Robert Bloch and Milton Subotsky may have helped to codify the Giallo in this murder thriller but the results are not up to even the shaky standards of Amicus. That said, horror fans are going to flock to get their hands on a big color & ‘scope release that’s gone missing for decades. It’s a significant ‘save’ by Kino Lorber.
KL Studio Classics
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen Techniscope / 82 min. / Street Date April 10, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Patrick Wymark, Margaret Johnston, John Standing, Alexander Knox, Judy Huxtable, Don Borisenko, Thorley Walters, Robert Crewdson, Harold Lang, Gina Gianelli, Greta Farrer, John Harvey.
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Film Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter
Art Direction: Bill Constable
Original Music: Elisabeth Lutyens
Written by Robert Bloch
Produced by Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Directed by Freddie Francis
A look at the cast and crew of The Psychopath raises one’s hopes. Good actors Patrick Wymark and Margaret Johnston put in memorable performances in two of our favorite genre pictures, Repulsion and Burn, Witch, Burn. And there’s a new awareness of film composer Elisabeth Lutyens, especially for her impressive music for Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. The Psychopath is one of a series of Techniscope horrors and Sci-fi pictures made in the mid- ’60 by Amicus Productions. These are the years of direct competition with Hammer Films, to the extent of hiring top talent then almost exclusively associated with Hammer. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was the first and the most popular Amicus offering; its creepy multi-story format works rather well, even if the individual stories are weak. The Skull is satisfying as well, thanks to solid performances from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, impressive visuals and deft story twists.
The Psychopath inherits none of the graces of the earlier Amicus efforts. Having no supernatural elements, it’s a horror-inflected multiple murder tale motivated by greed and revenge. Indeed present are many of the elements of the Italian giallo pictures that Dario Argento would briefly turn into an artsy, gory horror subgenre. Mario Bava had already made the best of these with Blood and Black Lace, a dazzler whose delirious visuals have yet to be topped. Amicus’s pedestrian effort instead takes us back to generic television scenarios in which a dogged police detective investigates a tall stack of potential killers. Robert Bloch’s original script pours a glaze of bad psychology on top, and other post- Psycho ideas already driven into the ground by the exploitative likes of Homicidal and the sub-Hitchcockian suspense-murder thrillers penned by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster. Any wheelchair-bound eccentric is likely faking their infirmity. Untrustworthy artists use potential murder weapons in their work. Key confrontations often occur in exotic environments — rooms of mannequins or toy dolls, workplaces with machinery or objects that suddenly become menacing.
The giallo ethos bogged down in a mechanical requirement to offer up slaughter scenes as if on a timetable. That formula has remained popular in modern serial killer horrors that set out to appall the audience with bleakness and dread: Se7en. Agatha Christie had her Ten Little Indians, of course. But filmmakers like Rene Clair, Mario Bava and Dario Argento used the format to float entertaining exercises in irony, wicked humor and high style. The Psychopath is just plain half-baked.
Detective Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) looks in on a series of threats to a quartet of friends that meet to play in a casual string ensemble: Reinhardt Klermer (John Harvey), Frank Saville (Alexander Knox), Martin Roth (Thorley Walters) and Victor Ledoux (Robert Crewdson). Saville’s daughter Louise and her boyfriend Donald Loftis (Judy Huxtable and Don Borisenko) fall from direct suspicion when Holloway realizes that the linking factor in the murders are lookalike dolls that are left on or near the bodies of the victims. The trail leads immediately to Mrs. Von Sturm (the quirky, expressive Margaret Johnson), a dotty handicapped eccentric that lives in a house packed with her decorative doll creations. As more men die, Holloway wonders if Mrs. Von Sturm’s son Mark (John Standing) is hiding something.
The Psychopath is a good reminder that the writing kudos for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho belongs to screenwriter Joseph Stefano, not Robert Bloch. The poster for this Amicus film gives the whole show away, anyway — the scrawled tag line reads, “Mother may I go out to kill?” and the film has only one mother-son relationship. So don’t expect any level of mystery suspense.
I hasten to praise the film’s two main actors. Patrick Wymark anchors the picture in the leading role. He’s in most scenes and manages the impressive feat of making the mystery seem intermittently interesting. His Detective Holloway even survives the hoary cliché of intuiting the presence of a bomb just in time to avoid being blown up. The second reason to take in The Psychopath is actress Margaret Johnston, whose cackling, vengeful academic provided the majority of the malevolence in the superb Burn, Witch, Burn. Mrs. Von Sturm is an impossibly gimmicky character — is she really crazy? is she really handicapped? Johnston displays a full range of demented behaviors and reactions. If even her histrionics begin to become tedious it’s not her fault, as the script keeps putting Mrs. Von Sturm screen center, in scenes that don’t advance the story.
Suspects in murder mysteries are supposed to be interesting, to distract us from the fact that we aren’t being given relevant clues. Scenes with suspects invariably end with a shifty eye movement or gesture, to keep us guessing. Alexander Knox phones in his performance, and Thorley Walters hasn’t enough screen time to bother with his sometimes-amusing eccentric act. Robert Crewdson is the artist that sculpts metal with a blowtorch, when not sketching nude models. With his dramatic haircut and beard, he reminds us of a carved-head marionette from the Andersons. These men might as well be tenpins waiting for the bowling ball, as the drama behind the killings generates almost zero interest.
The supporting actors don’t stand out either. Judy Huxtable makes little impact despite having substantial screen time and plenty of attractive close-ups. Her best quality is the way her eyes pop-out in terror, even in medium-long shot. Don Borisenko is flatly dubbed. Three other female characters are just there to look pretty, and in one case, get killed. Hammer fans might recognize one actor in a single scene. Harold Lang of Cloudburst and The Quatermass Xperiment has a good if brief monologue as a gay toy shop manager. That’s the level of imagination employed — Amicus and Subotsky put a mincing gay in the show for variety’s sake, just as they make sure that an attractive female appears at regular intervals.
Although typed as a horror director, Freddie Francis doesn’t show much of an affinity for the genre. I’ve not seen The Brain (Vengeance). None of his B&W Hammer/Sangster suspense movies can touch Seth Holt’s Scream of Fear. Francis’s gothic Hammers Evil of Frankenstein and Dracula has Risen from the Grave too often feel like paint-by-numbers exercises; he can’t match the lurid Gainsborough style of Terence Fisher. His Amicus work is both his best (The Skull) and worst (They Came from Beyond Space). None of this puts a dent in Freddie Francis’s spectacular career as a cinematographer, which is packed with great achievements. His artistry behind a lens was such that, when cameraman Jack Cardiff turned to directing on Sons and Lovers, Francis got the nod. Francis excelled in creating images for kitchen sink pictures, classy gothic horror, David Lynch expressionism, spectacles, epics and even a superb TV movie or two.
Not being an anamorphic process like CinemaScope or Panavision, Techniscope allows Freddie Francis to compose in depth, often placing objects in the extreme foreground, that are as sharp as people much farther away. (See the image of Patrick Wymark with the hammer in the foreground, above.) This allows Freddie Francis to at least find good compositions. The trade-off is in the granularity of the image. Techniscope is only a half-frame format and is such much more grainy.
The two previous Amicus / Francis movies had a rich, dark appearance, but Psychopath has too much ugly art direction, far too brightly lit. Frames cluttered with primary-colored objects isn’t much of a visual style. Mrs. Von Sturm’s brightly colored doll showcase rooms are just garish, and the dolls mostly look like cheap toy store rejects. The restaurants and night clubs we visit are beyond garish, with reds and purples clashing. The lighting in these scenes looks like it was designed for a TV quiz show. Much better are the boat warehouse and some of the practical nighttime locations. The effects lighting in the blowtorch scene is also more creative — the blowtorch gives off multi-colored light from the Mario Bava palette.
Gina Gianelli’s scarlet rain gear does connect with later Dario Argento pix, and a couple of angles on Von Sturm’s dolls are halfway interesting. The good depth of field makes possible shots with both foreground dolls and background humans in sharp focus. But in general The Psychopath is at a loss for visual distinction; even the recurring motif of bright red objects — cars, that plastic raincoat — gets lost in the welter of random art direction. How can one direct five violent murder scenes, and manage to make none of them memorable? Francis saves his most dynamic blocking for the conclusion, where a narrow staircase leading to a secret attic yields a succession of dynamic widescreen compositions.But there’s no defeating the tepid screenplay. We’re left with a silly ‘human doll’ image escaped from a Tales of Hoffman fantasy.
The Psychopath is for aficionados of fright films that want to see everything — for our esteemed colleagues that search out obscure pictures to establish missing links in the chain of historical horror fun. General undiscriminating mystery fans might like it too.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Psychopath is a brave encoding of elements in ‘variable condition.’ The other two Paramount-Amicus pictures Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull disappeared from circulation as well, but The Psychopath has never been seen on home video before now. The disc’s opening may explain why. The entire first reel (after the title sequence) is visually degraded and scoured with a row of vertical scratches that a colleague described as ‘viewing the movie through prison bars.’ We’re told that Kino took extreme measures to try to bring the picture up to Blu-ray standards, and the rarity of the show more than justifies their effort.
After the early bad patch Color and contrast are okay throughout, but seem to shift from time to time. The main transfer source may have been a Technicolor print (a guess). That would account for the occasional washed-out face, especially the pale Margaret Johnston. Until scanning technology made almost anything possible, Tech prints made terrible transfer sources. The damaged first reel is not a deal-breaker for a movie we’ve waited so long to see.
Elisabeth Lutyen’s score is agreeably unusual, but its eccentric quality doesn’t fit all of the scenes, in particular an effort to make the dolls scenes seem mysterious. The music is at its best in the animated title sequence. The most effective cue, and this is a surprise, is a rock tune heard from a jukebox. It sounds authentic to 1966 — and appears to have been composed by Ronnie Wood, later of The Rolling Stones.
The disc carries at least five trailers, including the one for this movie, and Joe Dante’s positive Trailers from Hell commentary on The Skull. The main attraction is the sole new extra, a commentary by Troy Howarth that takes on the challenge of pointing out what’s interesting and attractive about a movie that he admits doesn’t appeal to him very much. For viewers too quick to put the blame on Robert Bloch, Howarth tells us that producer Milton Subotsky re-wrote the script. Ironically, we get the impression that Subotsky contributed some of the better story elements. We’re also told that Freddie Francis added several scenes, including the peekaboo moment with the nude model, in an effort to give the show more variety and visual interest. Howarth’s biographical info and general observations all seem sound to me; it only feels strange when, after voicing enthusiasm for the show, he must turn around and catalog its shortcomings. That may be a generic problem with film commentaries — no matter how humble the film, nobody likes snarky tracks that diss the efforts of directors and actors, as if the commentator were licensed to approve or disapprove. Howarth does his best to strike a balance.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Fair +
Video: Good –
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, commentary with Troy Howarth
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 6, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson