Countdown to Halloween: Kevin Nickelson on The Psychopath (1966)
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Kevin is one of the gentlemen I met while writing for "We Belong Dead" magazine and "Unsung Horrors." Well, meeting him in person didn't happen until I travelled to L.A. for the Batman '66 exhibit and The Curse of the Werewolf retrospective with Yvonne Romain earlier this year. Not only does he reside on this side of the pond with me, while most of our "colleagues" are in England, but we also share similar interests besides just these wonderful movies.
Kevin is continually discovering new opportunities to interview his favorite horror celebrities and to put pen to paper. As for right now, though, the best place to find him is probably online at horrornews.net. Thanks for participating, Kevin! This is one movie I've never seen either... yet.
If You See a Doll Somewhere Bearing Your Likeness, Run Because the Psychopath Just Might be Behind You!
Ever since my first understanding of the flickering images on my tv screen at, oh, just about the age of 6 and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead set about scarring me for life in all its bold, blunt horror freshness, I’ve come to have a certain reaction to seeing a picture for the first time. A certain blend of palpable excitement mixed with as much of a blank mind state as one can muster. Wide, eager eyes taking in all they see. Gone is the ability to shock the senses now, thanks to that Romero fellow, but the desire to peer beyond the celluloid veil is still evident. When I was asked by fellow scribe Jeff Owens to contribute a guest piece about a pre-1978 horror film I’ve yet to see for his classichorror.club blog, I leapt at the chance like a child running for their favorite doll in the toy chest. On second thought, a doll may not be the best euphemism to utilize here considering my choice for virginal viewing is a stylish mystery-chiller with dolls as a central plot contrivance. 1966’s The Psychopath, from one of Hammer’s rivals in blood and gore Amicus Films, is one of the single story affairs from a company mostly known for being the king of the portmanteau subgenre. I’d seen just about every one of their non-anthology works, with this effort the one I kept missing for one reason or another. I finally discovered what I was missing and could kick myself for it as it is a sheer visual, twist-laden treat.
Fresh off the success of the studio’s The Skull a year earlier, director Freddie Francis and writer Robert Bloch were brought in to helm and put the story to paper, respectively. Bloch echoes themes from Edgar Wallace to the psychological thrillers Hammer had already been pushing forth in the decade in a tale of a quartet of men, involved in the investigation of a wealthy German industrialist as well as his suicide near the end of World War II, and their murders years later with dolls in their likeness being left at the scene by an unknown killer. These events draw the attention of Detective Inspector Holloway, who pursues things to a shattering conclusion.
The picture enjoyed a good deal of popularity in Italy on release (under the title of La bambola di cera (The Wax Doll) and, for a time, had its only video release there replete with some colorful giallo-ish artwork. This surprises me little as there is an undercurrent of giallo that permeates subtly through the film. From the opening credit animated doll sequence (by the wonderful Sam Suliman, who previously designed the titles for the 1964 Ray Harryhausen epic First Men in the Moon) to the symbolism of the dolls and the quick cut kill shots and, finally, onto the cracklingly intense finale, the shadow of the likes of Mario Bava or even Riccardo Freda are present. The Edgar Wallace influence manifests by having the hero be an actual police detective (a favorite Wallace trope) rather than the amateur sleuth so popular with legendary author’s compatriots. I also found just the slightest hints of both Hitchcock and Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster with the emphasis on mother-son possessiveness and obsession. A reversal of the Oedipus Complex in a sense.
When I watch a Francis-directed picture, I still find myself looking for the unique splash of color or odd camera angle that defined much of his master work as an Oscar-winning Cinematographer. I was transfixed by the reddish-brown shoes worn by Holloway that he momentarily fusses over in one bit (providing me a brief giggle at his facial reactions as if he’s recognized a scuff) as well as the askew angles in the boat storage building finale. Static is the equivalent of the four-letter word, it seems, in Francis’ book.
A feeling of the familiar came across me in a bizarre way with the Holloway character, as if I’d seen the type before but hadn’t actually. Then I thought one name. Columbo. By that I mean that Holloway, with his rumpled raincoat and blue-collar non-plussed demeanor, strikes as the perfect progenitor for Peter Falk’s later famed tv detective created by Richard Levinson and William Link. I suppose it is possible that the latter duo were influenced by Bloch’s creation somewhat (the tv pilot Prescription: Murder, written by Levinson and Link and introducing the character to American audiences, first aired two years later in 1968). Even if not, it remains a fantastic accident of coincidence for certain. Holloway seems, on the surface, a bit out of his depth when surrounded by the societal upper-crust involved in this mess. Yet it’s perhaps a cover used to let the suspects trap themselves in their own lie. One scene where the inspector queries each of the group as to their whereabouts while the murder was committed. Each fixes their activities to the time of 8 o’clock, when the body was discovered, with a level of confidence that they are cleared of suspicion. It’s only at Holloway’s exit that he turns and reveals that the coroner has determined that the time of death was 7 o’clock and not 8. Not unlike Falk saying, “just one more thing”.
Charming veteran scenery-chewer Patrick Wymark headlines things as the burned-out Holloway. That he’s seen too much blood and violence is etched in his tightened jaw and eye stares. I just love how he moves through a scene and commands attention, many times while not uttering a word. He’s matched by Margaret Johnston’s wildly eccentric turn as the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Sturm, widow of the deceased industrialist and cheerfully confining herself to the play world of dolls she has built. John Standing assays the fresh-faced boy hiding his own disturbing demons quite well. Something of the role that the likes of Christopher Jones and John Moulder-Brown would later do.
One more initial viewing pleasure knocked off my movie bucket list. I extend the ultimate gratitude to Jeff Owens for allowing me to both discover and opine about the treasure that is The Psychopath. Though I now have a sudden fear that I’ll find an unusually large doll simulating my image and height on my sofa mere hours after I’ve had an argument with my doll-collector neighbor next door. The fact that he was fired from the Charles Lee Ray toy company for odd behavior has to be a coincidence…..right?
ABOUT THE COUNTDOWN
We all have them... stacks of movies we've purchased, but never watched; or, movies on the DVR, filling them to capacity. This year for the annual Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to make a dent in my "stack," watching one movie a day for the month of October that I've never seen, then writing about it.
Well, I'm going to cheat a little. Assisting me this year are a number of "guest bloggers" that I've invited to participate by commandeering classichorrors.club for a day. These are all people whose blogs I read, whose podcasts I enjoy, and/or whose existence I simply appreciate. It's an experiment, but I hope you'll enjoy reading some new perspectives.