DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972)
A physician discovers that two children are being kept imprisoned in their house by their father. He investigates and discovers a web of sex, incest, and satanic possession.
By the time Demons of the Mind (1971) commenced principal photography in August 1971, Hammer Films had undergone some major changes after the departure of producers Anthony Nelson Keys and Anthony Hinds. As American producers and distributors abandoned Britain in the late-1960s, and the indigenous industry went into serious decline, Hammer’s CEO Sir James Carreras had to broker new deals to keep the studio in production and find new material to keep discerning audiences interested.
Deals with EMI (for 9 films to be made at Elstree) and Rank (3 productions at Pinewood) were keeping the company afloat and would, to a degree, ensure films their UK distribution. The big problem was international distribution, which became limited and, more often, non-existent.
While production continued, Hammer’s competition in the UK was challenging the established horror genre conventions. More explicit material was emerging in light of the changes to film certification and censorship. Period pieces Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) were more adult in theme and complemented the contemporary terrors of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny And Girly (1969), Scream and Scream Again (1969), and The Fiend (1972). Hammer needed new blood to maintain its credibility.
They found it, ironically, in Blood Will Have Blood, one of the many pitches made to them by independent producers and writers. Christopher Wicking, the writer of Scream and Scream Again and other AIP horrors The Oblong Box (1968), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), had previously worked with Hammer to adapt Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb in January 1971. He teamed up with Frank Godwin, a former Rank producer who’d worked on Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), No Trees in the Street (1959), and The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963). Godwin had the dubious honour of providing lyrics to Tracy’s song “Strange Love” for one of the most bizarre scenes in Hammer’s vampire frolic Lust for a Vampire (1970).
Blood Will Have Blood (a variation on the werewolf legend borrowing its title from Macbeth), was based on a folk myth that Godwin convinced James Carreras and the Hammer board he’d discovered while travelling in Germany. He claimed the legend of the ‘Blutlust’ — about the tainted blood passed on through the inbreeding of noble families in 17th-century Bavaria — was found in in a museum in Stuttgart. In it the cursed lycanthrope sought out human flesh when the moon was full. The only way the sufferer could be set free was by severing off the left hand and plunging a burning cross into the heart. ‘Blutlust’ was a complete fabrication by Godwin and Wicking but Hammer bought it.
However, Hammer’s board requested that the script be rewritten to remove the werewolf elements in the story. This was unfortunate as Wicking, keen to explore new angles on genre traditions, was intrigued about the possibility that…
… behind the legends there must be some kind of reality and it seemed to me that behind the werewolf legend there was a human psychopathic condition which wouldn’t have been understood as such by the medicine of the time.
Wicking also reasoned that in less enlightened times the werewolf myth was a way of rationalising the psychopathic actions of a serial killer in the community and felt “they’d make the legend to fit the crime.”
Instead, the script evolved into an exploration of inherited madness and, indeed, the film opens with Elizabeth (Gillian Hills), the daughter of Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy), who’s escaped from an asylum and befriended young medical student Carl Richter (Paul Jones), being found by her Aunt Hilda (Yvonne Mitchell) and Zorn’s manservant Klaus (Kenneth Warren). She’s interned in Castle Zorn where her father, obsessed with hereditary madness and his tainted blood, awaits the arrival of psychiatrist Dr. Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) to find the root cause of this evil and confirm what he believes is the result of centuries of inbreeding.
This sickness has affected Elizabeth and his son Emil (Shane Briant) who have developed a close, incestuous bond. While his daughter suffers the bloodletting ministrations of Aunt Hilda, at night Zorn releases the disturbed Emil to carry out the grisly murders of local village girls. Falkenberg’s experiments end in disaster when it unearths Emil and Elizabeth’s memories of their mother’s suicide, exposes their incestuous relationship and Zorn’s own madness.
In the finished film there’s hardly a suggestion of the original theme, with only a remnant of it mentioned during Baron Zorn’s therapy at the hands of Falkenberg. Instead, it explores the father’s attempts to contain the effects of an hereditary madness by incarcerating his children in their baronial home. Generational, religious, class, and sexual conflicts became the major themes of the film.
Executive producer Michael Carreras brought in Australian director Peter Sykes on Wicking’s recommendation and having been impressed by his work on 1971’s Venom, a strange folk-horror and mad scientist concoction made in Germany. Michael, having taken over from his father James as managing director in January 1971, was keen to propel Hammer in a different direction. Sykes’ own ideas expanded greatly on the activities of the psychiatrist Dr. Falkenberg played by Patrick Magee.
What struck me most strongly was the central very serious idea of looking at the life of Mesmer and the origins of looking at psychopathic behaviour and hysteria and treating through hypnotism.
Wicking agreed that “it made the Patrick Magee character much more interesting and much more of a tragic sort of character because we based it really on Mesmer’s life.” An early pioneer of what would become hypnotherapy, Mesmer’s practice was brought into disrepute by a royal commission that dismissed him as a charlatan.
Godwin wanted to cast Eric Porter as Baron Zorn, and an early promotional image for Blood Will Have Blood used Porter’s likeness. Hammer producer Aida Young allegedly spotted it and poached Porter, casting him as the lead in Hands of the Ripper (1971). Unable to secure Porter’s services, Godwin and Sykes pursued Paul Schofield, Dirk Bogarde, and James Mason over the following weeks and they all turned the part down. They eventually cast Robert Hardy but his full-blooded performance was the subject of some concern when the film was completed. Sykes, in retrospect, claimed: “the character is larger than life but it would have been much better to have a more restrained performance.”
As well as Patrick Magee, Hardy’s supporting cast included a range of young and veteran acting talent. Shane Briant, as Zorn’s son Emil, was Michael Carreras’s ‘discovery’, having seen him in John Peacock’s play Children of the Wolf. Carreras put him under contract for four Hammer films, including a remake of Lorna Doone and a Bram Stoker biopic — both of which were never made. Briant’s role as Emil was expanded when rushes demonstrated he was a strong performer.
Frank Godwin suggested Briant’s Children of the Wolf co-star Yvonne Mitchell as Aunt Hilda, having worked with her previously in Woman in a Dressing Gown, and his Sammy Lee supporting actor Kenneth Warren as manservant Klaus. The film’s ‘love interest’ Carl Richter was played by Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, who’d previously starred in Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1968) and whom Sykes had directed the same year in the surreal film-noir The Committee.
Marianne Faithful was due to play Emil’s sister Elizabeth, but on the evening prior to going on location Carreras informed Godwin and Sykes that, because of her reported drug addiction, Hammer couldn’t get insurance for her. She was replaced the day before shooting began with Gillian Hills. Hills had appeared in Beat Girl (1959), Blowup (1966), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), was already a successful recording artist, and had recently completed Granada’s television adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Rounding out the cast were great British character actors Michael Hordern, Robert Brown, and, fresh from Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1972), Virginia Wetherell.
Budgeted at £202,000, the film commenced its extended full week of location filming at Wykehurst Place. This was a crumbling Gothic folly in Bolney, Sussex designed in 1871 by architect Edward Middleton Barry for the German banker Henry Huth. The rumour was, according to Patrick Magee’s QC friends, the house was being developed by “the person the police believed was the brains behind the Great Train Robbery and he’d recently come out of jail.” Sykes apparently got to know him during the location shoot. It’s unclear if this was true but, in point of fact, it was the controversial figure James Doyle, an antique collector and leader of the Racial Preservation Society, which later became part of the National Front, who was restoring the property at the time.
Sumptuously photographed by veteran Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant, the rooms on the ground floor were transformed into Castle Zorn’s interiors by production designer Michael Stringer, who also added stained glass windows to the existing stairway and a pair of stone eagles to the entrance gate. The upper floors of the house were deemed unsafe for use and matching upstairs interiors were constructed and filmed at EMI Elstree. Further location work was completed at Black Park and Aldenham Country Park.
Post-production commenced in September 1971. Harry Robinson provided the excellent music score, whom Godwin had introduced to Hammer for the Fantale Films co-production of The Vampire Lovers (1970). He delivered what he considered his best score and described the film as “marvellous visually”. Editor Chris Barnes, sound editor Terry Poulton and dubbing mixer Len Abbott were responsible for the intricate, sepia tinted title sequence and then constructing the complex multi-layered opticals for the hypnotism regression sequences.
Michael Carreras and Godwin met with British Board of Film Censors Secretary Stephen Murphy some months later to discuss the film’s certificate. Retitled as Demons of the Mind and submitted for certification, examiner Audrey Field was unsympathetic about the film:
Whilst we quite realise that this is the old Hammer hokum as before, we consider it is much too bloody.
Trims were requested to a flashback montage showing Baron Zorn’s wife covered in blood, and a shot where she cuts her throat; to scenes of Emil strangling Inge the village girl and stuffing earth into her mouth; the death of Aunt Hilda and her blood stained face; a close up of Zorn’s severed hand and his staked body. Much dispute ensued about the impact of Aunt Hilda’s wounded face until Godwin wrote back to the BBFC and resubmitted the re-cut scene. They still “found it very macabre, but reluctantly decided not to press for any more cuts. An X certificate may now be issued.”
EMI were not exactly overjoyed with the finished film and attempted to sell an unusual psychological horror as simply another entry in the Gothic Hammer horror formula. Godwin’s own poster designs were rejected and EMI created a marketing campaign without consulting him and Michael Carreras. James Carreras made it clear in a letter, responding to Michael’s concerns, that he approved of EMI’s artwork and vetoed any further objections. Godwin reflected on this in an interview with Denis Meikle:
EMI just hated it and didn’t know what to do with it. My other problem was that they wouldn’t show the film to the critics. It just got chucked out on release.
Consequently, Demons of the Mind took over a year to get released. In November 1972 it was dumped onto a double-bill with Tower of Evil (1972), a very low budget British exploitation slasher filled with nudity and gore. It received little in the way of critical coverage and its fortunes in the US were even worse as by 1974 it was sold off cheap to distributors on a double-bill with Hammer’s Fear in the Night (1972).
This underrated film has since gained a better reputation. Director Peter Sykes provides an immediate visual impact and creates, in the opening scene of Elizabeth’s recapture and return to the baronial home, a feverish, dream-like atmosphere that he maintains throughout in vivid flashbacks, use of colour and considered composition. His cut away shots out of the carriage window, of Elizabeth’s view of the countryside speeding past, act as a foretaste to the later hypnotism session, using an ever circling candle, between Falkenberg and Baron Zorn.
Elizabeth’s recollection of escaping to a brief but happy relationship with Carl Richter at his isolated woodland cottage conjures up the pre-Freudian subtext of the film. Imbued with a fairy tale ambience, Demons of the Mind explores the unconscious and the hereditary madness of a bourgeois family in contrast to the superstitions and rituals adhered to the working classes. Sykes pans across a shelf of learned texts in Richter’s cottage as a prelude to the film’s growing battle between the science of the Enlightenment, the religious apocalypse described by Christianity, and the nature-based rituals of paganism.
Sykes and Wicking firmly place the film within the realm of ETA Hoffmann and his tales of traumatic childhood memories that drive their sufferers into madness and death. Hoffmann “presents these encounters as deeply embedded in the world of bourgeois familial intimacy, which gives them a concrete historical reality.” Many fairy tales deal with the persecuted child who dreams of running away from a home that has become a place of intolerable confinement, a space where parental rage and malice has become overwhelming.
This is the situation the film describes as Elizabeth and Emil, joined in an incestuous bond that reflects many old folk and fairy tales such as ‘The Sister’s Flight’ and ‘The Faithless Sister’, are manipulated by their father because of his guilt. Zorn confesses as such during Falkenberg’s ’treatment’, a riot of overlapping, dream-like images, when he is regressed to his wife’s suicide in front of their children. It’s a disturbing and striking image in a film that swirls uncertainly through an ambiguous world of sexual impotence, madness, and the division between ancient wisdom, religion, and science.
The dysfunctional family and the fight for their sanity aligns the film with a number of British horror films of the 1970s that featured traumatised children and compromised father figures. Peter Hutchings saw this as a central theme in The Creeping Flesh (1973) and And Now The Screaming Starts (1973), saying:
These films concentrate on the difficult relations between fathers and their children, with the father often seen as preventing his children from becoming adults.
Therefore, the siblings in Demons of the Mind become prisoners of Zorn’s patriarchy, one supported by a murderous impulse born of generational impotence and insanity.
It is a Gothic mystery that deliberately denies us the representative horror figures of vampires or werewolves. Horror evolves from the misinterpretation and misdirection of male repression and sanity and, as Andrew Spicer comments, the film “re-examines, rather than merely subverts, its Gothic conventions, questioning their ethical and historical basis and engaging with profound issues of death, sexuality and belief.”
Those beliefs are strikingly contrasted when Falkenberg’s diagnosis of Zorn’s madness is immediately followed by a scene set in the village outside the estate. It’s noteworthy that the abundance of location work and the film’s keen appreciation of rurality within the story suggest this may be Hammer’s most successful attempt to emulate not only the folk-horror of Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw but also, specifically, The Wicker Man (1973).
The villagers expunge the evil of Zorn’s tainted family through the well-known ritual, as Richter acknowledges, of carrying death out of the village. There’s a similar scene in The Wicker Man, but the difference in Demons of the Mind is the period; the former is set in Scotland in 1973 whereas the latter is in 19th-century Bavaria. The ritual is reduced to a period detail but it supports the dichotomy between paganism, Christianity, science and sorcery in the story.
A European Lenten observance, where a straw effigy of death was paraded by villagers and then ceremonially destroyed, the ritual is a representation of the cycle of life and death but here it also alludes to Zorn’s influence on the tenants living near his estate. The villagers know they must not stray onto his land but he can be replaced if his beneficence, as a perennial but not immortal god, is found wanting. Pitched against this is the figure of Michael Hordern as the lapsed priest who divines the serial murders as a way to confuse the villagers’ belief systems and empower his own methods of expunging evil from the village.
Falkenberg’s treatment, based on Mesmer’s theories of ‘animal magnetism’, essentially offers a psychological expurgation of Zorn’s dissociative identity disorder. It stems from Zorn’s rather bleak recall of his wife on their wedding night:
Her virgin blood flowing. Crying out in pain yet not wanting me to stop. Wanting me to go on despite the pain, the blood. It disgusted me.
Zorn’s fear of a tainted generational line is rooted in his repulsion for the blood lost during initial intercourse with his virgin bride. There was also a long held, but mythical, view in many cultures that shortly after weddings, new husbands were expected to produce bloody sheets to prove they had married virgins, and consummated the marriage. Zorn seals his own fate and predicts how the expurgation of evil, as ritualised by the villagers, will become a reality at the film’s conclusion when he, as the god-father figure, is identified as the evil to be extinguished and is ceremonially staked by the priest.
Gillian Hills and Shane Briant (in a splendid orange shirt that confers him as a “Pre-Raphaelite and counter cultural” figure) play the tortured Zorn siblings well, coming across as corrupted Hansel and Gretel figures, the blemished angels of Baron Zorn’s frustrated power. Emil’s fractured mind is depicted through symbolic use of a huge mirror where, as he succeeds in tunneling behind it and pulls the frame from the wall, it cracks. Emil is also suffocated by with images of heraldry, including stained glass images of birds of prey that Sykes uses to frame Briant, and these support Zorn’s description of the hereditary madness eating away at them all “like carrion birds that kill.”
His murderous spree in the village leaves the blonde haired doppelgängers of his sister dead among bright red rose petals, symbolic of martyrdom, virginity and fertility, death and life, ripped from the rose bushes in which they bloodily come to rest. The culmination of his transgressions is to murder Inge (Virginia Wetherell) a village girl. She is asked by Falkenberg to pretend to be Elizabeth, by wearing her clothes, in an attempt to psychologically restore Emil’s sanity. Preempting Inge’s death among the petals, Emil’s connection to Elizabeth is also symbolised by a rose, left for her by Carl, that is passed through the locked door between them.
The rather unpleasant tradition of bleeding a patient is another variation of these themes and reflects the notion of Zorn’s blood phobia sprung from his wedding night. A scene where Aunt Hilda uses a scarificator and cupping glasses (genuine antiques loaned to Sykes from the Wellcome museum) to draw out Elizabeth’s blood also pays off visually when the cuts inflicted on Elizabeth’s body are replicated as a series of scratches she claws across Carl Richter’s face in the bleak finale of the film.
Presumably, Paul Jones was cast to look quite similar in appearance to Shane Briant to underscore Elizabeth’s dual attraction to her brother and Carl and her attack underscores the psychological distress she plunges into after Carl fails to prevent the death of Emil and her father. The freeze frame finale certainly lifts from Witchfinder General where, as Andrew Spicer notes, “the impossibility of eradicating the horror that has been unleashed” is symbolised by Elizabeth’s frozen, screaming face.
Performances are, on the whole, very good. Sykes confessed that he thought Robert Hardy was excessive in the role of Zorn, and you can see his point. Hardy does have a tendency to take chunks out of the scenery, but in many quieter moments he manages to convince you that Zorn is truly tainted by madness.
Even with relatively little screen time Patrick Magee ably transforms Falkenberg into the pre-Freudian of Wicking’s script and is aided by a splendid studio recreation of Mesmer’s equipment. Paul Jones is fine as Carl Richter, the film’s flawed, frustrated ‘hero’ figure and moral compass, but the understated material fails to generate a sense of purpose. The excellent Yvonne Mitchell doesn’t get a lot to do as Aunt Hilda and, as a character, she seems too content to adhere to Zorn’s insane attempts to play out his fantasies through his damaged children.
Demons of the Mind is an ambiguous, restless film. Wicking’s script is unfocused and, initially, vague about where it intends to take us. It does use the traditional climax of torch bearing villagers exacting their revenge but it’s full of, what were then, fresh ideas for Hammer. Sykes creates intriguing visual and thematic juxtapositions and there’s an expressive use of colour and splendid location work at Wykehurst Place. Arthur Grant’s cinematography is lush and detailed, especially now that we can enjoy one of Hammer’s neglected late-period gems in restored high definition courtesy of Studio Canal.
As ever, I’m indebted to the following sources:
Sadly, the Sykes, Wicking and Wetherell DVD commentary previously issued by Anchor Bay in 2002 and Optimum in 2006 isn’t included on this Studio Canal release. However, it contains the following:
director: Peter Sykes.
writer: Christopher Wicking.
starring: Gillian Hills, Robert Hardy, Patrick Magee, Michael Hordern & Shane Briant.