Originally conceived as a psychological lycanthrope project, DEMONS OF THE MIND is an unusual, progressive later-day Hammer film that still manages to keep a foot in the gothic realm. The film was helmed by Peter Sykes, the former TV director whose first film was the impressive VENOM (aka THE LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST) and scripted by the inventive Christopher Wicking, the writer behind such British classics as THE OBLONG BOX, CRY OF THE BANSHEE, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, and his masterwork, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Sykes and Wicking later collaborated on TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, which was to be Hammer's last horror film.
In 19th Century Austria, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) believes his bloodline is infected with insanity, so he keeps his adult twin children Emil (Shane Briant in his Hammer debut) and Elizabeth (Gillian Hills in a role originally intended for pop star Marianne Faithfull) under lock and key in the family's desolate mansion. During the film's opening, Elizabeth manages to escape to have a brief fling with Carl Richter (Paul Jones, original lead singer of Manfred Mann and star of PRIVILEGE), a young woodsmen who is also a prosperous medical student. Elizabeth is captured by the Baron's brutish servant (Kenneth J. Warren, the bald-headed escaped lunatic from the same year's THE CREEPING FLESH), brought back home, and subjected to painful nightly bleedings from her aunt (Yvonne Mitchell from CRUCIBLE OF HORROR) in a desperate, superstitious attempt to cleanse her of her so-called insanity. Brother Emil appears to be really disturbed, and his behavior is of a psychotic nature.
During the duration, we learn that the Baron had married a peasant woman to end his cursed bloodline, but after the children were born, he would no longer make love to her, causing her to commit suicide in front of the children. An eccentric scientist, Professor Falkenberg (the incredible Patrick Magee) comes to help, but his Freudian, self-serving methods only make matters worse as the vicious murders of young women plague the village--and the Baron is now held responsible. Led by a crazed holyman (British character great Michael Hordern), the torch-wielding villagers rant and rave in classic Hammer fashion, leading up to an eerie and memorable climax.
Often undeservedly overlooked in the annals of Hammer fandom, DEMONS OF THE MIND prospers from an excellent cast, despite an awkward performance by Hardy as the Baron (reportedly, Eric Porter, Pail Scofied and even James Mason were solicited for the part). Sykes has a great sense of gothic flare, and for a film dealing with insanity, incest, rape and murder, it has an almost fairy-tale, poetic ambiance to it (the scattering of rose pedals over the various female victims is an ingenious touch). The production is one of the most handsome that Hammer ever mounted, with ample use of the picturesque Black Park, the forest recognized in many other Hammer films of the time (including TWINS OF EVIL, VAMPIRE CIRCUS and COUNTESS DRACULA).
Anchor Bay Entertainment has made DEMONS OF THE MIND available on DVD in a 1.85:1 widescreen presentation that features 16x9 enhancement. The original theatrical ratio compliments veteran cameraman Arthur Grant's lush cinematography to great effect. For a modest-budgeted film made over 30 years ago, DEMONS looks superb, with vibrant colors (blood reds especially) and attractive fleshtones. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is one of the most outstanding to date for a Hammer title on DVD. Harry Robinson's robust score sounds better than ever, while dialog is fully intelligible and clear throughout.
The primary extra on this DVD is a running commentary with screenwriter Wicking, director Sykes and actress Virginia Wetherell, who has a smaller but considerable role in the film. Moderated by British horror expert Jonathan Sothcott, the conversation barely strays from the topic of the film, except to plunge into interesting facets of the industry and Hammer in general. The talented Sykes and Wicking were very much in control of the film's production, and they reflect much enthusiasm for the project and a keen recollection of its making some 30 years later. The two eager and young gentleman represented a much needed fresh direction for Hammer, and one only wishes they had collaborated on a lot more genre films had the studio not declined in the following years. Ms. Wetherell is very charming, adding some nice comments about her character in DEMONS, working for Hammer, acting opposite Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, as well as her late husband, the great Ralph Bates. All in all, a tight and very informative commentary that Hammer fanatics will thoroughly enjoy.
The only other extra on the disc is the super cool British theatrical trailer. Liner notes by Rand Vossler are also included in a color insert booklet that displays the original poster art. (George R. Reis)
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