powered by AFI
If the 1950s were the decade of the science fiction monster movie, then the 1960s easily staked a claim on the psychological horror film. The standard bearer was clearly the one that kicked off the trend, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), but Hollywood wasted no time in churning out more twist-laden combinations of suspense and blood-chilling terror, most auspiciously with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963).
Not to be outdone, the British film industry kept pace with its own cottage industry of Psycho-style films. The most productive studio by far was Hammer Films, who began alternating their signature monster entries each year with titles like Scream of Fear (1960), Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Die! Die! My Darling, and Hysteria (both 1965). The Hitchcock model was evident in all of these, of course, with protagonists often turning out to be far different from whom they first appear and split personalities often motivating all the brutal mayhem (highlighted with a shock murder sequence or two).
Often mistaken for a Hammer thriller is The Psychopath, a 1966 thriller featuring an original screenplay by Psycho source novel author Robert Bloch. In fact, this particular film comes from Amicus Productions, a Hammer rival established in England by two Americans, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Today the studio is best known for its seven horror anthology films stretching from their first hit, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964), to From Beyond the Grave (1973). The Psychopath is their sole Hitchcockian suspense film, and it seems a logical choice considering Amicus had already brought Bloch aboard to write The Skull (1965) one year earlier. A hot cinematic property at the time, Bloch had already penned such screenplays as The Couch (1962), The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), and two films for William Castle, Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker (1964). In fact, he stayed on to write four more films for Amicus: Torture Garden, The Deadly Bees (both 1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and perhaps the strongest of the set, Asylum (1972).
The plot of The Psychopath (originally begun under the title Schizo) plays like something of a greatest hits package of '60s shockers up that point. Aside from the obvious title reference to Hitchcock's film, the storyline itself echoes the popular Charade (1963) as a quartet of men connected to the suicide by hanging of a German industrialist during World War II. The men are now being brutally killed off with macabre dolls left at the scene of the crime, which might have something to do with the dead man's widow (Margaret Johnston), who keeps plenty of creepy doll ephemera around the house where she lives with her son (John Standing). It's up to Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark), a character later reprised in The House That Dripped Blood, to find the culprit before the death list is finished.
Along with paying tribute to notable recent American films, The Psychopath is also soaked in an atmosphere of eccentric Teutonic mystery akin to the popular Edgar Wallace adaptations pouring out of Germany at the time, while the device of a homicidal madman with psychosexual motivations leaving doll clues is straight out of the Italian giallo playbook. In fact, the film remains one of the more popular Amicus offerings in Europe, particularly in Italy where it enjoys one of its very few commercial home video releases under the title La bambola di cera ("The Wax Doll"), complete with giallo-style artwork. That said, Bloch comes up with a few new wrinkles of his own, particularly the nightmarish final five minutes. More than any other sequence in the film, this finale (in which the film finally plunges into full-blooded horror) is the reason this film made a huge impression on young TV viewers well into the 1970s.
Adding confusion to the non-Hammer status of this film is its director, Freddie Francis, who started out helming such Hammer titles as Paranoiac (1963) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964). He continued to bounce back and forth between the two studios for the remainder of the decade, most famously peaking at Amicus with Tales from the Crypt (1972), and to make matters even more confusing, he also directed another Amicus-imitating horror anthology, Tales That Witness Madness (1973).
Though his directorial career didn't rival that of his peers like Terence Fisher, Francis also firmly established himself as one of the most notable cinematographers of his era, which he managed to maintain well past into the late 1990s with his last film, David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999). A master of scope composition, Francis started out his film career shooting films like the Oscar-winning Room at the Top (1959) and the horror classic The Innocents (1961); after taking a hiatus to direct exclusively from the mid-1960s into the late 1970s, he became Lynch's cinematographer of choice as well for The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), among other prestige projects like Glory (1989) and Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991). He may not seem the most likely choice to direct a Hammer-style psycho shocker, but as viewers will have seen it will attest, he turned out to be just the right man for the job.
By Nathaniel Thompson