David Knight as Henry Baxter
Moira Redmond as Grace Maddox
Jennie Linden as Janet
Nightmare is proof that Hammer did not have to rely on gore and sexuality to attract audiences. Their psychological horror is up there with the best of its day and laid the groundwork for modern thrillers such as Gothika and the Sixth Sense.
Janet was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and spent much of her childhood happily on an estate in northern England. Yet, when she was eight, her mother went mad and murdered her father. The image of her mother standing over her father holding a bloody knife with a satisfied expression remains deeply etched in Janet’s mind. Since then she has been haunted by nightmares brought on by a fear that the mental disorder that ended her father’s life may be hereditary. Now a teenager, Janet leaves boarding school and is released into the care of her guardian. While at home, nightmares plague her and the boundary between dreams and reality becomes skewed. She fears she is falling into her mother’s fate as vivid images of her guardian and personal nurse murdered in a manner similar to her father frequently appear before her.
Hammer suspense and psychological horror has a formula that may be a little foreign to those accustomed to traditional storylines. Janet is the focus for the entire first half, but after an incident the focus shifts to Janet’s nurse. Janet remains the object of the storyline, but the viewer’s experience alters with the perspective switch.
Mystery, duplicity, paranoia and murder all play critical roles and affect multiple individuals inNightmare. Although there is better psychological horror in existence, this is Hammer at its finest, despite the lack of monsters. Not as gritty as some modern stuff, but the story is first rate. The acting is not too shabby either. The audience believes Janet’s mental decline. Unlike other 1960s flicks the musical score does not detract from the disturbing mood. It’s not necessarily helpful but, for the era, not detracting is about as good as can be hoped for (unless directed by Hitchcock).
Nightmare is all creepy theme and it is a powerful one – as it taps so close to home with anyone who has ever had reason to wonder at times whether their perspective on reality is shaky. There are a few scares that likely wouldn’t jolt most freaks, but beginners may be a little startled. The gore is mostly confined to blood pools and does not have much of a dramatic effect. Unlike Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula films the black and white gem Nightmare is pure story. Most Hammer films actually have decent storylines, but they tend not to receive as much attention in the midst of the sensationalist gore that accompanies their full-color additions to the genre. Watching Hammer psychological horror (of which Nightmare is second to none) allows for greater appreciation of this critical element in the studio’s horror successes.