From 1961 through around 1968-ish, if you were a commercial movie studio and you had literally any presence in the horror/thriller markets, at some point you were going to make your own version of Psycho. There's simply nothing else to it: Alfred Hitchcock's grimy little quickie about murder, sexual psychosis, and fucking around with the audience's expectations made so much money, and with such obvious elements for the savvy exploitation film producer to copy - a twist, violence, sex, a knife, a creepy old woman, shrieking string music - that it would have been malpractice for anybody who actually made their living through genre films to not make their own. Or several of their own, in the case of Britain's Hammer Film, which produced an entire franchise of what they called "mini-Hitchcocks", chintzier version of Psycho with the serial numbers sanded off, complete with one-word titles that were descriptors of a mental condition, such as Paranoiac and Fanatic and Hysteria.

The main blast of the mini-Hitchcocks was over by the end of 1965, which makes it feel just perfect that Amicus Productions made its only pseudo-Psycho in 1966. For taking the first runner-up position after Hammer was kind of their thing. In this case, Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg undoubtedly one-upped their competitors: rather than simply writing a variation on the same themes as the 1960s masterpiece, they went right to the source, hiring Robert Bloch, author of the original novel Psycho, to provide their screenplay (they had, the previous year, adapted a Bloch story into The Skull. This would be the start of a very productive partnership, one in which Bloch complained about the treatment of virtually every one of his scripts). And none of these coy little names like Hammer or the other wannabe Hitchcocks came up with: Bloch's script was given no less overt a title than The Psychopath. Which is the sort of thing you could only get away with if Bloch himself was writing, so good on everybody for their bold shamelessness.

The blatant reference in the title aside, this isn't the most derivative entry of the genre, at least. It is, in fact, built largely as a murder mystery with a police inspector, Holloway (Patrick Wymark), as the main character. He's investigating a murder with with an extremely off-putting calling card: a Barbie-sized doll made in the exact likeness of the victim, right down to having been "killed" the same way. This turns out to be pretty damn traceable, and the trail heads straight back to Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston), a German immigrant whose house is wall-to-wall packed with dolls, in a manner that trumpets "crazy fucking people who would absolutely leave dolls next to the corpses of their victims live here" so loudly that you might almost wonder if the movie can already be done. The thing is, Holloway can't arrest someone for giving him the screaming heebie-jeebies, so Mrs. Von Sturm and her short-tempered son Mark (John Standing) will get to live in their freakiness for a while yet. Meanwhile, Holloway has to deal with the fact that more people are dying, and all of them seem to be connected with Mrs. Von Sturm's late husband, who was allegedly up to some very naughty business back when he was a businessman in Germany between the years 1933 and 1945, if you get my drift. It so happens that all of the victims were involved in attaching these allegations to Mr. Von Sturm, and it certainly seems possible for sheer revenge to be a motive. The only question is, why now? Nothing has changed for the mother or the son in years. What has changed, though, is that Louise Saville (Judy Huxtable), the daughter of Frank Saville (Alexander Knox), one of the names on the likely victim list, has fallen deeply in love with Donald Loftis (Don Borisenko), and even gotten engaged to him, after just a few weeks. Frank has taken an instant dislike to him, mistrusting his motives and eagerness to marry, and it seems just possible that he might have whipped up an insane scheme to kill Frank for his fortune and then hide the evidence in a killing spree that points to this whole Von Sturm business.

It's a bit amazing that the author of Psycho should be extremely damn bad at misdirection. Not to give away the game, but it's clearly not Loftis - he's a bit unctuous and unlikable, and it's pretty hard not to agree with Frank that Louise can and should do better, but it's pretty obvious for pretty much the entire running time that whatever is going on, it has something to do with the Von Sturms. Even if it's so obviously one of them that it obviously can't be one of them, if you know what I mean. So the whole subplot surrounding Loftis ends up feeling more like filler than a red herring, and this is not at all softened by Borisenko's performance: in a movie that's not exactly packed to the rafters with bad acting, he's still one of the worst members of the cast, playing a perfectly anodyne, neutered sack, right up until the story activates him as a potential suspect, and he instantly becomes whinging and peevish and just generally gross company to be around. The only weaker performance is Johnston's, sad to say: she attacks the role of the dotty Mrs. Von Sturm with great eagerness, turning in a distracting, floating performance of eerie confused senility that barrels straight into camp even before we factor in the absolutely stupendous bad German accent the Australian native has puked out for our bedazzled entertainment. Like many an aging actress before her, Johnston spent the last years of her career wallowing around in horror and thrillers, and she openly hated them; while I don't know that she spoke to her feelings about The Psychopath specifically, it hardly seems likely that this was the one she especially admired. But it does seem at least possible that her gonzo, cuckoo-bird performance was her way of keeping herself amused, and perhaps even her small way of trying to murder the film from within.

But I have meandered a bit from my point: Bloch's script is frankly a bit clunky, maneuvering his pawns around much too gracelessly, so you can see all the storytelling mechanics being laid bare. Including his attempts to lead us down blind alleys and layer in doubt about characters who clearly aren't the killer. And the best part about the ultimate twist ending doesn't actually have anything to do with the resolution about who the killer was. Still, it's sturdy enough as a whodunnit, with Wymark serving as the solid foundation in his unfussy way of playing the usual detective clichΓ©s. Sturdy enough, at least, for director Freddie Francis to dump plenty of style onto the proceedings, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Wilcox and composer Elisabeth Lutyens. The latter is the film's pretty obvious secret weapon, providing the film with a disorientingly upbeat, chiming series of cues that are used rarely, but always effectively. I know nothing of Lutyens's career as a composer of serious concert music, and none of her other horror film scores knocked me for a loop quite the way this did, but this is masterpiece-level stuff. It's incongruous in a particularly gripping, aggressive way, giving the film the exact vibe of a scattered bad dream that I would tend to associate with the gialli of Italy, particularly the more Baroque ones from the 1970s.

That goes for Francis and Wilcox's imagery, as well. Giallo existed as a cinematic genre by 1966, but I would hardly expect it to have been an influence on British filmmakers already, especially given that the specific gialli that The Psychopath resembles didn't exist yet (it especially puts me in mind of Deep Red, made nine years later). Yet here we are, and I have certainly never seen a British film with such an Italianate flair for garish macabre imagery or just pure nightmarish delirium. Holloway's first visit to Mrs. Von Sturm, where he is disconcerted to hear her voice float out from the sea of dolls surrounding her, is a particularly fine example of this kind of garish, uncanny mood; so do those butchered dolls, especially the one hanging by its own tiny little noose. It's such a perfect harbinger of the great Italian murder mysteries of the decade to come, missing only the excessive spurts of blood and the psychosexual deviance (as well as conspicuous bottles of J&B Rare whisky), that I find myself wondering if the line of influence went the other way: did the Italian filmmakers see The Psychopath and find inspiration in its mashing together of banal urban settings and dreamy horror imagery?

Whatever the case, that's the film's saving grace. I frankly couldn't ever entirely convince myself to care about the mystery, about the victims, or about poor, insipid Louise and Donald. But the shocks of weirdness and brutality (it's not a gory film, but the death scenes are all bizarre enough to pack a punch), now that's something to care about. It is easily the weakest of Amicus's horror films up to that point, and proof, as if it were needed, that movies without Peter Cushing aren't as good as movies with Peter Cushing (though there's not really any role in this script for him, and no role either for Christopher Lee that would have justified his price tag). Still, it's doing quite a lot that's interesting, if nothing else, and the film's burial compared to most of the other Amicus horror films (prior to the release of a Blu-ray in America in 2018, it was effectively impossible to find it legally in the English-speaking world) is a deeply undeserved fate. It might be best taken as a historical curiosity, but it's damned curious.