In the 1960s, Hammer and Amicus both hired Freddie Francis to direct runs of movies prompted by the commercial success of Psycho. Hammer had Francis make Paranoiac, Nightmare and Hysteria – twisty psycho-thrillers which owe more to Les Diaboliques than the Hitchcock film. Amicus teamed Francis with Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho, on several films … an anthology (Torture Garden), an adaptation of a whodunit (The Deadly Bees), a supernatural horror film (The Skull) and this giallo-like scrambling of the Psycho ingredients (wheelchairbound mad mother, milksop son suspect, nosy blonde, dedicated detective) in a different pattern (dollmaking instead of taxidermy, chairbound relative in the attic rather than the cellar, someone alive but thought dead rather than vice versa).
Like The Skull, it’s a triumph of Francis’s style, which compensates for a thinness in the script … the mystery is never quite satisfactorily solved, and there’s an inbuilt repetition as a successsion of middle-aged male victims are murdered with lookalike dolls left by their corpses. The horror star casting of The Skull or Dr Terror’s House of Horrors is more appealing, though this has demented work from Margaret Johnson (going so far over the top she makes Sheila Keith seem subtle) and John Standing as a mother-and-son nutcase duo and an array of solid character actor victims (Alexander Knox, Robert Crewdson, Thorley Walters). A killer is working through a string quartet who were once on an allied war crimes commission and may have framed the late industrialist Von Sturm for using slave labour in his factories. This has turned Von Sturm’s wife Ilse (Johnson) into a dollmaking hysterical cripple who lives surrounded by eerie playthings in a creepily-decorated house (the purple wallpaper is quease-inducing) and his son Mark (Standing) into a fey night watchman who listens to classical music and ogles pinups (though, like Norman Bates, he seems a bit gay). Plodding copper Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) handles the investigation and is by default the lead, though the film has no interest in him (compare what Alfred Marks and Donald Pleasence get to do with similar roles in Scream and Scream Again and Death Line). The pretty blonde heroine (Judy Huxtable, also as in Scream and Scream Again) is in the background until she needs to be menaced and her unsympathetic boyfriend (Don Borisenko) is just a dead space.
Bloch provides a few distinctively witty touches – when the inspector escapes being killed by a car bomb in an auto junkyard the proprietor makes an offer on the flaming wreck, and a coded-as-gay toyshop owner (Harold Lang) laments ‘today it’s all bombs and rocketships. Aggressive plastic in rather indicative colours. Personally, I wouldn’t want to sell anything you couldn’t cuddle.’ The Techniscope widescreen cinematography is imaginative and vivid and Elisabeth Lutyens’ music box theme is eerie and an earworm. The design of the dolls is subtly offputting, with waxy faces and wispy hair: I wonder if credited sculptor Irene Blair Hickman did the heads for the similar gadgets in a later Bloch Amicus movie, Asylum. Crewdson plays a sculptor who makes hideous metal abstracts but admits he prefers representational work (to make him a red herring) … of course, his profession is only established so someone can later be killed with his acetylene torch (a riff on the recent Hammer film Maniac). With Colin Gordon, Frank Forsyth, Olive Gregg, and token glamour victim Gina Gianelli – whose red, red vinyl raincoat is especially striking. Like The Skull, it’s a claustrophobic widescreen movie – apart from the junkyard, all the exteriors are sets, and even incidental café sequences have a skewed, gloomy look (dolls feature heavily in the décor, with a bikini model posing for patrons to sketch). A cat-and-mouse scene in a boat warehouse includes a gruesome homage to Mark Robson’s Ghost Ship, but it’s also a textbook example of the trick often used on The Avengers of making a conventional scene interesting by setting it somewhere bizarre.
For a long time, this was quite an elusive film. It is now available on a ropey-looking Italian DVD sourced from a German print (the end titles suggest the German dub rewrote the script to remove the WWII element – the Von Sturms become the Maughams) and a much superior Region 1 BluRay from Kino Lorber (the first reel is scratchy, but the rest of the film looks great).