“Simon Cordier is a well-respected magistrate who visits a condemned prisoner, Louis Girot, just before the man’s execution. Girot again pleads his innocence insisting that he has been taken over by a spirit that forced him to commit his crimes. Cordier doesn’t believe him and the man suddenly dies. Cordier does however note a rapid change in his personality during their short interview. In the following days, Cordier must face a number of strange occurrences in his home. He begins to wonder if he is sleepwalking but is soon hearing voices and begins to wonder about his sanity. It’s recommended to him that he take up sculpting, something he once had an interest in. He develops a relationship with Odette, a gold digger married to a struggling artist, but the evil, invisible spirit soon drives him to murder.” (courtesy IMDB)
Born in 1850, Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was a French author known as the father of the modern short story, who depicted human lives and destinies and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms. He wrote three hundred short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. He delighted in clever plotting and served as a model for Somerset Maugham and O. Henry. Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the Realist and fantastic modes, and many of his short stories describe apparently supernatural phenomena. The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often a symptom of the protagonists’ troubled minds, and the most famous of these stories is The Horla (published 1887). Horror author H.P. Lovecraft described it as such: “Relating the advent in France of an invisible being who lives on water and milk, sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind, this tense narrative is perhaps without peer in its particular department.”
The Horla was a major inspiration behind Lovecraft’s own story The Call Of Cthulhu, which also features an extraterrestrial being who influences minds and who is destined to conquer humanity. Fast-forward to the early sixties, American International Pictures‘ cycle of Edgar Allen Poe period-pieces was at its height of popularity, and Hollywood producer Robert Kent jumped on the bandwagon with Diary Of A Madman (1963). Starring Vincent Price, Nancy Kovack and Chris Warfield, Kent also wrote the screenplay, which differs notably from the original story, particularly the religious and moral themes. The story of Diary Of A Madman is told in flashback, and begins at the funeral of Magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price). We are presented with a title card: “The vulture has eaten the pigeon; the wolf has eaten the lamb; the lion has devoured the sharp-tongued buffalo; man has killed the lion with an arrow, with spear, with gun-powder; but the ‘Horla’ will make of man what man has made of the horse and of the ox; His chattel, His slave, and His food, but the mere power of His will. Woe to us!” – Guy de Maupassant.
It was Cordier’s wish that certain individuals gather after the funeral, for the opening of a small chest he had entrusted to Jeanne D’Arville (Elaine Devry). Inside the chest they find a diary of the Magistrate’s final days. Simon Cordier has always been known as wealthy and highly respected magistrate, but nevertheless he was an emotionally tormented soul ever since he lost his first wife and child. He sentences a murderer to death, a man who claimed to have been possessed by the Horla (Joseph Ruskin), an evil spirit that had driven the man to commit murder. The Horla then holds Cordier responsible for the death of his slave and reveals that he has chosen Cordier to take his place. The creature constantly taunts Cordier, breaking him under its will to kill and commit acts that he had always condemned. Cordier undergoes a mental metamorphosis and become restless and aggressive. He decides to take up his old hobby of sculpting again, and by doing so he meets and falls in love with a beautiful model named Odette (Nancy Kovack).
But the Horla is stronger and forces him to murder the girl and even abuse his magistrate position to have her ex-husband charged for it. Is he mad? Or is the Horla real? These questions are the core of the story and we are left (along with the mourners at the end) to ponder and answer the question ourselves. Perhaps the main reason why Diary Of A Madman doesn’t make it onto everyone’s list is because of the type of Evil that Cordier has to struggle with here – it’s a bit like The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde without the physical transformations. The Horla is a metaphor for the Evil in every man, and the film at least manages to interpret de Maupassant’s themes on this basic level. The invisible Horla talks aloud (and way too much), a rather pompous evil spirit with an obvious superiority complex. Worse than its attitude is the fact that the Horla doesn’t specifically want or need anything. It gains absolutely nothing from possessing Cordier and even less from murdering the poor girl.
The Horla itself is a ridiculous creation, flying in through Cordier’s windows and announcing its presence in a smooth radio-announcer’s voice that sounds like (but isn’t) the narrator of The Outer Limits. Director Reginald Le Borg wanted a distorted evil-sounding voice but the studio said no, which is a pity because it might have added an extra level of creepiness that might have elevated the film in some viewers eyes – or ears as the case may be. Fans of obscure sixties horror will no doubt enjoy Diary Of A Madman despite its faults. Le Borg’s direction is a bit absent, but the dialogue, music, cinematography and performances are all quite splendid considering its budget. The murder sequence is rather gruesome for its time and the scenario touches some fairly progressive themes, such as adultery. It’s a shame that so many good ideas and performances are brought down a few notches because of some questionable direction.
Le Borg’s credits include the really bad Voodoo Island (1957), the bizarrely awful House Of The Black Death (1965) and the all-star line-up of The Black Sleep (1956). While no stranger to the genre, Le Borg is clearly out of his league here. The psychological nature of the film never becomes fully developed because the director didn’t know how to tell the story. Several scenes drag when they should have zipped by and the entire film has a rather odd pacing that doesn’t help. The supporting cast features Nancy Kovack as the woman Cordier falls for and she delivers a remarkable performance. The pair really sizzle on the screen together during some rather obvious sexual innuendo. The Horla causes its subject’s eyes to glow green whenever they feel Evil inside of them, a shoddy effect that looks like the director is simply flashing a light in the actor’s eyes. This can raise some unintentional laughs and, with Price’s presence, is almost charming. The greatest of actors will always find themselves taking unworthy roles simply to pay the bills, but it is in their ability to carry these films on their own that truly establishes their greatness.
Vincent Price, who has appeared in an endless array of rubbish, had this ability. He was by no means the finest of actors, but his undeniable screen presence and tongue-in-cheek approach has made him a true gift to horror fans, and here he helps raise Diary Of A Madman, one of his more obscure efforts, into the realms of the passable. Scream Factory‘s excellent DVD re-release has another audio commentary from film historian Steve Haberman. Rather than discuss events happening on-screen, Haberman goes on long, passionless tangents about the story’s author or an abbreviated history of Price’s cinematic wives. Haberman is obviously intelligent and does his research, but has not yet mastered presentation. Basically, he writes biographies of the cast and crew and reads them out, which becomes very dry very quickly, and offers little more than Wikipedia in the way of trivia. I’m sorry to be leaving you with such a bleak and sad image, but be warned, I will not accept that as a valid reason for your not returning next week. I’d miss you too much. So please join me again as I discuss the brutal slashing of budgets and death by a thousand cut corners in…Horror News! Toodles!
Diary Of A Madman (1963) is now available on bluray per Shout Factory