Fear in the Night (1972)
Fear in the Night (1972)
Director: Jimmy Sangster
Cast: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates
Synopsis: A young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown moves with her husband to a boys’ school, and finds herself being terrorized by a mysterious one-armed man, but nobody believes her.
Although Hammer is chiefly associated with horror movies, it also released a number of psychological thrillers in the early 1970s. Although they weren’t horror movies, their marketing campaigns traded heavily on the studio’s reputation in that genre. In the UK, Fear in the Night was released as part of a double bill with the similarly-themed Straight on Till Morning under the promotional banner of ‘Women in Terror!’ which perhaps suggests that the studio didn’t really have much confidence outside of its comfort zone. While the genres may have differed, their plots shared the same theme of a damsel in distress whose life is threatened by unknown, malevolent forces; only, in movies like Fear in the Night, the malevolent force was natural rather than supernatural.
If the quality of its opening shots had been maintained throughout, Fear in the Night would be something of a classic. The camera conducts an eerily atmospheric tour of a school’s deserted classrooms and fields, before eventually arriving in its garden and slowly panning across to reveal, in the foreground, the feet of a corpse hanging from a tree. It’s a sequence that skilfully establishes a mood of foreboding, of unpleasantness beneath a calm and ordered surface, and it deserves to be in a much better movie than Fear in the Night, which is touched by ordinariness for the rest of its running time.
The plot sees nervous, timid Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson), fearing for both her sanity and safety as she begins a new life with husband Robert (Ralph Bates – Lust for a Vampire) at an exclusive boys school. Robert is a teacher there, and the newly-married couple want to settle into their home on the school grounds before the new term begins. Peggy has only just recovered from a nervous breakdown she suffered six months earlier so, although we know the truth in her claim that she was attacked by a man with a false arm on the day she was due to leave her old lodgings, it’s met with scepticism by her doctor and dismissed by the police. When Peggy then insists she has suffered a second attack by the same assailant in their new home, Robert struggles to hide his doubts, which discourages her from calling the police a second time. But then, while Robert is in London for a conference, the stranger comes a-calling for a third time.
Atlhough director Jimmy Sangster attempts to create a mystery out of the identity of Peggy’s attacker, he’s hampered by the fact that, apart from her and Robert, the only other people at the school (and in most of the film) are the headmaster, played with an air of regretful distraction by Peter Cushing (I, Monster, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) and his abrasive wife (Joan Collins – Turn the Key Softly). The head seems genial enough, but there’s a disturbingly sexual undertone about the way he insists on removing Peggy’s hair band during their first encounter – and he also has a false arm (which Peggy doesn’t appear to notice) which should automatically put him at the top of anyone’s suspect list. Meanwhile, Collins’ character immediately demonstrates her predatory nature by shooting the little rabbit Peggy is attempting to befriend.
While the transparency of its plot prevents Fear in the Night from truly gripping its audience, the insipid nature of Geeson’s brittle character makes it virtually impossible for us to feel anything for her. She’s as pliable as a lump of plasticine, lacks the ability to think for herself, and is ultimately reduced to the role of spectator as the other characters decide her fate. I can’t help thinking that the film would have been much stronger if the story had been told from the viewpoint of the headmaster, but Sangster and co-writer Michael Syson seem mistakenly convinced that the twist ending is the story’s strong point when it is, in fact, merely a confirmation of what we suspected all along.
(Reviewed 8th December 2015)