*. After the titles play we get a quote from the story by Guy de Maupassant that this film was inspired by, “The Horla.” The Horla was actually the movie’s original title, but they probably figured that would confuse people. As it is, the story is changed so completely that if they didn’t actually name the demonic spirit the Horla then I doubt anyone would have got the connection.
*. You might think that with such a literary forebear the script might be pretty good. It isn’t. The dialogue is stiff and expository, to the point of humour. An early example has the police chief angrily saying “Murderers. They’re all the same. Humanity would be much better off without them.” Then there is plot, which is the usual Vincent Price material. Yes, once again he is a man left mooning over the memory of his dead wife. And once again he finds himself trapped in a burning building. Talk about formula.
*. What all this adds up to is a film with a really simple little idea: a man is possessed by some kind of evil spirit that forces him to kill. You might take something like that and make it into one of the entries in a horror anthology, running around 20 minutes. To blow it up into a feature invites a lot of dead air.
*. If it had been a little tighter it might have been scarier as well. As it is, how many times do we have to see Simon Cordier’s French windows blow open? Couldn’t he try fastening them shut?
*. Then there is the voice of the Horla. Director Reginald Le Borg was disappointed by this. He wanted something that sounded more distorted but the studio had trouble understanding what it was saying so they gave it what the New York Times reviewer called “a voice like a toothpaste commercial and a disconcerting giggle.”
*. Actually, you could defend the voice (which was provided by Joseph Ruskin, who went on to have a very long and productive career in Hollywood as both an actor and a producer). If you take the point of view that the Horla is just a figment of Cordier’s imagination then it does have the same kind of smoothness as Price’s own inimitable voice.
*. Did Ozzy Osbourne get the title of his debut album from this film? It’s not a totally idle question. Somewhat idle, I’ll grant you, but not totally. Apparently Black Sabbath (Osbourne’s earlier band) took their name from the Bava film, which was released the same year as Diary of a Madman. So . . . it’s possible.
*. I really didn’t understand the business with the mirror. Cordier looks in a full-length mirror and doesn’t see his reflection. As the invisible Horla puts it, “common sense tells you that the reason you can’t see yourself is that someone stands between you and the mirror.” But if that were the case wouldn’t Cordier notice something else wrong with the image in the mirror? He shouldn’t be able to see anything past the Horla, which is still invisble. Or actually he wouldn’t be able to see the mirror at all because the Horla would be standing in the way.
*. Let’s end with what stuck with me. Nancy Kovack looks gorgeous. The one (yes, there’s really only one) big kill scene is pretty extreme, at least for the time. Vincent really has to stick Kovack with the knife quite a lot. And what he does with her head is pretty darn gruesome. I don’t understand why he does it, but it’s gruesome.
*. And that’s about it. It’s a very typical production of its time, with a story that’s hard to pay attention to once you realize that it’s not going anywhere interesting.