A movie that rarely finds itself on lists of Top Ten Favourite Hammer films, DEMONS OF THE MIND is one of those curious, slightly overambitious projects Hammer made at a time when it seemed as if any producer with a completed script could get backing from the company. Its reach may well exceed its grasp, and there’s quite a lot wrong with it, but that doesn’t stop DEMONS OF THE MIND from being well worth watching.
In his castle deep in the Hammerland countryside, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) lives with his two adult children Emil (Shane Briant) and Elizabeth (Gillian Hills). The Baron’s wife, a woman of peasant stock married in an attempt to 'improve the bloodline' (or so we are told) committed suicide when the children were much younger. A strain of madness runs in the Zorn family and the Baron is terrified that it will be passed on to his children. Of further concern to him is the amorous interest his son and daughter have begun to show in each other, with the result that he now keeps them locked in their bedrooms and has Elizabeth bled regularly to keep her subdued. In an attempt to cure the family’s madness the Baron recruits the services of discredited charlatan psychiatrist Dr Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) who has some decidedly exotic theories about how best to treat insanity.
While all this is going the local village is being terrorised by a killer who murders village girls and scatters rose petals over their bodies. A mad wandering priest (Michael Hordern) is convinced the girls’ disappearance is the work of the devil, and that the devil is currently resident at Zorn’s castle. Falkenberg solves the mystery of the killer only to end up a victim himself as a mob of angry villagers descends on the estate looking for revenge.
The above plot summary makes DEMONS OF THE MIND seems less like a Hammer Film and more like something from the crazier side of EuroHorror. Indeed, one gets the feeling that if a giallo specialist like Sergio Martino had been recruited to make a Hammer-style gothic, this is what he might have come up with. As it is Peter Sykes acquits himself very admirably indeed in the director’s chair, and the creative flair evident in Sykes’ style is one of the reasons the film feels less dated today than much of the Hammer output of the period.
What makes and breaks DEMONS OF THE MIND, however, is its script. Christopher Wicking does a splendid job of trying to do something a little bit different from Hammer’s usual gothic formula. There are some nice touches to the Baron’s backstory, especially the mention of bloodlust and ritual sacrifice of his ancestors that suggests that the Zorn psychological malady may at some time in the past have been thought to be vampirism, and the touches of cod psychiatry are neat and effective. Unfortunately it is also Wicking’s oblique narrative style that lets the film down, rendering much of what is going on confusing. I have to confess I’ve never been a huge fan of Wicking’s writing. His best work is probably SCREAM & SCREAM AGAIN, with his worst including Hammer’s TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and Palace Pictures’ DREAM DEMON, and I firmly believe that his being banned from the set of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB helped make it the classic it is today.
The second problem with the film is the acting. Both Shane Briant and Gillian Hills are very good in their portrayals of the tortured children and Patrick Magee towers over everyone with a skilful, layered performance as Dr Falkenberg, the quack who might be a genius (we never really get to decide which). Falkenberg is the closest this film gets to having a Peter Cushing / Van Helsing-type authority figure, but even his character is interestingly blurred so we can never really tell if he is hero or villain (or possibly, and perhaps most satisfyingly, both). Unfortunately Robert Hardy as Baron Zorn overbalances everything with a scenery-chewing eye-rolling performance that really needed reining in and quite possibly locking away in a box until it had calmed down. Hammer heroes are always pretty colourless specimens and Paul Jones puts in a likeable enough performance as the forgettable and ineffectual Carl the Medical Student.
Most of all, however, DEMONS OF THE MIND remains a fascinating watch because of how the story is resolved. It has to be one of the bleakest films Hammer ever made, with no happy ending for anyone as almost all the leads end up dead or insane by the end of the picture. In this respect it’s a little bit like Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL, and Harry Robinson’s lush bittersweet music does much the same job as the Greensleeves-style portions of Paul Ferris’ score did for the Reeves picture.
DEMONS OF THE MIND is a film I’ve seen a few times and I suspect I’ll watch it a few more. In fact of all the Hammer Films I own (which I suspect is pretty much all of them) it might even be the one I’ve watched the most. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Christopher Wicking after all.