One of my favourite films of 2012 was The Imposter, a documentary that told the remarkable tale of Frederic Bourdin, who managed to charm and scheme his way into the lives of a Texas family by pretending to be their long lost son. Paranoiac, made some five decades previously employs much the same plot. When a missing, feared-dead brother returns home ripples of distress reverberate through the family and threaten to tear it apart.
Hammer Films, who made this in 1963, always had their finger on the filmic pulse and could churn out wannabes (or rip offs if you we’re being crude) pretty quickly to cash in on the trend of the time, hence this film which is clearly a response to Hichcock‘s Psycho, but also owes debts to Chase a Crooked Shadow, Les Diaboliques & The Innocents, all made just a few years earlier and all bathing in that same unnerving psychodrama. While there are certainly the standard elements of Hammer films present: a sprawling, part-collapsed Gothic mansion; unhinged characters; organ music; women being driven mad for financial gain, it has none of the bloodstained horror. We’re in psychological thriller territory here, with not a vampire in sight.
We open in attendance of a ceremony in a rural English church commemorating the deaths of three members of a local well-to-do family. Mid service Eleanor, the daughter of the deceased parents looks to the nave, sees her long dead brother standing in the shadows and promptly faints. She is one of two surviving children, and the one who the deaths, particularly of her older brother Tony, have affected the most. The other brother is Simon, played with barely constrained ferocity by Oliver Reed.
Tony reveals himself to be alive and moves back into the family home. His arrival is greeted with delight by his sister, sneering mistrust by his brother and outright hostility by his aunt. As the film progresses we begin to realise there are multiple scams going on in the house and every inhabitant has their own agenda, each one feeding off another. Is the nurse employed to look after Eleanor really what she claims to be? Is Tony really the returning brother back from a supposed watery grave? and what exactly is the aunt’s relationship with Simon?
More fascinatingly who is the paranoiac of the title? Is it the young sister, played by Janette Scott, slowly driven being driven out of her mind? The spellbinding Oliver Reed, channelling the rage of Caliban or Sheila Burrell, the spinster aunt who clearly has an ulterior agenda. Well to answer that would be telling and to flesh out any more of the story would be to seriously spoil so suffice to say there are plenty of surprises packed into the eighty minute running time and the ending is one you’ll not soon forget.
Paranoiac – directed by Freddie Francis (1963)
A cynic might say this is a cheap knock off of Psycho but it’s up there with Hammer‘s best efforts.
Freddie Francis’ first effort in the director’s chair; Ollie Reed is never better.