The Ashby family has secrets. In Paranoiac, the 1963 suspense film made at Hammer Studios and directed by Freddie Francis, there are odd happenings indeed among the Ashbys. The picture begins with a church service marking ten years since Mr. and Mrs. Ashby died unexpectedly. Their son Antony, known as Tony, also perished two years later in an apparent suicide at the age of 15. Now grown, other son Simon (Oliver Reed) is seen playing the organ at church while his sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) suffers a fainting spell during the service. The aunt (Sheila Burrell) who raised them after their parents' death goes with Eleanor and her nurse (Liliane Brousse) back to the large family home. The cause of Eleanor's loss of consciousness? She thought she saw her long-dead brother at the church.
What follows is something wickedly fun. The aunt is old and mean and, ultimately, something else entirely. Reed's Simon is a testament to the actor's ability to play the insolent rebel as interesting enough that you can hardly look away when he's on screen. He first seems like such a naughty boy and later is, well, something else entirely in his own right. Maybe it's overacting or maybe it's just the right amount of acting for the material, but Reed is as compelling as ever. The viewer is warned right from the start when he's seen casually smoking a cigarette and playing the organ as mention is made of the toll his parents' death must have taken on him. The film also does a great job of teasing out whether this new Tony is really the long-lost brother or the impostor some claim him to be. Hints of potential incest and a noticeably unstable Eleanor, who might be simply confused or could be suffering from more serious psychological damage, color nicely outside the typical lines.
In this instance, those lines are framed inside the monochrome CinemaScope frame, perhaps the ultimate in cinematic pleasure via anachronism. I can't be the only one who'll immediately perk up at the chance to see a black and white film in 2.35:1 (or wider). Black and white is often identified as being an attribute of older films while Scope catered to modern-thinking audiences of the day so having the combination of the two makes for a somewhat freakish viewing experience that I absolutely adore. The compositions here aren't necessarily of great interest but camera movements and rich, dark shadows combine to form something cohesive, and unsettling. This isn't a strict horror film in the sense of thrills and scares but it does have an air of unpredictability about it. Of note, there's a creepy mask - and I tend to find most masks discomforting on some level - that plays a significant role in the descent of the plot. This and an important skeleton go beyond the psychological aspect and strike directly on the viewer's anxiety.
The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster is so well done, in spite of any claims of being derivative, that it becomes difficult to get a handle on any of the characters or what promises to follow. Paranoiac will take you on a nice and twisty ride full of frequent plot turns. For a film running around 80 minutes, I think that's plenty of incentive for a watch. Francis' direction is similarly excellent and lets the film develop into a rather sinister psychological unraveling. No one exhibits behavior so rational as to be beyond reproach. That makes, literally, the entire main cast (roughly seven characters) come across as potentially suspicious. Everything plays out with a premium put upon familial insanity and buried secrets. I really liked the insinuation that the main setting of the house portends something steeped in shadows and potentially dangerous. It's not the house itself that plays a threatening role but there's still a sense of madness to it, that the eventual culprit hides behind the wealth and freedom afforded by occupying such a residence.
Paranoiac enters the UK market on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka. The latter, reviewed here, is not region-locked. It's a single-layered disc.
Picture quality is pretty ace for this release. A few light marks of damage might be noticeable to the sticklers, but there are precious few instances of anything spoiling what is a nearly immaculate transfer. Contrast might be ever so slightly touched with a greenish quality instead of a perfect greyscale, but blacks are nice and dark. Detail and sharpness settle in nicely and without issue. The image is in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Audio, in the form of an English mono DTS-HD track, sounds solid, maybe even a little sufficiently spooky at times. Volume of the dialogue can have a wide range, where actors raising their voices might be cause for you to reach for the remote control. Nothing struggles though, and the two-channel Master Audio makes for a sometimes robust listen. There are optional English subtitles included, as well as a neat chance to hear only the music and effects in a separate track.
Extra features aren't exactly extensive but they are certainly better than nothing. An image gallery listed in the Ephemera section of the menu contains 56 images to scan through, most of which are stills. The last few are lobby cards, with the very last image being a couple of posters for the film. A theatrical trailer (2:35) emphasizes the title more than the movie, I thought. The inclusion of a music and effects track now seems like a rarity. I didn't listen all the way through but what I did hear sounded fine.