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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.