Synopsis: Vincent Price turns in a classic performance as a sculptor, possessed by an evil spirit, who hires a model (Nancy Kovack) to pose for him – then learns thereafter that she has been brutally murdered.
Diary of a Madman 7.25
eyelights: Vincent Price. Nancy Kovack. its sets. its visual effects.
eyesores: its uninspiring villain.
“You’ve deprived me of Girot’s body, mind and soul. Now I will have yours.”
Though I’m familiar with Vincent Price’s extensive filmography, up until recently, I had no recollection of his 1963 picture ‘Diary of a Madman’. But, with a title like that, and given that it’s also the name of a classic Ozzy Osbourne album, I just had to give it a look.
Released in 1963, the Reginald Le Borg film stars Price as Magistrate Simon Cordier, whose diary is read after his untimely death. In it he recounts his experiences with a supernatural being calling itself the Horla, which took control of his mind and forced him to commit crimes.
The original story, “Le Horla”, was written by Guy de Maupassant in the 19th century and is said to have inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s own “The Call of Cthulhu”. It is severely adapted here and generally retains the story’s key elements, but jettisons its setting and context.
Here Cordier encounters the Horla after visiting Louis Girot three days before his execution. The murderer tries to explain that he couldn’t control his actions, that a force compelled him. Upon Girot’s death, Cordier is visited by the Horla, who begins to torment him.
Most of the picture revolves around Cordier’s liaison with Odette Duclasse, a model whom he hires to pose for him after his doctor recommends that he return to his leisurely activities to help him forget the loss of his spouse and son 12 years prior. Soon Cordier is enamoured.
But the Horla interferes.
The most appealing part of the picture is its look: though it’s shot on sets, they are quite attractive and detailed, a far cry from the cheapness of the Roger Corman pictures Price was making at the time. Even the more minor sets were assembled with craft and style.
The visual effects, though simplistic, are also quite efficient. Since the Horla is invisible, we are aware of its presence due to objects moving around the room, ghostlike. The rope work is obvious at times, but it’s often well done. Seeing things moving was a lot of fun.
To demonstrate that characters were falling under the Horla’s control, the filmmakers chose to flash a small green band across their eyes. It’s yet another simple but effective technique: it heightened the moment leaving the rest of the convincing up to the performer.
Vincent Price is in his element here. Though he doesn’t turn in an award-worthy performance, he’s also adequately subdued, eschewing the campy performances he’s sometimes known for. He’s quite convincing as a magistrate, a grieving spouse, a man in love and a victim.
I was especially taken with his counterpart, Nancy Kovack, as Odette. Firstly, she’s breathtakingly beautiful here, pristine. But she also navigated her character’s emotional shifts quite nicely, and was convincing as someone whose allegiance morph to her benefit.
The picture often comes off as a melodrama, due to the romantic entanglements between Cordier, Odette and her spouse, and falls apart later when Cordier disavows any knowledge of the Duclasses, but it peppers it with enough encounters with the Horla to terrify audiences.
Admittedly, ‘Diary of a Madman’ is dated in its style and structure, but it remains a solid film. Anyone familiar with old school horror films would appreciate the fact that it puts the onus on plot and character development instead of on gratuitous violence and gore.
But it’s not a picture that would work well with most modern audiences, as it’s a bit slow-going and the spooky bits are probably too subtle by today’s standards (though not subtle enough for my taste). Still, for the time and genre, it’s one of the stronger entries.
No one will go mad over it, but it’s worth seeing.
Date of viewing: July 7, 2017