Vincent Price stars in a Poe-flavoured adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla.
Lifting its title from a story by Nikolai Gogol, but in fact, based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Horla, Diary of a Madman proves to be a fascinating slice of overwrought gothic, clearly influenced by the Poe films that Roger Corman was making for AIP at the time (the opening graveyard scene could have been lifted directly from many of those films). The original short story is rather different in theme from the film, and I suspect de Maupassant would have been less than thrilled to see an overt religious element grafted onto his story – but on its own level, this is a pretty solid effort.
Vincent Price plays magistrate Simon Cordier, who we know has come to a sticky end, given that the film opens with his funeral. As the mourners gather to read his diary (as specified in his will), the main story of his possession by an invisible creature from an alternate dimension unfolds.
Cordier is possessed when he visits a condemned murderer in prison, who claims that it was this being – The Horla – that forced him to kill. As the man attacks Cordier, he is killed and the Horla switches its attentions to the magistrate. Hearing its voice taunting him, Cordier – not unreasonably – thinks he may be going mad and is advised by his doctor to relax more and return to his old hobby of sculpture. This he does, and for a while, the voice is silent as he engages the services of model Odette (Nancy Kovack) and begins to fall in love with her. Odette is far from the wholesome innocent Cordier sees her as – already married to a struggling artist, Paul DuClasse (Chris Warfield), she’s ruthlessly ambitious and sees marriage to Cordier as her way to financial security.
The Horla recognises her for the gold digger she is and is soon shouting instructions to Cordier, sending him out to kill the girl and pin the blame for her murder on her husband. As DuClasse sits in prison awaiting trial, Cordier makes one final, desperate effort to free himself of the malign influence of the Horla.
Du Maupassant’s original story was a fascinating mix of horror and science fiction, and the idea of powerful beings from other universes controlling the destiny of men would have considerable influence on H.P. Lovecraft. This film version is, inevitably, rather less thought-provoking in its approach, having dropped all but the basic theme of the story to instead create a more traditional tale of good vs. evil. In doing so, the film imposes a religious element on de Maupassant’s strictly humanist writing (in the film, the power of the Horla is broken by the sight of a crucifix, placing this alien being very much in the gothic horror tradition of vampires and demons) and rather downplays the science fiction elements of the story. While the Horla here is still a being from another world, it is essentially presented as a demonic influence rather than an alien one.
However, all that considered, the film certainly works well on its own levels. There is a certain ambiguity throughout the story – as we are seeing this through the eyes of Cordier (and in his own words), there is always the possibility that the Horla really was all in his mind, and that he really is mad (the title, inadvertently I suspect, clearly suggests this). Certainly, within the version of the story that we see, the Horla is a very real presence, but we have to consider that our narrator might not be a reliable one. Of course, the film inevitably breaks its own narrative rules by including scenes that Cordier is not involved in, which is a pity and rather muddies the waters of what we are seeing.
Director Reginald Le Borg was a jobbing hack with some genre experience, having made the entertaining The Black Sleep and Voodoo Island – not to mention the rather less entertaining The Mummy’s Ghost – and does a solid job here. His original choice to have the Horla speak with a distorted voice – overridden by the producers – might have made this presence seem somewhat creepier, as in the final film the all-powerful invisible alien often seems like a sulky control freak rather than a terrifying voice of doom – but the film has a fast pace, looks good and manages to make the ludicrous elements seem fairly believable.
Price is on good form, showing restraint for the most part and letting loose with the histrionics when they are needed, and Kovack is impressive too, switching from sweet to scheming, depending on who she is talking to. Unfortunately, Chris Warfield is pretty terrible as the wrongly accused artist, being wooden and personality-free – you won’t care what happens to him, frankly, and what lovelorn Jeanne (Elaine Devry) sees in his is anyone’s guess.
But for all its narrative mistakes and uneven performances, Diary of a Madman turns out to be rather more interesting and entertaining than it perhaps should be. We’re still waiting for a great version of du Maupassant’s story, but all in all, this isn’t a bad reinterpretation of the concept, and fans of 1960s gothic horror will find much to entertain them here.
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