Nightmare (1964) ****

Now this is what you’re looking for when you take an unguided tour into the British B-movie. A tight gripping thriller with a parcel of twists, clever character perspective, some stunning cinematography, and pivoting on perception of insanity.

The opening is a cracker. Teenager Janet (Jennie Linden) stumbles along a dark prison-like corridor with little light hearing someone call her name. Entering a door, she spies a woman in a white nightgown lurking in the corner. She responds to the gentle calling. But once she lets the door close behind her and can’t get out, the woman screams that now they are both mad. And that’s just the first, atmospherically brilliant, nightmare.

Janet is soon removed from her posh boarding school, her constant nightmares too frightening for the other pupils. Driven home in a Rolls-Royce, accompanied by teacher Mary (Brenda Bruce) she passes the asylum where her mother is an inmate, but is surprised to find her legal guardian, charming lawyer Henry (David Knight), isn’t there to greet her. Instead there’s a nurse, Grace (Moira Redmond).

We soon learn she’s been effectively orphaned by her mother, who killed her father, Janet, eleven at the time, witnessing the murder. But without any proper home life, looked after primarily by kindly chauffeur John (George A. Cooper) and maternal maid Anne (Julie Samuel) and with the married Henry often absent, there’s little done to quieten down her obsession that she will follow her mother into madness.

The movie takes her perspective, watching her watching out for mystery, or in her point of view as she catches fleeting glimpses of a woman in white. The apparition looking only too realistic, not dashing out of view but turning and apparently beckoning Janet on and it doesn’t take much to push a disordered mind further out of kilter, leading to attempted suicide. Imagining Henry’s wife is the ghost, she stabs her to death.

End of Act One. Start of Twist No 1. You would expect the movie to follow Janet to the asylum where she would be reunited with her mother, knowing she had inherited those terrible genes, trapped in her insanity. But it goes somewhere more delicious instead.

Turns out nice Henry is not very nice at all. He contrived a situation to be rid of his wife and marry lover Grace instead. But, once married, it is Grace who becomes disturbed and the movie follows a similar arc in the second half. Unexplained goings-on. She believes Henry has another, secret, lover and is trying to drive his new wife crazy. She finds strange cigarettes in his pocket, a barman at a hotel recognizes him even though he claims never to have been there before.

The marriage quickly deteriorates although she stands her ground, telling him in no uncertain terms that she won’t put up with any philandering and slapping his face. He is charm itself, easily turning aside her insinuations and from his casual and disarming manner it’s easy to believe he is perfectly innocent. Of course, that’s before Janet’s doll turns up and locked doors open and there’s an apparition.

The beauty of this picture is the atmosphere, the intensity of the camera, the concentration on two vulnerable females, convinced by genuine or imagined guilt that they will succumb to the madness that appears to pervade this particular house. You think it’s going down one route and are annoyed you didn’t see the next twist coming.

There’s the kind of cinematic repetition that enamored critics of more critically acclaimed pieces like The Searchers (1956). It’s almost as though there’s a beam of insanity identifying the next victim. And that’s helped immeasurably by the lighting which allows no shadow on faces. Like an inverted film noir, where the light has nowhere to go, no atmospheric shadow to create, except to land square on the faces of those involved. This would be the Old Dark House except never has a building been so illuminated, not bright throughout, the illumination predisposed to land on faces rather than rooms.

There are a couple of finely composed scenes, one viewed through a staircase, neat revelations, visual and verbal, a fabulous ending with one character screaming and a telephone dangling off the hook.

You might be astonished to discover this is a Hammer picture. Nary a monster in sight. But then little is scarier than what happens inside the mind, when imagination runs riot without external assistance. That the victim is a teenager, prone to the mood swings of that age, makes it easier for Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) to ramp up the emotions without her seeming too barmy from the outset. David Knight (The Devil’s Agent, 1962) is excellent, conniving he may be but the general demeanor of bonhomie never slips into stage villain. But Moira Redmond (The Limbo Line, 1968) is the pick as she morphs from accomplished accomplice to prospective victim.

Tightly written by Jimmy Sangster (Maniac, 1963), characters fully evolved, twists cleverly concealed, and with excellent direction by Freddie Francis (The Skull, 1965), not just the visuals but in drawing out of a fairly standard set of actors exactly what he needs to make this tick.

Well worth a look. A much under-rated B-picture.

Youtube has an excellent print.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

5 thoughts on “Nightmare (1964) ****”

  1. Thank you for this lovely posting. “Nightmare” has been one of my all time favourites, beautifully filmed including exterior shots of the deep snow in early 1963. The asylum scenes were terrifying with Isla Cameron as Janet’s deranged mother. I have many press stills from this film too.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes Brian, press stills from ‘Nightmare’ ‘Plague of the Zombies’ and ‘Cash on Demand. Clytie Jessop as the ‘Ghost Woman’ in Nightmare yielded some superb stills in Nightmare.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You know your stuff, and I’ll chase this up on your recommend. Unearthly Stranger is another little B movie that really plays well today, great twists on zero budget! Shame Hammer didn’t stick with this kind of genre…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this was strictly Eady fare here and bottom of the double bill in the US where it could be hired for a flat fee. But you’re right, some of these intense thrillers ar ebetter than the monster mashes.


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