December 17, 2010

Leslie Nielsen, 1926 - 2010

Dark Intruder (1965)

I love the goofball Leslie Nielsen from Airplane and the Naked Gun and Scary Movie franchises. I'm also old enough to remember and appreciate his first Hollywood incarnation as a leading man and dramatic actor. If he had done nothing else but the role of J. J. Adams, commander of the C-57D Starcruiser in Forbidden Planet, I would still remember him fondly.

Fortunately, Nielsen left a long, rich legacy of acting roles -- both dramatic and comedic, in film and TV -- that we can enjoy for many years to come. Dark Intruder, a failed TV pilot turned theatrical release, highlights Nielsen's ability to pull off the leading role of an insouciant, devil-may-care playboy in a dark, atmospheric horror thriller.

Dark Intruder is lean and thrillingly mean at a spare 58 minutes (reflecting its origins as a TV pilot for a series that was to be called "The Black Cloak"). The title sequence strikes just the right note with suitably haunting music and effective graphics of menacing eyes peering out from a thick blanket of fog. After establishing the 1890s San Francisco setting, Intruder quickly gets down to business: a woman in a nurse's uniform runs screaming from an upstairs apartment, fleeing down inky black alleyways with an unseen, growling thing close on her heels. We see the thing in silhouette, a human shape in hat and cape, hunched over the unfortunate woman. Moments later, we see her dead at the foot of a wrought iron gate with claw-like marks on her face. The camera pans to a carving of some misshapen totem dropped next to the body. The scene is reminiscent of (perhaps even a tribute to) House of Wax (1953) with its own memorable misshapen, yet obviously human, thing stalking young women down shadowy, turn-of-the-century streets.

The scene quickly shifts to the lush apartment of our protagonist, occult expert Brett Kingsford (Nielsen), who is eyeing newspaper headlines about the latest murder. Kingsford, dressed in an elegant smoking jacket and nursing a hangover, reluctantly greets an opulent young lady friend, Evelyn Lang (Judi Meredith), who breezes in carrying the latest purchases for her upcoming wedding to Kingsford's best friend. Here we have a humorous, light-hearted few minutes of exposition, with Evelyn baiting Kingsford, who can barely hide his exasperation. The contrast with the first grim couple of minutes couldn't be more jarring, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon (The Lodger, 1944; The War of the Worlds, 1953) skillfully sets up the movie (and the hopeful TV series) while letting Nielsen and Meredith exercise their comedic chops. Meredith especially is so breezily good that the abrupt change in mood can easily be forgiven (see the clip below).

Evelyn (Meredith) briefly stops to remark on the motto that hangs prominently in Kingsford's apartment: Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium ("Everything Ends in Mystery"). The light mood quickly turns dark again as the protagonists deal with more murders, puzzle over the demon carvings left next to each corpse, and discover a connection to a mid-nineteenth century archaeological expedition (shades of the Mummy!) To add to the mystery, Evelyn's bridegroom-to-be and Kingsford's friend Robert  (played with melancholic intensity by Mark Richman) begins having spells, and worries that he may have something to do with the grisly string of murders. In quick succession, Kingsford gets a lesson about Sumerian demons from an oriental mystic (Peter Brocco), and has his fortune told by a hooded soothsayer, Prof. Malaki (played by a completely unrecognizable Werner Klemperer of Hogan's Heroes fame). He soon intuits a diabolic pattern behind the serial killings.

The other star of Dark Intruder is John F. Warren's rich black and white photography, which, coupled with the detailed Victorian production design, lends a big budget feel to the proceedings. After filming a number of low-budget films in the 1950s (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Colossus of New York, The Cosmic Man), Warren spent the '60s exclusively lensing TV shows, including this failed pilot. Veteran TV director Harvey Hart maintains a quick, deft pace, and adds a number of unusual angle shots to keep the viewers' interest. Alas, Intruder doesn't always rise above its humble TV origins. Several times Hart makes the mistake of showing the shadowy murderer's claw-like hands, which have a cheap costume-shop-latex-rubber look to them. And most of the music, including Evelyn's perky theme, sounds like schlock TV stock. Rod Serling fans might blame the movie's deficiencies on producer Jack Laird, the man who later stepped in to produce a portion of Serling's Night Gallery series. Laird drove Serling to distraction by insisting on inserting painfully unfunny gag segments between the tales.

Alternately amusing and chilling, Dark Intruder is several orders of magnitude better than the TV fare of its day, and a worthy part of Leslie Nielsen's bountiful acting legacy. A good quality DVD copy is available from Sinister Cinema.

2 comments:

  1. Brian, this was one of those movies I waited years to see (I finally picked up a copy on eBay in the 1990s). I agree with your assessment. Since it was a pilot for a TV series, it's too bad a continuing show wasn't produced. If it could have maintained the same atmosphere and quirky tone, it could have been fun.

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    1. I wasn't even aware of the existence of this pilot (or I had long forgotten it) when I saw this listed in the Sinister Cinema catalog. You see just a hint of the comic talent that Nielsen would exploit so well later in his career.

      Another very good failed pilot turned theatrical release is Chamber of Horrors (1966; originally House of Wax), which I review here:

      http://filmsfrombeyond.blogspot.com/2011/08/grand-guignol-gimmickry.html

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