Wednesday 5 April 2017

The Night Walker (1964)

Director: William Castle
Writer: Robert Bloch
Stars: Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Judith Meredith

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Drop the name of Robert Bloch, who would have been one hundred years old today, in polite company and the likelihood is that you’ll hear the very same word back from everyone around you: ‘psycho’. He wrote the novel of that name in 1959 and it became famous when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it onto film a year later. Bloch wrote two sequels, called Psycho II and Psycho House, though they’re unrelated to any of the subsequent film or TV sequels, prequels and remakes. However, Bloch was nothing like a one trick pony. He was a contributor to Weird Tales magazine, one of the youngest members of H. P. Lovecraft’s literary circle, and his early short stories are great takes on his mentor’s cosmic horror themes. After Lovecraft’s death, he diversified his writing to include a range of horror, science fiction and thrillers. His novels are of consistent quality but include gems like Night-World, American Gothic and Night of the Ripper, the latter two fictionalising real people, the serial killers H. H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper respectively.

Given the success of Psycho, we might expect that film studios would have leapt at the chance to adapt his other work, especially as his bibliography was expansive by that point. However, most of his work on film was as a scriptwriter rather than a source author. Unsurprisingly, many of his scripts were for genre anthology shows like Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with his name on ten episodes of each, but he also wrote three episodes of Star Trek, among many others. His screenplays for films included no less than five features for Amicus, the ‘other’ classic U.K. horror studio, including Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum; an odd couple, The Cat Creature and The Dead Don’t Die for director Curtis Harrington; and, perhaps most interesting, a pair of features for legendary exploitation filmmaker William Castle, both in 1964. The first was Strait-Jacket, which sees Joan Crawford murder a cheating Lee Majors with an axe, and the second is this unjustly neglected gem starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.

This was late in Castle’s career and he was riding high at the time as the king of the gimmick. All his most famous films date to the five year period prior to this, including House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus. However, he’d been directing since 1953 with Strait-Jacket his 50th movie and The Night Walker his 51st; he only had six left to come, with a six year gap between Project X in 1968 and his final picture, the fascinating Shanks in 1974. I’ve enjoyed a wide range of his work, but there’s just something special in his horror films and pairing him up with another legend like Robert Bloch was never going to disappoint. These two films make for a fascinating double bill, each of them taking a classic Hollywood actress and having her dance with insanity. The pair play out differently but there are commonalities between them that run deeper than just the involvement of this pair of genre luminaries. I can only dream about where that partnership could have taken them, had they worked together longer.

The worst thing about this movie is the beginning, for two reasons. One is the meandering introductory monologue, which feels like it runs a lot longer than the two and half minutes I just timed. ‘What are dreams?’ asks Paul Frees in a playful voice. And you know that voice, I know it, whether it be from one of hundreds of films, TV shows, cartoons, commercials or radio shows, even as the Ghost Host of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attractions. Reportedly, he was earning fifty grand a year in the early seventies just for providing a voice to the Pillsbury Doughboy. He’s great and the surreal visuals that interpret him are great, but I wish they’d been cut much shorter. The other reason is the theme tune, presumably by Vic Mizzy, which drove me nuts for a couple of hours until I figured out what he’d pinched it from. It’s Food, Glorious Food from Oliver!, which didn’t reach the big screen until 1968 but premiered in the West End four years before this. Maybe Mizzy went to see it on Broadway in 1963.
The best thing about the movie is the rest, especially the freaky dreamlike tone that pervades it which begins with the first scene: a man with sightless eyes walks into his wife’s bedroom, to find her asleep but muttering about someone else. ‘Hold me tight,’ she mutters. ‘I love you.’ He’s Howard Trent, a rich man who’s jealous of a man who apparently doesn’t exist. He’s played by Hayden Rorke, who was in his early fifties and younger than he looks here. He was an experienced actor, this being the last but one of his fifty features, but it would be another year before he’d find his most recognisable and abiding role, that of Dr. Alfred Bellows in I Dream of Jeannie. His wife is Irene Trent, who likes the idea of a perennial dream visitor about as much as her husband does. She’s played by Barbara Stanwyck, taking a role that would gone to Joan Crawford had she not signed on to Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (and then left it again). This was Stanwyck’s last feature, though she’d soon become a busy television actress with The Big Valley.

Howard Trent torments himself mercilessly. He records his wife while she sleeps so he can listen to her subconscious infidelity on a nightly basis; it’s the same dream, night after night. He invites Barry Morland, his attorney, over to ask his advice and practically accuses him of being ‘the other man’. He can’t sleep, knowing that she’s dreaming of this mystery man, even though his insomnia has the side effect of proving that he doesn’t ever show up. And his torment is contagious, because it torments Irene in turn. After that awkward meeting with Howard, Morland asks Irene who the man is. She has no idea, but she tries it on with Barry just to see what it feels like to be unfaithful. ‘Do you want to kiss me, darling?’ she suggests, seductively, but it goes nowhere because neither of them want it to. It’s a weird quandary, one that ends with a fantastic argument with the aid of some great shots down the stairs. ‘My lover is only a dream, but he’s more of a man than you!’ she screams at her husband, he hits her and she runs out of the house.
Next thing we know, the house is on fire and a mysterious explosion upstairs apparently claims the body of Howard Trent. It isn’t found, but he’s assumed dead, given that everything’s melted within the blast radius of his laboratory. A fireproof door saves the rest of the house and Irene has to adapt to life on her own. She finds it difficult, because her dreams still plague her, especially as she hears her husband’s cane tapping its way about and sees his horribly burned features glowing in magnificent black and white. But hey, at least it’s a new dream, right? Well, she doesn’t want that one either so she moves out and into an apartment behind a beauty salon she owns. Of course, it doesn’t help because, if it did, we wouldn’t have a movie, but the mystery deepens when her dream man actually shows up in the form of Lloyd Bochner, at the other end of his screen career to her. He has a great voice and it’s not surprising to find that he eventually found his way into the wonderful world of voice acting.

Largely free from the light-hearted fun that peppered many of Castle’s macabre classics, The Night Walker is both a mystery and a horror story. Both angles are unsurprisingly Hitchcockian, as Irene Trent wonders if she’s going mad, often unsure if she’s awake or asleep; this is explored wonderfully by the Dream not just showing up in her apartment but taking her first to a hotel and then to a chapel, where they’re to be married. The mystery enters Vertigo territory when she elicits the help of Barry Morland, who is now her attorney, to drive her around trying to find the places she visited in her dream. The oddest thing is that they find them, though, of course, they’re empty and feed the idea that she’s mad. The horror stems not only from the mad mystery but from an array of details that surround it, not least that everyone in the wedding chapel, including the priest who conducts their service, appears to be a waxwork dummy. I absolutely adored the ever-spinning chandelier of candles too; that was neatly freaky.
The lead actor is Robert Taylor, playing Barry. After all, Rorke and Bochner come and go periodically in Irene’s dreams; Barry is tasked with dealing with everything when she’s awake, which naturally gets increasingly complicated. Taylor was a decent actor who worked for a major studio but his career never found the spark it needed to make him one of the greats, even though MGM had him on contract for 24 years and started billing him as ‘The New King’ after Clark Gable left in 1953. He seems very old here, though not through make-up like Hayden Rorke; it’s probably the three packs of cigarettes a day he smoked throughout his life; only four years later, he’d be diagnosed with the lung cancer that ultimately claimed his life. When I think of Taylor, I think of a young man, like he was in A Yank at Oxford in 1938 around the peak of his career (he’d made it up to third in box office appeal in 1937). The Giussani sisters based the look of their comic book character Diabolik on him, the one John Phillip Law played in 1968.

While watching, what grabbed me were the twists and turns of Bloch’s script, as brought to visual life by Castle and his DP, Harold E. Stine, who would later be Oscar-nominated for The Poseidon Adventure; this was late for black and white photography, but it’s an accomplished horror take on film noir shadows. Only once it was over did I realise that one other factor that I enjoyed immensely was the age of the lead actors. Taylor was 53 when The Night Walker was released and he looked older; Rorke was a year older and played older still. At 57, Stanwyck was three years older again, though she looks younger here than her younger co-stars. It won’t surprise you to know that the average age of the stars of a horror movie is not usually as high as the mid-fifties; I’d be shocked to find it as high as the mid-thirties myself because horror movies are a teenager’s game. Sure, this was made during the odd boom of the hagsploitation picture, thanks to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, but this goes far beyond that sub-genre.
In fact, it could be argued that Robert Bloch was deliberately subverting the hagsploitation genre, after exploiting it earlier in the year with Strait-Jacket. He was always one to see things in different lights, hence his playful use of language in collections like Tales in a Jugular Vein and Fear Today, Gone Tomorrow; and his frequent use of real historical figures in fictional settings. Maybe he felt he had done the hagsploitation thing with Strait-Jacket and didn’t want to repeat himself, but was willing to subvert it by creating an odd variation on the theme which plays with the expectations of the audience and keeps us guessing until the end. I can’t talk too much about the finalĂ©, because there are a few twists here that I should absolutely not spoil, but I will say that there’s a wonderful instance of a character removing a disguise. It isn’t just who’s in the disguise and whom the disguise is of, but in how it’s done and, above all, how it’s undone. It’s one of those memorable moments from classic horror cinema that should be in all the clips.

While I’m watching for Robert Bloch, in order to celebrate his centennial, and it’s a highly underrated and overlooked example of his film work, the screen belongs to Barbara Stanwyck. Well, and Harold E. Stine, but Stine’s film career would continue on while Stanwyck’s wouldn’t. He shot three more pictures for William Castle, for a start: The Busy Body, The Spirit is Willing and Project X. It seems more appropriate to highlight Stanwyck here because she didn’t make another picture, concentrating on television for the last couple of decades of her screen career, finishing up on The Colbys in 1986. This is so late in her career that it had been a dozen years since she’d divorced her second husband who was, coincidentally, Robert Taylor, and they were married for thirteen years. The former couple appearing together again was one of the draws of the movie in 1964, but it wasn’t enough to make it a success. Now over half a century old, it’s mostly forgotten, but it deserves reevaluation as a notably freaky horror thriller with twists.

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