Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

The Night Has Eyes is a 1942 British thriller with a very strong admixture of the gothic. It’s notable for offering James Mason an early starring role, and it’s the type of role he would come to do very well.

Marian Ives (Joyce Howard) and Doris (Tucker McGuire), two young schoolteachers from an exclusive girls’ school, decide to spend their holiday on the Yorkshire moors. An odd choice for a holiday but Marian Ives (Joyce Howard) has her reasons. Her friend Evelyn died on the moors a year earlier, in mysterious circumstances. All very Wuthering Heights. Marian has the idea that she may be able to discover how Evelyn died. 

The village police constable warns the two not to go wandering on the moors - the weather is threatening and they could easily get lost and possibly fall into a bog and never be found. Of course they disregard his advice and of course they get lost and Doris does indeed fall into a bog, fortunately without fatal consequences. They come across the kind of isolated house you expect to find on the Yorkshire moors. Living in the house is a handsome but morose young composer, Stephen Deremid (James Mason). Stephen fought on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and it’s left him bitter and self-pitying and he’s given up composing. He’s not exactly thrilled by the idea of having company but he can’t very well turn the two girls away in the middle of a storm.

The Wuthering Heights atmosphere becomes more and more pronounced and the gothic elements are very much in evidence.

Stephen denies having ever heard of Evelyn but it soon becomes apparent that he most certainly did met her. In fact she had stayed in his house. Stephen is a troubled man but is there more to it than that? Why does he fear the full moon? Why does he seem at times to be attracted to Marian and then he pushes her away? Does the house in fact contain a secret room? Are there other secrets hidden here? 

It might be a good idea for Marian and Doris to leave as soon as possible but the rains have caused the river to break its banks and the house is now cut off from the outside world.

Writer-director Leslie Arliss showed considerable promise in the 1940s, including major box-office hits like The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey (both starring James Mason), but by the 50s his career was in decline. Melodrama mixed with gothic was his clearly his forte and he does a fine job here.

The plot is contrived and melodramatic but that’s the sort of movie this is. It’s supposed to be melodrama.

Joyce Howard is pleasant but just a little insipid. Marian is an annoyingly brainless heroine who behaves like a lovestruck schoolgirl. Tucker McGuire’s task as Doris is to add some comic relief which she does without being excessively irritating. Just to make sure we get enough comic relief we also have Wilfred Lawson as the lecherous odd-job man and a pet monkey as well. Mary Clare is OK as the good-hearted housekeeper who knows a lot more about Stephen than she lets on.

It’s James Mason who is largely left to carry the picture. His star quality is already clearly evident. Stephen Deremid feels too sorry for himself to be entirely sympathetic but Mason makes him suitably ambiguous, tortured and tragic.

The scenes on the moors have a very obvious shot-on-a-soundstage look to them but that works to the film’s advantage, giving it more of a subtly other-worldly feel. The gothic atmosphere is laid on very thickly indeed. The isolated house with its solitary inhabitant sunk in melancholy and self-pity is obviously very Brontë-esque. There are also hints of the Old Dark House genre especially when Stephen reveals that the house contains at least one secret room. Günther Krampf’s cinematography is effective. 

Network’s DVD presentation is standard for this company - it’s barebones but the transfer is excellent.

The Night Has Eyes is not an out-and-out horror movie by any means but it has a few real scares and enough hints of the gothic (and even a very faint of the supernatural) to make it of interest to horror fans. It certainly will have plenty of appeal to melodrama fans and it has a decent enough mystery plot. It also has James Mason going somewhat over-the-top but demonstrating the charisma that would quickly make him a major star. Recommended.

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