1966 / Freddie Francis
The ‘creepy doll’ seems to have become an almost routine unheimlich vessel guaranteed to stoke viewer neuroses in the Horror Cinema of the last few decades. Glance down the years and there you will find the fiendishness of Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise, the twisted mind represented by Billy the puppet in the Saw movies, the eerie passivity of Annabelle (along with less effective facsimiles such as The Boy and Robert), right up to the present and the uncanny valley violence of M3GAN. There will no doubt be fresh iterations of the ‘mad manikin’ as the main antagonist in films as yet unfilmed.
Go further back in time and you’ll find early Horror Cinema strewn with dolls or other such shrunken effigies, frequently uncannily animated. The singular scare of the ventriloquist’s dummy sprang to life with The Great Gabbo (US, James Cruze 1929) and peaked with the ‘Hugo Fitch’ segment of Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti 1945), so it comes as no surprise that at some point in its production history, given its penchant for plundering the tropes of the genre, Amicus would conspire to add ‘creepy dolls’ to its collection of fright triggers.
The Psychopath (UK, Freddie Francis, 1966) was the third of seven films that Freddie Francis directed for the production company. Its principal star was Patrick Wymark, who had recently co-starred in The Skull (UK, Freddie Francis, 1965) for Amicus and also played Catherine Deneuve’s landlord in Repulsion (UK, Roman Polanski 1965), so he was no stranger to psychological horror. The story centres around a sequence of gruesome and violent murders, with Wymark’s Inspector Holloway character investigating. In each instance, the killer leaves a likeness in doll form close to the victim’s corpse. Holloway’s attention is drawn to the mysterious Mrs Von Sturm (Margaret Johnson), a wheelchair-bound German immigrant doll maker (elementary, my dear Watson!), and her protective and slightly peculiar son Mark (John Standing). We shall avoid any direct spoilers at this point, although to say that the likely resolution to the tale is telegraphed at a very early point in proceedings would be somewhat of an understatement, so in fact there’s not a lot of game to give away. Suffice it to say that the film deploys a fairly flimsy red herring in the form of medical student Donald Loftis (Don Borisenko), recently engaged to Louise Saville (Judy Huxtable), daughter of Frank Saville (Alexander Knox), who happens to be one of the victims on the murderer’s list. It becomes pretty obvious quite early on that Loftis couldn’t possibly be the killer, and that the pale attempt to paint him as such was little more than a hasty patch in an effort to ‘add intrigue’.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, it’s all got something to do with the exacting of revenge for the discrediting of Frau Von Sturm’s husband during the war by a committee composed of a string quartet AKA the main murder victims, but frankly, the narrative plays a poor second fiddle (see what I did there?) to the creation of atmosphere, and in this respect the film succeeds to a limited extent. It should be said at the outset that the dolls employed to scare audiences in The Psychopath are quite effective. We first catch a glimpse of the constituent parts of one in the film’s opening credits, beginning with a staggered zoom into the empty socket of an eyeless dolly’s head, which is jerkily reminiscent of the use John Carpenter would make of the pumpkin in the original 1978 Halloween (US) credits. Through a sequence of rudimentary animation (which draws somewhat on the Saul Bass-directed corporeal cut-ups seen at the beginning of the 1959 Otto Preminger film Anatomy of a Murder [US]), the credits are then displayed around the gradual reconstitution of a doll’s body – feet first, then legs, arms and torso – until we eventually see a clothed male figure whose head is the final addition. All of this is accompanied by the now heavily clichéd soundtrack theme suggesting ‘distorted musical box’, with a dash of ‘Victorian carnival attraction’ (see The Elephant Man [UK, David Lynch 1980]), and ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ spooky nursery rhyme/playground song (see Rosemary’s Baby [US, Roman Polanski 1968], The Amityville Horror [US, Stuart Rosenberg 1979] and many others).
The gradually assembled artificial body parts, in combination with the deliberate discord of the musical accompaniment, are of course intended to convey the sense of fracture, ostensibly physical, but also certainly psychological. The titles mirror those of Psycho (US, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), a film opening with fonts of choice (specifically Venus Bold Extended and News Gothic Bold) that dis/reintegrate along Op Art horizontal plains and are designed to convey the mental splintering that the film goes on to depict. The title card for The Psychopath arguably goes one better in this regard; out of kilter with the rest of the onscreen text, those two words run briefly before our eyes through a bulging fisheye distortion, just to emphasise that, hey folks, we’re dealing with some kind of a lunatic here.
The film can be viewed as forming part of a rather regrettable run of movies in the 1960s that made a pretty poor fist of dealing with the issue of mental illness. Which is a polite way of saying that these films took something of a ‘Bedlam’ approach to their exploitation of the ill-informed notions of madness that perpetuated through society during that decade. While there were several exceptions to this clumsy rule, you’ll find plenty more such skewed representations of lunacy in British films, such as Paranoiac (UK, 1963), Nightmare (UK, 1964) and Hysteria (UK, 1965) – and those are just the ones directed by The Psychopath helmer Freddie Francis! So it can be said that The Psychopath constitutes one of several ‘cigarette card’ contributions to the Psychological Horror/Thriller sub-genre. Psycho it most definitely is not, but as great as Psycho is, in its connotation of mental instability with monstrosity, it has quite a lot to answer for, and The Psychopath is part of the net result.
Those same credits at the opening of the film proudly display the writing talents of Robert Bloch, whose words were of course the source work for Psycho, and of the five Amicus films that he provided the screenplay for, The Psychopath is the one that arguably performs the greatest amount of reputation-based heavy lifting. Having said that, the posters for the film didn’t really play on this link disproportionately, which might have something to do with Bloch’s opinion of the finished film, and for that matter the compromised extent of his contribution. Through his written recollections following a set visit, Bloch expressed his despair upon finding a production that was cutting corners due to time and budgetary constraints, while both director Francis and producer Milton Subotsky subsequently laid claim to padding out the original script, either through on-set scene-shooting decisions or post-production edits that actually changed the identity of the murderer. In his 1993 autobiography, in a brief reference to The Psychopath, Bloch mused ‘a low budget film always operates on the same principle, that is to say, no principle whatsoever except saving a buck, even if it means losing the potential of a picture’, while also describing Amicus as ‘Latin for “low budget”’ (Bloch 1993, p. 328).
A more academically earnest review of the film than this one might draw meta-conclusions around the parallels between the murderer’s use of puppet-like effigies and the filmmakers’ choppy manipulation of their creation. However, to do so would be to suggest that the various plot contrivances and inconsistencies were born of some high-minded creative impulse, when in fact they were the upshot of low rent financial and temporal expediency. I will go this far though, and please forgive the lazy comparison: several of the cast member performances are frankly on a par with the acting talents of the dolls. The string trio (fiddling on regardless in the absence of the freshly murdered fourth member of the quartet) attempt to scrape their way through Mozart’s Divertimento while miraculously never once moving their fingers on the necks of their instruments. And listening to them from the comfort of a kissing chair are Louise and Donald, demonstrating their appreciation of the classical strains with all the emotional gusto of a poor man’s Barbie and Ken.
It is the dolls themselves who steal the show. Francis set up a series of shots of the interior of the Von Sturm residence to depict Holloway’s first visit to question the doll maker, and as individual eerie compositions, these work very well. One of the director’s strengths was his ability to arrange actors and objects within the widescreen frame, as evidenced in many of the other films that he worked on. Seen in isolation, as screen captures, for instance, these shots of the dolls can give the strong impression that The Psychopath is a film worthy of more merit than it has been given, or for that matter deserves. The Von Sturm parlour presents as a weird obstacle course, with numerous dolls positioned across the floor space, perhaps serving as protectors of their maker from the questions Holloway is posing. In the moment of this scene, we can even overlook the distinct impracticalities that such an arrangement would pose for the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Von Sturm. When later on in the film we see Mrs. Von Sturm turn up unaccompanied in her chair at the Saville residence to put the wind up one of her late husband’s discreditors, we might begin to wonder ‘how did she manage to manoeuvre her way out of that room?’, let alone ‘how did she then manage to make her way unaided across half of London?’
With a certain clumsy predictability, the film closes with the image of Mark Von Sturm reduced to an approximation of one of his mother’s dolls, in an effort to portray the level of psychotic control that she has been able to exert upon him. It seeks to mimic the final frames of Psycho and the whole Norman/‘Mother’ cross-pollination, but it is entirely free of any finesse and feels added on for the benefit of the film’s trailer and promotional materials.
As an interesting aside, it is worth noting that the film’s credits declare: ‘Dolls supplied by DOLL INDUSTRIES LTD & IRENE BLAIR HICKMAN’. According to IMDb, this would appear to be their only such film credit. Kim Newman’s website review of the film conjures with the possibility that Ms. Hickman might have been responsible for manufacturing the gut-spilling robotic effigy that would memorably put in an appearance in the later Amicus portmanteau horror Asylum (UK, Roy Ward Baker 1972), and there are certainly some similarities between that creation and the miniaturised figures left at the murder scenes in The Psychopath. However, it seems more likely the credit relates to the lending of the vintage Victorian or Edwardian toy dolls that populate the Von Sturm residence rather than the made-to-order prop doll signifiers of death that keep cropping up throughout the film’s murder scenes, which were probably the handiwork of Amicus’ special effects stalwart Ted Samuels. Nevertheless, ‘DOLL INDUSTRIES LTD’ does sound rather deliciously like some deeply suspicious company to have sprung from the mind of Nigel Kneale or Ray Bradbury. Some have suggested that The Psychopath bears a resemblance to Italian giallo films, but this feels like a reach. If anything, the whole film possesses some of the peculiar if shonky and illogical charm of a 1960s ITC serial. One keeps expecting John Steed and Emma Peel to turn up at any moment and make hay of all the ridiculousness.
In summary, then, completist aficionados of the ‘creepy doll’ trope will want to give The Psychopath a spin, but in truth, they might find greater satisfaction elsewhere. Beyond the sources of scares mentioned at the beginning of this review, other works to explore that were made in the wake of The Psychopath might include Dario Argento’s real actual giallo Deep Red/Profundo rosso (Italy, 1975) which features a particularly nasty mechanical doll. Also, the rather overlooked Sondra Locke vehicle A Reflection of Fear (US, William A. Fraser 1973), offers an interesting exploration of dolls and psychotic alter egos. Finally, it is worth seeking out the often-maligned, Michael J. Bird-penned BBC series Maelstrom (UK, David Maloney 1985) which delivers its doll-obsessed psychopathy with a large side serving of cheesiness.
(With thanks to Harry Doberman at the Patrick Wymark Boardroom for his interest and contribution).
Bloch, R. (1993) Once Around the Bloch: an Unauthorized Autobiography. New York: Tor Books