(1972) Directed by Peter Sykes; Written by Christopher Wicking; Original Story by Frank Godwin; Starring: Robert Hardy, Shane Briant, Gillian Hills, Yvonne Mitchell, Patrick Magee and Paul Jones; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
After a one-year hiatus, I’m back with my co-host with the most, Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews, to present the third installment of the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. Be sure to check out all the wonderful posts over the next few days!
“Demons of the mind. Mankind is on the brink of understanding itself at last. Pure knowledge. And myself, leading the hunt.” – Dr. Falkenberg (Patrick Magee)
“When I came to make this film, what struck me most strongly was the central very serious idea of looking at the life of Mesmer and origins of looking at psychopathic behavior and hysteria and treating through hypnotism.” – Peter Sykes (interview excerpt, featured in Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)
It was a changing world for Hammer films in the 1970s, as the production company reluctantly sought to keep pace with the times. It was a period of fits and starts, challenging older styles and stretching the boundaries of what could be depicted on screen, while retaining what was distinctly Hammer. While some might argue that it was a period of decline for the company, some unique films sprung from the changing landscape, including Demons of the Mind. Originally titled Blood Will Have Blood (reduced to a line in the movie), Peter Sykes, a first-timer for Hammer, handled the directorial duties. British locations stood in for the story’s German countryside, including Wykehurst Place, located in West Sussex.**
* Fun Fact #1: In case you’re counting, the film featured three performers from A Clockwork Orange (1971): Gillian Hills, Virginia Wetherell, and Patrick Magee.
** Fun Fact #2: If the sprawling estate in the film looks familiar, it’s no coincidence. The Gothic Revival mansion (designed in 1871 by Edward Middleton Barry), has appeared in several film and television productions over the years, including All the Colors of the Dark (1972), and The Legend of Hell House (1973).
Baron Friedrich Zorn (Robert Hardy) harbors an awful family ailment (including madness, incest, and bloodlust),* which he’s unwittingly transferred to his offspring, Elizabeth and Emil (Gillian Hills and Shane Briant, respectively). With the help of their aunt Hilda (Yvonne Mitchell), he keeps them apart, locked away in their rooms, where they’re subjected to bloodletting (in an effort to purge the sickness). When the mental condition of Zorn’s grown children fails to improve, Zorn secures the services of the controversial Doctor Falkenberg (Patrick Magee), who’s developed some radical treatments of his own. Meanwhile, several young women from the nearby village have gone missing, raising the suspicions of the local residents and a wandering priest (Michael Hordern).
* Fun Fact #3: According to The Hammer Story, per the original screenplay, the family curse was not purely psychological in nature, but attributed to lycanthropy.
Gillian Hills and Shane Briant are believable as sister and brother, whose bonds are a little too close for comfort. As Elizabeth Zorn,* Hills imbues her character with a distant, dreamy quality. She appears passive and emotionally stunted, due to being locked away for years. Briant portrays Emil as a caged animal, restless and wary. Spurred on by his intense distrust of his father and aunt, Emil’s primary motivation is to reunite with his sister. Instead of helping ameliorate their symptoms Baron Zorn has exacerbated their ongoing illness. Under Falkenberg’s hypnosis, his terrible history emerges, involving violent, animalistic urges (despite a professed disgust for blood), followed by impotence, and the subsequent suicide of his wife. In turn, he transfers his shortcomings and neuroses to his children. In one scene, he discourages a visitor from pursuing a relationship with Elizabeth, stating, “She’s incapable of love.” He reserves the worst, however, for Emil who may have inherited his father’s darker, destructive impulses.
* Fun Fact #4: The role of Elizabeth was originally slated for Marianne Faithfull.
The always great Patrick Magee stands out as Doctor Falkenberg (based loosely on Austrian physician Franz Mesmer). Accused of being a charlatan for his unorthodox theories and methodologies, he’s ousted from his institute, taking up a private practice. As a proponent of the budding field of psychiatry/psychology, he believes there’s a cure for the Zorn family’s “curse.” Although unabashedly egotistical and self-aggrandizing, Falkenberg seems to have a genuine interest in discovering the root of the illness, and finding a way to correct their maladies. He uses hypnotism as a means of exploring the unconscious minds of his patients, and attempts a risky form of experimental therapy, employing a woman from the village (Virginia Wetherell) as a substitute for Elizabeth. Ultimately Zorn’s fatalism about his condition, and his children’s condition by proxy, undermines Falkenberg’s treatment.
* Fun Fact #5: The odd device Dr. Falkenberg employs to hypnotize Baron Zorn was based on actual equipment used by Mesmer in the 18th-19th centuries.
Demons of the Mind delves deeply into Freudian (before Freud existed) concepts of childhood trauma, transference, sublimation, and the unconscious. While Mesmer’s (and by extension Falkenberg’s) belief in a “universal fluid” that regulated the wellbeing of the mind doesn’t hold a lot of water now (pardon the pun), he was ahead of his time with regard to exploring the roots of childhood trauma, and using hypnotism as a tool for therapy. Falkenberg refers to the family illness as a disorder, and not a sickness of the blood (as Zorn would attest). As it turns out, both are right and wrong. While draining Elizabeth’s blood was a futile effort, Zorn’s belief that he passed on a disease was a step in the right direction. For his part, Falkenberg failed to acknowledge that Zorn’s blood (i.e., genetics) could have contributed to the current situation. The Zorn estate, itself, is a fitting metaphor for the family’s malady. Photographed from skewed angles, the structure and everything in it seem purposely off-kilter. As Elizabeth’s would-be suitor, Carl (Paul Jones) observes, “This place reeks of madness and decay.”
The film briefly segues into folk horror territory when we witness a ritual in the nearby village. The residents dance with an effigy of Death, chanting, “We carry Death to the fires of hell. All is well.” At one point, a visitor asks about meaning of the ritual, but no one seems to knows about its significance. It’s an interesting thread that’s (sadly) never fully explored. It does provide a foreshadowing, of sorts, for the events that follow. The villagers eventually rise up against Zorn, spurred on by the wandering priest who fans the flames of evil, painting Zorn as a focus of evil. Why the villagers would choose to follow an outsider, upsetting the status quo, is another question.
Compared to Hammer’s output of the time, Demons of the Mind remains something of an outlier, not quite fitting into the “horror” mold, while retaining many of the trappings of the genre. Is it a psychological thriller, family drama, or a gothic romance? An argument could be made for any of these. It’s a potent cocktail of Freud’s greatest hits, eschewing any physical manifestation of monsters for the cerebral kind. To borrow another Freudian concept, we can only view the surface of these characters, but there is much to explore what lies underneath their exteriors. With its heady themes, Demons of the Mind wasn’t exactly the sort of move intended for audiences that wanted to forget their troubles for 90 minutes and have a good time. Subsequently it was no surprise that distributor EMI was less than thrilled with the finished product, which promptly faded into obscurity. The fact that Demons of the Mind defied expectations of what a Hammer film could be is at once, to its credit and detriment. It’s an often fascinating, sometimes perplexing viewing experience, which merits reappraisal.
Sources for this article: Featurette, “Blood Will Have Blood: Inside Demons of the Mind”; The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes; Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey