Nightmare/Thereís the Knife, Dearó Now Use It! (1963/1964) ***Ĺ
I remember thinking, when I watched Die, Die, My Darling!, how odd it was that Hammer had changed the title while adapting Anne Blaisdellís Nightmare to the screen. Not that Die, Die, My Darling! (or Fanatic, for that matter) wasnít markedly superior, but Nightmare seemed a perfectly serviceable handle for a psychological horror film as it was. It even had that punchy one-word format that was so much in favor during the early-to-mid-1960ís. What I didnít realize at the time was that Hammer couldnít use Blaisdellís title because theyíd already made a movie called Nightmare. Like a lot of the firmís ďmini-Hitchcoocks,Ē Nightmare has lapsed into obscurity, overshadowed by the garish gothic pictures that were Hammerís main stock in trade. But again like many of its ilk, it is long overdue for rediscovery. Continuing in the pattern set by Scream of Fear and Paranoiac, Nightmare is as twisty as it is twisted, applying an amped-up version of Psychoís ďnot the movie you thought it was going to beĒ midstream course-change technique to a premise that might otherwise seem wearyingly familiar.
It beginsó go figureó with an extended nightmare sequence. An adolescent girl whom weíll soon get to know as Janet (Jennie Linden, from Dr. Who and the Daleks and Old Dracula) dreams that she is wandering the deserted corridors of a lunatic asylum, following a whispering female voice. When Janet tracks the voice to its source, she finds it emanating from one of the cells, but itís too dark within for her to discern who has been calling her. For that she must open the door and go inside, which as always is a terrible idea. The door slams shut behind her, and a middle-aged woman (Isla Cameron, of The Innocents) emerges from the shadows to gloat that Janet is just as mad as she is, and has at last been put where sheís always belonged. That, understandably, jolts the girl awake screaming, much to the ire of her several dorm-mates at the Hatcher School for Young Ladies. The woman in Janetís dream was her mother, who is indeed locked away in an asylum up the road from the family homestead. Evidently Mom was always highly susceptible to stress and wild rages, and on Janetís eleventh birthday, she finally snapped completely enough to stab Dad to death. Janet, as if the situation werenít inherently more than bad enough, happened to be the first on the scene, arriving just moments after the victim breathed his last, and while Mom was still holding the knife as if trying to recall what sheíd originally meant to do with it before she was diverted into murder. Ever since that day, Janet has harbored a morbid fear of insanity, focusing especially on the possibility that she has inherited her motherís illness, and that itís just a matter of time before she explodes into homicidal fury herself.
The trouble with fear of mental illness is that itís likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly Janetís schoolmates are unanimous in considering her a creepy flake, and even Mrs. Hatcher the headmistress is nearing the end of her ability to cope with the challenge the troubled girl presents. Naturally Mrs. Hatcherís opinion that her most difficult student needs professional help just makes things even worse, as Janet is also terrified of psychiatristsó not unreasonably, when you think about it within the context of her main neurosis. After all, they have the power to confirm what she already suspects about herself. Janet eventually breaks the impasse by taking a sabbatical from her schooling, but her guardian, family lawyer Henry Baxter (The Clue of the Twisted Candleís David Knight), is unable to come get her at such short notice. Since Janet is clearly in no state to travel alone, one of her teachers, Mary Lewis (Peeping Tomís Brenda Bruce), agrees to spend the weekend escorting her home.
This is the point at which it becomes obvious that Janetís family is immensely rich. She and Mary are picked up from the train station by a chauffeur-driven Bentley. The house to which that Bentley eventually pulls up is grand enough to be represented on the inside by the same parts of the Bray Studio that more often served as Castle Dracula and the like. And of course the place is swarming with cute, blonde maids presided over by a grandmotherly old housekeeper. But if we may judge from Janetís interaction with Mrs. Gibbs (Irene Richmond, from Dr. Terrorís House of Horrors and Hysteria) and John the driver (George A. Cooper, of The Brain and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), the girl hasnít let wealth and privilege go to her head. Of course, with Dad dead, Mom incarcerated, and Henry Baxter (whom Janet seems to regard much like one of the glamorous older cousins toward whom teenagers so often develop romantic sentiments) only an occasional visitor, the servants are the closest thing to a family that Janet has. Evidently Baxter has concluded that his ward could do with a bit more human contact, especially under the present circumstances, because he has hired a companion for Janetó or at any rate, thatís the official story which Baxter has instructed everyone to maintain within her earshot. In truth, Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond, from Marriage of Convenience and Partners in Crime) is a psychiatric nurse whose job is to keep Janet steady if at all possible, and to evaluate whether some more aggressive intervention might be in order. Obviously itís very important that no hint of this be leaked to the patient herself.
That first night, Mary is awakened by strange, furtive noises in the corridor outside her room, and when she gets up to investigate, she encounters Janet roaming about in a state not far short of hysteria. The girlís story doesnít make a great deal of sense, but it seems that she dreamed of a white-garbed woman looming over her bed, went sleepwalking in pursuit of the apparition, and was roused from her trance by Mary. Janet herself doesnít buy that explanation, though. Sheís sure she was awake the entire time, and even Mary must concede that her pupil wasnít behaving like a sleepwalker when she came upon her in the hallway. Mind you, Janet isnít saying there really was a white-robed intruder in her room. Rather, she attributes the whole business to hallucination, to her chronic nightmares finally beginning to infiltrate her waking life. Itís a sensible enough contention, really, but unfortunately also one that plays directly into the neurosis of which all Janetís loved ones hope to cure her.
The dreams or visions or whatever continue after Mary returns to the school. The specificity of Janetís dark-haired, scar-faced visitant (Clytie Jessop, also of The Innocents, and of Torture Garden as well) is distressing precisely because the poor kid has no idea who the woman in white is supposed to be. Itís one thing to dream of being locked up in a madhouse cell with her crazy mom, but this is just weird. It gets weirder, too, because the apparitionís nocturnal wanderings through the house now take on a definite purpose. Each time, the woman in white now leads Janet to her parentsí old bedroom, and each time when Janet catches up to her, the spectral prowler is lying on the bed where Janetís father died, a bloody knife protruding from between her breasts. Eventually, Janet slits her wrists rather than face another night of such torment, and Grace, Mrs. Gibbs, and John are forced to call in a doctor (John Welsh, from Maneaters Are Loose! and Kull) in contravention of Baxterís game plan for his wardís recovery. Baxter comes at once when he hears about the suicide attempt, bringing his wife, Ellen, along with him. That last bit turns out to be a really bad move, however. Ellen, if you can believe this, is a dead ringer for the woman in Janetís dreams, and the instant the frazzled girl lays eyes on her, she seizes a knife and stabs her through the heart. What was I saying about self-fulfilling prophecies before?
Weíve reached only the halfway point of the movie, though, so clearly Ellenís murder is but Nightmareís analogue to the Psycho shower scene. As soon as Janet is packed off to the asylum, it becomes apparent that weíve been watching a grimmer-than-usual variation on Gaslight, and that Henry and Grace sought to drive Janet to exactly that act of desperate violence all along. The lawyer and the nurse had been conducting an affair for some time, and had finally decided that they loved each other enough to marry. Ellen was in the way, though, so the adulterers turned to Janetís burgeoning mental illness as a means of eliminating her. Grace staged the girlís hallucinations, impersonating Ellen in ways calculated to upend completely whatever sanity Janet still possessed, until at last they judged her unstable enough for a meeting with the real Ellen to yield the desired deadly results. Wedded bliss is not in the cards for the conspirators, however. The implosion begins on their very honeymoon, where Grace keeps uncovering signs that her new husband has been cheating on her, too. (Funny how the below-board lovers of cheating bastards invariably seem to be surprised that the bastards in question would have girls on the side of their girls on the sideÖ) Henry denies everything, of course, but the hints keep coming even after the Baxters return home. Ohó and speaking of home, Henry has sold his old flat, and moved himself and Grace into the mansion where his employers used to live. Why not, right? Heís still executor of the estate, and with all of the surviving family members now legally incompetent to handle their own affairs, somebody might as well use the place!
Still, defensible or not, living at the scene of their crime doesnít sit well with Grace, although Henry doesnít care about that. A domineering asshole as well as a cheating bastard (to say nothing of whatever you call a guy who would cold-bloodedly engineer his wifeís manslaughter in order to clear the way to marry his mistress), he has no room in his life-planning for anybodyís opinions but his own. Grace rightly resents that attitude, and the house Baxter has secretly coveted for so long quickly becomes a marital war zoneó so much that even John and Mrs. Gibbs find it increasingly hard to disguise their contempt for the new bosses. Then Grace starts seeing a woman skulking purposefully about the mansion. At first she assumes that Henry has had the brass-balled temerity to move Mistress #2 into the house with them, but when objects associated with Janet begin turning up in places where she thought she glimpsed the other woman, some more troubling possibilities occur to her. What if Henry, having reached his choking point for domestic strife, has determined to do to Grace what he and Grace did to Janet? Or worse, what if Janet really has escaped from the loony bin, and has come home in search of new hearts to perforate? Or worst of all, what if Henry actually sprang Janet from the nuthouse himself, and is now grooming her somehow to rid him of a second inconvenient spouse?
Itís a pity that Maniac, Hammerís third mini-Hitchcock, has so successfully eluded me, because Iíd like to know for certain whether a development I see in Nightmare is original to it, or a carryover from its immediate predecessor. But whichever film marked the actual moment of leveling up, Nightmare demonstrates in no uncertain terms that Jimmy Sangster had learned something important about writing stories of this kind since Paranoiac the year before. Clever as they were, Scream of Fear and Paranoiac each betrayed a kind of uncertainty. The former was perhaps just a bit too obvious a hybrid of Gaslight and Diabolique, with Sangster clearly recognizing what was unique about the newly codified genre of psycho-horror, but not quite understanding what all its unfamiliar new gizmos actually did. Paranoiac was more self-assured, especially as regards its whole-hog embrace of the principle behind Psychoís five-reel fake-out, but there was an inelegant randomness to the specific twists and turns that story took. Itís impossible not to suspect that Sangster was throwing one transformational twist after another at the audience purely for the sake of doing it, and although it worked splendidly once, Iím not at all sure that success could have been replicated. In Nightmare, however, Sangster establishes a clear and organic connection between the movie it starts off being and the movie it becomes after Janet is maneuvered into killing Ellen Baxter. Nightmare is easier to outsmart for that very reason, and it has nothing as memorably unsettling as Paranoiacís Meathook Clown, but the pieces here fit together just beautifully.
The movieís biggest point of distinction, though, is exactly what it turns into after its ďJanet Leigh takes a showerĒ moment. Iím not sure Iíve ever seen a film spend this much time on the villainsí undoing, shown from their own point of view. Obviously weíre looking at another riff on Diabolique now, but thereís a huge difference between that movieís criminal protagonists and the Baxters. Nicole Horner and Christina Delasalle, simply put, were never villains. They were driven to kill by desperation, their moral sensibilities deadened by years spent living under the thumb of a cruel and evil man; conspiracy to commit murder has rarely looked more sympathetic. Henry and Grace, on the other hand, are just a couple of total heels, so itís very interesting when Sangster and director Freddie Francis arrange for us to see the bad end to which they come through their own eyes. The closest parallel I can think of, oddly enough, is a scene from Savage Streets, in which Linda Blairís character, nominally the heroine of the film, is briefly portrayed from her enemiesí perspective as a terrifying and implacable outside force. Again, though, thatís just one scene; Nightmare devotes half of its running time to Henry and Graceís comeuppance. My only serious complaint concerns the wrap-up, which is a little too tidy, and a little too gentle with a certain character, to sit comfortably alongside everything leading up to it. Even with the too-pat resolution, though, Nightmare is probably the best example of Hammer psycho-horror Iíve yet seen.