Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Nothing but the Night (1972)


Adults use a lot of rather creepy threats to keep children in line.  “The boogeyman will get you.”  “You’ll shoot your eye out.”  “You’ll go blind if you keep that up.”  My grandmother used to say she’d put me outside for the gypsies if I didn’t behave.  True to her word, one night she did, in fact, lock me out of her house at night, and I was left to wait (for what felt like hours but was likely only a few minutes) in sheer terror for the gypsies to snatch me up.  I swore I could hear the clip-clop of their horses’ hooves (no doubt engulfed in the very flames of Hell) on the then-brick road leading to her place.  Needless to say, I was scared shitless but pretty well-behaved after that.  But what we also had in my area was the Kis-Lyn reform school for boys, and this was the place where the bad kids were left to fend for themselves from the other bad kids, according to popular gossip.  The mother of a friend of mine even packed his things in a suitcase and dropped him off at the doorstep of a different local boys’ home which he believed was Kis-Lyn to put the fear of God in him.  Even though the school had been closed for eight years by the time I was born, you would still hear the name bandied about as a form of punishment for some time.  It’s funny, most parents today wouldn’t dream of intimidating their children with some of the things with which we were coerced into good behavior.  But the impact was immediate and undeniable (at least in the short term).  The kids at the Inver House orphanage in Peter Sasdy’s Nothing but the Night (aka The Devil’s Undead aka Castle of the Living Dead aka Devil Night aka The Resurrection Syndicate) get the double whammy of being menaced not only with death but also with the far worse fate of becoming adults. 

On the Scottish island of Bala, various elderly people are murdered, all of whom are trustees of the Van Traylen Trust which funds the Inver House orphanage.  Colonel Bingham (Sir Christopher Lee) calls on acquaintance and pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing) to help him investigate after a busload of children crashes with more trustees aboard.  One survivor, the young Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong), holds the key to all the answers.

Nothing but the Night is a deceptively simple thriller with a rather dark underbelly.  The greatest and clearest piece of that seedy dark side is in how the children in the film are treated.  Kids in this film are little more than pawns.  For the trustees of the orphanage, they are vessels to be filled with their selfish venality.  For Mark and Bingham, they are clues to a deeper mystery.  Bingham even admits that the whole reason he wants the case is because a friend of his was involved; the deaths of the children on the bus are “incidental.”  Mark resents being pulled into the whole affair, only getting involved because he doesn’t like being put in his place by the hoi polloi.  For Dr. Haynes (Keith Barron), children are painful memories screaming to be dragged out into the light of day.  For reporter Joan Foster (Georgia Brown), they are a hot, tabloid-y story to be exploited and splashed across the front page.  For Anna Harb (Diana Dors, in full-on late stage Shelley Winters mode), her daughter Mary is a piece of property, her ownership of which is more important than the girl’s well-being, and this isn’t the only reason that Anna is a poor candidate for motherhood.  Never are the children really treated as individuals, Mary being the exception as she’s the sole clue to what’s going on.  Despite the protestations of the adults who claim to have the children’s best interests at heart, they are more intent on probing them to satisfy their own ends.  It’s a tragic statement on the callous abuse of children as things, and it’s all the more terrible in this instance, because the children are already considered castaways, unwanted by society, and therefore, prey.

In this vein, but to a lesser degree, are issues of identity and maturation.  The orphans are a collective.  We see them playing, and that’s about it.  Mary, as the focus of the narrative, is the exemplar for the film’s depiction of the aforementioned themes.  On the fateful bus ride, she is the cheerleader, conducting her fellow children in a variation of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  She usually has the innocent exuberance we expect from a girl her age.  This is the genesis of the person she should grow to become; it should be a process.  Her “repressed memories,” then, are the loss of her childhood identity/individuality and the domination of a new identity, an adult one.  That these two actions are instantaneous and simultaneous is indicative of their nefariousness.  There is no development.  There is only the loss of childhood, and this absence is what produces monsters.  The juxtaposition of virtuous children with iniquitous adults and the unification of the two is where the film derives its horror.

The film’s tonal shift from giallo-esque thriller, a la What Have You Done to Solange? (sort of), to science fiction/horror film is rather jarring, even though the groundwork is laid out from the beginning.  Said groundwork, however, is cleverly disguised with a few guileful twists you probably won’t see coming because the filmmakers wisely don’t emphasize them.  Lee and Cushing get to play on the same side of the moral coin, much like in the superlative Horror Express, though Cushing infuses his character with just enough of his classic Baron Frankenstein portrayal to give yet another in a long, long list of fantastic, fully-realized performances.  The locales are all gloomy, casting a predetermined pall over the proceedings.  Sasdy (primarily a television director [most notably responsible for the 1972 production of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape], though he directed a few films, such as Hammer Studio’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of the less traditional offerings in the series but no less worthy) brings a workmanlike sense of direction that grounds the film in a reality which is both straightforward and twisted.  Overall, the film is satisfying, and the aftermath is chilling, but I can’t help but think what could have been had Sasdy and company played the story straight.  I know I would like to have seen more entries in a franchise featuring Bingham and associates (this was the first and the last film produced by Lee’s Charlemagne Productions; it was adapted from a series of novels by John Blackburn, and the original plan was to produce more of them).  Especially if the dynamic lead duo from this one starred in them.  Alas…

MVT:  It’s Lee and Cushing all day long.  It usually is when they appear onscreen together, and this is no exception.

Make or Break:  The finale slaps all the pieces together, but I could see it not working for some people.  That, and that the reveal of a certain character’s fate made little sense to me, considering the timeline of the film.

Score:  6.5/10

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