Written by Christopher Wicking
Directed by Peter Sykes
Starring Robert Hardy, Shane Briant, Gillian Hills, Yvonne Mitchell, Paul Jones, Patrick Magee
US Release May, 1974
RT 89 min.
Home Video Anchor Bay
Classic Horrors rating = 5 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers; major plot points revealed.
Demons of the Mind is a challenging movie to watch. I can’t decide if it’s too smart for its own good, too ambitious for its own good, or simply too sloppy for its own good. In any case, I had a difficult time following the narrative and understanding its plot points. As it begins, it seems like one of Hammer’s “mini-Hitchcocks” done as a period piece, which is a great idea. However, as it continues, it adds the element of an angry, torch bearing mob, which reduces it to a standard horror film. There are interesting components, but the sum is not as successful as the individual parts.
The movie begins with an eerie, dreamlike feel. A young woman, whom we will learn is Elizabeth (Gillian Hills), is transported on a country road in a prison-like cart while experiencing “fuzzy” memories or daydreams (we’re not sure which at first) of running away and being rescued by Carl Richter (Paul Jones), a handsome young medical student. She also seems to have some kind of psychic connection with her brother, Emil (Shane Briant), who’s kept locked in his room at the family estate. The two men are physically similar, which is no doubt intentional.
Zorn (Robert Hardy) is master of the estate; Elizabeth and Emil are his children. His wife/their mother committed suicide when they were young. Zorn is convinced that either there’s an evil in his blood and/or his kids inherited their mother’s madness. He sends for Dr. Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) to help. Falkenberg babbles about “universal fluids” that connect everyone and how the moon affects these fluids. Zorn mentions disturbing nightmares and seeing himself as an evil demon of the forest, while Falkenberg reinforces his ideas talking about the insanity and incest that are part of his family.
From these diagnoses come most of my confusion with Demons of the Mind. Primarily, someone is stalking village women in the woods and strangling them, tossing flower petals on their bloody bodies. We’re led to believe it’s Zorn. I think he even thinks it’s him. Whomever it is, Zorn cleans up after the murders, wrapping the bodies and rowing out in the lake to throw them overboard. Late in the movie, though, we see Emil murder a woman. Is Zorn simply protecting his son? If it was Emil all along, how did he escape his locked room for the previous murders?
I understand the hereditary concerns about the siblings and the incest, but I don’t understand how that’s connected to Zorn. It’s not clear for whom he’s become Falkenberg’s patron. I guess the entire family needs saving. It’s not clear to the townspeople, either. A crazy priest (Michael Hordem) wanders through the woods and village with an unknown purpose, but he ultimately supports the idea of the physical embodiment of an evil demon in the forest. He whips everyone into a frenzy, and they direct their anger at Zorn, whether or not he’s really the killer.
Director Peter Sykes, who had a relatively short career and would later make To the Devil a Daughter for Hammer, pays interesting attention to detail in many of his shots. For example, when Elizabeth is floating along the shore of the lake, lying on her back in a rowboat, a tree branch slowly touches her face as she passes under it. Then, when she exits Carl’s cottage to retrieve the morning eggs and Zorn’s right-hand man, Klaus (Kenneth J. Warren) grabs her from behind, the eggs in her arms break, shooting their yellow yolks artistically into the air.
During these moments, I again thought the movie was something it was not; in this case, an arthouse thriller. I suppose those words come closest to describing Demons of the Mind, and its climax may support it. Falkenberg decides the way to cure Emil is to dress Klaus’s girlfriend as Elizabeth and… confuse him? This is another thing about the movie I can’t explain. At first, I thought she was going to masquerade as his mother, since everyone’s mental breakdowns are credited to beginning with her death. That scenario makes more sense to me.
For every great line in the movie (“This place reeks of madness and decay”) there’s a head- scratcher (“You’re making this happen; now your children carry these impulses”). Overall, the head-scratcher’s outweigh the great lines, as well as a meaningful plot. Ambiguity can be great in a horror film… if it’s intentional. Demons of the Mind doesn’t feel like it’s intentionally ambiguous. It plays like everyone else knows what’s happening except the viewer. It’s pretty to watch, but its unusual mix of psychological thriller, horror film and family drama is a real puzzle that’s left unsolved.