Public Domain Horror Movies You Can Watch for Free Right Now!

Glading Marteen 

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect Paranoiac (1963).

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

The Context

From the very beginning, Hammer Studios had a tendency to hew closely to the tides of popular entertainment. In their early years their output revolved around producing “quota quickies”, low cost movies farmed from existing entertainment sources to fulfill British government mandated quotas in movie houses at the time. Some of their best work of that period, like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and The Abominable Snowman (1957), were adapted from existing BBC teleplays, established properties with a built-in audience reimagined for the big screen.

The financial stability of such a model allowed for the studio’s more creative counterparts to craft something unique and entertaining with far less risk than the average wide release motion picture. And when Hammer turned to the stable of classic monsters for similar reinvention in the late 1950’s, the horror gothic they became so beloved and well known for was born anew. Not necessarily a wholly original creation, but a refreshed one that infused new life into hallowed and familiar properties that had sat comfortably within the pop culture zeitgeist for decades.

Still, the horror gothic was not the only money-maker that evolved from Hammer’s tendency to capitalize on genre trends. Jimmy Sangster, a foundational presence in Hammer and screenwriter of some of its most important works like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), was incredibly keen on suspense thrillers. Stemming from a love of the 1955 French psychological thriller Les Diaboliques and a fear of being typecast, he wrote Taste of Fear (1961), a story which veered away from classic horror and instead concerned itself with a wheelchair bound young woman haunted by the corpse of her father.

Released in the wake of Psycho (1960), Taste of Fear was seen as an imitation of Alfred Hitchock’s masterpiece. The comparison was more apt than even the public was aware of at the time, as Hitchcock himself had attempted to obtain the rights to the book that Les Diaboliques was based on for his own adaptation before embarking on Psycho. Regardless, Taste of Fear was extremely successful and ushered forth a long running series of suspense thrillers that the studio dubbed “mini-Hitchcocks”.

In the wake of Taste of Fear and the world-wide success of Psycho, both Hammer and Universal Studios, their distribution partner at the time, were hungry to produce more projects of a similar ilk. Amongst the possibilities was a Josephine Tey scribed novel Hammer had purchased the rights to nearly a decade before, a book called Brat Farrar. Concerning the story of an estranged son returning to his family home to claim an inheritance that would otherwise be distributed to his remaining two siblings, the story was ripe with the intrigue, murky morals and psychological uncertainties that had made Taste of Fear so successful.

Acclaimed Oscar-winning cinematographer and burgeoning director Freddie Francis was brought in to helm the project, having also worked with Hammer before as director of photography on Never Take Sweets From a Stranger (1960). However it was Francis’ beautifully haunting work on The Innocents (1961) that truly caught the eye of prolific Hammer producer Anthony Hinds and secured him as the perfect person to capture what would become the menacing black and white pallet of Paranoiac.

Further bolstering the behind-the-scenes talent was cinematographer Arthur Grant who had shot The Abominable Snowman and The Phantom of the Opera (1962), bringing Francis’ predominantly visual style to life with a sense of gravitas and sweeping unease that affords as much sleaze as it does class as the proceedings unfold. Along for the ride with Grant was famed Hammer set designer Bernard Robinson, who was able to transform Bray Studios time and time again into whatever location it was required to be. Add to that a renowned cast with the likes of Oliver Reed and Janette Scott, it’s no surprise that Paranoiac emerged as one of the best of Hammer’s “mini-Hitchcock” run.

Paranoiac was a success for Hammer and led to a fruitful relationship between Freddie Francis and the studio. While Jimmy Sangster wrote this movie and others like it to avoid type casting, it was Paranoiac that solidified Francis as a director of horror. It may have been labeled derivative of Psycho and calcified the term “mini-Hitchcock” into the Hammer lexicon, but it also stood as a stark reminder that Hammer Studios was capable of a wide range of genre entertainment, spanning the spectrum of artistic style and doing so on a modest, controlled scale. Flowing with the tides of popular entertainment may not have seemed artistically attractive on paper, but the success and longevity of the resulting projects afforded by such a strategy were, and remain to this day, undeniable.

The Film

“Don’t come near me! I’m mad! I’m insane!”

Waves crash against the jutting edges of rock cutting jaggedly into the sea while gulls squawk and cry somewhere beyond the frame. Suddenly Elisabeth Lutyens’ intensely melancholic score urges the view to shift down the shoreline of stoney ledges, all the while shaping a danger that inextricably intermingles with the natural beauty of the place. It’s then that the image transitions to a churchyard, a grave, the final resting place of John and Mary Ashby and, it would seem, their son Antony, said to have died 3 years after them at age 15.

A Priest confirms as much in his address inside the chapel, professing their many kindnesses and remembering them 11 years on. Seated in the congregation is Harriet, John’s sister and caretaker of the surviving children, John and Mary’s youngest child Eleanor, now grown, and Simon, sitting at the organ smoking a cigarette, a look of dark indifference on his face as the Priest speaks to his undoubted emotional pain given his tremendous loss. As a hymnal begins a look of distressing uncertainty finds its way across Eleanor’s face. Her eyes lock on a figure in the doorway, someone she can scarcely see but instantly recognizes. She falls unconscious and the figure disappears, but when she awakens moments after, she knows precisely who it was she saw in the shadows: Antony has returned from the grave.

As is the case with many of Jimmy Sangster’s best scripts, Paranoiac wastes no time getting into the meat of its story and characters. With an efficiency that mirrors Hammer’s own tightly hewn production methods, the film introduces its players, their mannerisms and their weaknesses, powered by a visual energy indicative of the talents belonging to the people behind the camera, particularly Freddie Francis and Arthur Grant. It’s a film that never stops moving forward, allowing its characters to live and breathe while maintaining a healthy sense of dread and mistrust that permeates the narrative all the way through to its final, fiery moments.

The Ashby siblings are on the cusp of inheriting a large sum of money. Simon, played by Oliver Reed, is by all accounts an alcoholic and a degenerate. Reed turns in a startlingly unnerving performance, toeing the line between inebriated stupor and hyper-aware calculation that begets the unique sort of villainy required in a story about misplaced trust. He is easily one of the stand-outs in the film, providing some of the movie’s most disturbing sequences. One scene in particular where Reed’s visage can be seen smiling down at his victim through a veil of water is certain to linger long after the final frame fades.

Eleanor, on the other hand, could not be more different than Simon. In an elegant and nuanced performance from Janette Scott, Eleanor is in many ways a stunted child, a woman who held on to her innocence as a defense mechanism when she lost not only her loving parents but her closest confidant in her brother Anton. Moreover, Simon and their Aunt Harriet, played with a delicious sense of underhanded menace by Sheila Burrell, have weaponized Eleanor’s perceived fragility, convincing her that her mind is unstable.

It all comes to a head when Eleanor hears what she believes is her dead brother’s voice calling to her while she visits his grave. Believing herself insane as she was so accused by her surviving family, Eleanor rushes over to the rocky cliffside featured in the film’s opening moments to put an end to it all. There is a sense of something grander in the world as she approaches those giant monoliths of stone grating against the ever churning waves, of giving in to its vastness and escaping the confines of the social and financial mechanics of the bourgeois.

But before she can make her final leap, she’s snatched away from the rushing water and unforgiving stone. Once deposited again safely at home in her large manor, her savior reveals himself to be Tony Ashby, played with the appropriate amount of questionable charm by Alexander Davion, she and Simon’s estranged brother long thought dead returned. While Harriet and Simon are dramatically unconvinced, Eleanor embraces Tony right away, grateful to have her brother and best friend back in her world once more.

The film hinges on the dualities of its personalities, the stark contrast between truth and lies brought remarkably to life with Francis and Grant’s black and white photography. Whether it be picnics between Eleanor and Tony in the intermittent shade of a tree under the afternoon sun or Simon slinking into the sliver of light exposing the innards of a dusty bedroom, light and dark are constantly at play. The visuals offer a challenge to the viewer: to consider more than simply the actions on the screen, but the mentalities— imperative to a movie with the title Paranoiac.

As the story progresses, its moralities grow ever murkier, seemingly to match the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters occupying its runtime. Tony is, quite obviously, not who he seems, but a grifter working with the son of the Ashby’s attorney in an effort to embezzle a third of the inheritance. All the while, Simon and Harriet’s certainty that Tony is not who he says he is grows disconcertingly iron-clad, and Harriet’s relationship with Tony sharpens with lascivious desire.

Paranoiac 1963

Peppered throughout the story are Tony’s late evening excursions to the nearby chapel, where loud organ music issues out into the darkness in the dead of night. These scenes play almost like tonal poems, dream sequences of sorts to personify the growing evil that lies behind the deceit driving the characters’ interactions. It’s here that Tony encounters a startlingly frightening knife-wielding, masked figure, a creation of the great Hammer effects artist Roy Ashton. Looking like some sort of hideously distorted, soiled porcelain face of a grinning child, the mask, though barely featured, stands out as one of the film’s most memorable terrors and an interesting precursor to the wave of slasher films that would hit a decade later.

Paranoiac is not without its larger set pieces as well. One sequence in particular involving a picnic lunch near the same cliffs seen at the start of the movie, depicts Tony’s frenzied attempt to save Eleanor from her vehicle as it loses control and nearly takes her over its stony edge. Freddie Francis’ work here is incredible, combining rear projection and on location elements to craft an altogether convincing and harrowing experience that ranks with some of the best action of its kind.

As more secrets are uncovered and the truth about Simon’s nighttime organ serenades are revealed, the collective worlds of the surviving members of the Ashby family crumble around them. There’s an emotional intensity to Eleanor’s illicit cries that she’s in love with Tony and that she is, in fact, crazy, that rattles on a visceral level, a symphony of gaslighting and manipulation far more frightening than any ghost or ghoul might be able to conjure. Although Tony does make the right decision in the end to come clean about his identity and his intentions, it’s difficult not to recognize that the movie is comprised of opportunists at best and murderous deviants at worst, all working to corrupt and destroy the innocence, embodied by Eleanor, that they were charged and empowered to protect.

Paranoiac explores the perils of wealth and grandeur, sowing a network of duplicity that entangles any soul who approaches it. Through Sangster’s whip-smart script, Francis’ eloquent vision and Grant’s incredible eye, Paranoiac envelops the viewer in its knotty world of foreboding doubt, aided by incredibly layered performances and its striking locales. From the movie’s opening scenes of jagged stone ledges to its appropriately fiery conclusion in the chapel, it’s a story driven by the paranoia self-imposed by its players. After all, what is privilege and excess, if not an assault on the ego and, subsequently, the soul.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with a brand new 2K scan of the interpositive by Shout! Factory in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, replacing the previously available reframed studio master from Universal. The new transfer offers a far crisper image with improved contrast that compliments the black and white photography. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is loud, clear and clean, emphasizing the resounding score while maintaining dialogue and effects. A significant technical upgrade of what came before and a worthy addition to any fan’s collection.

Audio Commentary, by Bruce G. Hallenbeck

Hammer film historian Bruce Hallenbeck returns to provide a detailed analysis on the film, its inception, its production and the many talents involved in bringing Paranoiac to life.

Beginning with Jimmy Sangster’s interest in Les Diaboliques and how that inspired Taste of Fear, Hallenbeck tracks the Hammer “mini-Hitchock” and the impact such films had on the studio and its reputation. He covers the careers and livelihoods of major players in the film, such as Freddie Francis and the unfortunate rise and fall of Oliver Reed, as well as the moral corruption and ghoulish thematics that the movie seeks to mine. It’s a wonderfully engaging listen that sheds a great deal of light on the film while deepening the listeners understanding of all that went into making it.

Drink to Deception — Kim Newman on Crafting a Cunning Tale of Double Dealing (14:48)

(2022, Shout! Factory)

Film historian Kim Newman provides his analysis of the production, serving like a bite-sized version of what’s delivered in the commentary from Newman’s unique point of view. He spends time on the build up to Paranoiac and how it was Hammer came to the story before plunging into the Brat Farrar property and its various interpretations, exploring Hammer’s as one that is thematically resonant and undervalued in their canon.

A Toast to Terror — Remembering Paranoiac (25:23)

(2022, Shout! Factory)

Film historian Jonathan Rigby provides his take on Paranoiac, approaching it from the perspective of shifting gender roles both on the screen and off as well as the many various talents behind the scenes that made the film possible. He also delves further into the troubles the film had with the BBFC and the overbearing snobbery directed at Hammer from the ratings board at the time.

The Making of Paranoiac (27:57)

(2017, Final Cut Entertainment)

Ported over from the 2017 UK release of the film, this making-of documentary runs through a high level overview of Paranoiac’s production history. With interstitials shot at Bray Studios, archival interviews with major players and detailed production information regarding the effects and filming locations, the Wayne Kinsey hosted feature is fun and informative.

Theatrical Trailer (2:35)

A dictionary sits open, revealing the word “paranoia” as a narrator defines it: “mental disease with delusions of fame, grandeur, persecution”. Then the word “paranoiac” is circled.

The narrator introduces the Ashby family, “whose beautiful life is darkened by shadow”. Oliver Reed’s Simon argues with his aunt. Reed’s indiscretions are put on full display as the narrator continues on about his, “twisted, greedy mind obsessed by inheritance”. Scenes of Eleanor screaming and the family squabbling continue as the characters are introduced as the narrator speaks of “a guarded secret too horrifying to share”. The car nearly falling off the cliff is displayed followed finally by the image of Oliver Reed peering eerily down through the water as the title card appears: Paranoiac.

Still Gallery (5:56)

Head shots of Oliver Reed, Janette Scott and additional cast members, production stills, candid production photographs, posters, lobby cards and international artwork pepper this slideshow encapsulating the production and its orchestrators.

Final Thoughts

Psycho marked a major shift in the tides of popular genre entertainment and while Jimmy Sangster may not have initially modeled his paranoid thriller musings specifically after Hitchcock’s hit, Hammer Studios saw a path to coalescence. There was often a symmetry running between Hammer’s output and what it was that genre fans the world over were watching, and with Paranoiac and the “mini-Hitchcock” the studio proved the value of that eerie harmony once again.

Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray arrives as a definitive version of the film, providing a significant upgrade in picture quality that emphasizes the gorgeous craftsmanship that director Freddie Francis and cinematographer Arthur Grant brought to the project. Bruce Hallenbeck’s new commentary is informative and fruitful and the inclusion of other respected Hammer historian’s Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby’s perspectives provides viewers multiple avenues into the film’s thematics and context within Hammer’s rich history. Considering Paranoiac is one of Hammer’s best, perhaps most under-appreciated works, this release comes with the highest recommendation.

Paranoiac hammer

Hammer is most well known for its gothic horror, its vampires, man-made monsters and occult leaning exposes into atmosphere and the luridly macabre. During their reign the studio released more than 150 films, spanning multiple genres, creative voices and stylistic interpretations that show a versatility that the studio isn’t always thought to be associated with.

Freddie Francis often referred to Hammer Studios as “a magic box”, in reference to the straight-forward business-like way in which they prepared and executed films, on time and on budget. Still, he also acknowledged the other side of that coin, that when their machine was in place and running, they trusted those in any given position to do their job and to do it well. That is to say, their model included room for artistic vision, which is all too clear in a movie like Paranoiac, one of Hammer’s great thrillers.

Dealing with old manors, brooding psychopaths and psychosexual themes of incest and voyeurism, it may be difficult to see the difference between what is considered thriller and horror in the eyes of the studio behind such pictures. Perhaps the difference was in the packaging and the presentation, providing a viewer who might otherwise avoid a movie with Frankenstein or Dracula in the title an avenue into that most pervasive and subversive genre at its finest. Hitchcock had certainly figured out how to accomplish such a thing and, if Paranoiac was any indication, it seemed Hammer’s “mini-Hithcocks” had done so as well.

Paranoiac Blu-ray

Six Public Domain Horror Movies That You Can Watch For Free Right Now!

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