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Tuesday Morning Foreign Blu-ray disc Report: “Paranoiac” (Freddie Francis, 1963)

This Eureka! U.K. release, conveniently and considerately mastered in an all-region Blu-ray, is one of those items best described as—well, for myself the word would be "nifty." As in, it's kind of nifty that it even exists. The package is not exactly festooned with extras—there's a trailer, and a file of "Ephemera," stills mostly, and this might displease Hammer Film aficionados of a certain stripe, but if I know my Hammer Film aficionados, any one of them could likely extemporize a fact-filled commentary on this 1963 film themselves, as it unfolded.

And what of the film, for those who don't know? Michael Weldon's indispensable Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film describes the 1963 picture, directed by cinematographic master Freddie Francis from a script by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, as "one of the better early Psycho-inspired films," and given that this film's title also begins with a "p" and that its story line features a killer who sometimes uses sharp objects on its victims, that's more than about right. It is worth noting that in keeping with its thoroughly British mode of production, Paranoiac goes for that Psycho feel in a veddy British mode, what with the plot focusing on an inheritance in an old British estate and in-warring among the siblings and incorporating such tried-and-true gothic elements as pipe organs, they're-trying-to-drive-me-mad melodramatics, the mysterious reappearance of a long-believed-dead relative, and so on. Such elements as were also used by young Francis Ford Coppola in his Corman-backed stab at a Psycho-esque thriller, Dementia 13, also released in '63. But the cheeky sight and sound of a transistor radio blaring generic rock and roll even as it sinks into a body of water in which we soon see a corpse was Coppola's personal wink at the very contemporary dynamic of Psycho, an all-American film made by a veddy proper British gentleman, or so American audiences believed—the plummy accent we thought was posh gave away Hitch's not-upper-class roots right away to the truly proper Brits. The lack of forgiveness on both sides, I am told, was palpable.

All this is very diverting and interesting, and you'll forgive me for spinning my wheels on it; I'm trying to create a unified field theory of exploitation films, and of course this sort of thing is pure fodder for it. The setup of Paranoiac is, as you might have guessed by now, for all intents and purposes, generic: parents of rich British brood croak, the estate is largely gonna go to the intensely intense and sullen oldest surviving son, but wait, all of a sudden a brother everybody had thought dead turns up, and hey, what about his share. And what about the fact that one sister is strangely attracted to this, um brother. And so on.

Aside from the beautiful B&W cinematography, kind of a given when Francis was overseeing things, two features of the film are of outstanding critical interest. The first being the entirely delightful performance by young Oliver Reed (in his mid-twenties at the time) as the aforementioned intense and sullen son. Reed had already been skulking in the Hammer stable for quite some time, and of course had done classic work in The Curse of the Werewolf a few years prior. But that role was of a more standard he-ain't-no-delinquent-he's-misunderstood-and-can't-help-it-if-he-goes-feral-during-a-full-moon sort, whereas the part here looks as if it were crafted to his more particular talents, like smoking cigarettes really hard while staring into the void with a look that could in fact make the void tremble, were the void capable of such things. Yes, he is quite the animating presence here. Then there's the film's particular mode of suspense/shock effect, in which the shooting "coverage" (Arthur Grant is the cinematographer) and editing (James Needs is the supervising editor) converge to depict actions that would happen in parallel in real life occurring sequentially. As in, girl engages in passionate kiss with fellow she believes is her brother, freaks out and runs upstairs to her room. In her room, shot one: girl freaking out, then looking over her left shoulder. Shot two: what she sees...a scissor on the night table. Aha! Zoom in on that scissor! We know what she's gonna do with it! Shot three: The guy she was kissing bursting into the room, standing there. Shot four: She runs to the night table, he runs to the night table, he stops her from grabbing the scissor. In "reality," of course, she would have been at the night table before the door even opened—that's part of what the zoom's telling us. This cinematic expansion of time occurs at other shock nodes of the film, as when a car just might take a header off a cliff. The slight sense of unreality generated by this method is part of what makes the scenes so effective—stuff is heightened. Just as in Psycho's shower scene, the quick cuts heighten our notion of being stabbed, and stabbing. One wonders if being killed while showering would really go down like that. For some reason I'm reminded right now of the Robert Chambers/Jennifer Levin case, one of the most notorious Manhattan homicides of the 1980s, and how during the trial it came out that Robert Chambers had a grip on Levin's throat for "only" ten seconds, the "only" of course being the characterization of Chambers' defense attorney. And the prosecutor, in an extremely canny move, asked the jurors to measure out ten seconds on their watches. Plays longer than one thinks. Cinematic death, or near-death, takes however long a filmmaker wants. Whereas real death takes just...what it takes.

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