Wednesday, 26 June 2013


In the 1960s, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster made a jump from Gothic horror to the realm of sting-in-the-tail suspense.  It was a move the writer craved, as the Gothic was never a milieu that much appealed to him.  He drew inspiration, instead, from the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), directed by Henri Georges Clouzot.  Clouzot’s reputation rivaled that of Alfred Hitchcock in his native France , though his name never became quite as prominent on an international level.

Hitchcock had reportedly attempted to buy the rights to the novel upon which the film was based himself, and when Clouzot beat him to the punch, he persuaded the authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, to write him a fresh piece of material; he would use this material as the backbone for his masterpiece Vertigo (1958).  Les Diaboliques may not seem as fresh and vital today, but this is easily explained by the fact that it was ripped off many times – and nobody drew more inspiration from it than Sangster himself.

Indeed, while many critics would label the thrillers Sangster wrote for Hammer as “mini Hitchcocks,” the screenwriter was always quick to point out that they were truly “mini Clouzots.”  The series got off to a winning start with Taste of Fear (1960), which was directed by the gifted Seth Holt.  The film adopts the Diaboliques formula: an innocent woman is driven to the brink of madness by callous conspirators.

Taste of Fear proved successful with critics and audiences alike, and Sangster would follow up with Paranoiac (1962), Nightmare and Maniac (both 1963), Hysteria (1964), and Crescendo (1969).  The Nanny (1965) and the Richard Matheson-penned Die Die My Darling! (1964) are also often lumped into this series, but the former isn’t really much of a twist-laden shocker, while the latter was done without Sangster’s involvement.

One script that Sangster wrote during this time frame was titled The Claw, and it dealt with a woman being terrorized by a man with a prosthetic arm.  For whatever reason, it never saw the light of day in the 60s, though it would later be dusted off in 1972, when it would emerge as Fear in the Night.

The story is a simple one: psychologically fragile Peggy (Judy Geeson) goes to live with her husband Robert (Ralph Bates) at the boys boarding school where he as just been hired to teach.  While there, she begins seeing and hearing many strange things.  Could the one-armed, reclusive school master, Michael (Peter Cushing), be responsible?

As a thriller, Fear in the Night is pretty much lacking in thrills.  And as a suspense film, it’s also very much lacking in suspense.  The issue is in the casting, though not in the acting.  Everybody is cast much too much to type, thus making it easy to figure out who is trying to get one over on whom.  If Geeson and Joan Collins (cast, something unbelievably, as Cushing’s wife) had swapped roles, for example, the twists and turns of the scenario would have been a little less glaringly obvious.  As it stands, though, Geeson is very much in victim mode throughout, while Collins is her usual bitchy self.  Cushing’s role is very much of the red herring variety, and while it worked well enough with Christopher Lee in Taste of Fear, there’s never very much doubt that the character of Michael is pretty much harmless.  That’s not to say that the actors do a poor job – it’s not exactly a tour de force for anybody involved, of course, but the four principal players (especially Geeson) are in good form.

Much of the blame can be leveled at Sangster, who in addition to writing (with some polish by Michael Dyson), also made another crack at directing with this picture.  The film followed on the heels of Lust for a Vampire and The Horror of Frankenstein (both 1970), neither of which had gone over very well.  To his credit, Sangster displays  a little more flair behind the camera this time around – there are a few nicely staged sequences, and a memorable credits sequence with the camera prowling about the deserted school grounds before settling on the unexpected intrusion of a pair of feet dangling from the air, indicating that something has gone awry.  Indeed, there is enough here to make one wonder if maybe he didn’t have a much better film in him down the road.  As it stands, however, this would mark Sangster’s last outing as a director; he would spend the remainder of his career as a “jobbing” writer and a mercifully pragmatic interview subject.

Fear in the Night failed to ignite much interest, and it would later be released to VHS under the title Dynasty of Fear in an obvious bid to capitalize on Collins’ renewed popularity as Queen Bitch on the popular American soap opera, Dynasty.  It would mark the end of Hammer’s run of psychological thrillers, with the company limping through the next few years attempting to trade on their most popular franchises of yore, principally Dracula and Frankenstein

Written by Troy Howarth
Images and design: Marcus Brooks

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