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April 12, 2018

The Psychopath


Freddie Francis - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

When Robert Bloch was hired to write screenplays during the Sixties and early Seventies, I'm sure the producers were hoping for lightning to strike again. After all, Bloch had become a famous name based on being the author of Psycho. What seemed to be constantly ignored was that not only was film of the same title more famous than the relatively little known novel, but that the film was not the novel. Save for the basic plot, the film took on a life of its own due to the combination of talent involved, including Alfred Hitchcock's audacity as a filmmaker, Bernard Herrmann's screeching strings, Alma Reville's uncredited contributions, and the various factors that make Psycho, the film, a film of continued fascination.

Hitchcock made Psycho in response to the challenge of Macabre by low-budget shock auteur William Castle. And it was Castle who's made the best of the post-Psycho films, Homicidal, the enjoyably loopy tale of a gender bending killer, with the high point being the beheading of an old lady with the head tumbling down the stairs. Bloch had nothing to do with that film. In the meantime, the early Sixties did see a slew of films that would try to cash in the success of Hitchcock with titles like Paranoiac, Craze, Nightmare and Hysteria, all coincidentally directed by Freddie Francis, typecast as a go-to specialist in horror films. And I'm struck with the sense of desperation, as if the people involved were convinced that recycling plot elements and even the title were good ideas.

As obvious as the title The Psychopath is, at one point the film was to be titled Schizo. The basic mystery revolves around a string of murders where the killer leaves an effigy, a doll made to look like the victim. The film takes place in then present day London. Aside from the title, there is an invalid older mother and her weak-willed son who live together. I wouldn't mind the plot points, red herrings, and periodic lapses of narrative or visual logic if only the filmmakers had chosen to be less discrete in their presentation of horror. The wheel chair bound mother lives among the hundreds of dolls she's created, and the scene introducing her and the climax that The Psychopath achieves an almost satisfying level of creepiness. There should also be credit to composer Elizabeth Lutyens for her film score, with its discordant melodies sparingly heard on the soundtrack, partially reminiscent of Prokovief's main theme from Lt. Kije Suite.

Troy Howarth's commentary track really elevates the blu-ray. The film by itself is at best a mildly entertaining thriller. Aside from the usual biographical bits of the key actors and crew, Howarth reveals an even bigger mystery regarding the making of the film. Reportedly, the original cut of The Psychopath was a brief seventy minutes in length, with the murder scenes not in the screenplay, and the ending changed regarding the identity of the killer. Even stranger is the question of who filmed several of the scenes in question - Freddie Francis or producer Milton Subotsky. Knowing some of the history of the production of The Psychopath makes it more understandable why certain narrative elements don't make sense. I'm still puzzled by the setting of the first murder, a narrow alley with a garbage can on the left side, a literal dead end passageway as seen from the view of the victim. In a following shot, again from the point of view of the victim, that alley is wide enough for a killer car, and where did that garbage can go?

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 12, 2018 10:10 AM