A deserted courtyard, a grey post-war, almost military building. A green-tinted yet monochrome corridor lit by dim electric light, but still predominantly in darkness. As the credit sequence rolls, out of the shadows steps a figure. A girl in white, scared, terrified, troubled, yet drawn inexorably toward a room, where inside lurks another female. A mad, bedraggled, grinning, leering apparition. Her mother. She laughs maniacally as the girl, realising that the door is locked tight and there is no escape, opens her mouth and screams, a bloodcurdling shriek like you have never heard before.
Then she wakes up.
The above constitutes the opening scene of one of Hammer’s most unknown, underrated, chilling and yet at the same time frustratingly flawed and confusing films, almost as schizophrenic in some ways as the mental state of its heroine. NIGHTMARE is, as one might tell by its single-word, catch-all description title, another of the studio’s Hitchcockian psychological efforts, but stands somewhat alone from the rest, firstly in that it eschews the ‘suspense’ approach for forays into out- and-out terror, and secondly by taking an unusual approach in terms of character focus, which has been cited as either a mark of supreme individuality or its greatest flaw, depending on who you agree with. Personally, after several viewings, I still can’t make up my mind.
Upon my first viewing until around two thirds of the way in, I found myself convinced that I was watching Hammer’s scariest film ever. It’s not easy to pinpoint why, and possibly, like many great things, it fell in this case by accident rather than on purpose- but sometimes, a film will possess a certain spark of magic, a singular atmosphere. That atmosphere will hook you, drag you and envelop you against all odds, causing a near-hallucinogenic rush and making the viewer feel they are entering an alien, foreboding, yet fascinating world. Such a film, up to a certain point, is NIGHTMARE. Somehow, writer Jimmy Sangster and director Francis seem to have hit upon the most effective way of chilling the viewer to the bone- the perfect combination of eerie house, gliding, ghostly figures, billowing curtains, hooded terrors, screaming, insane women brandishing knives, and not so much screams of fear as screeches of utter desperation and mortal agony. Suffuse this with the pastoral calm only found in British productions shot between 1950 and 1965 somewhere just outside West London, complete with the customary clipped dialogue of the era, and you have achieved something almost sublime. Until, that is, when somewhere down the line, they blow it. Or do they?
The troubled girl in question is Janet (Jennie Linden) and it’s her plight on which the film initially focuses. Until recently, she has been under ‘special supervision’ at her boarding school (which may be a school for emotionally disturbed pupils, although this is never confirmed) due to recurring nightmares (so I suppose this time the title does have something to do with the plot), which stem, as her teacher and self-appointed care worker Brenda Bruce explains to housemaid Irene Richmond, from witnessing, at an early age, her mother stab her father to death.
Violent tendencies and a fear that she will inherit her mother’s insanity have also added to her mounting paranoia. But now she’s home- being cared for, it would seem, primarily by her lawyer cousin (David Knight) who she appears to have more than a fraternal love for (although this is never really expanded upon and is ultimately irrelevant) a kindly chauffeur (George C Cooper), the maid referred to above, and, to her surprise, a newly appointed ‘governess’ (Moira Redmond). Bruce, compassionate in spite of her starchy authoritarianism, has also elected to stay around for a few days to help her charge ‘ease back in’ to everyday life. Except, of course, we know she’s not going to.
Whereas some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers (MANIAC and HYSTERIA in particular) almost stretch the definition of ‘horror’ to breaking point, leaning further toward the conventions of the straight thriller and building up the storyline via studied references to ‘proper’ cinema, there can never be any doubt that NIGHTMARE was intended as a full-on horror movie. The chills grow more with every sequence, as Linden is treated to a series of encounters with the gruesome apparitions of not only her deceased matriarch, whose knife-wielding antics appear more graphic each time, but a blank-faced woman in white (played by the wonderfully-named Clytie Jessop, memorable as both the apparition of Miss Jessel in THE INNOCENTS and the terrible statue in TORTURE GARDEN).
Every time Janet (and perhaps, the more gullible viewer) thinks she might be getting better, something happens which only ensures she gets a whole lot worse. Eventually she snaps, and upon being introduced to the same, raven-haired lady by her cousin in broad daylight, promptly stabs the terrible apparition through the heart, and is immediately confined to an asylum. And there, at 46 minutes in, she exits the film never to be seen again. Which is where things change.
Opinion is divided from hereon in as to the subsequent direction of the film. It’s been pretty obvious from the get-go to anyone with a brain that none of these things are actually happening, the house is not haunted except in the Scooby Doo sense, and that a person or persons unknown is conspiring to drive Linden out of her wits, something even more apparent once we realise she is the sole heir of her gigantic house.
That much is expected, and therefore not a disappointment. What is hard to stomach for some is the sudden shift in focus from Janet to her conspirators, who spend the remaining 35 minutes becoming gradually more suspicious of one another and arguing until one of them meets a bloody and unpleasant demise. This is witnessed (and to a certain extent planned) by certain agencies with the heroine’s best interests at heart, who have, unbeknownst to them, been secretly trying to catch them at it from the very beginning- but one can’t help wondering why they didn’t intervene sooner.
So what started off as a gripping psychological horror story with nods to Dreyer and Franju effectively becomes a two-header interpersonal drama about a couple arguing. To some, this is a radical deconstruction of the established (at least by 1964) conventions of horror film making, and all the more fascinating for it, especially if you’re the type that delights in seeing the bad guys get their come-uppance. To others, it’s just a gigantic pain in the arse. Me, I still can’t decide after owning the damn thing for four years which side my bread’s buttered, although I can see that the same approach can work effectively, as it did ten years later in Bill Bain’s Amicus shocker WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL (which centres on the prospective murderers right through), when done properly, and that this film was obviously influential (although maybe not as much as DOUBLE INDEMNITY) in that regard.
In Ten Years Of Terror (Fab Press, 2002) Kim Newman is dismissive of Bain’s glam-hippy exploiter, claiming (somewhat unfairly) that after the murder has been committed three-quarters of the way through, there is nowhere for the plot to go: God alone knows what he must make of this, which could be said to drag such a premise to the nth degree. And whereas the earlier dialogue seemed almost faultless, here we get what turned out to be with hindsight one of the most unfortunately worded exchanges in horror history, as an actress exclaims “You might have been all kinds of a gay boy before, but you’re married to me now!” to her allegedly errant womanising partner. Ok, maybe not quite on a par with Karloff’s legendary “Can’t a man fondle his own grandson?” from BLACK SABBATH, but getting there. Still, maybe it’s moments like this that make being a film fan worthwhile. But the shift from quite logical, believable speech to laughable histrionics only highlights the cobbled-together approach of the film itself, which, as many have pointed out, seems not so much like a two-act play but the work of two completely different directors.
Maybe there is something in this. After all, when asked about the film, Francis’ response was often to shake his head and make statements along the lines of “That didn’t quite turn out the way I planned it”. The curious thing is, Sangster has been known to make similar proclamations. Is it just possible that the writer disagreed with the director’s interpretation of his script, and speedily stepped in halfway through (a move possibly hastened further by Hammer’s notoriously tight schedules) to reclaim the movie for himself, completely altering its direction in the process? Or am I simply reading too much into this? Come on Jimbo, tell us….
This is about as harsh as my criticism gets, and I wouldn’t like to make it sound for one moment as if I disliked the film. If anything, I feel slightly let down by it, as its first 46 minutes promise something that its anticlimactic ending ultimately fails to deliver, almost like the cinematic equivalent of a weak tab of lysergic acid. The uncharismatic Knight, who seems to have followed Ronald Lewis’ example by being a decidedly dull leading man, doesn’t help matters either- even if he does bear a minor resemblance to Peter Wyngarde.
Some have also quibbled that compared to the grittier tone of most contemporaneous British productions, it does seem firmly entrenched in the conventions of olde-country-house drama. Then again, it might not be so easy to drive a girl mad by making her believe her house is haunted if she were the inhabitant of a council flat. For a start, there wouldn’t be as many hallways for the apparitions to lurk in. At the end of the day though, this is a Hammer Horror film, and since when did they have anything to do with social realism? See, I told you I was ambivalent.
At its most effective, it’s incredible, leaving several icy, beautifully shot images firmly embedded in the brain which epitomise, maybe more than anywhere else with the exception of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the concept of the ‘crazy mad woman’ we are now all so familiar with. It’s also a film with not only a few supporters, but a fair spectrum of influence. No less a genius than Brian Clemens seems to have copped several ideas directly for episodes of THRILLER, particularly any involving shots of eerie corridors, staircases or women in floaty dresses. Coincidentally, two of its actresses starred in episodes of that same series less than a month apart from each other- Linden in DEATH TO SISTER MARY, and Redmond in SIGN IT DEATH, the latter of which plunges headlong into the bloody, knife-wielding violence that NIGHTMARE handles so well, only this time in technicolour. And without wanting to sound biased, I suppose if it’s good enough for The Clem, it’s good enough for all of us.