Friday, 14 October 2016

Demons of the Mind (1972)

Demons of the Mind is in many ways typical of what Hammer Films were doing in the early 70s - trying to stick to what they knew best and had had the most success with while also trying to vary a formula in real danger of becoming stale. So it’s a gothic horror movie, but it’s psychological rather than supernatural horror.

The setting is the familiar Hammer generic middle Europe, presumably towards the end of the 19th century. There have been murders and disappearances, and murmurings among the local peasantry about demons. There are in fact demons that are responsible for these horrors, but they are demons of the mind. There is a curse, but it’s the curse of insanity rather than the diabolical kind. It’s an inherited disorder of the mind, but not in the usual sense. It’s the type of madness a parent passes on to a child, but not through the blood (or through the genes as we’d see it today). 

The Baron Zorn has two children, twins, a girl and a boy, both now on the cusp of adulthood. The Baron and his sister along with Klaus, a faithful family retainer bearing at least a passing resemblance to a part-time hoodlum, are keeping the twins Elizabeth and Emil under lock and key and under heavy sedation. They have escaped more than once, and the baron has cause to believe that their minds are tainted with the Zorn family’s predilections for murder and blood. There is also reason to suspect an excessively close attachment between brother and sister, with definite sexual undertones. The last time Elizabeth almost got away she stayed in a hut in the woods with a nice young man with whom she became very very friendly indeed. She was retaken however, although the young man will reappear in the story.

In desperation the baron has called upon the services of the modern equivalent of the witch-hunter, the psychiatrist Falkenberg (Patrick Magee). But psychiatry at this point in history is little more than hocus pocus and theatrics, and even by the standards of 19th century medicine Falkenberg has a reputation as a charlatan. But where else is there to turn to? To add the necessary degree of complication to the plot a crazed wandering preacher (Michael Hordern over-acting outrageously) arrives, warning of devilry. 

For a late Hammer production this film looks handsome and classy. The atmosphere combines dark secrets, incest, insanity, bloodlust, sexual anxiety and aristocratic decay and does it effectively and with style. Director Peter Sykes provides a competent hand at the helm. 

And the cast is potentially extremely strong. Patrick Magee plays Falkenberg with his usual mix of frenzied and maniacal excess. The main task confronting Gillian Hills in the role of Elizabeth was to be sweet, innocent, sinister and completely loopy all at the same time, as she succeeds admirably. She has little else to do, but little else is necessary. Shane Briant as her brother Emil displays much the same characteristic but with added creepiness. His performance is less successful, but it’s perfectly adequate. Michael Hordern is great fun. Robert Hardy as the baron has a more complex and ambiguous part to play and he doesn’t quite nail it, but it’s a valiant attempt.

The script has weaknesses if you’re inclined to probe deeply enough, but if a horror movie has energy and style and gets the mood and feel right a few problems with the script don’t really matter and this movie has the requisite qualities. Being the early 70s, there’s some gore and some nudity. The film is both intriguing in the ideas it plays with and also very entertaining and there isn’t a great deal more than one can ask. A surprisingly interesting but oddly neglected movie which I thoroughly recommend.

Demons of the Mind is readily available on DVD.

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