There's little doubt that the heyday of Hammer Film Productions in the 1960s is now best-known for the studio's Gothic horror, films with Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein, and such. But while those films were being produced, Hammer was also busily cranking out a far less visible, though still awfully prolific, run of movies that were referred to, with admirable honesty of purpose, as their "mini-Hitchcocks": cheap little shockers that were all made to cash in on the insane killer movie craze that had been triggered by Hitch's Psycho in 1960. If these films haven't remained alive the way that Hammer's glossier, more directly horror-driven movies of the same period have, we must admit that it's because they're not, in the main, quite as good; they were by and large not made by the studio's A-list talent, and their budgets were lower. But there's a level of blunt grubbiness to the best of them which makes them pretty effective regardless of their limited polish and ambition.

Not the best of these, though probably the most high-profile owing to the presence of a relatively major star in the cast, is 1965's Fanatic: it also has far and away the most amazing title of any of them, at least in America, where it was renamed by distributor Columbia with the somewhat more lurid title Die! Die! My Darling! Which actually shows up (though without the exclamation points) in the film's dialogue, so at least it wasn't sheer random exuberant tastelessness on Columbia's part for the sake of it.

Anyway, this particular Psycho knock-off switches things up in some fun ways: instead of a deranged son obsessively keeping the memory of his dead mother alive in some very disturbing ways, Fanatic is about a mother who has devoted herself a little too fixedly to honoring the memory of her dead son. And just to cover its exploitation movie bases, it also borrows liberally from 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in using a living legend of Old Hollywood in the role of a menacing old lady. In this case, Tallulah Bankhead, the hedonist's hedonist from the Roaring Twenties, places the part of a former wild woman of the theater world who has spent most of her days in profoundly unyielding religious asceticism. Which can absolutely not be an accident, and if nothing else, it suggests that producer Anthony Hinds was approaching this project with a little more braininess than some of his other wannabe Psycho pictures.

The plot is simple enough: visiting American Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers) is in England to marry her fiancé Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufmann) - a rather peremptory, bossy bastard, and the film doesn't do nearly enough to call him on it - and decides that the right thing to do would be to visit the mother of her dead former lover Stephen Trefoile. Trekking out to the small village where Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead) lives, Patricia finds a bizarre, insular little hyper-religious compound inhabited by the none-too-devout Harry (Peter Vaughn) and Anna (Yootha Joyce), a married couple working as servants and waiting out Mrs. Trefoile's death and the inheritance Harry, her only living relative, will receive; and Joseph (Donald Sutherland), a mentally disabled handyman. Things immediately seem off with the whole situation, but it takes until the second day, when Mrs. Trefoile starts going on about how Patricia and Stephen were basically already married and that means that Patricia needs to remain devoted, pure and committed to the unendurable Puritanical lifestyle practice at the house of Trefoile, and it becomes very clear, very quickly, that the old woman is extremely willing to go to homicidal lengths to protect Patricia's sanctity and thus Stephen's purity in heaven.

It is, top to bottom, the Tallulah Bankhead Show. Nobody in the cast comes even close to making the same impression he does: Sutherland, in one of his earliest roles, is effectively odd and creepy, but much underused, Joyce plays one brittle chord over and over, Vaughn has a nice piggy menace to him, but the writing doesn't give him enough to work with, and Powers is at her best in the early going, when she can still be a bit saucy and flippant; when the time comes for Patricia to start being terrified for her life, and to start her frenzied attempts to escape, Powers never quite rounds the corner where it feels like she's actually aware that she's not in control. Also, the American actress plays an American character with an odd but unmistakable hint of a British accent.

Bankhead, though, is just plain incendiary. Is it something of a Bette Davis in Baby Jane impression? It is. But a good one, and Bankhead's facility with over-emphasised bitchery, present in her screen acting from way back (I know nothing of her reputation onstage, though I believe it to have been impressive), suits her well even when the motivations for that bitchery need to be completely re-oriented. Hammy, domineering authority came beautifully to the actor, and she blows through Fanatic with a performance scaled the rafters, just big enough that it's still believably terrifying when she turns into a real menace and not the oddball zealot of the film's first act.

I cannot imagine the film working nearly as well without Bankhead's performance. The script - adapted by the great genre master Richard Matheson from Anne Blaisdell's novel Nightmare - is solid enough, though Matheson had better work throughout his career, and the "hurr hurr, religious folks are crazy" tone in the early going is a bit too self-congratulatory. It's very meat-and-potatoes storytelling, though, palpably anxious to be filled in with depth and complexity and interest by the filmmakers. Bankhead, of course, is great. Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson, creating weird tensions from filtered daylight in the big old house, is great, even when he indulges in some ecstatically stylish but none too sensible colored lighting tricks near the end. Production designer Peter Proud, whose work I do not otherwise know, is pretty close to great, creating an impressively neat and fussy country home that feels like a whole human life was lived there, in an oppressive way that leaves no room for the present, with all that past crowding it.

But nothing else is great, or near great. Silvio Narizzano's direction - he'd mostly worked in television prior to this, and would the following year make the tedious kitchen sink comedy Georgy Girl - doesn't lean nearly heavily enough on the plot to keep things moving at an increasingly fevered pitch; towards the end, when Mrs. Trefoile has finally jumped from "punishing fanatic" to "homicidal maniac", the film starts to lose momentum in exactly the wrong way; the last 20 minutes of the film are also the paciest and in many ways the least interesting. Narizzano's lifts from Hitchcok are generally solid - the swinging lamp from the climax of Psycho puts in a cameo - and he's good at fixing the camera on Bankhead and Sutherland's faces, just letting them be tense, but he mostly seems to have been more animated by making a brittle black comedy than a thriller, and there's nothing in the back half of the film that's can really be defended as comic. Parts of the first third, accordingly, are the strongest, when the film is still mostly a broad culture-clash: the staging of Mrs. Trefoile's droning recitation of verses from Deuteronomy, with overworked dramatic music on the soundtrack (courtesy of Wilfred Josephs) is one of the highlights in this respect, and most everything Powers does throughout the expository scenes is laced with enough acerbic Modern Woman tang to give it some ironic heft. I am especially fond of the cheeky humor of the opening credits (the sequence has no individually credited designer) with music and color playfully commenting on the film's impending cat and mouse gamesmanship.

But none of these things are really in the film's best interests as a thriller about a crazy old woman, and that is, after all, what Fanatic is. Bankhead and the general atmosphere are enough to haul it over the finish line, and there are some individually creepy moments scattered throughout, but on the whole, the movie is too genteel. Too nice. It never entirely feels like Patricia is in danger, only a particularly severe form of inconvenience, and the general scope, if not the details, of the outcome are rarely in doubt. There's enough here to please hagsploitation fans, but there are so many little and significant ways that the movie could be better without even touching its best elements that it's hard to feel that this is only a bit more than a satisfactory Hammer B-side, and certainly no all-time thriller classic.

Body Count: 2, the exact same number as Psycho, though the function those bodies serve in the narrative is totally different.