While British studio Hammer Films reinvented the Universal Monsters for a new generation, they also produced a handful of psychological thrillers, encouraged by the box office success of Les Diaboliques and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. One such film was 1963’s Paranoiac, starring professional drunkard Oliver Reed as Grade-A douchebag Simon Ashby, a reckless, hostile party boy determined to paint his loving sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) as insane.
Money is the motive for Simon’s manipulation. The Ashby parents are long dead, along with their youngest child Tony, who threw himself off a cliff as a boy when he couldn’t cope his the loss of his parents. Simon and Eleanor are the only heirs to the Ashby fortune, under the care of their Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell), and if Simon can prove that Eleanor is not of sound mind, he becomes sole executor of their estate. To that end, Simon hires a morally questionable nurse for Eleanor and carries out a simple plan to convince his sister that she might be hallucinating visions of the departed Tony.
Simon’s plan goes completely haywire when Tony actually shows up, alive and well (played with an almost comical stiffness by Alexander Davion). Suddenly, it’s Eleanor who seems to be the sane one, while Simon quickly unravels, unable to covince himself that this man is the child they once knew.
Up to that point, Reed’s Simon is a surprisingly amusing spoiled brat, an abusive lush tempered by Reed’s oddly childlike glimmer of mischief, but as the story unfolds, and the stakes raise, Reed unhinges with a bug-eyed posturing that borders on camp. It’s a lively role, one that helps make Paranoiac so memorable. Personally, I’m a fan of watching actors wholly commit to a performance that walks the razor’s edge between realism and arch overacting (a couple of my favorites who’ve built careers doing this are William Shatner and Jeffrey Combs). I like seeing how far the acting envelope can be pushed before it rips completely, and I’m sure actors like Oliver Reed take pleasure in testing how big they can go before the performance becomes phony. Reed’s good at it, and it’s clear he’s having fun chewing the scenery as Simon Ashby.
It almost threatens to completely overshadow the acting by Janette Scott. Alexander Davion is so wooden as Antony Ashby that it’s often up to Scott to do the emotional heavy-lifiting in their scenes together. Eleanor Ashby is fragile and hungry for love (certainly not getting any familial support from Simon), but Scott doesn’t go for the kind of lunatic gusto that Reed is able to conjure up, despite the fact that she’s supposed to be the crazy one. Her motivation is sympathetic but troubling–her blind adoration of the man who claims to be Antony is unhealthy and questionable. Scott gets a few good scenes that reveal how deep her longing for Antony goes, and they’re realistic in large part to Scott’s grounded performance.
Paranoiac snakes along, offering several twists and turns on the way to its satisfyingly macabre ending (including an effectively creepy masked killer). It’s more turgid than a Hitchcock thriller, less stylish, and certainly missing that director’s mastery of pacing, but screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Freddie Francis (shooting in black and white) do an admirable job of aping the type of psychological thriller that Hitch was routinely turning out. This being my first exposure to Hammer’s non-Monster chillers, it’s better than I had hoped for, and I’m a little surprised that it’s been overlooked by Hammer fans in favor of predicatble Frankenstein and Dracula sequels. Paranoiac is worth discovering.