Hammer Suspense: Nightmare (1964) and Hysteria (1965)

Nightmare (1964)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce
US Release June 17, 1964
RT 83 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

nightmare

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

Nightmare was the fourth Hammer “mini-Hitchcock” that Jimmy Sangster wrote and the second that Freddie Francis directed.  (Francis directed neither Scream of Fear nor Maniac.)  The story contains plot points similar to other Sangster scripts, but the direction contributes elements that differentiate it from them.  I always watch the camera work in movies that Francis directed, because he won an Oscar twice in his role as cinematographer (Sons & Lovers in 1960 and Glory in 1989).  This was early in Francis’s directorial career, but there are hints of interesting angles and use of light and shadow.

In Nightmare, we have the familiar set-up of a young woman, Janet (Jennie Linden), believing she’s going crazy in a big, spooky house.  She’s had horrifying dreams that cross the line into reality, based on the fact that she witnessed her mother brutally murder her father on her 11th birthday.  Her greatest fear is that she has inherited her mother’s insanity.  As her birthday approaches, she reaches a breaking point and is committed.  As in Psycho (1960), the woman we believe to be the main character disappears from the rest of the movie as it switches gears into a different, albeit related, mystery.

Supposedly, Julie Christie was originally signed to play Janet.  With the caliber of her celebrity, a surprise mid-movie removal would have been significant upon the movie’s original release.  Re-casting her with a relative unknown left the movie without an A-list actor to draw crowds in the United States, which was often part of Hammer’s distribution deals and may have lessened the movie’s impact.  52 years later, that doesn’t matter as much, even though it causes Nightmare to seem like even more of a B-movie than usual.  On the other hand, the fact that it’s at all effective is a testament to the talent involved.

The cast of other characters includes Mary Lewis (Brenda Bruce), a teacher from the boarding school where Janet is removed once her dreams interfere with her daily routine.  Mrs. Gibbs (Irene Richmond) and John (George A. Cooper), the housekeeper and chauffeur, have witnessed Janet grow up and seem truly interested in her welfare.  Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond) is the nurse hired to take care of Janet when she returns home.  Finally, Henry Baxter (David Knight) is Janet’s legal guardian for whom the young woman is very fond.  Not everyone is who he/she seems to be and their trust may not be earned.

I criticized Paranoiac for having too many twists.  Nightmare is a better example of how the surprises can be structured to maintain a single narrative.  For this reason, I prefer it.  Also, the reason one (or more) of the characters might conspire to drive someone crazy is more mysterious.  No one’s trying to rob Janet of a cash windfall she’s expecting to receive on her birthday.  In fact, right to the very end, I understood exactly what was happening, but I had no idea why it was happening.  I suppose the movie could be criticized for this, but it worked for me and I enjoyed it.

Hysteria (1965)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring Robert Webber, Anthony Newlands, Jennifer Jayne, Maurice Denham, Lelia Goldoni
US Release April, 1965
RT 85 min.
Home Video Warner Archive
Classic Horrors rating = 5 (out of 10)

hysteria-hammer-mgm-poster

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

Although it has many of the same characteristics as a Hammer “mini-Hitchcock,” I don’t consider Hysteria as belonging to the same genre as most of the others, such as Scream of Fear, Paranoiac or Nightmare.  The lead character, Chris Smith (Robert Webber) has amnesia and might be a victim, framed for murder; however, with its jazzy-snazzy music and non-Gothic setting, it feels more like it’s strictly a mystery rather than a suspense thriller.  I hate to say it, but this may also be because the protagonist is a man instead of a woman.  The threat just doesn’t seem as significant.

It might be more politically correct to say that the protagonist is involved in solving his own mystery in Hysteria, whereas the protagonist, whether a he or a she, does not in the other movies.  Released from his psychiatrist, Dr. Keller (Anthony Newlands), with only a key to a Richmond Court penthouse from a mysterious benefactor and a crumpled photo of a beautiful woman torn from a magazine, Smith may suffer from tricks of the mind, but he’s proactive in getting to the secret of his true identity.  He even hires a private investigator, Hemmings (Maurice Denham) to assist.

Smith is awakened from naps by the noise of a couple arguing next door; however, that space is under construction and vacant.  He chases empty elevators and finds more photos of the beautiful woman on the floor.  These lead him to photographer Marcus Allan (Peter Woodthrope), who informs him that she used to model for him.  Her name is… was… Denise James (Lelia Goldoni), but she died six months ago, murdered in a Richmond Court penthouse.  If she’s dead, then why does he spot her driving around town in a sporty convertible?

Denise James is the key to the mystery; however, when she appears, the movie somehow slows down.  She reveals it was her husband who was driving the car during the accident that caused Smith’s amnesia.  She’s lovely, but is distractingly shot through a Vaseline-covered lens.  When Smith’s nurse, Gina McConnell (Jennifer Jayne) shows up on his doorstep to check on him, there’s a little romantic rivalry between the two women, even though he’s not technically involved with either one of them.  He eventually remembers the circumstances of the accident, but nothing prior to that.

This leads to the key question: might he have been capable of murder prior to the accident?  However different it may be, Hysteria is similar to the other “mini-Hitchcocks” in that all the scheming by the bad guys relies upon coincidence for their devious plans to work.  They assume if they are successful in driving someone crazy, he or she will perform the action they expect.  That certainly happens here, as it did in Nightmare.  This one is lighter, though.  Webber plays a charismatic leading man and there’s more humor, right through the very last line.

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