Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Psychopath

Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s Freddie Francis directed a number of horror and thriller films. Unfortunately it was often often a case of quantity over quality as he took on unpromising assignments from Hammer, Amicus and whoever else was offering steady work. Yet if The Deadly Bees and Trog are notorious examples of bad cinema, Francis also directed some intriguing films such as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly and The Vampire Happening.

The Psychopath, made under the auspices of Amicus, is also one of Francis's better efforts, clearly gaining from his experiences in helming a number of Hammer's mini-Hitchcocks and the curious British-German krimi co-production Traitor's Gate.

Images from the title and credits sequence; thanks to the guys at Cinemageddon who put together this German version with the English audio track.

Indeed, the story here comes across as something that Edgar Wallace could easily have penned in the 1920s, given a 1960s update in the manner of the Rialto films from West Germany.

Almost everyone except the investigating Inspector Holloway is a suspect, be it the group of old war colleagues initially targeted by the killer; the young medical student who is dating one of their daughters, or the widowed old woman confined to a wheelchair through a psychosomatic rather than physical condition who lives with her Milquetoast son in a house full of dolls.

"No love lost in the House of Dolls" - a relevant Joy Division quote, given the war crimes that have something to do with the case.

Dolls also figure in the killer's modus operandi, as a doll bearing the features of each victim is left with their body. Besides being a nice Wallace-esque quirk courtesy of screenwriter Robert Bloch, the use of the doll / mannequin trope also helps position The Psychopath as another point of connection between various 1960s and 70s thrillers:

One of the dolls that signal death

Bloch had also, of course, written Psycho, whose mother-son relationship is vaguely echoed by that between Mrs Von Sturm and her son. Psycho's shower scene murder provided a major source inspiration for the likes of Freda and Bava, who upped the stakes in films like The Ghost and Blood and Blood and Black Lace respectively: What Hitchcock suggested a blade could do to human flesh, Freda showed. Where Hitchcock gave audiences two murder set pieces, Bava gave them six.

Bava's film, of course, also featured mannequins and people as mannequins in those body in pieces and Hans Bellmer kind of ways. ("Mannequin comes from the French word mannequin, which had acquired the meaning "an artist's jointed model", which in turn came from the Middle Dutch word mannekijn, meaning little man, figurine.")

This theme would be taken up would later gialli like Torso ("They were only dolls - stupid dolls, made out of flesh and blood!") and Deep Red, along with the Spanish Pieces ("It's exactly what you think it is.")

Nevertheless, there are also differences between Francis's film and its intertexts. While The Psychopath features a number of stylish compositions and makes conscious use of a limited colour palette primarily consisting of reds, greens and the black-white scale, it's far less imaginative and excessive than Bava's work.

Insofar as the two men were great cinematographers and technicians, I would ascribe this to a general film cultural thing. Take an English Gothic by Fisher or Francis, and an Italian Gothic, even one nominally made in an English style, by Robert Hampton or John M. Old (Bava's reading of his distributors request to make up "an old English name" under which he could be credited) and you immediately get the difference.

A US poster for the film; did Glenn Danzig see it on a double bill with Fanatic? Unlikely, since Fanatic was a Hammer production, but a nice thought....

Francis's Taste the Blood of Dracula is perhaps exemplary in this regard, insofar as he apparently only gave the film's cinematographer Arthur Grant colour filters he had previously used himself somewhat reluctantly. Had the film been directed by Bava you suspect he would either have functioned as his own cinematographer or encouraged whoever was his cinematographer to use more stylised lighting from the get-go.

Returning to the krimi, there are also some distinctive omissions: First, no attempt is made to signify that the film is indeed taking place in London, England. Instead, this is just taken for granted. Second, the usual developing romantic attachment between the woman in peril and the Scotland Yard man aspect is missing, perhaps because Patrick Wymark is not a dashing and dynamic lead in the Joachim Fuchsberger or Heinz Drache mould.

As far as placing the film temporally the treatment of Mark Von Sturm is noteworthy. Had the film been made a few years later, I got the feeling that he would have been made into an explicitly homosexual figure rather than being given artistic inclinations. As it is these inclinations still lead into fairly coy Peeping Tom-type artists and models territory as far as nudity and sleaze are concerned compared to five years later.

Two final aspects of the film that must be commented upon are the effective score by twelve-toner Elizabeth Luytens, one of those serious composers who benefited from the opportunity to do the kind of high-culture music she wanted within the low-culture format of the horror film, and the titles, with their use of an eerie eyeless doll's head vaguely recalling Halloween's pumpkin head.

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