Directed by Freddie Francis / 1966
Kino-Lorber Studio Classics
Street Date April 10, 2018
What in the name of Mr. Steed did I just watch here? The Psychopath is an English thriller from 1966, written by Robert Bloch (he wrote the novel Psycho, as well as several episodes of the original Star Trek), and directed by Freddie Francis (best known for his work as a cinematographer on films like Glory, The Elephant Man, and School Ties). The Psychopath tries so hard to be a detective story with an…ahem… murderer’s row of eccentric suspects, but it ends up spending too much time with the least interesting person in it.
Our movie opens with… a murder! A violinist, whom we will later learn is Reinhardt Klermer (John Harvey) is on his way to a chamber music recital, when he notices he’s being trailed by a little car. He tries to elude the car by cutting down one narrow alleyway after another, but he still winds up cornered in a dead end (Zoinks!). The car runs the violinist down, repeatedly, until he is really, most sincerely dead. The murderer then leaves a calling card: a doll built and dressed to resemble the victim.
The police are called in! Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark, Where Eagles Dare) confronts his initial suspects: the other members of the ensemble, all of whom shared a history with the victim dating back to the end of World War II. However, these gentlemen are rules out as suspects as one by one, they too are… murdered! Each of their bodies is found next to a little doll made up to resemble them.
Sidenote: It’s remarkable how prescient the murderer is on the matter of what the victim would be wearing at the time the murder occurs. Can you imagine the killer’s frustration if the target spilt something on his pants, forcing a change of outfit? Nobody considers just how hard these psychopaths have to work!
Anyway, the investigation soon seems to focus on one of two possible suspects: a young American doctor named Donald Loftis (Don Borisenko, a Canadian, actually, but I guess that’s close enough for the Brits). Dr. Loftis is engaged to Louise (Judy Huxtable) the daughter of one of the potential targets and who has never even met most of the victims until recently, nor does he have any motive for wanting them dead. Plus he’s American, so he seems pretty fishy.
The other potential suspect is Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston). Mrs. Von Sturm is a wheelchair-bound recluse who lives in a house that’s filled with wall-to-wall dolls. Dolls she purchases and then customises in a little workshop set up in a room in her house. Plus, she’s German, also has a history with the victims dating back to WWII, and maybe a little insane, so she seems pretty fishy too. Whoever said police work was easy?
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that the central mystery of The Psychopath isn’t very mysterious. Especially once we’re introduced to Mark Von Sturm, the son of Mr. Von Sturm, and we remember the movie’s tagline which is printed in big bold letters on the poster and Blu-Ray cover: “Mother, May I Go Out and Kill?” There are a few more twists to the story than just the whodunnit, but not many more. The Psychopath takes to heart the maxim that it isn’t the destination which is important, but the journey.
The problem is the journey just isn’t that compelling. The movie tries to generate tension by making it seem that handsome doctor Donald could be the killer, but he’s about as threatening as an overcooked noodle. And there’s no fear that the police will pin it on him anyway, since the only reason they suspect him in the first place is because the script requires them too.
As mentioned before, the film’s director Freddie Francis is best known for his work as a cinematographer. He won the Academy Award twice, once for the 1960 movie Sons and Lovers and once for Edward Zwick’s Glory. As a director, he worked mostly for Hammer, making horror and monster movies like The Evil of Frankenstein and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. He also did work for smaller studios like Amicus (for whom he directed The Psychopath) and Tyburn, where he did more of the same, but with even lower budgets and lousier production values.
Francis is on record as not really caring for the genre which became his bread-and-butter, directorally speaking. I get that the horror/thriller genre can be seen as not being very serious, but the horror/thriller genre is a director’s playground. Just look at what Hitchcock was able to do within that genre just a few years prior with Psycho (also based on a story by Robert Bloch). Psycho is certainly lurid and exploitative, but you can’t argue that it isn’t an artistic expression. Recent works like Get Out and A Quiet Place are further demonstrations of that.
Kino-Lorber’s Blu-Ray release has a couple of special features packaged with it. There’s the usual collection of trailers from related movies, and there’s also a commentary track by Troy Howard. Howard’s a film historian who specializes in European Horror, and his track draws the parallels between a movie like The Psychopath and its antecedents in Italian giallo films, like Black Sabbath. As a fan of the specific genre, and one well-versed in its history and major players, Howard has a much more favorable take on The Psychopath than my own, but even he admits the film’s plotting is slight and not Bloch’s best work.
The Psychopath is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Sound quality is fine, but the picture quality, at least through the first act isn’t great. The colors are muted and faded, and there are two large scratches running through the frame which are distracting at first. This may be the consequence of having a limited supply of prints from which they could make this transfer, and nobody wanted to spend the money to clean it up digitally. By about the 22 minute mark, the scratches are gone and the picture quality improves.