Love Letter to Hammer Horror: Paranoiac

Paranoiac is one of Hammer Horror’s most successful films for low-budget thrillers. However, it feels like Hammer’s attempt to take Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock styles and turn them into a proto-slasher. As a result, the film is filled with goosebump-causing ambience and dark expectation which keeps you on the edge of your seat until its gruesome conclusion.

While it does follows a formula, with stereotypical characters and an ending that is more than just an homage to Psycho (mummified corpse and all), it’s an efficient thriller with some of the most disturbing images ever seen in Hammer films.

Film poster for Paranoiac.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for Paranoiac was loosely based on Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, which Hammer had brought that rights to over a decade earlier. Although an earlier attempt at an adaption was written by Paul Dehn, it never made it off the ground. After the success of Psycho, Sangster was given a chance to adapt it with the direction of Freddie Francis. Sangster injected the story with new twists, a fresh conclusion, and a departure from the original setting. (If you are looking for a more accurate adaption of Tey’s crime novel, BBC did a mini-series in 1986.)

Filmed at Bray Studio and outside shots taken on the Isle of Purbeck, Paranoiac has captivating performances from Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion, and Liliane Brousse. Despite it being set in the modern-day, there is still a gothic sense. We have the stereotypical ‘dark old house’, with its mix of kooky characters suffering from various mental issues and a plot involving stolen identity and guilt.

A family stands together in a lounge. Still from Paranoiac.

The story begins with a funeral for the wealthy, and tragically deceased, Ashby couple after a plane crash. The surviving children, Simon (Reed) and Eleanor (Scott) and eldest brother Anthony (Davion) are left in the care of their Aunt Harriet (Burrell). A few years later, Anthony seemingly meets a tragic end when he jumps into the sea at the age of 15, leaving behind a suicide note.

Eight years later, Eleanor now suffers nervous anxiety, looked after round the clock by a nurse. Simon in the meantime has become a violent, irresponsible alcoholic. Although he survives on paltry handouts, he is sick of this life and desperate for his inheritance, as he is often broke due to his alcoholism and the fast cars he crashes while under the influence. He is determined to inherit the family fortune by any means necessary, even if it means casting his sister, Eleanor, as insane.

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Just as Simon’s scheme nears fruition, a man resembling Tony emerges, claiming to be the long-lost brother who faked his own death. The individual looks like their brother and seems to know things only he would know. However, both Simon and Aunt Harriet believe that the individual is an imposter. Simon decides to get rid of him and Eleanor before the truth of this past comes to light.

A masked person holds up a hook with their right hand. Still from Paranoiac.

Paranoiac may not be without its flaws—the abrupt conclusion and unresolved plot threads leave much to be desired. Still, the film shines through its atmospheric visuals, elegant shots and standout performances, particularly Reed, who once again steals the film with his portrayal of the vengeful sociopath Simon.

This type of atmosphere, and a plot that leaves the mysteries to the end, was not typical for Hammer Horror. However following the success of Psycho, such psychological horrors penned by Sangster became a staple of Hammer’s repertoire.

Oliver Reed looks intensely at Alexander Davion. Still from Paranoiac.

Paranoiac truly is a hidden gem. The modernisation of Gothic tropes such as shameful secrets, doubles, and insanity is ingenious and well-crafted. It’s a shame that this film appears to be almost forgotten, as it’s one of those that gets better each time you watch it.

It may straddle the line between horror and thriller, but its ability to captivate audiences with its low-key intensity and eerie ambiance is undeniable. For fans of Hammer Horror and psychological intrigue alike, Paranoiac promises to leave a lasting impression long after the credits roll, and I would highly recommend giving it a watch.

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