Exploring Hammer’s ‘mini-Hitchcocks’
Adam Jezard on how classic European psychological horror-thriller Les Diaboliques influenced Hammer’s series of psychological dramas...
While Hammer fans may instinctively feel the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s were the most influential on the studio’s output, its cycle of psychological chillers produced from the 1950s to the 1970s owes a huge debt to the classic horror film Les Diaboliques (France, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955).
A global box office and critical success on its release, Les Diaboliques, based on the book Celle qui n’était plus (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, 1952), fascinated Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense was narrowly beaten to the book’s screen rights and he would leap on another story by the authors for his classic Vertigo (US, 1958), while Psycho’s author, Robert Bloch, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film.
Les Diaboliques features an ingeniously tortuous plot, in which the wife of a bullying head of a poor private boys’ school (played by the director’s spouse Véra Clouzot) and the headteacher’s mistress, another teacher (Simone Signoret), conspire to kill their tormentor (Paul Meurisse) and free themselves from his tyranny. But in reality, it is the husband and the lover who are conspiring to kill the wife. This they do by playing on the wife’s weak heart and causing the ill wife to doubt her sanity. The resurrection of the husband’s corpse from the dead provides one of the most genuinely shocking sequences in any genre film and causes his wife’s death by coronary.
The subsequent revelation of the murderers’ guilt by a Columbo-like detective (Charles Vanel), and the final twist that the wife may have returned from the dead herself, create an unsettling drama that still shocks after repeated viewings.
Audiences flocked to see the film in their millions, spurred on by an advertising campaign that begged them not to reveal the ending to their friends, a gimmick copied by Hitchcock when promoting Psycho.
Clouzot, in his late 20s, had been struck down by tuberculosis and spent many years in sanatoriums recovering. His film speaks eloquently of the psychological effects on him that influenced the genre as a whole, as leading characters in all the films all mentioned have some history of spending time in a confining institution or psychiatric care, a trait not derived from Les Diaboliques’ source novel.
Copycat killers: the Lippert link
Hammer, even before The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, Terence Fisher, 1957) aped the Universal horrors of the 1930s and 40s, had made copycat versions of successful films. It was not slow to leap on the Les Diaboliques bandwagon by creating a cycle of black-and-white thrillers that mimicked its main elements.
From 1958, starting with The Snorkel, directed by Guy Green, to its 1972 double-bill of Fear in the Night (directed by Jimmy Sangster) and Straight on Till Morning (helmed by Peter Collinson), the studio produced at least 12 films that came, somewhat misleadingly, to be known as ‘mini-Hitchcocks’. Although Psycho and Les Diaboliques influenced them, they had been in gestation for a long time before either film was made.
How many there are, and just what constitutes a mini-Hitchcock, can be a bone of contention. However, for the most part, these thrillers were marked out by certain features that would be replicated across the cycle: most are set in European locations, inspired by the French settings of Les Diaboliques, that would have been deemed exotic by UK cinema audiences in an era before cheap package holidays opened up the possibilities of visiting more distant locations. Most give particularly strong roles to women, both as the heroines and as the villains, and are interesting to film historians as they offered powerful roles to older US and UK film stars at the ends of their careers, including Ann Todd, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis and Margaretta Scott, and younger ones on the way up, including Jennie Linden, Diane Cilento, Stefanie Powers, Judy Geeson and Rita Tushingham. All take place in a contemporary setting. Most of the 12 seem to have been masterminded by Jimmy Sangster, as either assistant director, production manager, producer, director or screenwriter.
The mini-Hitchcock, or mini-Psycho, label is misleading. Not only did the cycle commenced before Hitchcock’s seminal version of Bloch’s novel was filmed, but it also had its origins in the series of films Hammer co-produced with American distributor Robert L. Lippert in the 1950s that ended in 1955.
Lippert, who financed the films and exported stars seeking to escape from the US seeking to rejuvenate their careers, or whose contractual obligations meant they had little choice, or who fancied a spell in Europe (such as George Brent, Lloyd Bridges and Dan Duryea), or those wanting respite from the effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Senator Joseph McCarthy (like Paul Henreid), or those escaping scandals on their home turf (like Barbara Peyton), came to Bray Studios to play in early versions Hammer’s psychodramas. Some liked the experience so much they came back for more than one film (Alex Nichol made two, as did Barbara Peyton, while Dane Clark made three). The finished products Lippert would show in his chain of US theatres, or earn cash by distributing to others, while Hammer would often retain the UK distribution rights. (Henreid saw the financial potential in his first film for the studio and Lippert, Stolen Face, and decided to star in a second, Man in Hiding (UK, Terence Fisher, 1952) in return for a lower-than-usual salary and a share of the profits.)
Possibly the earliest film of this sub-genre even predates the association with Lippert. In The Black Widow (UK, Vernon Sewell, 1951), a man with amnesia traces his movements back to his home only to discover his wife and her lover had planned his death, and he hatches a cat-and-mouse plan to catch them out. In another film the same year, The Rossiter Case (UK, Francis Searle, 1951), a man is suspected of killing the sister of his disabled wife, with whom he’d been having an affair, but he may not be the guilty party after all.
These films and others in the Lippert series would mostly feature male protagonists. This would change as the decade neared its end to promote more distaff-centred tales.
The Gothic touch: literary influences and the Sangster connection
Although critics and academics would link the later cycle of psychodramas to Hitch and Clouzot, their literary and theatrical origins date back even further than the Lippert films. Gothic romances like The Mysteries of Udolpho (Ann Radcliffe, 1794), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847) and Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight (1938), with their lurid depictions of kidnapped women, kept in locked castles, madwomen hidden in attics and husbands trying to drive their spouses or wards insane to steal their money, all have as much influence on the Hammer cycle as Clouzot and Hitchcock: what is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (US, 1940) after all but a retelling of Jane Eyre, complete with a madwoman in the attic, in the form of Mrs Danvers, who’s trying to drive the new Mrs De Winter mad?
An important link between the earlier Hammer psychodrama thrillers and the mini-Hitchcocks is Sangster: as well as being an assistant director on The Black Widow and The Rossiter Case, he served in the same or similar capacities on The Last Page (UK, Terence Fisher, 1952), Stolen Face (UK, Fisher, 1952), The Flanagan Boy (UK, Reginald LeBorg, 1953), Face the Music (UK, Fisher, 1954), The House Across the Lake (UK, Ken Hughes, 1954), The Stranger Came Home (UK, Fisher, 1954), Five Days (UK, Montgomery Tully, 1954), 36 Hours (UK, Tully, 1954), Third Party Risk (UK, Daniel Birt, 1955) and Murder by Proxy (UK, Fisher, 1955). All of these share some traits with the mini-Hitchcocks, although the plots became more convoluted as time went on thanks to Les Diaboliques.
Several of these early films are worthy of note. Third Party Risk, in which imported star Lloyd Bridges’ character becomes involved with a smuggling gang, is partly set in Spain, the first of the Mediterranean settings to appear in either cycle of thrillers, while The Flanagan Boy and The House Across the Lake stand out for the strong roles assigned to Hollywood actresses, Barbara Peyton and Hillary Brooke, respectively. Both also feature Sidney James in powerful roles that demonstrate that he could have had a dramatic career well beyond his Carry On persona had fate and casting decisions taken a different path. They are still effective thrillers today.
These latter two films also defined the future direction of the mini-Hitchcocks because of the twisted, warped-minded plots of the female protagonists. Both films are heavily modelled on the third screen version of J. M. Cain’s steamy novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (US, Tay Garnett, 1946), in which blonde bombshell Lana Turner seduces a suggestable stranger into murdering her husband so they can abscond with the money in the victim’s will. Both female stars look a little like Turner, Peyton had starred in touring productions of the Postman, and they appear in revealing costumes during the films.
In The Flanagan Boy, Peyton persuades a young boxer to kill her promoter husband so she can inherit the money, but the kid’s trainer, Sidney James, is alive to the plot and when she repeats the same plan with her lover she gets her comeuppance.
Peyton’s casting may have been an added frisson for filmgoers and backers alike as she was escaping from Hollywood after her brief marriage to film star Franchot Tone. The marriage had been swiftly ended by her continuation of a relationship with a man who had beaten up Tone just before their nuptials. It’s perhaps no coincidence the film was retitled Bad Blonde, the title of the Max Catto source novel, for the US. Peyton’s life was to end in a welter of scandal, sleaze and alcoholism worthy of the plots of one of Lippert’s films.
In The House Across the Lake, Brooke’s character persuades a burnt-out dime novelist to kill her millionaire investor husband (Sidney James in one of his career-best performances), but her love for a third man proves her undoing. As well as strong performances and better direction than others in this cycle, the two films benefited massively from tighter scripts with fewer plot holes, something few of the earlier or later ones could claim.
While the earlier cycle has more in common with the noir-type efforts moviegoers on the other side of the Atlantic pond were familiar with, Hammer was nothing if not adaptable and, seeing the how their copies of Hollywood noir films could be adapted to suit the Gothic appetites whetted by Les Diaboliques, the studio’s producers, directors and writers simply followed the tried and trusted formula of a taking a successful film and unofficially remaking it a few years later in their own style.
A touch of madness: the 12 mini-Hitchcocks
There are 12 films that most critics and fans agree definitely fall into the mini-Hitchcock cycle: The Snorkel (UK, Guy Green, 1958), The Full Treatment (UK, Val Guest, 1960), Taste of Fear (UK, Seth Holt, 1961), Maniac (UK, Michael Carreras, 1963), Paranoiac (UK, Freddie Francis, 1963), Nightmare (UK, Francis, 1964), Fanatic (UK, Silvio Narizzano, 1965), Hysteria (UK, Francis, 1965), The Nanny (UK, Holt, 1965 ), Crescendo (UK, Alan Gibson, 1970), Fear in the Night (UK, Jimmy Sangster, 1972) and Straight on Till Morning (UK, Peter Collinson, 1972).
All 12 have at least several of these main essential elements: suggested or induced madness; gaslighting (a psychological term for tricking someone into thinking they’re losing their mind, named after Hamilton’s play); genuine insanity (usually the villain’s); a victim kidnapped or otherwise isolated by their persecutors, usually for sexually predatory reasons; a more or less convoluted plot to kill a spouse or lover for their wealth.
Nine feature a female as the main or second protagonist, the exceptions being Maniac, Paranoiac and Hysteria, while in The Full Treatment the protagonist role is split between the hero and heroine. All but four are photographed in edgy black and white.
In The Snorkel, a man uses a breathing apparatus to kill his wife in a fiendishly contrived plot to inherit her fortune, after having previously murdered her first husband. However, he is foiled by his stepdaughter, whom most of the other characters think is unhinged because of the villain’s attempts to portray her as deranged. Peter Van Eyck, as the evil perpetrator, is a role model for every Columbo murderer to come, while Mandy Miller, as the teenage stepdaughter, is the first of the mini-Hitchcock heroines to be the victim of Gaslight-type techniques that fool her guardians and the police into thinking she is on the verge of madness.
Green’s film should be better known, as it is a superior example of cinematic suspense, especially the finale in which the tables are finally turned on the bad guy, while the script by Peter Myers and Sangster is flawless in a way that others in the cycle are not.
The Full Treatment is unique in the series in splitting the role of tortured protagonist pretty evenly between a male and a female character and madness is both feigned and real, as a deranged psychiatrist tries to persuade a husband he is the insane one and has murdered his wife, a plot conceived so the medic can run off with her, although she is innocent of complicity. Made on the French Riviera and in London, the film’s final third lets it down as the plot flaws become evident, but it is worth watching for the performances of Ronald Lewis and Diane Cilento as the married couple, while the opening sequence – a camera slowly tracks forward across the vehicles involved in a country road collision – is a masterclass in creating tension.
Ronald Lewis would also appear in the third, and in many ways best, of the films, Taste of Fear, in which a disabled young American heiress returns to her father’s Riviera villa after many years apart only to find her cool stepmother (Ann Todd) and handsome chauffer (Lewis) at home. The girl has been paralysed following a car accident but a handsome psychiatrist (Christopher Lee in one of his most effective Hammer performances) tries to convince her this disability is only in her mind. The appearance and disappearance of the father’s apparently dead body (aping that of the headmaster’s vanishing and reappearing corpse in Les Diaboliques) in the isolated villa provides one of the most genuinely alarming sets of images in the whole Hammer canon, and the final reveal and surprise ending are, for first-time audiences, a genuine shock moment. Hammer cleverly marketed the film with a single picture of star Lee Strasberg screaming out of the poster at them, mimicking the advertising campaigns for Les Diaboliques and Psycho.
One of the biggest effects of Psycho on the Hammer cycle was that, for the rest of the decade, their titles would mostly become pithy, polysyllabic, single words that conveyed the feelings of tension and terror deemed necessary to draw audiences in.
Staying in France, the Sangster-scripted Maniac saw US import star Kerwin Mathews as a gigolo artist who is abandoned by his British girlfriend in a French coastal village where he swiftly puts up at a local inn run by a lovely young girl, Liliane Brousse, and her attractive stepmother, played by Nadia Gray. Brousse’s character had been attacked by a sexual predator some years before, in revenge for which her father tortured the rapist to death using a blow torch. The stepmother persuades the artist she is more his type, luring him into a plot to free her husband from an asylum. Once released, however, it seems the madman has killed again, leaving the body in the back of his wife’s car. The twist is that it is the husband who is dead and his killer is a prison guard (Donald Houston) who has fallen in love with Gray’s character, covering up his own disappearance so the couple can vanish with the cash from selling the dead man’s inn after killing the stepdaughter.
Directed by Michael Carreras, this otherwise fine entry is marred by a massive flaw in Sangster’s script (there’s no way a detective would not suspect Gray after she pays a hospital visit to Mathews’ character and attempts to kill him by disconnecting him from his blood transfusion) and some poor casting and post-production decisions that left comic actor Norman Bird’s ineffectual cop dubbed by André Maranne (better known as Chief Inspector Dreyfus’ assistant Francois in the Inspector Clouseau films), while Welshman Donald Houston, a well-known performer with one of the best-known voices in British cinema at the time, is revoiced by an unknown actor. These decisions render the performances ineffective at best, with Houston’s in particular suffering. The scenes where victims are about to be tortured by blow torch are suitably disturbing, however, and the imagery was used effectively for the menacing poster artwork.
Paranoiac, again scripted by Sangster, is a stand-out entry, with a performance by Oliver Reed that ranks among his best. It’s the tale of a man (Alex Davion) who returns to the English family estate after his siblings have believed him dead for many years. The man’s sister, Janette Scott, is happy to have him back, but Reed, as the brother, refuses to admit the returnee’s identity. A family lawyer, the ever-dependable Maurice Denham, is convinced, but it soon becomes apparent the newcomer is trying to commit fraud, unaware Reed’s character is an unhinged killer who has murdered his real brother. A jump-scare sequence in an old chapel, in which a strange, masked figure attacks the hero with a carving knife, is a stand-out moment, while Sangster’s script provides strong roles for Scott and Sheila Burrell, as an aunt besotted with Reed who covers up his crimes, and Liliane Brousse (from Maniac) as one of Reed’s victims. Sadly, a few easily pluggable plot holes flaw it slightly. The storyline, borrowed from Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar, was later riffed by writer Terry Nation in The Persuaders! (ITC 1971) episode ‘Take Seven’.
Nightmare, also directed by Francis from a Sangster script, is a lesser entry. While the opening scenes of Jennie Linden being menaced by a strange woman in the surreal corridors of an insane asylum are particularly effective, supported by Don Banks’ excellent theme, and brought to life by John Wilkes’ photography and James Needs’ editing, the rest is disappointing. Linden’s character is mentally damaged by her mother’s murder of her father when she was very young and is unable to convince her household retainers and teachers that the mystery scarred-faced woman who stalks her through the house at night in dream-like sequences is real.
When the scarred woman makes an appearance at a party, Linden knifes her to death, with the result she is locked up in the same asylum as her mother. The tension is released too soon, however, as the girl’s nurse and guardian are revealed to be the true villains, who gaslit Linden’s tortured soul into killing the guardian’s wife. The rest of the Sangster’s plot, in which the family servants conspire to get their revenge and have the innocent girl released, is obvious, drawn-out, and could have been done more effectively in a half-hour episode of Tales of the Unexpected or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Fanatic was a much-needed return to form, with a claustrophobic script by horror maestro Richard Matheson from the source novel unfortunately titled Nightmare (Anne Blaisdell, 1962) but unrelated to the previous film. It utilised the talents of Hammer newcomers, Canadian director Silvio Narizzano, and stars Tallulah Bankhead (who had been in Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat) and Stefanie Powers, before The Girl From U.N.C.L.E (NBC, 1966-67) and Hart to Hart (ABC 1979-84) made her an established household name.
Bankhead plays a deluded matriarch who has never recovered from her son’s death and invites his girlfriend (Powers) to stay in her English home. In reality, the mother is a religious fanatic and when she learns that the young girl had already left her son before his death, she holds her responsible and begins trying to purify her soul, assisted by her servants Yootha Joyce, Donald Sutherland and a particularly menacing Peter Vaughan, whose character has his own ideas about the young hostage’s fate.
Powers is highly effective in a role that evokes the Gothic romance tradition as she is forced into a series of privations before her fiancé can ride to her rescue. Aside from Bankhead’s over-the-top acting, the film is also notable for being the first of the mini-Hitchcock’s to be made in colour.
It’s also the only one to have inspired a play, Looped, by Matthew Lombardo. This is about an eight-hour dubbing session to rerecord a single line of dialogue for Fanatic that turns into a battle of wills between Bankhead and the sound editor. By a twist of fate, the 2010 Broadway production had Powers taking the role of Bankhead at the invitation of star Valerie Harper after the latter needed treatment for brain cancer.
Fanatic was followed by the Sangster-scripted Hysteria, a partial remake of The Full Treatment, in which a man suffering from temporary amnesia is persuaded by his psychiatrist that he has killed the medico’s wife, though it has some effective scenes in a shower that evoke memories of Psycho.
The next effort, The Nanny, with a script by Sangster from a 1964 novel of the same name by Evelyn Piper (who also wrote Bunny Lake is Missing), is many fans’ favourite of the cycle. Seth Holt’s psychological drama has a young boy (William Dix) return to his family home from the standard mental institution. He is collected by his family’s otherwise nameless Nanny (Bette Davis), whom he evidently dislikes, a situation that worsens the more he is in her company. It soon becomes apparent the boy was responsible for the death of his younger sister and has been away to rehabilitate and allow his parents, especially his mother (Wendy Craig), to recover. While the parents are away an aunt with a weak heart (Jill Bennett) agrees to stay to keep the peace between the boy and their old Nanny. When the aunt discovers the Nanny attempting to smother the boy and was really responsible for the infanticide, she becomes the next victim.
Davis’ descent into madness, following the death of the Nanny’s own daughter after a botched abortion, provides the series with arguably its finest performance. The finale, in which the nanny is shocked out of her mental state and saves her charge, provides the opportunity for a heart-warming reconciliation between mother and son.
There would be a five-year gap before the next entry in the cycle, with Stefanie Powers returning to star with another US import, James Olsen, who’d had the lead in Hammer’s space opera Moon Zero Two (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1969). Directed by Alan Gibson (of Dracula A.D. 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula), the film re-treads many aspects of Powers’ earlier Fanatic, except this time the mad matriarch, Margaretta Scott, is trying to use the music-student ingenue she has lured for a summer vacation to sire a scion for her dead genius composer husband, as her disabled, impotent son has no desire to finish his father’s great concerto. Aside from the psychotic servants being played by Jane Lepotaire and Joss Ackland, and the setting being relocated to France, the film, with a script by Sangster and Alfred Shaughnessey, is a virtual remake of Fanatic with unnecessary added nudity. The revelation of an evil twin brother for Olsen’s character adds an unexpected twist, while Scott’s performance verges on Bankhead’s and Davis’ wild excesses.
The final two-cycle entries were made for an EMI horror double-bill, a popular arrangement between film producers and distributors in the 1970s. The Best of these, Fear in the Night, sees a young woman, (Judy Geeson), recovering after a spell in an institution following a nervous breakdown and marrying a deputy headteacher (Ralph Bates). He takes his bride to an isolated private school – one of the biggest echoes of Les Diaboliques in all of Sangster’s scripts (this one co-written with Michael Syson).
The school is ruled by an old-fashioned headteacher (Peter Cushing) and his younger wife (Joan Collins) but it gradually emerges it has been empty of pupils for a long time after a fatal incident, and the wife and Deputy Head keep up appearances for the sake of the old headmaster’s sanity. The fact the head has a false arm – and Geeson’s character has been menaced by a one-armed would-be attacker – leads us into a plot whereby the deputy and the head’s wife are trying to gaslight Geeson’s ingenue into killing the old man. However, thanks to the stereo system the headteacher uses to replicate the sounds of school life around the buildings, the wily old man has his revenge on his strumpet wife and her paramour.
A series of effective chase scenes, in which Geeson is menaced in the rambling school building by her unseen assailants, underline Sangster’s understanding of the genre and help overcome the obviously limited budget.
The final film, Straight On Till Morning, taking a line from Peter Pan, is a tale of a young northern girl who seeks to write fairy-tales and wants to find a ‘prince’ to father her future children in London in a bid to escape her restricted existence with her mother. Her encounter with a handsome and apparently independently wealthy young man (Shane Bryant) is not all that she could hope for, however, as he has the unfortunate habit of acting as a gigolo to older, rich women, whom he subsequently murders, recording their death screams.
Directed by Peter Collinson (best known for The Italian Job) from a script credited to John Peacock, the film echoes the unpleasantness of director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK, 1960) and, like the earlier film, it’s more unpleasant than unsettling.
High points, low points and what’s not a mini-Hitchcock
While for many the highlight of the mini-Hitchcocks would be The Nanny, it’s not this writer’s favourite. The Snorkel, Scream of Fear and Paranoiac would be the ones I’d suggest first-time viewers watch, and I’ve tried not to give too many spoilers.
My favourites, however, would include Fanatic and Crescendo, which, despite their similarities, are lifted above the average by Stephanie Powers and the incredible supporting casts, as well as some striking imagery and a sense of brio that is missing from other later entries.
Honourable mentions go to The Full Treatment and Fear in the Night as, though flawed, their directors understood enough about the genre to partly elevate them above their peers thanks to great use of mise-en-scene and performances that were worthy of better material.
The final consideration has to be what films are not included as mini-Hitchcocks. Hands of the Ripper (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1971) and Demons of the Mind (UK, Peter Sykes, 1972) both deal with madness, but in both cases, the madness is genuine rather than feigned and they lack the kind of Scooby-Doo unmasking that seems so essential to most of the others. Their period settings also count against them as Les Diaboliques and its offspring attempt to update the Gothic/Victorian melodrama genre to contemporary times rather than recreate it. Therefore, though others may advocate for their inclusion, I do not. A similar argument could be made for excluding Straight on Till Morning, a drama about two psychologically disturbed people without a grand Agatha Christie plot-like reveal as to who the villain really is at the end or sufficiently Hitchcock-style elements to generate suspense.
More consideration should instead be given to director Cyril Frankel’s two Hammer films, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (UK, 1960) and The Witches (UK, 1966). In the first, a serial child molester (Felix Aylmer) is protected from the modern-day equivalent of torch-bearing villagers in a Canadian town by the criminal’s wealthy family, who effectively gaslight themselves and the community into believing nothing is wrong. The crimes committed are not, admittedly, for financial gain, unlike other more representative examples of the cycle, but nonetheless, its other Hitchcockian elements (including a genuinely alarming chase sequence) elevate it into the sub-genre for me.
The Witches is even worthier of inclusion. The US star, Joan Fontaine, an actress of equal status to Bankhead and Davis. The plot concerns a teacher (Fontaine) who has suffered a nervous breakdown and returns to England, where she is carefully selected to run a village school. It gradually becomes apparent one of the pupils is being groomed for ritual sacrifice. When the teacher realises this, the local coven conspires to unbalance her mind enough to send her back into an institution. She escapes and confronts the head witch (another startling veteran actress performance by Kay Walsh), who is persuaded the final ritual that will restore her youth has gone wrong, leading her to die of shock.
Though often considered a ‘horror’ because of the witchcraft theme and the Nigel Kneale script, no magic in the style of The Devil Rides Out (UK, Fisher, 1968) is witnessed. The supernatural is merely implied. There is also considerable gaslighting, as the community at first conspires to hide the ritual abuse in the village and later works to convince Fontaine she is insane. For these reasons, I count it among the mini-Hitchcocks.
One could equally make a case for The Old Dark House (UK, William Castle, 1966), in which a family of eccentrics in an isolated manor house, who all seem to have conditions bordering on some form of mental illness, are conned into thinking an American stranger in their midst is killing them off when in reality it is the only apparently sane family member who is assassinating the relatives to gain an inheritance.
Whether you believe there are 12 or more films in the cycle is up to you – I’ve not tried to gaslight you either way. What is certain is that there are enough mad people in attics, bizarre inheritances and scenery-chewing, fire-breathing performances in all these films to keep future generations entertained when they discover them for the first time.
I hope they’ll have a scream doing so.
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