"He's come to fetch me!" by Richard Glenn Schmidt
NOTE: I do spoil a few twists of Paranoiac here but also leave a many things uncovered.
One of my favorite Hammer Films’ productions is the Psycho-inspired Paranoiac. This finely executed modern gothic tells the tale of a family slowly destroyed by madness and the promise of a bountiful inheritance. The greedy Simon Ashby (played by Oliver Reed), a spoiled and drunken sot, has his heart set on not only his own share of his dead parents’ money (which he is constantly borrowing against) but his sister’s share as well. Sweet Eleanor (Janette Scott) doesn’t give a damn about the inheritance, she is haunted by the death of their brother Tony who drowned himself 8 years prior and whose body was never recovered.
Eleanor is so tormented by the spirit of Tony that she has become sickly over the years and needs Françoise (played by Liliane Brousse) to take care of her. The sexy Françoise is kind of in cahoots with Simon (I think, it’s hard to tell with them Frenchies) to drive Eleanor insane so that he can get her committed and collect her cash when he turns 25 in a few weeks. Let’s just say that patience is not one of his virtues. The only other family around is Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell), a waspish woman who is trying to hold the family together in spite of it all.
And then Tony shows up… Well, sort of. A clever impostor (played by Alexander Davion) who just happens to be the spitting image of the dead Ashby brother arrives much to the delight of Eleanor but to the disturbance of everyone else. We never learn this dude’s real name but he is part of a plan by the Ashby family lawyer’s son who is also after the inheritance. Almost immediately, faux-Tony does two things: 1. He nearly gets killed by Simon and 2. He falls in love with Eleanor. Nice job with not sticking to the plan, duder. Once he discovers the family secret, that Simon is completely bonkers, faux-Tony tries to set things right with predictably fiery results.
Paranoiac is a hypnotic and eerie film that features phenomenal black and white cinematography by Arthur Grant, a man who shot over 20 horror titles for Hammer Films. There is also economic (only 79 minutes!) and engaging storytelling by Jimmy Sangster, a prolific horror screenwriter, producer and director. Sure there are some huge plot holes and loads of melodrama but who cares when you’ve got Janette Scott in a flowing nightgown wandering the grounds of the estate under a day-for-night filter while chasing the phantom of the brother who she totally has inappropriate feelings for.
The theme of incest in Paranoiac is implied, hinted at and in one moment, directly addressed. Eleanor is so unnaturally attached to Tony that I immediately start wondering what their deal is before he “killed himself”. And then when faux-Tony and she have their little lip-lock, things get a little awkward to say the least. We know the guy ain’t Tony and the kiss between them seems nice (and legal) but wait, she still thinks faux-Tony is the real Tony. She runs away screaming “I’m dirty!” Oh yes oh YES, you are, young lady! My guess is that the kiss would have been even deeper had it been the real Tony and that’s just messed up, yo. Even Aunt Harriet and Simon have their own thing going on too. It may seem like she is just protecting her nephew who is as mad as a hatter but I think their relationship is quite special, perhaps even more special than I want to imagine. “Simon belongs to me!” Wow yeah, he’s all yours, lady.
Oliver Reed knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of Simon Ashby, a bitter young man corrupt to the core and totally off his rocker. At first, Simon seems like your typical soap opera baddie: an irresistible schemer and handsome son of a bitch with a drinking problem who uses everyone he can get his hands on (especially Françoise). Then we discover (in a truly frightening scene) that this young man has a dark and terrible side lurking just beneath the surface. Of course, Reed isn’t the only one in top form here. Janette Scott of The Day of the Triffids is great as Eleanor, a character who could easily have become very annoying with a less capable actress in the part. I think I have a crush on Sheila Burrell (of Cold Comfort Farm (not horror but totally essential)). I hope that when I finally go insane, she’ll be there to watch over me. I really liked French-born actor Alexander Davion of The Plague of the Zombies and Valley of the Dolls. The dude could not have been any better as faux-Tony, a conflicted antihero to say the least.
So, if unwholesome longings for siblings, an insanely creepy baby doll-like mask, a hot French nurse, and Oliver Reed tearing shit up are your thing, then do yourself a favor and check out Paranoiac. Inheritance scam flicks come and go but oh man, this one is a doozy. Some of Hammer Films’ other psychodramas are worth a look but none are as successful as this one at delivering a fascinating set of circumstances, complex characters, genuine scares, and a beautifully made movie as well.