With the advent and huge success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), studios were quick to hop aboard the killer train. Out were the outsized monsters of the ’50s, in were mama’s boys and socially maligned women dealing with sins of the past. Dementia 13 (’63) and No Way to Treat a Lady (’67) are just a sample of the ’60s horror films that focused on smaller scale, human dilemmas, regardless of how twisted they may be. One film that seems to have been misplaced in the schizoid shuffle is Freddie Francis’ The Psychopath (1966), a lean little thriller that acts as a gateway for one of the most revered European horror sub-genres: the giallo.
Of course, Psycho plays a major part in this association; the Italian-originated giallo wallowing in mysteries of the mind shot through with a razor-sharp emphasis on the visceral, stemming from a psychological need, a desire, to fix wrongs, perceived or real, through the rending of flesh. The Psychopath isn’t as clear in execution as Psycho, obviously; few thrillers are. But it does succeed in providing some low-key chills through strong direction, a twisty script and (for the most part) solid performances.
Released in May by Paramount Pictures and produced by Amicus (the British-based, American-run studio that gave Hammer competition), The Psychopath did very well in Europe, especially Italy, who started these procedural thrillers fashioned after their beloved giallo books. (Ground zero? See Mario Bava’s Evil Eye (’63). No really, go now. I’ll wait.) Perhaps North American audiences didn’t adore the film because it is quite content with being more of a crime thriller than horror for the first two-thirds of its running time; but those who stick around are treated to some suspenseful moments and bizarre visuals not easy to forget.
Our story starts with a murder, naturally. A violinist walks alone at night, is chased down an alley by an unseen assailant driving a car, and is run over repeatedly. But before the killer leaves the scene, he or she places a doll resembling the victim by his side. Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark – The Conqueror Worm) of Scotland Yard arrives on the scene and interrogates the other musicians associated with the violinist, and eventually finds a connection between them (and others) through the enigma of the dolls. Our intrepid inspector tracks the sale of the dolls to the manor of the widow Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston – Burn, Witch, Burn) and her son, Mark (John Standing – The Elephant Man). Mrs. Von Sturm makes dolls in her spare time (well, all her time is spare, I think), and recently ordered six that fit the description of the one used in the murder.
When her father becomes the next victim, Louise Saville (Judy Huxtable – Scream and Scream Again) does her own investigating. What she finds is a decades-old secret involving the Von Sturms and the victims. But will Louise discover the truth too late?
There’s a lot of plot I’ve left out of The Psychopath, because frankly there’s too much by half. The explanation for the murders puts the story firmly in police procedural territory; only in the final third does it push it aside and just focus on the peculiarities of the Von Sturms. And they are odd—mother, wheelchair-bound, making and collecting dolls all day, while the son works as a night watchman in a boatyard. Are they responsible for the murders? Well, screenwriter Robert Bloch throws red herrings at you with a smile—almost everyone works with dolls or is an artist—but doesn’t let you drift too far away from the real suspects.
Bloch by this time had made a name for himself as a writer; first, as the author of the novel Psycho, and then as a writer for the big and small screen, including TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the very enjoyable Psycho knockoff Straight-Jacket (1964). He would go on to a fruitful partnership with Amicus, including the anthology films Torture Garden (’67), The House That Dripped Blood (’71), and Asylum (’72). Bloch was always strong with characterization, and here he doesn’t disappoint; mom and son are well-drawn, and especially well done is Inspector Holloway, dry and laid-back like a British Columbo.
Stepping into Holloway’s shoes, Patrick Wymark gets comfortable and quick. Calmly taking in the events, he plays Holloway as a man who sees the big picture but is waiting for everyone to take their mark. It’s a terrific performance, and the Holloway character (without Wymark) later reappears in The House That Dripped Blood. Johnston and Standing excel as Mama Von Sturm and offspring Mark, respectively; if anything, Bloch’s writing has taught us never to trust mother and child relationships. The rest of the cast are fine with the exception of Don Borisenko as Louise’s fiancé, Donald, who I would charitably deem charismatically impaired.
Director Freddie Francis is of course known to the world of horror through Torture Garden and Tales from the Crypt (’72), among many other fine efforts. But his career as a legendary cinematographer (he won the Oscar twice, including Glory from ’89) has often overshadowed his genre efforts, when in fact, this same keen eye buoys his directorial work. The Psychopath is gorgeously filmed; Francis, in concert with DP John Wilcox (The Skull) gives the film a lush, widescreen palette to unfold deep reds (no pun intended) and inky blacks that would help set the template for future giallos. Other nods? The black-gloved killer, the creepy obsession with dolls… it’s all here really, but with a noticeably less histrionic spin (the British are not as demonstrably passionate as the Italians).
The final moments are when The Psychopath really turns the corner and ends up in Horrorville. Not to give it away (it’s a great reveal), but I’ll just say obsessions are frequently writ large; a fact we know all too well in our little macabre corner of the film world. And if giallos happen to be one of your obsessions, make sure you add this to your collection—it certainly can’t be any creepier than accumulating dolls.
The Psychopath is currently only available as an Italian DVD from Cineclub Horror titled La Bambola di Cera.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: IT’S ALIVE (1974)