The Psychopath (1966)
Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: April 10th, 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Appropriately enough, the slasher genre took several twists and turns on its way to being the fully formed genre that would eventually dominate the 80s horror scene, with its roots most immediately stretching back to the 60s, when various tendrils sprouted up around the world and started inching towards the seminal splatter we’ve come to know and love. What’s interesting about The Psychopath is that it’s something of a nexus point for just about all of those disparate trends, fittingly collected here by anthology masters Amicus Studios. While Freddie Francis’s hack and slash effort isn’t one of the studio’s signature omnibus outings, it feels like a grab bag effort all the same in the way it stitches together the German krimi, the Italian giallo, and the Anglo-American psycho-thriller into one familiar—if not wild—tale scripted by Robert Bloch.
Bloch, of course, was no stranger to such fare, having authored one of the slasher genre’s most notable forefathers in Psycho, and he returns to similar ground here with another tale of familial carnage. When a man is murdered in a hit-and-run, most authorities are left baffled, especially since the culprit leaves a doll at the crime scene. Shrewd Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark), however, quickly sees it as evidence that leads him straight to Mrs. Von Strum (Margaret Johnson), a wheelchair bound widow with an incredible collection of dolls. While her adult son Mark (John Standing) lives with her, she sees the dolls as her only true company, an odd predilection that Holloway immediately finds suspicious, especially once more victims pile up, all of them connected to Von Strum’s late, disgraced husband.
Mystery isn’t exactly abundant in The Psychopath, not when just about every sign points to the delightfully odd Von Strums. (Not helping matters: the film’s tagline, which points the finger directly at Mark, but that’s neither here or there.) Sure, the script features some obligatory red herrings, but come on: even by 1966, just about anyone would have been conditioned to suspect the weird mother-son duo, both of whom practically have “psycho” printed on their foreheads for the duration of the film. The Psychopath is no less intriguing, though, largely due to Bloch’s labyrinthine scripting and the fantastic turns from Johnson and Standing, who take familiar roles and put an even more peculiar spin on them.
Johnson is especially absorbing as the mother, an unassuming woman seething with bitterness and haunted by regret: at any given moment, Johnson convinces you that she’s gone off the deep end or sways you into considering that maybe, just maybe this widow is completely justified in whatever role she has in these slayings. On the other hand, Standing plays John with a barely concealed sociopathic streak: he pleas his own innocence, but it seems futile to both Inspector Holloway and the audience, neither of which is buying the dead-eyed façade he puts on. The boyish glimmer in Norman Bates’s eyes is nowhere to be found in this weirdo who works in solitude at a local dock. Just about the only question here is just how involved these two are in these murders--if, indeed, both of them are involved at all.
Bloch delivers a hell of an answer, but only after winding and wending through a surprisingly elaborate plot that feels inspired by the giallo and krimi films that were becoming increasingly popular at the time. It even nods into the direction of the latter with a backstory involving a group of men who illegally profited off of the post-war scene in Germany, where they effectively sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Twenty years later, and someone—probably one of the Von Sturns—is looking to exact revenge. Even if the plot is a touch predictable at times, Bloch works in some clever twists and turns in terms of both motivations and violence.
Perhaps sensing the growing rise in graphic on-screen murders—and most certainly anticipating what was to come over the course of the next 20 years—Bloch and Francis aren’t content to indulge in humdrum hack-and-slash, so our unseen killer brandishes everything from blowtorches to car bombs (!) in an effort to dispatch his victims. Of course, given the sensibilities of the time, most of the carnage is implied, with the grisly details left to the imagination. Still, The Psychopath taps into the sort of trash intrigue that has often driven the slasher genre: it’s not enough to know who’s going to get it, but how they’re going to be offed, and the variety of murder implements here is an impressive harbinger for a genre that would become a cottage industry dedicated to dreaming up such horrible deaths.
And while Francis’s hands were tied either by personal, studio, or cultural sensibilities, the violent outbursts here do reflect the subtle sleaziness rumbling throughout The Psychopath. Hammer’s success with similar psycho-thrillers during this era likely inspired this outing, but it feels a lot more like the films that studio produced in the 70s, when it made an effort to keep up with that era’s lurid, scummy fare. The Psychopath is similarly schizophrenic to those efforts, what with its elegant production design, refined Techniscope compositions, and a general British stuffiness that stands in contrast to the horrific violence and hints of sexuality (and various points, you see a woman’s entire bare back and characters thumbing through a porno mag—scandal!). Francis is operating several steps away from the grindhouse and drive-in staples that would come to typify the slasher genre, but the impulses are there, lurking just beneath the surface.
In fact, Bloch really indulges those impulses towards the end: just when it looks like the film has been tidily wrapped up, an epilogue of sorts provides a few more surprises that take The Psychopath into certifiably insane territory. You sense that Bloch was keenly aware of the reputation surrounding his most famous work, so he takes the twisted mother-son relationship to a different—but arguably no less disturbing—place here. Francis reserves the film’s most staggering image for this climactic freak-out, which also somehow manages to add a bit of a heartbreaking dimension to this wild tale. Johnson is at her best here, desperately seeking to coax sympathy from the audience while she completely loses her mind. For about 75 minutes of its runtime, The Psychopath is an obvious historical curiosity; however, this final scene edges it towards being a bit more of a vital link on the slasher’s evolutionary chain, one that perhaps should be more cited in such circles.
Granted, The Psychopath has understandably been a bit lost in that conversation due to its relative unavailability during the past few decades. For whatever reason, it’s been a long, long holdout on DVD and Blu-ray here in the States, though Paramount and Kino Lorber recently rectified by releasing a nice little edition back in April. Some minor print damage is noticeable throughout the first reel or so, but it’s an otherwise nice transfer that retains the film’s sumptuous Technicolor hues. Kino even sprung for an audio commentary with film historian Troy Howarth, and tossed in some trailers for some of its other releases for films from this era, including The Oblong Box, The Crimson Cult, Twice-Told Tales, Black Sabbath, and The Premature Burial. Joe Dante also appears for a Trailer’s from Hell segment dedicated to The Skull, Francis’s previous Amicus outing. Finally, the release sports reversible cover art, with the flip side featuring an alternate poster.
A word of warning though: avoid the synopsis on the back cover, which not only gives away the killer’s body count, but also its various murder weapons. That gaffe aside, this a very solid release for yet another film that’s been long overdue on DVD and Blu-ray; in fact, it's among the last major Amicus horror holdout, as only a handful of their titles (like What Became of Jack and Jill?) remain unavailable or confined to out-of-print DVDs at this point, which should inspire sighs of relief from completists. Others--especially those interested in charting the evolution of the slasher genre--should be excited too: The Psychopath is a gnarly little proto-slasher that boasts violence, scumbag intrigue, and that signature Amicus mean streak to boot. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: