Sunday, December 14, 2014

Paranoiac (1963) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains only mild spoilers **

As much as any studio, Britain's Hammer Studios was known for their production values.  Their impressive craft in all areas of film production made their ordinary movies watchable, and made the good ones classics.  Maybe this fated them to specialize in horror, where maintaining a mood is so important.  A horror film need not be frightening if it instills a sense of dread, a diverting unease.

Paranoiac must have been better in the theatre, anno 1963, because it's very much a mood piece, a date movie where the viewer waits to be grasped by (or grasp) their partner.  And reduced to synopsis, it seems trifling: troubled rich family reacts to the return of their prodigal brother, assumed a suicide at age 15, as they also wait to inherit large sums of money.  Is he really the brother?  And which of them is really insane?  etc.  This is one of those movies where someone's willing to kill everyone else, but who's the killer?  (No one seems to be a "paranoiac," but I guess that's not the point, is it?)

Even on the home screen, the film works better than it has right to, thanks in part to the moody black-and-white photography, of cliffside locations and lots of looming close-ups, including those of Oliver Reed in the type of balls-out performance that would evoke giggles if it were almost anyone else (William Shatner, or maybe Jack Nicholson in The Shining).  If you laugh at Reed it will be in fascination at what a convincingly haunted bastard he creates as he downs one glass after another of fake alcohol (presumably fake) and rages, a spoiled brat in the body of a pugilist, whenever life dares defy him.  We don't sympathize with him, but he is the protagonist of this tale set in a world of deception and exploitation, peopled mostly by psychological cripples.

Like Dementia 13, The Cabinet of Caligari, and TV's The Outer Limits, Paranoiac dates from that post-Psycho era when filmmakers realized that the gothic need not be set in the past.  It's not the best of Hammer's contemporary shockers -- that would be Scream of Fear, with Susan Strasberg, per both the consensus and my own judgment -- but it's not bad for a rainy night.  

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