After the enormous success of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO in 1960, England’s Hammer Films initiated their own string of black & white suspense thrillers, beginning with Seth Holt’s SCREAM OF FEAR (aka TASTE OF FEAR) and including MANIAC and DIE DIE MY DARLING (aka FANATIC). Famed cinematographer and frequent genre director Freddie Francis helmed a handful of these for the company, a trio which included PARANOIAC, NIGHTMARE and HYSTERIA, the last and what is considered by many to be the weakest of his contributions to the cycle. Originally released theatrically in the States by MGM, Warner now presents the film on DVD as part of its Warner Bros. Archive Collection.
An American man in England is named “Christopher Smith” (Robert Webber) after being a passenger in a car accident which took away his memory, as well as the life of the driver. His amnesiac state makes it impossible for him to recall anything before the accident, and sessions with a deadpan hospital psychiatrist (Anthony Newlands, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) don’t seem to help matters. An anonymous benefactor not only takes care of Chris’ hospital bills, but also put him up in a swank penthouse apartment (complete with exotic birds and a full wardrobe) as he attempts to regain his memory. His only clue to go on is the photo of a fashion model, torn from a magazine and found in the car. Chris’ investigation leads him to believe the mysterious woman is dead, but he later sees her in town and in his own apartment (where he also subjected to the nightly sounds of a violently bickering couple, even though no one else appears to reside in his complex but himself).
At first, HYSTERIA comes off as an involving, slowly paced effort, but if you stick with it, it’s actually a pretty solid thriller. When he wasn’t busy scribing their gothic horrors, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote a good number of Hammer's PSYCHO-inspired thrillers, and here he centers things around a strong but ambiguous male character, incorporating all the appropriate twists and turns along the way (not to mention a murdered body in a running shower and the recurring appearance of a large kitchen knife to remind you of the Hitchcock film). An adventurous, extended flashback leading up to the events right before Chris’ automobile accident comes unexpectedly in the middle of the film, conveniently summing up his character of which the audience (nor the character himself) no nothing about up until that point.
Director Francis’s nack for style is hardly ever on display here (despite a rather hallucinogenic title sequence and some stark black & white cinematography by John Wilcox), and his direction is adequate but a bit routine. He probably would have had more interest in the project if he had gotten along with Webber, but by all accounts, he hated working with the actor. Unlike most of the Hammer films which were still being shot at the resourceful confines of Bray Studios, HYSTERIA was made at the British MGM Studios at Elstree, as well as on location, giving it an outward appearance atypical of the company’s usual output during the period. Ad a hip jazzy score (credited to composer Don Banks), and the results are very uncharacteristic of your average Hammer production (HYSTERIA lost money at the box office, ending Hammer’s initial run of psychological thrillers until later in the decade).
The unlikely choice of Robert Webber in the lead was reportedly at the assistance of MGM to have an American actor star (Webber had already been easily recognizable from 12 ANGRY MEN, as well as countless episodic TV roles), and he comes off confidently in the role of a ballsy guy whose memory has been erased. The excellent cast also includes Jennifer Jayne (DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS) as the hospital nurse who falls for Chris, Lelia Goldoni as the mysterious woman who shows up in Chris’ life, Peter Woodthorpe (THE SKULL) as a seedy photographer and Sue Lloyd (CORRUPTION) as am adulterating French Girl, instrumental in getting Chris into his predicament. Veteran character actor Maurice Denham (COUNTESS DRACULA) has the best role, that of private detective Hemmings, and if you ever wanted to see the monster from THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN without his make-up, wrestler Kiwi Kingston (in his only other film role) can also be spotted briefly.
Since HYSTERIA was one of the first Hammer titles ever released on VHS in the U.S. (MGM/UA had it out in the 1980s), it’s ironic that it would be one of the last to see a DVD release with this manufactured-on-demand disc from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. This “remastered edition” presents the film in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement and it carries a sharp, nicely detailed black & white transfer with deep black levels and a slight bit of grain. There are scattered blemishes on the print source, but overall, HYSTERIA looks great. There are 26 chapter stops on the MOD disc (moving ahead every few minutes) as well as a full frame original theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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