Hammer Suspense: Paranoiac (1963)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion
US Release May 15, 1963
RT 80 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

paranoiac33

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

On IMDb, Paranoiac is ranked third only to The Nanny and Scream of Fear with the highest User Rating for one of Hammer’s “mini-Hitchcocks.”  I haven’t seen them all (yet), but, so far, I agree.  Still, I’m hoping that I’ll like at least a couple of the others better than I liked Paranoiac.  If not, it’s going to be a rough week.  With one twist too many, it seems unfocused.  Plus, the twists are borrowed from other movies, leaving few original ideas.

Every character in Paranoiac has “issues,” so it’s unclear which one is supposed to have the most impact.  Is it Eleanor Ashby (Janette Scott), the fragile woman who claims she sees her dead brother, Tony, lurking around the house?  Is it Simon Ashby (Oliver Reed), the raging alcoholic who stands to lose part of his inheritance if Tony has somehow returned?  Is it Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell), who’s accused of causing Eleanor to become so fragile?

Instead of providing one climax, there are several, and they’re spread throughout the movie.  I’m not sure any of them count as bona fide “twists” since they’re revealed in such a matter of fact manner.  Early in the movie, we learn that Simon is in cahoots with Francoise (Liliane Brousse), Eleanor’s nurse.  Then, we learn Tony’s (Alexander Davion) true identity.  Then, we learn that “Tony” is in cahoots with Keith Kossett (John Bonney), one of the family’s attorneys.

With so many surprises revealed so soon, where is Paranoiac to go?  It throws in another mystery at 50 minutes into its 80-minute running time.  Tony follows the sound of an organ playing and singing to the old chapel on the estate.  A masked figure with a hook attacks him in the doorway.  It’s a terrifying image and an effective scene; however, it comes out of nowhere.  Are we now to believe the entire story is really about an unidentified killer?

I’d call Paranoiac “an organized mess,” even though it offers a collection of good, sometimes great, moments.  When “Tony” begins to have romantic feelings toward Eleanor, he tells Keith that what he’s been doing has grown distasteful.  Keith replies, “Watch it with Eleanor.  She is supposed to be your sister.”  I may have gotten a homosexual vibe from Keith, but when Tony later embraces Eleanor and kisses her, I got a definite incest vibe, even though I knew by this point they weren’t really related.

Eleanor doesn’t know, though, so their romantic encounter causes her to grab a pair of scissors to slit her wrists.  Tony stops her, confesses he’s in love with her, and that he’s an imposter… in that order.  This sets-up the most ridiculous moment of the movie.  Before he returns to the old chapel in the finale, he asks Eleanor, “Darling, do you trust me?”  She replies, “Of course.”  Really?  Why in the world would she trust someone who deceived her like he did?  It’s just too soon.

The script by Jimmy Sangster has some juicy lines:

Of Tony’s possible return, Eleanor says, “As close as we were, we can’t be separated by death.”

When Simon stumbles through the door, Harriet asks where he’s been.  He replies, “I’ve been drinking. And now I need to drink some more.”

When Harriet asks whom she believes to be Tony why he ran away, he says, “Because I couldn’t stand to live with you another minute more.”

My favorite is when Eleanor tells Tony that her nurse is in love with Simon.  He replies, “That’s a problem she’ll have to work out for herself.”

Perhaps the flaws in the structure of Paranoiac can be blamed on editing.  If all the good ideas, twists and turns were rearranged in a more integrated way, the entire movie would contain more suspense and build to a more surprising, yet satisfying, conclusion.  At the very least, the new ideas from the last 30 minutes could have been introduced earlier.  It’s definitely a missed opportunity to not have us believe the real Tony or his doppelganger might have been the masked killer in the doorway.

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