Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Demons of the Mind

Technically Shane Briant’s first film – completed with “and introducing ~” credit – although ‘Straight on Till Morning’ ended up being released ahead of it. On the surface, ‘Demons of the Mind’ inhabits a more generically Hammer milieu: a gothic castle, a carriage and horses thundering through the woods at dusk, hidden family secrets, heaving bosoms, grisly murders, torch-bearing villagers and a mad priest.

Scratch the surface, however, and it goes into some of the darkest territory of any Hammer production. The elements enumerated above are merely trappings – the real business of Peter Sykes’s alternately dream-like and brutally cynical film is a study of the family dynamics gone sickeningly wrong. It’s a story of incest, guilt, desperation and inherited madness. With some torch-bearing villagers and a mad priest thrown in for good measure. Imagine the bastard mutant child of ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ that grew up reading horror comics and lusting after its sister. That’s the kind of film we’re talking about.

The setting is some unspecified part of Austria, probably during the 1800s. Nobleman Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his son Emil (Briant) and daughter Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) under lock and key, concerned that (a) the sociopathic tendencies he recognizes in himself are manifesting in them; and (b) they have an unhealthy sexual interest in each other.

Summoned from Vienna (where Elizabeth had earlier escaped his care), Dr Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) makes haste to Zorn’s estate to attempt to find a cure for the siblings. En route, he shares a coach with earnest young student Carl (Paul Jones) who brings up the thorny subject of Falkenberg’s recent discrediting: “Haven’t you fallen from grace?” “Fallen?” Falkenberg thunders. “Thrown! Hurled! E-jec-ted!” It’s a ripe bit of overacting from Magee and sets the tone for every scene he subsequently appears in. Worse: he seems to inspire Hardy to ever greater heights of scenery-chewing.

But I digress. Carl’s antipathy towards Falkenberg is piqued by the fact that, following Elizabeth’s brief escape from Vienna, he enjoyed a fleeting romantic interlude with her and is still a tad sore that Zorn’s thuggish footman Klaus (Kenneth J. Warren) effectively abducted her just as he was really starting to get to know her. (That’s “know” in the Biblical sense, by the way.)

Meanwhile, a crazed, mumbling priest (Michael Hordern) comes stumbling out of the woods and rallies the local villagers – whose numbers have been decimated by a series of disappearances – into fighting the evil that has blighted them. It’s no surprise that, come the full-throttle melodramatic ending, these various parties with their various agendas converge at Schloss Zorn and conflict ensues.

‘Demons of the Mind’ is a compelling and often queasy slab of Gothicism, albeit flawed. The performances by Hardy and Magee make hard work of too many scenes, and Hordern seems hell-bent on joining them, only pulling his characterization back from the brink in the climatic scenes where he leads the villagers against Zorn; in these scenes, the ham is carved away and what remains is a properly intense bit of messianic fire-and-brimstone. There is a staginess to many of the interiors, as well, and the score is about as subtle as Magee sticking his face right in the lens and ranting for extended periods.

Let us be thankful for small mercies, then. Two of them, in fact: Shane Briant and Gillian Hills. Ladies first: Hills, radiant and dreamily photogenic, invests Elizabeth with an otherworldly quality that transcends mere romantic interest or set decoration. Her ethereal calm contrasts well with Briant’s masterfully underplayed evocation of Emil’s inner turmoil. Without ever resorting to the retinue of tics and bulging eyes and chest-beating that many of Hammer’s regular players would have brought to the performance, Briant turns the disturbed and yet strangely pitiable Emil into a multi-faceted, three-dimensional character. He makes the shoddy antics of other cast members look all the worse by comparison.

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