Column: The Vault of Secrets: Paranoiac (1963)

By Orrin Grey

Paranoiac (1963). Directed by: Freddie Francis. Starring: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is my personal favorite from among Hammer’s handful of psychological thrillers, Paranoiac, directed by Freddie Francis from a screenplay by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, based very loosely (I’m told) upon a 1949 crime novel called Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, and starring Oliver Reed in what is basically his defining role, as far as I’m concerned. It’s fairly obvious from even a cursory glance that Psycho had come out just a few years before and Paranoiac is riding on that film’s coattails more than a little, while also drawing from the same well as various gaslighting classics both before and after. It even bears a more-than-passing resemblance to one of Hammer’s previous efforts, 1961’s Scream of Fear (also by Sangster).

The story concerns the wealthy Ashby family, haunted by the untimely deaths of both parents several years ago, followed by the seeming suicide of one son, Tony, who left a note before he apparently threw himself from the nearby cliffs, though no body was ever found. As the movie begins, the remaining aunt (Sheila Burrell), sister Eleanor (Janette Scott), and brother Simon (Oliver Reed) are attending a service to commemorate the deaths, when Eleanor sees a man who she thinks is her dead brother. From there, it is revealed, bit by bit, that just about everyone in the movie is putting one over on just about everyone else. Simon is having an affair with Eleanor’s nurse, and the two are gaslighting Eleanor, trying to get her committed so that Simon will inherit everything. The man who appears to be their dead brother Tony shows up and, predictably, throws a monkey wrench into everything, though he isn’t all that he appears, either.

What sets Paranoiac apart from the crowd, for me, is mostly Ollie Reed, who plays his usual sleazy, creepy, crazy character here to perfection. Add to that the weird, delightfully incestuous vibe of the family, a surprisingly creepy scene with a masked figure in the old chapel (which would have been right at home in a giallo a decade later), the Gothic staples of forbidden love, secret murder, and frightened women in their nightdresses, and you’ve got a fantastic chiller that’s both premium Hammer and a stellar example of the whole gaslighting subgenre that was so popular for a time.

While Paranoiac has now been released as a standalone Blu-ray, the version I watched was part of an eight-film DVD set I bought years ago that’s still available and provides a perfect introduction to some of Hammer’s lesser-known films.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we revisit a big animal classic from my childhood.