Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!
I genuinely enjoy just how dedicated horror movie producers were to sticking with the Gothic through the 1960s. Sure, there are some exceptions and Gothic films continued to be made and are still being made today, but the heyday was the 1960s when horror movies meant castles and Victorian garb and a hell of a lot of Vincent Price. Diary of a Madman is very much in line with that. Taking its inspiration from a Guy de Maupassant story, Diary of a Madman is told in flashback about one man’s interaction with a terrible creature that has the ability to control his mind and commit terrible crimes.
As just mentioned, this takes place in flashback. All we know at this point is that magistrate Simon Cordier (Price) is dead, and that he demanded that a box he entrusted to others be opened upon his death. Since that box is being opened, we can assume he is dead. What we find inside is a diary (no shock; it’s in the title), and the diary tells a dark and twisted tale.
Cordier, we learn, is a widower. His wife and child have died, something he still has lingering guilt over. Out one day, he sees a painting of a dancer, and then (because it’s a movie) sees the woman who posed for the painting. Intrigued, he decides to hire her to pose for him to make a sculpture, an old hobby of his. We then learn that the model, Odette (Nancy Kovack) is married to the man who painted her portrait. He’s not happy that she’s going to pose for someone else, but his sales are poor and the two need the income desperately.
What happens is that Cordier makes his bust of Odette and parts with her. It’s completely chaste, but he is also quite taken with her. Around this same time, he is told that a convicted murderer (Harvey Stephens) wants to speak to him. The murderer tells Cordier that he was not in control of himself when the murders were committed. He places the blame on an entity he calls the horla. The man attacks Cordier, who defends himself and kills the man in the struggle. And with that, the horla attaches itself to Cordier.
What we learn about the horla is that it can control the actions of other people and cause them to commit great evil. We also learn that while the creature is invisible, it is completely corporeal. Sensing Cordier’s obsession with Odette, the creature tells him that she is not the pure innocent he takes her for. Soon after, Cordier proposes marriage to her and she accepts, not telling him of her current marriage. It’s pretty clear that Odette is in this for the money. Her husband (Chris Warfield) is a poor and not very successful painter while Cordier is a man of means and power.
But, since there is an evil entity with the power to control people and a clear desire to wreak havoc on the life of Simon Cordier, you know it’s not going to be that simple. Things are going to get very convoluted and complicated quickly as the horla runs roughshod over Cordier’s life for the fun of it and to prove that it can.
I’m going to stop here with the rundown of the plot, but my guess is that you’ll be able to guess with some accuracy what happens next. There are really only a couple of places this could go, and it goes in the direction that’s a lot more prurient and salacious. In truth, it’s a little surprising for a film from 1963. I mean this in a good way—it’s an indication that horror movies were taking a real step forward in terms of where they would go.
Diary of a Madman is very much a costume drama, though. A big part of the spectacle here is the clothing and the sets. It’s fun to look at, and the film producers saved themselves a lot of trouble and expense by having an adversary that is completely invisible. You want the horla to cause some disruption? A wire on a chair allows you to knock it over and establish the creature is in the room. Sure, it’s obvious, but it works pretty well, all things considered.
Diary of a Madman is pretty much what you’re expecting. It goes far afield to find a creature that most people won’t know and presents it to a larger audience. You’re going to get Vincent Price being Vincent Price, which is always a good thing. And you’re going to get a lot of women in fancy clothing with giant hairdos.
It's honestly not scary in the least for a modern audience, but I imagine that there were some real shocks for the people of the time.
Why to watch Diary of a Madman: Vincent Price always delivers.
Why not to watch: It’s limited by its era.