The Curmudgeon


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Demons of the Mind

Peter Sykes 1972

Despite Hammer Films' terminal decline during the 1970s, in which their output veered between the dull (Countess Dracula, To the Devil a Daughter), the inept (Lust for a Vampire, Creatures the World Forgot) and the embarrassingly would-be-trendy (Dracula AD 1972), the studio did manage to produce several films which rank among their very best. Seth Holt's Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) is an intelligent update of Bram Stoker's novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, Terence Fisher's Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) a magnificent Grand Guignol finale to Peter Cushing's career as the persistent Baron; and Demons of the Mind a strange, bleak tale of abnormal psychology in which Hammer's characteristic period settings and horror-film clich├ęs such as the raging mob are, for once, used with imagination.

After the opening credits, which appear over sepia prints of the Zorn family and their estate, to Harry Robinson's melancholy music - about as far from a conventional blood-and-thunder beginning as one could hope to get - Demons of the Mind starts in time-honoured fashion with a coach and four hurtling along a forest path. From the coach's barred window a young woman's hand emerges, only to be pulled back inside by her older companion, whose role as psychiatric nurse is confirmed when she utters reassurances while forcing drugs down the girl's throat. The girl is Elisabeth Zorn (Gillian Hills); the older woman is her aunt Hilda (Yvonne Mitchell), who has kidnapped her from a romantic idyll in the forest with Carl (Paul Jones), a sometime medical student who spends the rest of the film trying to rescue her.

Elisabeth is the daughter of Baron Friedrich Zorn (Robert Hardy), a man obsessed with gruesome family legends of incest and violence. Hoping to prevent the taint in his blood from corrupting his children, Zorn keeps Elisabeth and her brother Emil (Shane Briant) locked up in their rooms at his castle, under conditions which have evidently caused Emil in particular to break down; he is pasty-faced, barely rational and obsessed with the sister whom he's forbidden to contact. Elisabeth is marginally more healthy as a result of having been sent away to a sanatorium, from which she escaped. Zorn, of course, sees the siblings' need for each other in the face of his well-meaning tyranny as further proof of the evil inside them.

Hammer's horror films are frequently accused, with justice, of uncritically endorsing Victorian patriarchal values, frequently in the form of crucifix-waving, stake-pounding, prophetically righteous Van Helsing figures; but by the late sixties occasional cracks were showing. In Peter Sasdy's intermittently impressive Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), for instance, there is no Van Helsing and all the father-figures are venal hypocrites. In Demons of the Mind, the Van Helsing role is split between two characters, a wandering priest (Michael Hordern) and a Dr Falkenberg (Patrick Magee). In contrast to Van Helsing, whose scientific accomplishments added credence to his pronouncements on vampire lore, the priest is a gibbering lunatic whose theosophical ideas run to chopping off hands, impaling people on flaming crosses and personal conversations with God; while the scientist, Falkenberg, is an ambitious charlatan whose streak of genuine psychological insight is undercut by his maundering about "universal fluids" and his elaborate device for the treatment of Baron Zorn, which appears to consist of a revolving candle above an array of water-filled test tubes. One of the film's few laughs (and a black one, at that) comes when Zorn briskly disposes of Falkenberg with a musket shot and the line, "The world will be a better place without me - and it won't even know that you died."

Christopher Wicking's superb script even manages to inject new life into the hoary device of the superstitious villagers, largely by the use of an extended sequence (in an 86-minute film) showing one of their communal rituals, involving the burning-in-effigy of Death himself; which, as witnessed by Carl, carries more sinister implication than any oracular warnings in a roadside inn could hope to do. Arthur Grant's colour cinematography avoids excessive reliance on Hammer's traditionally horrible day-for-night shots, and at times achieves considerable beauty.


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