Continuing our Hammer Horror season with a look at one of their more esoteric and delirious studies of gothic insanity.
At this point in our month of Hammer Horror reviews, it’s practically impossible not to repeat the same points again and again. So bear with me. I’m about, once again, to explain how Hammer in the 1970s seemed not only to be out of touch with what was happening in the horror film genre but also seemed to be genuinely baffled by its own productions. It seems bizarre, but if you read any of the interviews Michael Carreras gave in the late 1970s – shortly before Hammer as was imploded in a mess of debts and unmade, overly ambitious films – you’ll find a studio boss who is dismissive of almost everything that Hammer made that decade, sneering at production teams and filmmakers, shaking his head with bafflement at films that he felt were failures because they stepped outside the Hammer tradition. The fact that the Hammer tradition was not only something that was very much on its last legs by the start of the decade but also something that he himself appeared to be trying to escape (unless you believe that Nessie, Vampirella and so on were typical Hammer projects) is ignored all round.
There are two Hammer films of the 1970s that, more than anything else, seemed to point a way forward – a reinvention and modernised take on the Hammer tradition that didn’t necessarily change everything. We’ll come back to Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, no doubt. For now, let’s look at Demons of the Mind.
At first glance, Demons of the Mind feels familiarly like a Hammer Horror. It’s a period piece that takes place in a vaguely identified European setting, has stagecoaches and mad doctors and torch-wielding villagers just like many of the other films. It’s not a radical reinvention of the wheel in that sense. But beyond the superficial, this is nothing like anything that Hammer had made before (or since, for that matter). This is a film that is not only drenched in madness and moral decay, but a movie that seems to sit in the no-mans-land between exploitation and art film, a world occupied more comfortably by some of the European horror filmmakers of the time who had themselves been influenced by Hammer but were now exploring their own curious dreamscapes of gothic horror, eroticism and delirious excess. Specifically, I’m thinking about Jess Franco, because whenever I watch Demons of the Mind, Franco is the man who comes to mind. I don’t necessarily think that the film resembles his work visually – though in a few moments it very much does – but there is something about the almost trippy, psychedelic nightmare worlds of Franco’s pseudo-gothic horrors of the early 1970s that drips into this film too.
Hammer’s horror films may have been fantastical stories, but by and large, they were made in with a rather grounded approach to the subject – the supernatural elements might have been out of this world but nothing else was. Even at their most lurid, the films rarely explored a world of shifting reality within their own narratives. There are exceptions – Vampire Circus is perhaps the Hammer film that really steps out of the ordinary and into a world that seems awash with magic and fantasy. Demons of the Mind is different from most of Hammer’s gothic tales in that in many ways it is more grounded than most – there are no supernatural elements, no artificially-created monsters. It’s a study of madness and manipulation, and its monsters are all very human. But within that seemingly realistic world, the film allows the insanity of the characters to infect the narrative itself – this is a story in which almost everyone seems a little unbalanced and twisted.
Writer Christopher Wicking was one of the most interesting figures in British genre cinema, an ambitious writer who had a clear love for horror – very unusual for a filmmaker at the time – and thought that it could be something more than it was. He wasn’t a pioneer of ‘elevated horror’ – in fact, he was dismissive of pretention and had a fondness for what he dubbed “termite art” – work that – to quote The Guardian – valued ‘personal vision and idiosyncrasy’. It was this sense of personal vision that made his work so fascinating, as it often crammed in multiple sub-plots, non-linear narrative and complex – sometimes too complex and under-developed – concepts. His films – this one, Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Venom and To the Devil – A Daughter – are all fascinating and frustrating, as if his ideas were too complicated to properly translate into a straightforward narrative. There always seems to be something missing, something lost in the often frantic storylines, but despite that – or maybe because of it – the films are all rather extraordinary. If I was to list the most interesting British horror films of the era, his name might well pop up more than most.
As a director, Peter Sykes seems to have perhaps understood him the most – the three films that they made together are odd curios that frustrate and delight in turn, and this film is the best of them. It wanders into all sorts of directions, sometimes becoming almost avant-garde in its approach before slipping back into relative normality and then back into the weird.
The film opens in traditional Hammer style – a stagecoach ride – and then immediately up-ends expectations with a back-and-forth, dialogue-free flashback to a romance between two 1960s pop stars, Gillian Hills and Paul Jones. Hills, who starred in Beat Girl and then carved out a career as a yé yé singer in France while making cult favourites like Blow-Up and A Clockwork Orange, is not your typical Hammer heroine; she’s an ethereal, damaged presence, a spaced-out hippy chick transposed to 19th century Europe (her part was originally intended for Marianne Faithfull, which might have been interesting). Jones, former frontman of Manfred Mann, is also not the usual solid but dull Hammer romantic lead, instead having an intellectual intensity about him. He’s medical student Carl, who is living alone in the woods, she’s Elizabeth, the mentally fragile daughter of Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy), who has ‘wandered off’ – or more accurately escaped – from the family pile. Returned to the fold, she is reunited with brother Emil (Shane Briant), who seems even more unbalanced than her. Both are suffering from a mysterious ailment of the mind and her to treat them with new experimental methods is Falkenberg (Patrick Magee), a doctor of dubious distinction.
Baron Zorn seems as unstable as his children and, as the film goes on, we start to understand why. He is the catalyst for the madness, an insanity that he has effectively created. Falkenberg – who thinks that he can make his reputation with the case – figures this out, but too late – and in any case, his own treatment does not exactly seem effective. Emil in particular is too far gone, his obsessive and incestuous relationship with his sister driving him to violent and murderous outbursts. Of course, the local villagers are beginning to notice that young women are disappearing and – egged on by a demented priest played with vigour by Michael Hordern and Carl, who sees through their superstitious fears of a ‘demon’ and reveals that Zorn is the real monster – they are soon marching on the mansion.
Demons of the Mind is a continually intriguing puzzle of a film – at one moment beautiful and poetic, at the next delirious and hysterical. Hardy and Magee both throw caution to the wind in their performances, and I’ve seen criticism of the film for this – but honestly, this wouldn’t work with milder performances (or with Cushing and Lee taking these roles). It needs the excess. Similarly, Hordern’s wildly over-the-top acting makes a certain sort of sense here. The film is awash with madness and there is really no room for subtlety here. The best performance might be from Shane Briant, at the time being groomed as Hammer’s new star – it’s a shame that the timing was against him because he’s consistently great in all his films for the company and here, he switches between damaged and tragic to psychotically deranged at the drop of a hat.
There’s a delicious decadence about this film that you won’t find in any other Hammer movie. It’s a wonderfully ambitious attempt to take the Hammer style and move it into new directions, updating and expanding the familiar tropes, awash with wonderfully cynical dialogue (“The world will be a better place without me, and it won’t even know that you died” sneers Zorn as he prepares to shoot Falkenberg). Of course, Hammer didn’t understand it at all. The original title – Blood Will Have Blood – was dropped (I think Demons of the Mind is a great title, but perhaps less provocatively interesting than the Shakespearean quote) and the film ended up being shuffled out at the bottom end of a double-bill with Tower of Evil. Even now, it doesn’t quite seem to have the reputation it deserves. But it is one of their best movies – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
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