A Doll’s House of Horrors: THE PSYCHOPATH

Creepy yet subtle, The Psychopath has remained a lesser known, if not wholly forgotten, swinging 60s British entry. It shouldn't be.

Most of those involved in the making of The Psychopath could scarcely be considered a household name. Their aggregate horror credentials, on the other hand, while likewise unfamiliar (for the most part), are also undeniably abundant.

Among the cast and crew working on this 1966 British chiller were individuals associated with Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), the intriguingly titled Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965), and more famous entries like Repulsion (1965) and Psycho (1960).

Released by Amicus Studios, as a somewhat unexceptional counterpoint to what was coming from Hammer Films at the time, The Psychopath was and has remained a lesser known, if not wholly forgotten, genre submission. Now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, however, this refreshed readiness may revive the estimation of what is a successfully standard presentation of characteristic horror conventions and imagery, beginning with a creepy doll’s head as it erratically increases in size under the opening credits and ending with an unnerving, very “Psycho-esque” finale. Directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch (perhaps accounting for that Psycho-connection), The Psychopath opens in the dark and dingy back alleys of England’s Shepperton Studios, where the killer’s conspicuous red car stalks and slams into—and repeatedly runs over—the body of lawyer Reinhardt Klermer (John Harvey). Near Reinhardt’s dropped violin case, which is destroyed in the process of the assault as a sort of censor-subverting stand-in for his traumatized corpse, a doll falls to the ground, looking remarkably like the victim. The subsequent investigation, led by Scotland Yard inspector Halloway (Patrick Wymark), involves an assembled cluster of Reinhardt’s fellow amateur musicians as well as Louise Saville (Judy Huxtable), daughter of the group’s host, retired businessman Frank (Alexander Knox), and her boyfriend, Donald Loftis (Don Borisenko), an American medical student.

Confronted with the news of Reinhardt’s demise and questioned about their earlier whereabouts, the company expresses a slightly comical, macabre, and rather Hitchockian intrigue. Also like the films of England’s most celebrated murder mystery auteur, there develops a twisting, conspiratorial thread of connective suspicion, primarily concerning a secretive Allied commission and the vengeful widow Ilse Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston), who contests her departed husband was framed by Reinhardt and his cohorts during World War II.  A long-gestating conflict is therefore accelerated by what becomes a series of grisly murders, linked by the crime scene placement of a doll in the victims’ likeness.

With sketchy alibies across the board, it would seem nearly all have reason to commit these crimes (until several of the suspects are themselves picked off one by one). There is Ilse, first, who vindictively proclaims “justice” when told of Reinhardt’s death, and there’s her son, the deviously doting Mark (John Standing). One of the musicians, sculptor Victor Ledoux, played with slimy assurance by Robert Crewdson, is particularly shifty and off-putting. The outwardly inoffensive Louise happens to design dolls in a toy shop and Donald, painfully temperate and heavily in debt, is harshly rebuked by his would-be father-in-law, who just so happens to have a fortune and a potentially fatal heart condition.

What Bloch and Francis present, then, and it’s one of The Psychopath’s finer points, is a table of puzzle pieces that could all easily fit—a bit too easily perhaps—and apparent motivations that are so obvious they become subsequently shaky as a result of this very transparency. There’s even something odd about Halloway, who acts assured in his professional capacity and yet does little to prevent the succeeding murders. And how does the killer know what each victim is wearing anyway, and with enough time to design the respective doll’s matching clothes?

The Psychopath’s cinematographer, John Wilcox, had in the past two years worked with Francis on no less than four other horror features, and together here, their Techniscope staging is quite impressive, especially during the film’s assorted murders. Generally taking place in a prim and proper London milieu, the type of setting that hosts weekly chamber music sessions and encourages the sort of insipid mannerisms initially seen in the film, The Psychopath eventually branches out into a mild depiction of swinging ‘60s London. But most notable are sequences like the introduction of wheelchair bound Ilse, who, because of her position, subtly and strangely emerges from a room full of alarming waist high dolls as if she were one of them (“I am never alone,” she says of her “children”).

One murder takes place in a layered, unrefined junkyard, with jutting scrap metal adding to the scene’s disconcerting visual composition, while another assault is set in a boatyard, where a large industrial chain showers down upon one of the characters in a brutal tangled heap (the scene then cuts to a plate full of spaghetti).

Though winning an Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography on 1960’s Sons and Lovers (he would win again for 1989’s Glory), Francis also had a keen eye for color. In Victor’s workshop, for instance, one sees the full effect of how efficiently he and Wilcox manipulate the flashing neon lights outside, to add to a sporadic, pulsating unease. Speaking of unease, though, despite (or because of) a substantial 4K restoration for the Blu-ray, The Psychopath suffers from an abundance of sickly lurid purples and reds.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures and originally known as “Schizo,” The Psychopath undoubtedly shares certain traits with concurrent Hammer fare, but as noted by historian Troy Howarth in his Kino Lorber commentary, Francis’ film also resembles Italian gialli, which was just beginning to emerge as a distinct form, courtesy of such stylistic virtuosos as Mario Bava. This semblance is evinced in the foregrounding of a murder weapon, in the hands of a black-gloved assailant, and in the subjective depiction of a victim’s demise: Francis shoots a death-by-torch through a transparent plate, charring the center in a clever point-of-view rendering of the fiery fatality.

It’s true The Psychopath’s plot is basically strung together by these systematic killings, but it holds interest better than it typically gets credit for. And the varied red herrings, often criticized as mere narrative filler, are more like amusing diversions, functioning in the service of the film’s effectively toying deception (no pun intended) and its knowing management of genre practice.

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