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 away from the big city, in a secluded part of the countryside 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 into the movie in a literally explosive manner, blowing a poor hare to smithereens inches away from Peggy’s face – 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 kicks 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?), later that night she finds Cushing in the house and fires a shot at him. This doesn’t kill him though and there is an extended sequence in which he chases her 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, an empty 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 Sangster 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. This particular variant on his Psycho-ish thrillers 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, well worth rediscovering.
The full list of the other Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:
- The Snorkel (1958)
- Taste of Fear / Scream of Fear (1961)
- Maniac (1963)
- Paranoiac (1963)
- Nightmare (1964)
- Hysteria (1965)
- The Nanny (1965)
- Crescendo (1970)
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