Archive for April, 2008

Hammer Time! Paranoiac (1963)

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.

Janette ScottParanoiac 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?

Clowning aroundWhat 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.

Posted on 22nd April 2008
Under: Horror, Hammer | 11 Comments »

‘I’ve always belonged to him!’

Damien Omen II PosterDamien Omen II was the stuff of playground legend. As kids, we could ignore the paper-thin plot and concentrate on what really mattered i.e. which was the film’s nastiest death? Personally, the thought of being trapped under ice was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies, though I could also see the merit in not being cut in two by a speeding lift cable, and I certainly didn’t fancy the idea of getting run over by a juggernaut after having mine eyes pecked out by a raven. DOII served up killings to suit nearly all tastes, from the fairly mundane (heart attack) through to grotesque (crushed by a colliding train cart) and frankly bizarre (Damien can kill you with his mind) slayings that befell anyone who got in the way of the Antichrist, even indirectly. What self-respecting schoolchild wouldn’t love it?

How it stands up to grown-up viewings is an altogether different matter, of course. What stands out now is the total weakness of the story, which seems to exist only to bump people off in various imaginative ways. The psychological complexities of The Omen are non-existent in this instalment. For a start, Damo is now clearly Satan. Any ambiguity over his identity from the first episode is forgotten, as he learns how to get all Beelzebub on peoples’ ass, an early example of this being his ability to reduce the class bully to a gibbering wreck just be looking at him. Later, he demonstrates an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, proof of a diabolical presence if ever I’ve heard of one.

Following the demise of his original family, DOII kicks off with our ‘hero’ (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) being adopted by another member of the Thorn dynasty. Richard (an ill-looking William Holden), like his late brother Robert is a prominent American, only this time he’s an industrial giant. His company, Thorn Industries, is exploring fresh fields for profit. Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) is the ethical employee who disagrees with the more ruthless Paul Buher’s (Robert Foxworth) scheme to exploit Third World famine. It doesn’t take too many cranial nodes to work out who out of these two will still be alive by the end of the picture. It turns out that the latter isn’t only a sod in the business world but also has a vested interest in Damien’s upbringing. People seem to know who he is, like infernal agents whose role is to prepare him for adulthood. Indeed, everyone in the story neatly falls into the category of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or for the purposes of this movie the ‘dead’ and ‘winners.’ Only Thorn’s other son, Mark (Lucas Donat) comes across as an innocent, as though that’s likely to save him.

Damien Thorn, for whom butter literally doesn't meltThe tone of the film is set early. Carl Bugenhagen (Leo McKern, a rare survivor from the original movie) entreats a sceptical colleague to check out an ancient painted wall, proof he argues that Damien is the Antichrist. As Jerry Goldsmith’s music rises in urgency, the pair enter a temple’s catacombs, and there deep underground is the evidence. The face of the six-year old Damien stares out from the wall, and it’s at that precise moment that the old temple collapses… From there, anyone who even thinks ill of Satan Jr. has little more than a horrific end coming to them. It’s those who don’t get involved even that directly who I feel sorry for, such as the poor bugger who analyses Damo’s blood and matches his cells with those of a jackal - he literally goes to pieces. Or the engineer who could stand in the way of Buher’s malevolent plans for Thorn Industries - his death’s a gas.

Corpses litter the narrative, with the next gruesome death taking place within ten minutes of the previous one. After a while, it’s impossible to imagine that there’s any hope for the good guys. They’re flesh and blood, no match for the forces of darkness, and often enough their fragile lives are snuffed out before they even realise their part in Damien’s bid for world domination. And it’s a real weakness within the movie. Death follows death with almost weary predictability so that you know who’s going to be handed their cards long before they do - the only question being what form their ‘popping off’ will take.

Woman wearing a raven, yesterdayThere’s one glimmer of hope for the movie. Roughly halfway through, Damien is urged by his mentor, Sergeant Neff (Lance Henriksen) to read the book of Revelations. He does, and in a sudden moment of clarity understands exactly who he is. Bellowing ‘Why me?’ bleakly into the dusk, you start to wonder whether DOII will consider the character’s existential wrestling with his own demonic soul, with all the alleogrical teenage questions over identity that are implied. But no; the next time we see Damien, he’s reconciled with his dark intent and ready to dole out infernal judgement.

Otherwise, there’s little to stop the horned lad. Decent production values, the return of Goldmith’s terrific score and some fine performances (I especially liked (i) Foxworth, whose turn simply oozes an understated sense of evil (ii) Lee Grant as Mrs Thorn, who also emerges as the Whore of Babylon - fancy that (iii) Scott -Taylor, not bad as an adolescent Antichrist) can’t save the wasted plot. Once you realise that anyone who even considers standing in Damien’s way faces the final curtain, the film loses any real suspense, and it’s simply a matter of agreeing on the most elaborate execution scene. Hats off to the movie for coming up with some real stomach-clenchers. No two deaths in DOII (and there are many) are the same, and I’m a little surprised that Top Trumps haven’t exploited this fact for one of their special editions. The playground mob would love it…

Posted on 3rd April 2008
Under: Horror | 1 Comment »

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