Color, 1997, 102m.
Directed by Rene Daalder
Starring Patrick McGoohan, Amanda Plummer, Michael Maloney, Joanne Vannicola, Gregory Hlady, Emmanuelle Vaugier
Cult Epics (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD 5.1
You'd have to look far and wide for a directorial career stranger than that of Rene Daalder, who started off making Dutch documentaries and short films before transitioning to American features in 1976 with the drive-in/social commentary cult favorite Massacre at Central High. From there things got even less predictable with the bizarre '80s musical Population: 1, the arty sci-fi curio Habitat, and the virtually unclassifiable Hysteria from 1997. Blending elements of art house drama, horror, and science fiction, the film is now most notable as the last live action film for actor Patrick McGoohan, whose iconic role on TV's The Prisoner is definitely a major point of reference here.
Relocated to America (where there are "a lot more mental patients"), British doctor Samuel Fry has an unusual amount of concern for his pet patient, Veronica (Vaugier, from the Saw series), who seems to be averse to clothing and tends to throw hysterical fits in the ocean. When tight economic times force both of them out of their usual mental health habitats, they relocate to a gothic manor run by Dr. Harvey Langston (McGoohan), where the patients have all been implanted with experimental hardware that allows them to share each other's feelings and states of mind. This can have some nasty side effects, however, with some personalities dominating over others, particularly a disturbed former dancer named Myrna (Plummer), now confined to a wheelchair. As Fry is drawn into this insular, decidedly unusual community, he begins to feel his own identity slipping away.
Both heady and orgiastic at the same time, Hysteria wouldn't feel out of place running alongside a later Ken Russell film or, most pointedly, the cinematic freak out Mansion of Madness. The film was obviously shot with a limited budget and sometimes suffers from erratic performances, but the sheer commitment to its loopy concept carries it along quite well. McGoohan is always a riveting presence in all of his scenes (with a few line deliveries even recalling Scanners), while theater and TV vet Maloney keeps a firm grasp on the increasing instability of his character. Of course, no one can play crazy quite like Plummer, who gets to go way over the top in several scenes and plays a pivotal role in the surreal finale, which might have a few viewers doubting their own sanity themselves. Then there's the big sex scene dropped halfway through the narrative, with the patients all melding minds to... well, you'll just have to see it for yourself.
One of the longest-gestating titles in the Cult Epics library, Hysteria was originally announced for release in 2012 but didn't make it out of the gate until early 2014. For some reason this film has been absurdly difficult to see over the years, earning a very minor VHS release back in the late '90s from Alliance but barely popping up anywhere else. Billed as a director's cut, the Cult Epics edition comes in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, with the former being the way to go if possible. The transfer is taken from what appears to be a 35mm print, looking appropriately dark and stylized but presumably getting the film's aesthetic across well enough. There's some damage and murkiness to contend with here, but given the rarity of the title, this may be as good as it can possibly look. The surround mix isn't anything spectacular by current standards, not surprisingly, but the quasi-classical music score gets some nice channel separation. Extras include a ragged trailer and a 28-minute featurette featuring Daalder and Plummer in conversation. It's a little heavy on clips from the film, but there are some interesting slants to be found on the film's views of Orwellian control, confinement, and the nature of human identity.
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Reviewed on February 24, 2014.