Saturday, 6 September 2008

Demons of the Mind


This 1972 Hammer feature is unusual, as it's a 19th century Gothic horror with none of the regular stars. No Cushing, no Lee, not even a hint of Ralph Bates. Instead we get some, ahem, interesting performances from mainstream thesps in a film that's a bit of a footnote to the Hammer canon. It seems the original title was Blood Will Have Blood, but distributor EMI didn't like that - too intellectual. So a line from an early scene was used instead. 

The 'demons of the mind' are being pursued by Dr Falkenberg, played by the late Patrick Magee - a superb actor and well cast here as a fashionable Vienna physician who may be a total charlatan. We are in a vaguely Ruritanian setting, and a reference to kilometres sets it sometime after the Napoleonic era. Falkenberg is on the way to the castle of Baron Zorn, a psalm-quoting widower who has locked up his son and daughter because they are tainted by the 'bad blood' of the family. The youngsters are being kept very much in separate rooms, nudge nudge.

Zorn's chances of curing them seem remote, not least because he is played by Robert Hardy in big whiskers, which always bodes ill for domestic bliss. The third top-notch actor is Michael Hordern, oddly miscast and under-used as a roving mad monk who stirs up the superstitious villagers. The stirring up process is easy, it must be said, as lovely peasant girls do keep getting murdered in the Baron's woods. Hmmm. Oh, and there's a lot of other stuff about ancient rituals.

Perhaps the film's greatest fault is that it is too faithful to the Gothic genre. It is chock full of characters and rich in incident but distinctly lacking in common sense. That said, there are some fine moments and intriguing details, not least when the baron's daughter Elisabeth (Gillian Hills) is bled and cupped. The scene is lovingly filmed, and the paraphenalia used to draw off blood steal the show. To top that Falkenberg has to use mesmerism and 'magnetic fluid' to try and get the baron to calm down a bit. But to no avail. Throw in Elisabeth's suitor Richter (Paul Jones, the pop singer) and an escape by the young and very loopy Emil Zorn (Shane Briant) and things get complicated.

It's a messy, shouty, downbeat film that looks good at times. Almost everybody is killed in nasty ways and you can't help feeling the survivors won't be tripping through fields of daisies in slow motion.  Of course, Hammer films aren't renowned for the happy endings, but the problem here is that the horror is psychological rather than demonic, as in the Dracula movies or the Dennis Wheatley adaptations. So somehow the cruelty and killing is more real, if not actually realistic. The ever-escalating blood-soaked lunacy sits rather oddly next to the Zenda-lite environment of Castle Zorn and the adjacent village - it's as if Poe and Le Fanu had written a comic opera together, then taking out all the songs. Oh, and there's a fair bit of that compulsory Seventies nudity - compulsory for girls, that is.

So we've got Gothic Zenda with a whiff of DH Lawrence and an unhappy ending. No wonder it was only shown as a supporting feature for a short while. But as a curiosity, Demons of the Mind is well worth seeking out. My only regret after watching it is that Hardy, Hordern and Magee never had a three-way scene-stealing smackdown. 

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