by A.J. Hakari
Whenever a thriller breathes the word “amnesia,” I tense up for reasons the movie probably didn’t intend. Some audiences love a good fractured narrative, but too many bad apples that leaned upon this plot point as a shallow gimmick have soured my appetite for brittle psyches. A protagonist’s memory loss almost inevitably becomes an excuse for the story to lazily plod around in circles and without making a lick of sense, before pulling a solution to the mystery out of its hindquarters that rarely makes the whole ordeal worth it. But while 1965’s Hysteria — produced by the fine folks at Hammer — undoubtedly encounters rough seas whilst navigating its main character’s subconscious, its shortcomings never came across as all that maddening. Perhaps it’s because even though it, like many movies of this type, fizzles out a bit by the time it comes to a close, the first couple of acts build up a whole mess of good will that’s difficult to shake off. Hysteria may not end on the most reality-obliterating note, but the journey there is freaky and frenetic enough to leave you not minding so much.
In his own words, Chris Smith (Robert Webber) is only a few months old. That’s how long it’s been since he was pulled from the scene of a terrible car wreck that left his mind a complete blank. Other than that he’s an American tooling around in England, he can’t recall a thing about himself, but the mystery doesn’t end there. An unknown benefactor has not only been footing the bill for his medical treatment, Chris has even been set up with a swanky penthouse apartment upon his release from the hospital. As he settles into his new digs, Chris sets about piecing together the events that culminated in his fateful crash, only to stumble across a web more tangled than he anticipated. While his investigations sic him on the trail of a murdered model, our man starts to experience awful hallucinations, with disembodied voices seemingly coming from the walls and driving him towards the brink of madness. But is Chris’s fragile mind really messing with him, or could some force be taking advantage of his condition for their own sinister gain?
Pictures like Hysteria were Hammer’s way of giving viewers a few quick jolts for a price tag lower than their esteemed horror productions. These titles usually accomplished this by restricting most of the action to a single location, which resulted in either nail-biting suspense (Cash on Demand) or characters who looked like nimrods for not hauling ass at the first hint of danger (Crescendo). On the whole, Hysteria does a decent job of giving off a claustrophobic vibe without having its hero piddle around his place and not do anything constructive for most of the time. Chris does his fair share of freaking out and attempting to ward off the strange voices hounding him, but he also ventures outside of his new abode and actively tries getting to the bottom of things. Director Freddie Francis plays up the doubt surrounding his situation very well, making it seem like what’s happening to Chris could be someone else’s doing just as well as it might be his own paranoia’s fault. How did Chris end up in that crash, anyway? Who’s helping him out? Why is the private eye (Maurice Denham) he hired to snoop around so hesitant to do so? No matter the outcome, something is afoot, and courtesy of the frenzied jazz score and photography that’s stifling in all the right ways, you’re made to feel every bit as lost as Chris is for nearly the whole ride.
Unfortunately, when the time comes for Hysteria to pony up with some explanation for all the rampant craziness, it goes about as smoothly as a neck massage from Dracula. Surprisingly, I don’t really have a problem with the big reveal behind who’s supporting Chris and precisely what’s making him batty. But after witnessing the first two acts so effectively tantalize us with clues and snippets from the events that led to our hero’s amnesia, that the movie so casually dumps its answers on us near the end virtually redefines the term “anticlimactic.” What we learn (which I daren’t spoil) is presented so out of the blue, it leaves the audience with little time to process all the connotations involved with it before the final title card fades in. We’re too busy trying to figure out for ourselves what the hell just happened for any suspenseful effect to linger; the climax particularly suffers because of this, as we’ve been told the whole truth before then, yet the characters press on as if the audience is totally in the dark, anyway. Plus, what we discover about what Chris was doing before the accident doesn’t completely line up with how the rest of the film plays out, coming off as one of those twists devised at the end of a long, frustrating, caffeine-addled night of writing rather than something cleverly integrated into the whole of the script.
Hysteria can seem like a lot of sloppy psychobabble to handle, but like I said, I can’t get too upset with it. Though the way the film goes about its business certainly undercuts a lot of potential tension to be wrought, it does too fine of a job baiting you with its initial premise and Webber’s sympathetic yet enigmatic performance for a large chunk of the viewing experience to be spoiled. Hammer has made more fortuitous stabs at making your spine tingle on a budget, but Hysteria is one mind game worth playing for at least a round or two.
(Hysteria is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)