Featuring plot elements culled from the historical era just prior to Sigmund Freud’s ascension, a time when the study of the human psyche carried associations of heresy and mysticism, the Hammer production Demons of the Mind has some highly commendable elements, such as a grim depiction of savage medical techniques and a sincere attempt at sketching a complex psychological profile for a family plagued by hereditary mental illness. Unfortunately, these strong attributes are married to lurid and sluggish storytelling, problems made worse by leading actors who attack their roles like hungry dogs ravaging pieces of raw meat. What might have been one of Hammer’s most sophisticated movies devolves somewhat, but not completely, into dull sensationalism. Those gravitating toward the picture’s intelligent aspects will be disappointed by all the gore and nudity, while those seeking only cheap thrills will likely get bored with long dialogue scenes.
In Europe circa the early 19th century, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his two adult children captive in their rooms because he’s terrified they will manifest the problems that drove their mother to suicide. Although the Baron is not without reason for worrying about Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) and Emil (Shane Briant), seeing as how they have demonstrated incestuous desires for each other, the cure is worse than the disease. Captivity pushes the siblings to emotional and mental extremes, and their aunt/caretaker practices such gruesome rituals as bloodletting to control their symptoms. Once controversial mental-health specialist Dr. Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) arrives to experiment with potions and transfusions and other macabre techniques, things spiral out of control because a series of murders in the neighboring village leads superstitious locals to suspect that someone at the baron’s castle is the culprit. Meanwhile, a crazed priest (Michael Hordern) stalks the local forests, inciting people with religious fearmongering.
Despite being presented with Hammer’s usual high style (atmospheric sets, lush costumes, sexy starlets), Demons of the Mind is neither as clear nor as original as it should be. Sometimes the film gets stuck in the mud of its own convoluted plotting, because director Peter Sykes and his collaborators try to cloud the identity of the killer for as long as they can. Sometimes the film is simply boring, especially when Hardy and Magee share scenes in which they try to out-scream each other, veins pulsing on their foreheads as they fabricate overly theatrical intensity. (Hordern does a fair amount of yelling, too.) At its least imaginative, Demons of the Mind summons that trusty old cliché, the image of angry villagers storming toward a castle with pitchforks and torches, and at its most grotesque, the picture concludes with one of the bloodiest murders in the entire Hammer canon.
Demons of the Mind: FUNKY
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