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Retro Review: FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972)

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FEAR IN THE NIGHT
(UK - 1972; US release 1974)

Directed by Jimmy Sangster. Written by Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson. Cast: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing, James Cossins, Gillian Lind, Brian Grellis, John Bown. (PG, 94 mins)

A minor late-period Hammer thriller that's rarely referenced today, 1972's middling FEAR IN THE NIGHT gets by almost entirely on atmosphere alone, set in an eerily empty boarding school that allows director/co-writer Jimmy Sangster to maximize the sense of isolation felt by the film's terrorized heroine. But the story is so rote, predictable, and ultimately silly that the payoff isn't really worth the buildup. Recovering from what's been unfairly deemed a nervous breakdown (someone slipped her a mickey in a restaurant) followed closely by an attack by a one-armed man that no one around her believes really happened, Peggy (Judy Geeson) leaves her job as a caregiver for elderly Mrs. Beamish (Gillian Lind) when she marries teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) after a whirlwind romance. Robert moves them to an isolated rural area outside of London where he's accepted a position at a boarding school run by headmaster Carmichael (Peter Cushing). But right away, something is off and naive Peggy never does quite pick up on it: there doesn't seem to be any other teachers aside from Robert, and she keeps hearing voices in classrooms but there's no sign of any students. Carmichael--who has a prosthetic left arm--acts weird around her, she gets a strange vibe from his much-younger wife Molly (Joan Collins), and she's eventually attacked again by a one-armed man, but an incredulous, dismissive Robert tells her to "sleep on it" before talking her out of calling the police.





Hammer fans will recognize recycled elements from other Sangster-scripted women-in-peril thrillers like SCREAM OF FEAR (1961), PARANOIAC (1963), NIGHTMARE (1964), and CRESCENDO (1970), with some dashes of classics like GASLIGHT and DIABOLIQUE for good measure. But some of the big third-act reveals are so obvious that you'll figure out that someone is trying to drive Peggy insane and frame her for a murder long before Peggy does, especially with Robert's behavior and the presence of Collins, cast radically against type as a scheming, manipulative bitch. Robert's confession to Peggy about why he's actually at the school and what he's actually doing for Carmichael is utter nonsense, and the ultimate trick pulled off by Carmichael just comes off as one contrivance too many. Despite its myriad flaws, FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a reasonably enjoyable Hammer suspense thriller if approached with shrugged shoulders and an appropriately diminished level of expectation. Geeson (best known for co-starring with Sidney Poitier in 1967's TO SIR, WITH LOVE and more recently emerging from semi-retirement to appear in Rob Zombie's THE LORDS OF SALEM and 31) turns in an appealing performance even though you'll wish she wasn't so meek, passive, and slow on the uptake. It's obvious from the moment he's introduced sinisterly grimacing while adjusting his prosthetic arm like Dr. Strangelove that Cushing's Carmichael can't possibly be the villain, and with what's essentially a four-character story, it doesn't take much sleuthing on the part of the viewer to figure out what's going on and who's responsible.




Having written trailblazing Hammer titles like 1957's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA among many others, Sangster saw his short-lived and largely negatively-received directing career end with FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which followed 1970's THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. All three of Sangster's films starred Ralph Bates, FEAR being the last of several unsuccessful attempts at grooming the young actor to be Hammer horror's heir apparent, selected to help nab the youth market as Cushing was pushing 60 and Christopher Lee was nearing 50. Hammer and Bates parted ways by the time FEAR IN THE NIGHT was barely released in the US in 1974, and it marked the only film to team Bates with Cushing, the legend he was supposed to succeed. The film is old-fashioned enough and completely lacking in the lurid sex and skin in which Hammer was beginning to indulge that, aside from the hairstyles and the fashions and one shouted "Bastard!," it could've been made a decade earlier.


Ralph Bates and Jimmy Sangster
on the set of FEAR IN THE NIGHT
For all its stale twists and predictability issues, FEAR IN THE NIGHT (just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead), is probably Sangster's most accomplished directorial effort from a technical standpoint. The money shot that concludes the opening credits sequence is legitimately creepy, there's some unusual cutting techniques that are well-handled, and the use of all the open space in the hallways and abandoned rooms at the school indicates that he may have caught some of the early hits of the Italian giallo craze. But without the shocking violence and the innovative style of a Dario Argento, FEAR IN THE NIGHT can't really compete in that field, and the story is so old-hat that most of the "surprise" twists are really just hoary cliches. Sangster (1927-2011) would soon leave Hammer behind, relocating to Hollywood by late 1972, where he became a busy television writer, only periodically dabbling in big-screen horror (he wrote 1978's THE LEGACY and 1980's PHOBIA) while focusing on TV shows like BANACEK, IRONSIDE, CANNON, MCCLOUD, MOVIN' ON, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, WONDER WOMAN, and B.J. AND THE BEAR.


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