Although 1964‘s British horror film Nightmare might feel out of the blue to many of you, looking back at it serves an actual, real purpose. For starters, I have embarked on a journey to review all of the films gathering dust on my movie shelf, and Nightmare is a part of an eight-film set I have been chipping away at for a while now on Readers Digested. As I have delved deeper into the Hammer Horror catalog, I have found films I haven’t liked such as The Brides of Dracula, and films I have modestly enjoyed like The Curse of the Werewolf. Thus far, I haven’t found that one special film in the batch that not only accomplishes itself as a good 60s horror film, but a film that could advance beyond that. Believe it or not, Nightmare is the type of Hammer Horror film I am most interested in.
Directed by Freddie Francis (a new name in my journey, but one will no doubt see again), Nightmare is about Dracula or Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man, but is an original (unless your counting the name) horror film written by Jimmy Sangster (who wrote the screenplay for another Hammer Horror film I reviewed called The Brides of Dracula, among other more embraced films). This is the type of film that intrigues me most about the Hammer Horror brand, because it doesn’t play off establishes myths or the iconic characters of yesteryear, which gives me hope it can offer a new and unique experience.
Starring David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce, George A. Cooper, Clytie Jessop, Irene Richmond, John Welsh, and Timothy Bateson, Nightmare tells the story of a young girl and her worries about mental illness. This is something that caught my attention, in part because I was an uneasy and worried it wouldn’t come off well. Mental illness is a sensitive subject, and often, it can feel dramatized or belittled by the films of yesteryear. This is something I don’t feel we have perfected, but, at the very least, more often than not have a better understanding of. This isn’t to say horror can’t arise from mental illness – a la Psycho, released four years before this film, but it really depends on how it is portrayed.
Nightmare does surprisingly well at that, I think. The young girl Janet is worried she might have inherited her mother’s mental illness and the character’s situation is sad. I felt bad for her throughout, the way she felt tormented by the sins of her mother and how she felt like her own mind was against her, making her do awful, awful things.
It isn’t something I would likely mention in a modern film because how basic it is – but I did have one transition I liked in this film. Janet was in the middle of a nightmare and was screaming, and the camera held on her until her background was enshrouded by darkness, then, the light switch flicks on, and she is screaming inside her bed. I found the transition fairly smooth and seamless.
Of course, everything changes for Janet when the rug is pulled out from underneath the audience and we’re unveiled a twisty and unorthodox chiller. Obviously, I shouldn’t really be afraid of spoiling a film that came out over half a century ago, but part of why I review films like I do is that I hope I might lead you toward something or away from it. Furthermore, this is a film I think very much hinges on its reveals and plot developments. Let’s just say that – what starts out as a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness and her emotional torment, takes a swift turn.
I am disappointed by this. Although the film does at times land between stilted, stoic acting in situations where it feels very off thematically, and then, at other times, melodramatic and screechy, I enjoyed the idea I thought was being presented. The empathy I felt for Janet’s emotional plight, coupled in by a manic classical sound that can at times come off as broken as she seems to feel, accomplished far more for me than what the second half of the film did. The second half feels convoluted, far fetched, and silly, and that doesn’t mesh well with what I wanted out of it.
Obviously, you can’t criticize a film because it doesn’t checkoff the imaginary boxes you had written up in your head – you have to take a film for what it was and not for what you hoped it could be.
For what it is, Nightmare offers a brisk (as brisk as a 60s film can be) horror film filled to the brim with conveniences and happenstance, satiable for what it was, but unlikely to stack up as a companion-piece to psychological horrors like either Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques.