Was Hammer a production company that tried to create quality movies, or was it a purveyor of penny dreadfuls, churning out cheaply made rip-offs of classic stories in search of a quick buck? Paranoiac wants to be Psycho. The name - which, contrary to my expectations, isn’t made up at all - is a clue, as is the fact it’s in black and white, not the usual lurid colour associated with Hammer. There are a number of ’shock’ scenes, and an attempt to pass off the main villain’s behaviour in psychological terms.
Obviously, in comparison Paranoiac pales next to one of Hitchcock’s highest regarded works. Yet it’s far from rubbish. On its own merits, this brief family drama is a neat little potboiler and well worth anyone’s spare 80 minutes. The Jimmy Sangster screenplay is a sign of quality, and this was the first feature directed by Freddie Francis, already an Oscar winner for his cinematography work on Sons and Lovers, and years later to receive a second for Glory.
Paranoiac has a lot of plot to cram into its economical running time. Twists and revelations rush by at breakneck speed, as the story of the troubled Ashby family hurtles towards its grisly denouement. The real horror that comes with being an Ashby is the family inheritance. Each member stands to gain a great deal of money, which is asking for trouble when one of the brood is boorish, boozy, dangerous and potentially psychotic.
None of the Ashbys are especially well hinged, but it’s Simon (Oliver Reed) who tops the nutty stakes. When not driving his car through flowerbeds or quaffing an annual salary’s worth of brandy, he’s plotting to tip younger sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) over the edge by reviving memories of their brother, Anthony, who died aged 15. Only his plan is foiled when ‘Tony’ abruptly reappears, older and apparently unhurt. Simon can’t believe it. Eleanor is overjoyed, more so when she finds Tony to be pleasant company who even saves her life when her car’s brakes ‘accidentally’ fail (thanks to Simon’s sabotage) and nearly topples her over a cliff edge. Nothing is as it appears in the Ashby household. Tony passes various tests and questions about his identity with flying colours, only later revealing that he is in fact an imposter, assuming the guise after being hired by a family attorney who’s on the take from the Ashby trust fund. Will he get away with it? His growing feelings for Eleanor suggest otherwise, as does the singing voice coming from the family chapel, one that belongs quite clearly to the teenage Anthony…
It’s good stuff, if told rather episodically and with an eye on the clock. Scenes never linger, which means the characters don’t take on any kind of depth and are fairly stereotypical. For instance, it takes very little time to establish that Simon is one penny short of the full guinea, or that Eleanor is a paragon of virtue who deserves better. Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) is the more complicated figure, her stolid veneer masking a fragile core that has obviously been rattled by Simon’s excesses. Enough is going on to leave crucial questions unanswered until the end - where is (young) Tony’s voice coming from? Why does Simon play the organ late at night? And who is the grotesque, masked figure who stands behind him, the one dressed as a choirboy and ready to wield a knife at the merest hint of disturbance?
What saves Paranoiac to a large degree is its cast, and in particular Oliver Reed. Quite possibly the Russell Crowe of his day, the young Reed is beautiful, crazy, and fills the screen whenever he occupies it. The narrative of his descent into madness isn’t exactly clearly told - we can’t believe he was ever entirely all there - but the shot of him gazing into a pool after committing murder is a sheer glimpse of lunacy surfacing. Reed is excellent value, and he’s supported by a fine ensemble who rarely put a foot wrong. Alexander Davion as Tony is only slightly less wooden than the house’s oak panelling, but the camera loves Janette Scott and so did I. She’s simply gorgeous as Eleanor. The scene where her sisterly kiss with Tony turns into something altogether more passionate is one of the film’s finest. For a stunned moment, Eleanor looks horrified at what she’s done, even though both Tony and the viewer know she has actually committed no wrong.
As a Hammer classic, Paranoiac doesn’t really hold its own. It’s a good tale that’s told in a functional manner, and it’s efforts to attribute the actions of its characters to abnormal psychological behaviour lead to muddy results. Hold on to the easy melodrama, Hammer - you aren’t Hitchcock, and this isn’t in the same league as Psycho. One saving grace in this regard is that a psychiatrist isn’t wheeled on at the film’s close to explain Simon’s actions - we’re left to contemplate his craziness for ourselves, which is just as it should be. Instead, watch this for its racing, convoluted plot, for Janette Scott, and for Oliver Reed at his crackers best. I’ve seen it suggested that Reed’s turn as Simon was inspired by his own private life; if that’s true, then the ‘Wild Thing’ was very aptly named.