A Visit with the Zorns

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

When you ask about someone’s friends and you are told that he hasn’t any, you can expect that your ensuing visit will be an interesting one. The friendless one is Baron Friedrich Zorn and he and family are the focus of the late-in-the-day Hammer film “Demons of the Mind.” Now “Demons of the Mind” is not a universally-loved Hammer Horror, though it has its fans and I am happy to number myself among them.

I recently introduced this still-relatively-obscure film to a fellow-film buff. He gave a pretty fair assessment of it. He liked the photography and the production design, he liked the acting–except for Robert Hardy. Oof. Hardy happens to play Baron Zorn. It’s probably fair to say that a lot of viewers who find fault with the film cite Hardy’s performance as their major irritant. They argue that it’s over-the-top and out of step with the work of the other performers. My contention–not having seen any other work by Hardy–is that “over-the-top” is what the role calls for. Max Schreck’s Count Orlock is over the top too. You are, I would argue, suppose to catch on from his first appearance, fervidly reciting the gruesome lines of one of the penitential Psalms (“For my loins are filled with a foul disease…”) over the grave of his wife that there’s something not quite right with the man. He gets some of the plumiest lines of dialogue to be found in any Hammer film (e.g.: “We need no fires; winter’s far away!”) and in his scenes with Patrick Magee’s mesmerist and proto-psychiatrist Falkenberg we see that the Baron is a loon obsessed with “the evil in his blood.”  (This is in stark contrast to Hammer’s “Hands of Ripper” where Eric Porter’s Freudian analyst is brought up short by Angharad Rees’ aura of innocence.) We also learn that “Demons of the Mind” is actually Hammer’s second werewolf movie. But unlike the early “Curse of the Werewolf” which adhered to Hollywood tradition and gave up a furred-and-fanged Oliver Reed, “Demons of the Mind” returns to the classic literary notion of “wolf-madness” as found in “The Anatomy of Melancholy” and “The Duchess of Malfi.” Zorn indeed sees himself as a animal prowling through the forest with a pale moon above him urging him on to kill. But–and here is the kicker–Zorn is also a religious fanatic and so can not bring himself to do the actual killings, instead he has willed his son Emile to be the instrument of his lusts. With this psychological stew of a lycanthrope who alternately desires and is repelled by sex, “re-creating” his son Emile and his daughter Elizabeth (a stand-in for the wife he drove to suicide by his refusal to have sex with her) in his own twisted image, it would be hard to convincingly play the part with subtlety–it’s just too damn operatic. So I give Hardy a pass. His glazed-eyed trances when Emile kills, his demented, smiling head-shaking when Falkenberg finally unravels the clue to the “Zorn Family Curse” to me were on the money. It’s what the role calls for. Truthfully I can’t imagine the first and second choices for the role–Paul Scofield and James Mason–doing any better. Both would have been too self-possessed, too unwilling to shamelessly “let it all hang out”–and it’s only in that shameless wallowing in his own madness that we can see Zorn for what he is.  (An aside here: in Hammer films, psychiatry is a dangerous business. Both Patrick Magee’s Falkenberg and Eric Porter’s Pritchard unravel their patient’s secret at the cost of their lives. Magee gets a particularly spectacular send-off as Hardy remarks, “The world will be better off without me, and it won’t even know that you died” before unloading his hunting rifle on the failed savior of the Zorn Family honor.)

Not only is “Demons of the Mind” a late Hammer Film, it’s cast with actors who had never before acted in Hammer productions. Aside from Hardy and Magee, there were Yvonne Mitchell’s Aunt Hilda, Kenneth J. Warren’s bald-pated family retainer Klaus, Michael Hordern’s wandering preacher who becomes Zorn’s nemesis–all veteran stage performers. On the youthful side of the ledger there were two singers, the well-known Paul Jones from the “Manfred Mann” group and Gillian Hills, who had also acted in “Wild for Kicks,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Blow-Up,” and in his film debut, Shane Briant, who had to do a lot of the heavy lifting as Emile, the Cesare to Hardy’s Caligari. The cinematography which my friend approved of was by Hammer veteran Arthur Grant, who had also shot Hammer’s “official” werewolf film, “Curse of the Werewolf.”

So then, where do we stand? At the end of the day, I still respond to the sad romanticism of the doomed Zorn family’s struggle against “the evil in their blood.” We’ll call it a Guilty Pleasure and let it go at that.

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