Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 15th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Psycho has cast a long shadow over the horror genre, but never was it more obvious than in the early 60s, when Hammer Films churned out scores of black-and-white thrillers to capitalize on the success of Hitchcock’s seminal slasher. While the studio prospered with its Technicolor gothic horror revivals, it produced plenty of these monochrome suspense shockers that have come to feel like B-sides to its more notorious fare, a reputation that belies just how twisted and fun these things could be. Case in point: Nightmare, a Hitchcockian cocktail (a Hitchcocktail?) with a dash of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac for good measure. Sporting an inventive and playful script, it’s a great example of movie that feels like it was explicitly crafted to keep its audience on its toes: just as Hammer’s garish gothic fare offered plenty of grisly outbursts to capture viewers’ imaginations, this one deploys a series of tricky story pivots that throws them for an utter loop. By the end, it’s a real “how it started/how it’s going” sort of deal, making it a delightful little exercise in narrative trickiness.
Finishing school student Janet (Jennie Linden) suffers from lucid nightmares involving her institutionalized mother, a recurring psychosis stemming from the traumatic memory of watching her mother stab her father to death. When her teacher, Mary Lewis (Brenda Bruce), decides a trip home might do her some good, she escorts the girl back home to her childhood estate, now lorded over Janet’s guardian Henry Baxter (David Knight) and an assortment of housekeepers. One of them is Grace Maddox (Moria Redmon), a live-in nurse who's been assigned to be Janet’s companion. Unfortunately, the return home does little to help Janet’s psyche: the nightmares continue, and she begins to have visions of a spectral woman in white roaming the halls of the home. Both the doctors and Janet’s associates dismiss her claims, leading the girl to wonder if she’s inherited her mother’s madness. A visit from Henry and his wife forces her to a moment of crisis with a grisly fallout, completely knocking the movie off of its axis as it continues on with a pair of new protagonists. Poor Janet is institutionalized, never to be seen again—or is she?
Nightmare doubles down on echoing its various predecessors, to the point where it feels like Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster set out to write the most disorienting (yet vaguely plausible) thriller that could keep audiences off guard. I imagine it must have been a difficult trick by 1964, when the shockwaves of films like Les Diaboliques and Psycho had thrown them for several loops. Sangster resorts to all of the tricks, then, first by deploying the shocking, mid-movie fit of violence that upends everything, then following it up with a bit of deja vu—all in the service of a labyrinthine gaslighting plot straight out of classic film noir. Nightmare is a lot of movie, and there’s something especially audacious about stuffing these breathless pivots into 84 gripping minutes.
And yet, it all feels like controlled chaos thanks to Hammer’s typically sturdy production values, helmed here by the ever steadfast Freddie Francis and bolstered by a trio of standout performances. Linden—who replaced Julie Christie at the last minute—anchors the first half, sketching a captivating portrait of a young girl in crisis. Her Janet is an interesting character: obviously innocent, yet marked by that foreboding sense of darkness that lingers over her life. When it’s obvious that someone is exploiting her paranoia, Nightmare becomes a gut-wrenching depiction of shattered youth. She then cedes the stage to Knight and Redmond, a diabolical pair who wind up illustrating a story’s ability to shift an audience’s sympathies and suspicions. Without divulging the particulars, let’s just say neither is quite what they seem to be, and Knight particularly relishes a chance to curdle into a unrepentant bastard by movie’s end. For all of Sangster’s obvious trickery, he slyly orchestrates a subtle cat-and-mouse game where the roles slowly shift, culminating in a clever climax that pays off the tremendous character work throughout.
With Francis at the helm, Nightmare is a predictably stately affair, suffused with evocative shadowplay and gothic ambiance. Whether his (and his Hammer cohorts) films flourished in full color or unfolded in restrained black and white, there’s a steadiness that defines Hammer’s output: at the very least, these productions feature a regal polish that often belies their hasty productions. John Wilcox’s photography here is particularly instrumental in capturing the loopy, manic nature of the story, particularly whenever the overt horror elements—foggy nightmares, spectral women, the increasingly foreboding mansion—are in play, harnessing the era’s gothic horror resurgence (spearheaded in part by the Francis-lensed The Innocents). In short, Nightmare is a quintessential Hammer effort that speaks to the studio’s ability to consistently deliver familiar but satisfying movies, which is to say thrilling, entertaining programmers that do what’s expected of them. Sometimes, formula isn’t a bad thing, and never was that more true during Hammer’s glory days, when you could expect the likes of Francis, Roy Ward Baker, and Terence Fisher to fire off a total banger before quickly moving on to the next one.
In the United States, Nightmare has been synonymous on home video with other Hammer classics, as Universal lumped it in with seven of its contemporaries on DVD and, later, Blu-ray. One by one, however, Scream Factory has been revisiting each title found in these collections, with Nightmare serving as the penultimate offering (the final one, Night Creatures, is due later this month). Like the other films in this sequence, Nightmare sports a new transfer to set it apart from previous releases, and the results are solid: black levels are consistently impressive, while the details remain sharp even during the film’s more shadowy stretches. The source print is in excellent shape, and Scream’s transfer doesn’t add any consistently notable artifacts. Scream compliments the excellent transfer with a solid DTS-HD MA mono track that more than adequately captures the dialogue and score.
For bonus material, Scream has produced a bevy of new supplements, including a new audio commentary with historian Bruce Hallenbeck. Further scholarly dissection is found in separate interviews with Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigsby, who tackle specific elements of the production. The former largely focuses on the context of the film and its participants, while the latter keys in on the production itself before making connections between Nightmare and the films that obviously inspired it. “Reliving the Nightmare” features an eclectic mix of cast and crew (actress Julie Samuel, continuity supervisor Pauline Harlow, and focus puller Geoff Glover), who share anecdotes and discuss their specific contributions to the film.
Scream also ports over a veritable archive of existing material, many of them culled from previous releases in other regions. “Nightmare in the Making” is a 27-minute retrospective hosted by author Wayne Kinsey, who narrates between interviews with several cast and crew members, most notably Sangster and Linden. Harlow appears here too alongside her husband, second assistant director Hugh Harlow, and the couple share memories of the film’s production. “Jennie Linden Memories” is an interview with the actress conducted by Portia Booroff, wherein she recounts several career highlights, from the childhood moment that inspired her to be an actor to navigating her job when later having children of her own. Finally, “Madhouse: Inside Hammer’s Nightmare” is a StudioCanal production featuring several historians and critics, who analyze the film in general before focusing on certain scenes. A trailer and a stills gallery round out the supplements, making this quite a comprehensive edition.
Considering Hammer devotees on this side of the pond have had to make due with Universal’s bare bones efforts with Nightmare and other titles from those now outdated collections, these Scream Factory reissues have been a real treat. Whenever films are lumped together into a reasonably-priced collection (and make no mistake, those sets were absolute steals), there’s a tendency to assume the films involved are afterthoughts, which couldn’t be further from the truth when you’re talking about the likes of Brides of Dracula, The Evil of Frankenstein, and Phantom of the Opera. It’s nice that these films were rightfully lavished with the sort of special editions they deserve, and it’s even nicer that Scream Factory didn’t stop there. While Nightmare doesn’t boast the high profile of those films, it’s a solid representative of this strain of Hammer Horror, which doesn’t often get the praise it deserves. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: