While us horror lovers revelled in the ripped bodices and cobwebbed corridors of another vampire plagued castle, Hammer was busy trying to clear the halls and make their way into the modern world. Take Nightmare (1964), an effective black and white thriller that shows you don’t need fangs to be fearsome.
Released in its native U.K. in April and stateside in June, Nightmare (AKA the amazing Here’s the Knife, Dear: Now Use It) still has a lot of wandering down darkened hallways, but instead of coming up against the undead, our heroine has to do battle with her own brittle mind. Or has the dead come back for her?
Pity poor Janet (Jennie Linden – Old Dracula). Our film opens with her hearing a distant voice calling her name. She leaves the comfort of her bed and follows the whispered voice which leads her to a shadowed room where she is faced with the maniacal cackle and wide eyed gaze of an apparently insane woman. Janet wakes up screaming in the comfort of her bed at the finishing school where she resides, which is such a common occurrence that the school feels she should return to her home.
So she does, under the supervision of her closest teacher Miss Lewis (Brenda Bruce – Peeping Tom), and home is definitely not where Janet should come to regroup; six years prior she witnessed her mother stab her father to death (hey, it’s the lady from her dreams!) and now she has to face her lurking demons under the watchful eye of her legal guardian Henry Baxter (David Knight – Chance Meeting) and the nurse assigned by him, Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond – A Shot in the Dark). Before long, Janet is knee deep in madness, as a mysterious woman in white leads her to discover bodies not unlike how she discovered her father. Is Janet insane, or is someone trying to help her along that twisted path?
This is only the first half of Nightmare; after a pivotal event occurs, the film switches perspective and heads down a similar, but by its very nature, different one. Am I being too vague? Too bad. It’s rare to come across a film that looks to upend the viewer in such a manner, at least at the point Nightmare does; the twist would normally come near the end of such a picture, but by essentially flipping it halfway through director Freddie Francis (Tales from the Crypt) and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula) create two movies in one. The first, with its obvious Hitchcock aspirations, gaslights like there’s no tomorrow, but the second has the antagonists of the first on the defense. It’s a fascinating move that ensures the viewer is always kept on guard throughout.
Which isn’t to say that Nightmare will play completely like a dream for everyone; some may be put off by Act Deux’s seeming rehash of the first’s scares, but ultimately there is a purpose to that as well as some domestic conflict crucial to the finale. Again, this stands out because Hammer, in their gothic guise, is built around big finishes and flourishes; Nightmare has a constant pulsating moodiness at odds with a lot of their other works, which tend to bookend the violence with lush cinematography and heightened performances. This film does not leave the viewer wanting in any of these regards, it just wisely spreads them out to give a through line for the two mirrored halves.
Francis and Sangster were already Hammer veterans by this point; actually Francis had only made the previous year’s Paranoiac! for them (and his first collaboration with his writing partner here),but Sangster had already put his stamp on the indelible monsters of yesteryear and put Hammer on the horror map. Francis started out in the ‘50s as a cinematographer, and certainly knew a thing or two about lighting the macabre; his stellar work on The Innocents (1961) attests to that. Hammer entrusted John Wilcox to shoot the film, however; he had been a DP since the forties, and his sinister application of encroaching darkness enhances every shot, especially the nightmarish opening. Francis knew a good thing when he saw it and the two collaborated on several more features, including 1966’s underrated The Psychopath (I wrote about that here).
What about in front of the camera, you say? Well, Knight doesn’t register particularly strong, which is fine because Nightmare is completely driven by its female leads; Linden was a last minute replacement for Julie Christie who bailed to do Billy Liar (’63), and she’s quite good as our put upon heroine. Bruce and Redmond, however, are the real stars of the film; they have a great scene together early on as they discuss Janet’s state of mind and try to figure out the other’s intentions.
Nightmare has certainly been lost in time, shuffled to the side to let vampire hunters, lusty maidens, and decrepit pharaohs crawl across the screen. But make no mistake: Hammer could spin a modern yarn with all the tools at their disposal; perhaps one that even manages to silence their icons for a moment or two and allows the shadows to tell their tale.
Nightmare is available on Blu-ray as part of the Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.