Thursday, 4 February 2010

Fear in the Night (1972)

In the early 70s Hammer were finding that their gothic horrors were no longer the guaranteed money-spinners they once were, and they were looking for ways to revitalise their image a little. Contemporary urban horror thrillers seemed to be a promising avenue, and hence in 1972 we get Fear in the Night.

In fact it wasn’t so much a new direction for Hammer as a return to an old one. In the early 60s Jimmy Sangster had written a series of psychological horror thrillers that had enjoyed some success. Fear in the Night was in fact written at this time, in 1963, but it had been shelved. In 1972 the script was dusted off and with a few changes finally went into production, with Sangster himself directing.

This was the third movie Sangster directed. The first two were pretty awful, so the big surprise about this one is that Sangster’s direction is actually more impressive than his script. He had come up with a formula for these psychological horror pictures and all his efforts in this sub-genre follow that formula fairly slavishly. He cheerfully admits that he had essentially rewritten Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 hit Les Diaboliques half a dozen times! If you’ve seen Sangster’s earlier films of this type you can more or less see where the plot is headed very early on. But it’s executed with unexpected panache and it’s superbly acted, and so contrary to expectations it works rather well.

Judy Geeson is Peggy, newly married to schoolteacher Robert Heller (Ralph Bates). Peggy had had a nervous breakdown some time earlier, and she’s inclined to be a little nervy. So she’s more than usually anxious when Robert (whom she’d only known for a very short time before their marriage) takes her off of the countryside to their new home, a cottage in the grounds of the school at which he teaches. Her anxiety is increased considerably when she is attacked by a mysterious black-gloved stranger shortly before their departure. Or at least she thinks she was attacked. Or claims to have been attacked.

The atmosphere at the school is a little odd. It’s completely deserted. The new term hasn’t started, and all of the boys are on their holidays, but she distinctly hears the sounds of children coming from the classrooms. The headmaster, Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing), makes her a little uneasy as well. Is he a somewhat sinister figure, or just unusually reserved? She’s not quite sure. His wife Molly (Joan Collins) is even more unsettling. She mixes charm and outright hostility, with the hostility certainly predominating. And she’s perhaps just a little too glamorous and sexy.

When Peggy is attacked once more, apparently by the same man, she is well on the way to losing her grip.

There’s a slight giallo influence here, with the black-gloved attacker, and it might well have paid dividends to have pushed this influence a little further. Sangster though sticks to what he knows, but he does a very competent job. He had clearly gained considerable confidence as a director and he pulls off quite a few rather impressive visual moments.

He also relies heavily, and successfully, on atmosphere. Despite the limited Hammer budget it’s a very well-made film with good use of location shooting in the building acting as the school.

All four major characters are either disturbing or odd or creepy, and the greatest strength of the movies is in the performances. Ralph Bates as Robert seems nice enough on the surface, but there’s just a hint of falseness. He’s a little too nice, and too attentive. Peter Cushing is very disturbing indeed, going right over the top. He’s clearly mad, but is he a harmless eccentric or a homicidal maniac? The way Cushing plays him he could just as easily be either. Joan Collins was already well on the way to perfecting her sexy ruthless bitch persona, and that persona suits the film perfectly.

Peggy is the central character though, and a lot depends on Judy Geeson’s performance. She comes through with flying colours. She’s vulnerable and likeabe but with a nice edge of suppressed hysteria, and as the pressure builds she suppresses the hysteria more and more which works a lot more effectively than going over the top would have done.

For a 1970s Hammer production there’s surprisingly no sex and nudity at all. And no gore at all. Not that those ingredients are actually needed here, but it might have helped at the box-office. It comes across as being rather tame for 1972. But it’s a nicely crafted little psychological thriller with some great acting and it’s all thoroughly enjoyable.

The Region 2 DVD from Optimum includes a commentary track with Jimmy Sangster. It’s not terribly illuminating about this particular film but there’s plenty of interesting stuff there on Hammer in general.

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