F reddie Francis, a distinguished cinematographer who frequently worked on prestige pictures, won two Oscars for that craft (for Sons and Lovers, 1961, and Glory, 1989) as well as a slew of other awards (including four “Best Cinematography” wins from the British Society of Cinematographers). He also had a sideline in directing much less prestigious horror movies with titles like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). The Psychopath, originally released by Paramount British in 1966, is of a piece with the latter films—you’ll never mistake it for art, but it incorporates enough pure untrammeled weirdness to make it worth a watch.
Exhibit A in the weirdness department is the wheelchair-bound widow Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston), who lives with her son Mark (John Standing) in a house full of dolls whom she apparently thinks are alive. She’s long been nursing a grudge about her industrialist husband’s conviction for post-war profiteering and the subsequent loss of the family estate, although she appears to be living pretty well as it is. If you think dolls are creepy (I certainly do), this film is worth a look just for the production design, and there are other ominous touches in the home like doors that can be operated by wall switches (which could be explained in 1966 with reference to Mrs. Von Sturm’s mobility impairment, but today I have just two words for you–Matt Lauer).
Screenwriter Robert Bloch, most noted as author of the source material for Psycho, lays out the plot in a straightforward manner, with little work for the viewer to do (there is a final twist, but you will see it coming from a mile away). Members of an amateur string quartet are killed, one by one, and dolls resembling them are left by their corpses. Let’s see now, do we know anyone who might know something about dolls? And is there something about these men that might connect them to this obvious suspect? Of course we do, and of course there is, but the very obviousness of the story give Francis and his crew time to create interesting visuals and a generally disturbing atmosphere that feels very 1960s (everyone is practically reeking of sexual repression, for one thing, in a way that you seldom find in real life).
The cast consists of a solid group of British actors, most of whom may be unfamiliar to American viewers. Margaret Johnson delivers a suitably over-the-top performance as Mrs. Von Sturm, while John Standing delivers a more measured performance as her handsome and restless son. Patrick Wymark (Inspector Holloway) plays a British policemen who seems to have been ordered up from Central Casting, so familiar is his character, while Judy Huxtable, in one of her first films, makes more of an impression as the daughter of one of the murdered men (she also wears some amazing clothes, thanks to wardrobe supervisor Mary Gibson). Despite some misleading advertising material, Peter Lorre is nowhere to be found in this film (but you can’t blame the artist for trying to make an allusion to M, I guess).
The Psychopath is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howart, a “Trailers from Hell” episode for The Skull (with Joe Dante), and trailers for six other films. | Sarah Boslaugh