Diary of a Madman (1963) ***

Contemporary perspectives occasionally raise a film in the estimation. Here, our knowledge of the psychology behind serial killers sheds quite a different light. The idea that a killer can blame outside forces over which he has no control was one of the original tenets when the ordinary mind could not take in that some folks just enjoyed the act of murder so much they were inclined to do it over and over again.

Where I come there there’s a saying – “a big boy did it and ran away” – a device used by small boys in big trouble. And that’s pretty much the idea here. The innocent can be taken over by an evil entity, rather than admitting to surrendering to their most heinous desires.

A prisoner condemned to death in 19th century France confides in magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) that his murdeorus acts were the result of direction by the mysterious and, unhelpfully, invisible “Horla.” Naturally, Cordier dismisses the notion until, in self-defence, he kills the prisoner. Disturbed by his action, he seeks counsel and is advised by a psychiatrist (an “alienist” as such a person was known at the time) to spend more time on his hobby, sculpting.

Although Cordier appears to be a model citizen, there lurks in his past a suicidal wife who killed their child, and the notion that somehow he was responsible. Into his world comes woman-on-the-make Odette (Nancy Kovack) who earns more money as an artist’s model than her husband Paul (Chris Warley) does for his paintings. Unaware  that she is already committed, Simon proposes marriage. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect she is not what she seems and he does away with her only for Paul to become the main suspect and be condemned to death.

Cordier, discovering by accident that the Horla, is frightened of fire, lures the entity into his deserted house (servants sent away) and plans to destroy the entity but in the process the fire melts the door handles and Cordier can’t escape, dying in the process.

Price and Kovack.

A modern reading of course would set it up a different way, putting greater emphasis on the past, trying to uncover what drove Cordier’s wife to suicide. That he gives in to overwhelming urges might well be followed by periods of guilt until he realises that the only way out is his own suicide.

But the 1960s moviegoer – possibly still recovering from the murderous goings-on at the Bates Hotel, and grateful that it was fiction, and The Boston Strangler only just getting into his stride – was not quite ready to put any faith in a landscape filled with predators and victims, so it would make more sense for outside forces, voices or the like, to be controlling the ordinary person.

An eerie glowing light comes over the eyes of Cordier (and the earlier convict) any time the urge to kill dominates. But if you were going to set this up as a picture of innocence driven to dark deed you would not populate it with Vincent Price (Witchfinder General, 1968), who had form for dastardly deeds. Nor is Price quite able to pull it off, those sepulchral tones always seeming to indicate something lurking, and he’s hardly in the debonair category so at the very least he belongs to the caste of entitled rich taking advantage of a poor woman to press his case for marriage.

Nancy Kovack (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) is more convincing as the manipulative object of his desire. I half-expected her to turn into a murderer in order to rid herself of her the husband getting in the way of her chance at a new, wealthier, life. Chris Warfield (Dangerous Charter, 1962) is the talentless dupe, whichever way you cut it, and you have to admire his wife for sticking with him for so long.

Given that director Reginald Le Borg’s career dated back to the 1940s and he had been lumbered with the Joe Palooka series and any number of B-movies, it was perhaps surprising that horror, although still strictly on B-movie budgets, became a forte – The Black Sheep (1956) and Voodoo Island (1957). While this one was clearly filmed on a studio backlot, he does a good job of bringing a bit of lushness to the proceedings.

Perhaps the most interesting element is that the idea originated in the mind of famed French short story writer Guy de Maupassant – you might be surprised to learned that nearly 300 movies and television adaptations have been made from his works, a dozen alone in 1963 including Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. Worth comparing with Maniac out in the same year where the idea of the mad killer is exploited for a different end.

Very old-school, but with passable sfx.

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