous as his intention. Davion does a nice job with the demands of this part and will surprise you a few times before this crazy family gets sorted out.

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Paranoiac was directed by Freddie Francis, and the screenplay adapted by Jimmy Sangster from a Josephine Tey novel called Brat Farrar. The look of the film is beautiful, rich and moody, whether the setting is the unforgiving, jagged clifftop or the neglected and crumbling buildings on the mansion grounds, and the scares are so well done that they truly shock and leave a mark on your memory. I love this film; it’s stood a number of rewatchings, lived up to all the things I liked about it at different ages, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who loves a good mystery, gothic or otherwise, with gorgeous cinematography, unique chills and fine acting. One of Hammer’s and Reed’s better movies.

*I threw in a couple false leads to really keep from spoiling.

This post is part of Mike’s Take on the Movies week-long Oliver Reed festival; we both covered Reed Hammer movies for the fest finale, see which one he did.

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11 thoughts on “Paranoiac (1963)”

  1. love this film. One of the earlier ones I recall from both Reed and Hammer. Nicely put about it living up to expectations at different ages upon reviewing it. Thanks for tagging along on the Oliver Reed fest.

    1. Sometimes you go back to movies you thought were cool as a kid and they don’t impress anymore, but this one lasts because of the combo of scary and adult things. Nice fest you had, and it was fun to add a few more Reed films. Thanks!

    1. Yes and that’s a big part of the sentimental value this movie has for me, back then it inspired me to write thrillers like that.

  2. Oh, and I meant to say that your account of this movie is spiffy. I’m sure that if I didn’t love the novel so much I’d enjoy the Hammer adaptation more. Imagine if Hammer had made a version of Don’t Look Now; it could still have been a splendid movie, but . . .

    There was a BBC adaptation of Brat Farrar in the 1980s that was all kind of hellish respectful of the source material, and that didn’t work for me either.

    1. Thanks, apparently Hammer had Brat Farrar in the production pipeline/schedule for years, so it’s interesting to think of the casting had they done it earlier. Or dream casting for that matter. Interesting also about the BBC one.

  3. I like this one a lot, and you’ve written well on it. Generally, I’m very fond of Hammer’s thrillers or mini-Hitchcocks; they’re different to the studio’s straight horror output, but in a good way. If I have a criticism of them it’s that, after you see a number of them, they doo start to become a little repetitive and a degree of sameness becomes apparent – Sangster liked to use similar tropes and plot devices again and again.

    1. .. and even have similar titles too. The Hitchcock comparison really comes into this one, not to spoil for others but those last reveals are nice Poe-Hitch type scares. When I first saw this as a kid it felt like a “discovery” because it wasn’t a Hammer monster movie which was all I knew then. Weird and scary enough to appeal to a horror loving kid, an intelligent thriller for an adult to revisit and enjoy.

    1. Hammer is always (and rightly) associated with their monster movies but they made so many crime and suspense films that were great. You can have a fun time exploring them all.

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