Fear in the Night (1972)

Joan Collins plays a sexy sculptress with a taste for blood and the grotesque in this ‘old school’ thriller from Hammer productions. The star though is topbilled Judy Geeson as Peggy, a mentally fragile newlywed who plans to join her husband in the country where he teaches at an old-fashioned boarding school for boys. On the night before leaving her flat in London she is attacked by someone wearing a black coat and leather gloves – in the struggle the (unseen) attacker’s prosthetic arm comes loose. The landlady finds her passed out on the bathroom floor but thinks it’s just nerves. But at the school Peggy is attacked again – is it all in her mind, or part of a sinister plot?

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“Do you like tying knots in things, Mrs Heller?”

The film begins in a slow and deliberate fashion with a pre-credits sequence where the sounds of children overlay shots of the grounds and classrooms of an empty school, before panning to a tree from which two legs are swinging. We then cut to Peggy talking to her psychiatrist as she discusses her recovery from the nervous collapse she suffered six months before. We will regularly cut back to these sessions during the film though we never really find out what caused her breakdown. She is now ready to face the world again thanks to her marriage to a schoolteacher (played by Hammer regular Ralph Bates), who tries to reassure her that the attacks may just be symptoms of her old illness. While prowling the empty school she seems to hear the distant sound of children in class, but in fact the students have all gone home. Is her mind still playing tricks on her?

She meets the headmaster, played with his usual mixture of courtliness and eccentric charm by Peter Cushing. This is a very strange headmaster who mostly seems to listen to voices inside his head rather than those of the people speaking to him, obsessed with knots and what they can reveal about a person’s character. He is married to Joan Collins, who brings a touch of glamour to the proceedings and some large dollops of bitchiness. She is introduced about forty minutes in a literally explosive manner, blowing a poor hare to smithereens inches away from Peggy’s face and then delivering the poor dead animal to her doorstep like some faithful hound’s idea of a gift. She and Cushing make for a somewhat unlikely married couple, though this seeming incongruity is reduced by the simple expedient of never actually having them share any screen time together. This adds to the occasionally surreal quality of the story (which gets more pronounced in the climax), though there is a more prosaic reason for it – Cushing in fact only filmed for 4 days in total and all his scenes are with Geeson.

The film alternates quite sweet domestic scenes between Geeson and her husband Robert (a nice, down-to-earth performance by Bates with no hint of camp) as he tries to soothe and reassure her and the more edgy encounters with Collins and Cushing. Although there are a few subsidiary characters, this is pretty much a movie with a cast of four. It is during her first meeting with Cushing that we learn, though seemingly she does not, that the headmaster has a prosthetic left arm, though quite how she misses this after he spends an eternity trying to disentangle her hair-band from her untidy locks, swivelling his prosthetic hand in a menacing fashion reminiscent of a Bond movie henchman, is hard to imagine. The plot really kick’s into gear when Robert has to go to London for a conference, leaving Geeson on her own. Taking a cup of cocoa and a shotgun to bed (doesn’t everybody in the country?), when later that night she finds Cushing in the house she fires a shot at him. This doesn’t kill him though and there is an extended sequence in which he chases through the empty school that is the film’s main set-piece and is quite effective, especially in its bizarre climax, when she again fires at him and seems to only shatter his spectacles, generating one of the key advertising images.

So, a sexy wife, a rich husband, a school, a young and ailing woman apparently going out of her mind – this all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Yup, writer-director-producer Jimmy Sangster is once again bringing us a Hammer variation on Les Diaboliques (1954), so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that this also features a plot with a love triangle in which conspirators are looking for a patsy to take the fall for a murder. This is a formula that he used time and again at the studio (and elsewhere), though this film acts as a useful summation of his Hammer films. Sangster was only twenty years old when he joined Hammer Productions in 1948, just as the company was getting started. He would remain, on and off, almost through to the very end, working his way through the ranks from third assistant on Dick Barton Strikes Back (1948) to writer, producer and director on Fear in the Night in 1972, the last of the company’s psychological suspense thrillers made in the style of Les Diaboliques, from the novel by Boileau and Narcejac, and the Hitchcock classic Psycho (1960), from Robert Bloch’s expert combination of whodunit and modern Gothic. This particular variant is particularly similar to Nightmare (1963), with its comely young woman with psychological problems in a creepy dwelling having to fight for her sanity as different competing plots work themselves out. Sangster had originally written the script in 1963 under the title ‘Brainstorm’, but there were several delays and then he re-wrote it in 1967, when it was re-titled ‘The Claw’. At this stage the setting for Peggy’s (or ‘Carol’ in this draft) home would have been a houseboat on the Thames. Eventually Sangster had his friend Michael Syson re-write it with a school setting, which in fact is a very evocative setting, at which point Hammer put it into production and released it as part of a ‘Woman in Peril’ double-bill with their production Straight on till Morning.

This was the last of the Hammer thrillers and the last film Sangster would make for the company. It is not in the same league as Taste of Fear and The Nanny, the two films the writer-producer made with director Seth Holt. On the other hand his handling of the film, privileging long takes and elongated tracking shots is certainly expertly done, and there is adept use of smart editing techniques and flashbacks to give the film some extra polish. It’s probably the best of his trio of directorial excursions for the studio. The finale, while eschewing the ingenious if absurd twists at the end of Crescendo (1970), is more straightforward but well handled and fairly dynamic none the less and does take care to introduce a new element into the narrative, and does so very smoothly. Having said that, it does seem to miss a few tricks, not making enough of Peggy’s eventual realisation that the headmaster only has one arm. And there are quite a few of the twists in the latter parts of the story which, as so often with Sangster, are delivered verbally and almost thrown away in a matter-of-fact way with a surprising lack of drama or build-up. And there are probably too few red herrings – the meetings with the psychiatrist in particular, while suggestive, ultimately lead nowhere and Cushing’s role, while necessarily equivocal, tends to get bent to serve the momentary needs of the plot and don’t really make much sense. Shot in just 5 weeks at the end of 1971, this brings this small series of films to a brisk and well-executed conclusion – no real surprises perhaps but some interesting new wrinkles on old plots, characters and situations, as you would expect after a decade of such movies – a confident, well executed thriller, we worth rediscovering.

The full list of the other Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

DVD Availability: Available on a pretty decent DVD with a clean anamorphic print and an audio commentary featuring Sangster and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn which was recorded in 2000.

Fear in the Night (1972)
Director: Jimmy Sangster
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Art Direction: Don Picton
Music: John McCabe
Cast: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates, Judy Geeson

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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26 Responses to Fear in the Night (1972)

  1. Colin says:

    I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages, having only seen bits and pieces of it before. i’ll get back to you when I’ve done so.

  2. Pingback: Jimmy Sangster (1927 – 2011) | Tipping My Fedora

  3. Looks like an interesting film. I’ll have to find it. Amazon I suppose.

    • Hope you enjoy it Randy – it is pretty easy to get in the UK. Apparently the US DVD went out of print a while ago so some fo the prices of Amazon are just plain stupid! … maybe it’s on Netflix?

  4. curtis evans says:

    This was Joan Collins of the era of Tales from the Crypt, in the story when she clonks her old hubby on the head and then gets visited by a psychopathic Santa!

    • Her career really took a dip in the early 70s after her divorce from Anthony Newley and she appears in all sorts of unlikely sounding projects. All changed circa 1978 when she starred in two hugely popular movies based on a couple of bonkbusting potboilers written by her sister Jackie (that are pretty awful but have some great stars slumming in them) and then started a series of really funny TV adverts for Cinzano – and then of course it was the 80s and the era of the air-craft carrier width shoulder pads …

  5. John says:

    Netflix update: FEAR IN THE NIGHT is not rentable as a DVD. It’s marked SAVE (when I looked up the title) which is always a bad sign in the Netflix catalog. Several films I have seen in the past by renting from them are now marked SAVE and this usually means they no longer carry the DVD. Sneaky buggers. Though sometimes it does indicate that they are waiting for official release. In this case I’m guessing, they had the DVD and now only offer it via streaming. I can never tell what is available via streaming because I’m a cheap SOB and pay for the lowest possible rental rate which allows me ONLY to rent DVDS and not use their streaming service. Anything that is available only for online streaming is either invisible to me or is marked SAVE. Netflix is a very strange and financially rocky company these days making a lot of poor business decisions, I think. Anyway, I’ll have to look for FEAR IN THE NIGHT elsewhere, though it may by difficult over here in the US.

    I love Geeson (when she was only 19) in BERSERK (1967) a film I saw a couple times when I was a teen, but have never seen since. It’s one of those murders in a circus movies and one of the few that was done really well. BERSERK has in its oddball cast Joan Crawford as the leggy ringmaster, Michael Gough, Diana Dors and beefcake heartthrob Ty Hardin who later became a racist, gun loving nutcase and made headlines in the US back in the 1970s for heading a paramiltary group in Arizona. But maybe he always was one!

    • Hi John – I hadn’t realised this was a title that was potentially so hard to get outside of Europe until I did a quick search on Amazon in the US – almost feel guilty for focusing on the movie as I didn’t think I was pointing to an abscure item frankly. I’ll point that out with some of the other Hammer titles I have planned – but before then it will be time to focus on one of my favoruite auteurs – the much misunderstood genuis, Brian de Palma! Wow, Berserk is from way back – I do remember Crawford getting away (just) with flashing her tightly packed gams. Geeson is very sweet in To Sir, With Love from the same year (she even appeared in the sequel …).

  6. desktidy says:

    Have you seen the 1971 US TV movie A Taste of Evil starring Barbaras Perkins and Stanwyck?
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067828/
    Not a Hammer film obviously but yet another paranoid thriler by Sangster in the same vein. I think Sangster does briefly mention it on one of his Hammer commentaries.

    • Hello there – I remember watching this on the tube decades ago but it’s a pretty dim and distant memeory and I’d love to see it again. Sangster mentioned it in one of his audios as you say and in fact was pretty candid about the fact that he was ripping himself off and re-used Taste of Fear without telling anyone – and that producer Aaron Spelling was not best pleased when he found out either …

    • It does appear to have been posted online in its entirety – I shan’t link directly as I assume that it is completely unauthorised …

  7. Colin says:

    Okay, I sat down and watched this all the way through last night.
    I thought the first half dragged a little in setting up the plot but things livened up considerably as it went on. Generally, I found it entertaining – though two aspects didn’t quite work for me. Firstly, I felt it was pretty obvious where the plot was going – maybe that comes from seeing so many of these types of movie, and from Sangster’s tendency towards recycling/repeating themes. Secondly, I didn’t see Judy Geeson’s character as especially sympathetic, or at least not sympathetic enough for me to really root for her. She was just a little too dim or obtuse; the character’s apparent inability to read situations worked against her in my opinion.

    However, I did like the editing of the chase through the school, which generated a fair bit of tension. Cushing, as always, was excellent and brought the right kind of ambiguity to his part. And I also thought Joan Collins wasn’t bad at all.

    • Hi Colin – glad you quite enjoyed it. The set up is quite slow and it would help if the psychiatrist visits paid off a bit frankly. I was hoping for somehting a bit like Caligari perhaps (or more plausibly and in keeping with the times, Endless Night). There is something amusingly off-hand about the way that the criminal plan is revealed by just cutting to the middle of a conversation without any attempt at a dramatic reveal – typical of these films but weird all the same – unless of course the assumption was that the audience would be ahead of you anyway! Geeson’s role is quite intriguing in the final section where she becomes vaguely catatonic – you assume that by this point she is completely aware of what is in fact going on and is incredibly angry and hurt about it. So not so much in shock as just quite bitter I suppose, but because we don’t trust anyone or their motives in these films, you never really get inside people’s heads. Which in this case is a bit of a shame, I quite agree, as it can make the fates of all the characters much harder to care about.

      Compared with Crescendo there are probably fewer red herrings but that is not the same as ambiguity and that does limit one’s enjoyment, even though the ending does have a slightly open-ended quality (though this may have had more to do with Cushing’s very short shooting schedule let’s face it).

      • Colin says:

        Yes, rightly or wrongly, I wanted to see more of Cushing, especially at the end – to clear things up a little if nothing else.

        • David Pirie in the second edition of his seminal book on Gotchic and Hammer (A Heritage of Horror) seems to have felt quite warmly towards the film and I think it is the open-ended feeling at the end, which has a dream-like quality, that he was responding to. One could argue that this was not necessarily intentional but actually with the emphasis on the ghostly voices of the children, the unexplained confessions at the shrink, and the off-kilter presentation of the final retribution, I think that to claim a certain surreal quality is not unreasonable. That Sangster and Hammer clearly had no such lofty ambition is in a way no barrier to such an appraisal. Whatever the production rationale, the ending is intriguingly put together – but it does hurt not to have a more clerly defined positive identification figure and it is a fair and consistent criticism of many of the Sangster films I’ve been reviewing.

          You can argue easily I think that Taste of Fear and The Nanny, both of which have protagonsits and antagonists with secrets right until the end, succeed better than the others in the cycle because we feel a sense of connection by the end that tends to be lacking in the others. One could argue that they offer a highly paranoid world view in which people with mental problems are regularly left to flounder at the end, even when they are meant to be the hero of the story! Bit depressing really, now that i think about it …

  8. Hello Sergio, as always, I enjoyed reading your review of FEAR IN THE NIGHT as also the authoritative comments by Colin and others. My brief association with Sangster/Hammer films began with your reviews and though I haven’t seen any of the films I’m glad I haven’t missed any of your reviews. I look forward to watching some of these movies though I wouldn’t venture out to write about them. These films require a keen understanding and perspective that I find in your reviews. By the way, never could stand Joan Collins.

    • Thanks very much Prashant, much too kind. Not the world’s biggest fan of la Collins either, though I do think she has been used quite well a number of fairly good movies such as the romantic fantasy Quest for Love and the true-life murder case The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955). And the was in that classic Star Trek episode by Harlan Ellison, ‘The City of the Edge of Forever’ too. I think I prefer her when she is not in ‘bitch godess’ mode!

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