Hysteria directed by Freddie Francis horror movie reviewsHysteria directed by Freddie Francis horror movie reviewsHysteria directed by Freddie Francis

As I believe I have mentioned here before, during the 1960s, Hammer Film Productions in England did not only excel at the horror, science fiction and period action movies for which it is best remembered today, but at the psychological thriller, as well. Previously, this viewer had watched and hugely enjoyed such Hammer thrillers as The Snorkel (1958), Maniac (1962) and Nightmare (1964), and so it was with great anticipation that I sat down the other day, on an appropriately stormy afternoon, to watch the Hammer offering entitled Hysteria. This film was initially released in the U.S. in April 1965 and in the U.K., strangely enough, two months later. During that year, at the height of Hammer’s heyday, the studio would ultimately come out with a half dozen entertainments for its audiences: The Secret of Blood Island, a war movie; The Brigand of Kandahar, an adventure film set in 19th century India; the remarkable suspenser Die! Die! My Darling, starring Stefanie Powers and Tallulah Bankhead; the film in question, Hysteria; the Bette Davis wringer entitled The Nanny; and another adaptation of the great H. Rider Haggard’s She. Not a Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy or period-set horror film in the bunch, you will note. Sadly, Hysteria did not fare very well at the box office, and now, with the hindsight of more than half a century, the viewer can only wonder why, as it is a beautifully shot, finely scripted, marvelously acted and consistently intriguing picture that really does hold the viewer’s attention.

In the film, the viewer meets an American, currently living in London, named, for the sake of convenience, Chris Smith (California-born actor Robert Webber, who most will recall as the brash adman Juror 12 in 12 Angry Men). Smith, we learn, had been in a serious auto wreck four months earlier and had lost most of his memory as a result. He cannot even remember his own name, and has been dubbed Chris Smith as a result of the St. Christopher medallion he had been wearing at the time of his accident. Smith learns that some unknown benefactor has been paying for all his hospital bills, and that a swanky penthouse apartment has also been rented for him when he is released. His physician, one Dr. Keller (Anthony Newlands, whose other horror credentials include 1966’s Circus of Fear and 1970’s Scream and Scream Again), gives him some pills to take in case he should suffer consequent hallucinations, and as it turns out, those pills really do come in handy. While in hospital, Smith, despite his memory loss, begins to put the moves on his pretty nurse, Gina McConnell (Jennifer Jayne, who had appeared in the classic horror film The Crawling Eye in 1958 and would go on to feature in 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors), a woman who will be more than helpful to him later on. Smith’s only clue to his past, we further learn, is a magazine photo of a beautiful woman that had been found in his pocket; a woman who would seem to hold the key to his past.

Once ensconced in his new luxury pad, in an apartment high-rise that is otherwise strangely empty, very strange things begin to occur to the befuddled American. He keeps hearing voices raised in heated argument, although no one else is living nearby. He finds a bloody knife on the floor of his apartment. And, several times, he seems to see the mysterious woman who he is searching for, either walking around town or driving past in a car. Smith hires a private detective, Hennings (British character actor Maurice Denham, who had appeared in one of the greatest horror films of the ‘50s, 1957’s Night of the Demon, as well as another Hammer psychological thriller, 1963’s Paranoiac, and The Nanny, 1967’s Torture Garden, and 1971’s Countess Dracula), to aid him in the search for his unknown past, while he at the same time prosecutes his own investigations. Soon, he learns that the woman in the photo had been killed in her shower months earlier, and is thus startled when that same woman, who calls herself Denise James (American actress Lelia Goldoni, who would appear in the great Martin Scorsese film Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore in 1974, as well as in 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and who, for some reason, struck this viewer as a British variant of Arlene Martel), shows up inside his apartment. Denise claims that it was her deceased husband who had been driving the car in which Chris suffered his accident, and that she has been paying his bills for the past four months out of a sense of guilt. And before long, other strange things begin to occur, as a dead woman is found in Chris’ shower, and the arguing voices in his head continue, leading Chris ever closer to the edge of not only the titular hysteria, but also madness…

Now, writing in the household bible Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, the editors there tell us that Hysteria “starts out promisingly, but gets bogged down,”and for the life of me, I have no idea what they are talking about (hardly the first time that I have had some issues with the pronouncements from the wet-blanket editors there!). On the contrary, I feel that this film only grows increasingly bizarre and dumbfounding as it proceeds, piling on one outre incident on top of another. Indeed, this is the type of film in which there is just no way to predict what is going to transpire next, and the viewer surely does sympathize with poor Chris Smith’s predicament. And Webber is just perfect in the role here, making us feel the character’s bewilderment as he seemingly teeters closer and closer to the edge. But then again, all the players here are just wonderful in their roles, and they are abetted by a team behind the cameras that is every bit as professional. Kudos, thus, to cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis, who helms his film in a manner that deftly brings out the strangeness of the conceit; Francis, of course, would ultimately be responsible for such wonderful Hammer affairs as Paranoiac, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Nightmare, and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), as well as a slew of wonderful horror entertainments from the rival British horror studio Amicus (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, 1965’s The Skull, 1966’s The Psychopath, Torture Garden, and 1972’s Tales From the Crypt, for example). The film’s wonderfully twisty script here is by Jimmy Sangster, who was responsible for dozens of these ‘50s and ‘60s British horror/thriller entertainments (go look up his filmography; it’s almost like a What’s What of mid-20th century British horror), while the film’s autumnal B&W lensing, by John Wilcox, surely is a thing of stark beauty on its own. And Hysteria also boasts a marvelously jazzy score by the Australian composer Don Banks that goes far in abetting its atmosphere of escalating strangeness.

To be perfectly honest, Hysteria is not the type of picture that holds up well under scrutiny after the end credits role, and I’m not quite sure that the final resolution of the picture ties together all the many loose ends that we had been presented with, or explains all the outrageousness that had come before. (In that respect, it is a little like many of the “weird-menace” stories of 1930s pulp fiction, in which seemingly supernatural doings are ultimately explained in a mundane yet far-fetched manner that doesn’t quite cover all the bases.) But while it is being experienced, the film is an absolutely captivating and riveting experience. Hysteria offers the viewer any number of fascinating scenes, including the one in which Chris first explores his new luxury pad; Chris’ first meeting with the mysterious Denise; an extended flashback sequence that transpires in France, allowing us to see Chris before his accident and discover what type of man he really is (something of a swinging playboy he-man, if truth be told); and the picture’s ultimate reveal, as all the characters’ ulterior motivations come to the fore. It is a highly satisfying denouement, but as to whether or not Chris is vouchsafed a happy ending or not, don’t expect me to say. Hysteria is not as cleverly plotted as The Snorkel and never rises to the scary heights of Nightmare, but for what it is and for what it is trying to do, it does so very well; namely, present a truly disorienting experience in as artful and impactful a manner as possible. And the picture even manages to provide the viewer with the occasional chuckle; just witness the way that the elderly detective Hemmings keeps hesitating before saying the word “Smith,” and the manner in which that private eye easily bests the American in a dukeout. Nice touches! This film kept me very well entertained and spellbound on a gloomy afternoon at home – the perfect accompaniment on a dismal October day – and thus gets my heartiest seal of approval. It is still another wonderful winner from the great House of Hammer…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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