Demons of the Mind (1972)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-02-02 22:57
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Written by: Frank Godwin (story), Christopher Wicking
Directed by: Peter Sykes
Starring: Robert Hardy, Shane Briant and Gillian Hills


Reviewed by: Brett Gallman






“Blood will have blood, they say. Well, there must be no more blood on our souls."


The title of this later (and lesser) Hammer production suggests a turn away from the supernatural demons that put the company on the map during the previous decade. Indeed, Dracula, Frankenstein, and other preternatural terrors are traded in for more psychological haunts this time out, though this doesn’t prevent Demons of the Mind from being a rather standard, old-fashioned tale of madness, albeit one that’s gussied up in 70s sleaze that most audiences likely found unbecoming of Hammer.

Robert Hardy is the patriarch of the Zorn household that’s plagued by the titular demons; his daughter Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) keeps attempting to run away, and we soon learn that both she and her brother Emil (Shane Briant) are under lock and key because their father believes their blood to be cursed after his wife’s death. A traveling physician (Patrick Magee) sees this as a challenge, so he descends upon the old mansion with a few unusual methods before discovering an even more unusual web of incest and paternal tyranny.


There’s also a subplot involving the murders of the pretty girls living in the nearby forest, which has the locals (which include a zany-eyed, crusading priest) all spooked out about Baron Zorn and his foreboding manor. All of these scattershot threads eventually come together in a somewhat muddled and predictable fashion that betrays the more interesting conflicts laying at the center. While the film’s title does point to psychosis, it actually presents some archaic physiological leanings; the notion of “bad” blood (which he literally draws out of them in clinical fashion) being the source of the Zorn children’s maladies opens up some interesting possibilities for Demons of the Mind to be some sort of pseudo-medical drama-cum-indictment of medieval fuddy-duddy.

That’s not the story, though, as Magee’s cocky professor is nearly just as much of a quack as Zorn himself, albeit without any menace. In fact, he’s even dismissed as a fraud by the other doctor of the tale (Paul Jones, on brief hiatus from his singing career) who eventually plays the role of fair-haired hero, perhaps by virtue of being the only sane person at the center of these mad proceedings. Magee concocts a couple of nutty schemes (after hearing Zorn’s lurid tale of how he took a virgin wife in the hopes of giving birth to pure children), one involving a hypnotic apparatus and another involving a peasant girl dressing up like the kids’ deceased mother. I’m not quite sure how either is supposed to work, and neither did the writers, who fall back upon the tried and true method of fumigating evil in these things: torch-wielding villagers, who show up for a pulp-laden climax.

Said gruesome climax reveals where Hammer’s heart was for this film, which is just as handsomely staged as any other, even if there aren’t a whole lot of Hammer A-listers (in fact, screenwriter Christopher Wickling had made a name for himself at AIP up until this point). Some of the tactics here feel classical, such as the impressive set designs, particularly the creaky Zorn mansion tucked away in a deep, impenetrable forest that we seemingly never escape from. Such a situation recalls the stuff of dark fables, right down to the unnamed, vaguely German setting; that it’s somewhat wrapped up in primitive psychology seems a bit anachronistic, perhaps explaining why it does eventually give in to being yet another tale of a psychotic baron (complete with both a brutish, bald-headed stooge and a wicked sister) terrorizing the locals. It’s perhaps one step away from Frankenstein, though Hardy’s Zorn doesn’t breed the charisma of Cushing’s mad doctor; instead, he’s a hammy madman playing opposite of Magee’s similarly high-strung and broadly-realized professor, with the two often playing off each other in this blood-soaked period melodrama.

In this respect, you could see Hammer trying to keep up with the Joneses, as it were, as Demons of the Mind is a relatively gory schlock-fest whose occasional art-house flourishes (such as the roses adorning the corpses of the slain girls) don’t elevate as much as they simply compliment. Some of the more visceral bits are blunted via a hazy flashback effect, but this was likely the most explicit Hammer film to date, complete with full-frontal nudity (Virginia Wetherell does the honors) and an incest subplot that never quite takes off because both Hills and Briant are effectively forced to sleepwalk through the film. The former is a quintessential virginal beauty that earns more sympathy than the latter, who was being groomed as one of Hammer’s new stars at the time.

Like everyone else, he just sort of takes a backseat to the silliness here; Demons of the Mind is certainly a bit quirky and offbeat, with one foot stepping in gothic trappings and another fidgeting about in empty-headed psycho-babble. As far as later Hammer flicks go, it’s good enough--you can feel them desperately clinging to their glory days, all the while dragging those feet into the 70s. Demons of the Mind was released as part of Anchor Bay’s Hammer Collection 12 years ago in a one-off release, and they did alright by it--the transfer is anamorphic and still looks pretty stunning despite its age, and the mono soundtrack is adequate. The only extras are the film’s trailer and an audio commentary with Sykes, Wickling, and Wetherell. This is one of the few Anchor Bay Hammer releases that wasn’t later repackaged as a double feature, so you’ll have to seek out this out of print single release; it doesn’t command a whole lot on the secondary market, but you’d still be better off streaming it on Netflix. Rent it!



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