Fear in the Night
I suppose the way you know that directing is such a difficult and important job is when you see a good writer turn to directing and make an absolute pig’s bloody breakfast of the whole thing. Because if you could give any old yahoo good actors and a good script and ‘Hey presto! Movie magic!’, then you wouldn’t have to sit through such bloody awful films like Fear in the Night.
Directed by Hammer writing legend Jimmy Sangster, it is a bafflingly bad movie. And one of the worst things about it is the script. It’s full of twists and turns alright, like a lot of Sangster’s thrillers, but you get the feeling that Jimmy started with the weird unnerving moments as ideas and then came up with ways to explain them. I’d speculate that his terrible, lazy, and sometimes non-existent explanations were because he was so busy choosing where the lights should go and what colour Joan Collins’ hair should be, that he forgot to write a proper script; but it turns out he’d been shopping it around for ages. Now, I am sure there were low moments in Jimmy’s pursuit of seeing this script filmed that he must have wondered whether the script was really any good, and whether it was all worth it. Well Jimmy, it’s a bit late now I’ll grant you, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that no it isn’t and no it wasn’t.
Because, good Lord, it takes its time to get going (and ‘going’ is a strong word for what it ends up doing). You see, the problem with having your terror come from everyday life being undermined by sudden bursts of creepy violence, is you had better make sure that this everyday life you’re portraying isn’t badly acted piffle. You can’t have twenty minutes of dull people being dull in dull rooms without sending people to sleep or running for the exits. All it left me thinking in the beginning was ‘Bloody Nora, England was a dull place in the seventies.’ Which, fair play Jimmy, for communicating the suffocating greyness of post-colonial stagnation, but could we get the eff on with it?
Unfortunately, at the middle of all this dullness is a dull person. Now, be fair, it’s not her fault she’s dull, as she’s playing possibly the most passive and patronised woman in the history of cinema. People are either telling her how pretty she is, how naive she is, or how that person who tried to strangle her was probably just a figment of her imagination so we don’t need to call the Police now do we? Incidentally, they never get around to explaining why the old woman who looks after her at the beginning and the doctor who treats her don’t call the police after she, weeping furiously and quite clearly scared out of her wits, pleads with them to call because she has been attacked. They seem jolly confident that’s the right thing to do, disbelieving a first hand account of assault on the basis of ‘Don’t be silly, girl!’ It’s got something to do with her having a nervous breakdown six months ago? Or something? Given the way people treat her throughout this movie I can well believe she was kidnapped by international terrorists and forced to eat rats for a year to survive and when she returned home and had a bit of a cry they locked her up in a mental hospital for being unreasonable.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just because she’s so… wet. She makes no decisions, at all; she is used, tricked, ignored, humiliated, and doesn’t do a single thing about any of it. In the end, what we have here is a dull person, doing nothing, in the middle of a movie whose suspense relies upon wondering what she’ll do. What could possibly go wrong with that idea?
Well, everything it turns out. The whole pathetic jumble of half-creepy moments and vague unease all exists in the service of possibly the most ludicrously complicated plan I have ever come across. I am going to spoil it for you, incidentally, because you should never see this movie. So, Peter Cushing is in it, right? It is a bloody crime to waste Cushing, but here he is, quite clearly being given no direction on whether to be creepy or menacing or fatherly. So he jumps from one to another, one moment to another, so that he is pretty obviously not a character at all but a walking, talking ‘Ooh! I bet it’s him!’ Anyway, he’s gone mad. EVERYBODY agrees he’s gone mad, there is evidence everywhere, including spooky recordings that we’re meant to believe are part of his illness, when that doesn’t make much sense at all. What does make sense though is Jimmy needs spooky recordings for one of the many ‘What is this creepy thing that’s happening? It is so inexplicable!’ moments that he sprinkles throughout this movie like so much cat food on the kitchen floor of your viewing experience, just waiting for the bare feet of your mind. So, he’s gone mad right? And Ralph Bates (blimey Ralph, am I losing patience with you) and Joan Collins want to bump him off for his money. So they devise a plan where Ralph gets married, MARRIED, in order that they can get his new wife to bump off Cushing by when they frame him for being the nutter that keeps attacking her. This plan fails, obviously. But the plan doesn’t fail because it’s crap. Even though it should because it is, Good GOD the holes in this plan; it doesn’t fail because the young woman at the centre of it grows up and comes to realise her own power and self-worth (nope, she sees nothing, understands nothing, does nothing, learns nothing - what a character!). No, it fails because Peter overhears them talking about the whole plan and so doesn’t fall for it. That’s it. No tricks, no cunning, no twist. He just overheard the silly buggers yabbering away about their murder plot.
But Jimmy has to have his creepy moments, they’re why I assume he’s making this insanely boring travesty. So, in one of the most audience insulting scenes I have ever seen, the dull lady shoots Cushing with the gun (like Ralph and Joan have planned) and Cushing goes down. Then as dull lady tries to escape Pete grabs her ankle. She screams and gets away but Pete keeps coming! How creepy! How supernatural! Want to know how he’s alive? Because Pete, having overheard their entire plan, puts blanks in the gun. SO WHY DOES HE FALL OVER?! What is he, having a giggle? Messing about? Nah, love, only fooling! Well, no, because he follows her silently all over the house. Not once, not once!, saying ‘It’s OK. Your husband and my wife cooked this whole thing up, everything’s fine!’ Clearly he decided the best way to handle the situation was to pretend to be an immortal psychopathic monster who would not ever stop until she was dead. Of course! How completely and utterly believable. Well done everyone.
Jimmy Sangster never wrote or directed another movie after this. No offence Jimmy, but that was probably for the best. I actually think you’re a terrific writer, which makes this terrible waste of celluloid and Peter Cushing’s time, so puzzling. I guess directing is not as easy as script, actors, boom! I will say one thing, the shot with Cushing’s broken lenses in his spectacles was pretty cool. It made absolutely no sense at all. But it did look good. Which just goes to show, if you look really hard, you can pull something from the wreckage of any waste of time. Speaking of which…