July 27, 2012

Fading Stars in the Dead of Night

Poster for The Night Walker (1964)
Now Playing: The Night Walker (1964)

Pros: Very effective, spooky atmosphere and imagery; great music score
Cons: Plot holes and continuity errors

The 1950s and early '60s were an era of "creative destruction" for the movie business. With the oligarchic power of the big studios long broken (United States vs. Paramount Pictures, 1948) and the big bad wolf of television threatening to eat the industry's breakfast, lunch and dinner, a new generation of independent pitchmen and showmen (and some conmen) stepped in to demonstrate a different, but profitable business model. They cleverly recognized that the postwar youth of America actually had some extra cash to spend and needed an excuse -- any excuse -- to get away from their so-square parents. The result was a seemingly endless stream of low budget flicks aimed exclusively at the youth market. Exhibitors were ecstatic to get their hands on a steady supply of cheap product and teens were happy to fill their balconies and drive-ins and make out as movies made specifically for them played on the big screen.

Of course, these movies didn't scare up business with glamorous stars' names on theater marquees. They got the kids' posteriors into the seats with a combination of lurid titles (e.g., I Married a Monster from Outer Space; I Was a Teenage Werewolf), equally lurid posters, cheap tickets, and cheesy promotions. The Big Cheese of promotions in the late '50s and '60s was William Castle (born William Schloss in 1914), who at first labored anonymously in the business, directing programmers in the 1940s and doing some TV, before reinventing himself as the P.T. Barnum of B pictures with Macabre in 1958. Castle's first great gimmick was to issue $1000 life insurance policies to theater goers insuring them against death by fright. Some theaters also had nurses in the lobby and hearses parked outside, standing by. Macabre was more plodding and atmospheric than a real fright-inducer, but the gimmick sold tickets, making the film an unexpected success and spurring Castle on to more imaginative promotions.

The next three Castle productions cemented his reputation as the Grand Guignol impresario of low-budget movies. It's no coincidence that these three represent his cheesiest, most imaginative promotions, and are the films he's primarily known for today (excepting Rosemary's Baby, which he produced but did not direct). House on Haunted Hill (1959) introduced "Emergo," which consisted of a glow-in-the-dark skeleton on a wire that was hoisted above the audience at a key point in the film. The Tingler (1959), featuring Vincent Price in an early B horror film role, jolted theater goers with electric motors hidden in select seats; this was supposed to represent the "tingling" sensation all humans supposedly experience when they are about to be frightened to death. 13 Ghosts (1960) was filmed in "Illusion-O," which required audience members to don special "ghost viewers" (really 3D glasses) to see the ghastly ghosts that the characters were seeing in the movie.

Barbara and Robert in a scene from The Night Walker
Barbara and Robert had been long divorced when they met
on the set of The Night Walker, but got along quite well.
Several years later, the success of neo-gothic thrillers featuring aging glamour stars of the studio era -- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette and Olivia de Haviland -- had Castle scrambling to put together similar packages in the hopes of striking box office gold. The Grand Guignol master countered with his own versions: first Strait-Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford as a reformed murderess who seems to have had a relapse, then another 1964 release, The Night Walker, with former A-list stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (who had also been married in real life).

With the revival of big name glamor stars in decidedly non-glamorous roles (and the movies themselves aimed at an older audience), Castle skipped the juvenile promotional gimmicks for Night Walker. It was enough of a coup to score two of the biggest names that big studio Hollywood had ever produced. According to Castle biographer John W. Law (Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle, Writers Club Press, 2000), Stanwyck was easy to persuade for the role, having recently regretted turning down the Olivia de Haviland role in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, which became a big hit. Castle wanted Stanwyck's ex Robert Taylor for the male leading role. Barbara was fine with the idea, but suggested Castle also get the blessing of Taylor's wife at the time. Taylor was also quite OK with playing opposite his ex-wife, telling the press, "Any actor who would turn down a chance to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck, under any circumstances, would have to be out of his head. She's certainly one of the pros in the business. I'm very enthusiastic about the film. It looks like it will be a pleasant experience." Later, asked how the production was going, he answered drily, "It's as if we were never married." (Ibid.)

The Night Walker was certainly different from anything Robert had made up to that time (elements of it are reminiscent of Stanwyck's role in the 1948 noir-suspenser Sorry, Wrong Number, but the overall tone is completely different). Stanwyck plays Irene, the oppressed wife of a blind, cruel millionaire, Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke). Castle and screenwriter Robert Bloch (author of Psycho) immediately put the audience on edge, as Trent is as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside-- wisps of hair cover his enormous, domed head, and he doesn't bother to hide his creepy, all-white occluded eyes behind dark glasses. (Rorke, best known for his role as the genial but befuddled psychiatrist on TV's I Dream of Jeannie, is unrecognizable under the heavy make-up.) Trent has been taping his wife as she talks in her sleep, and is convinced that she's having an affair. Except, Irene points out to him, that she practically never goes out of the house, and they never have people over, except for Trent's lawyer, Barry Moreland (Taylor). Trent confronts Moreland, but the lawyer indignantly denies any involvement with Irene.

The obsessed, jealous man can't let it go. His wife has clearly been dreaming about a lover night after night, and where there's smoke, there must be fire. After Moreland leaves, Trent confronts his harried wife again. He smirks like a snake as he tells Irene, "It's only because I love you darling, that I'm interested in everything you do and everyone you see." As the argument escalates and Trent demands to know who Irene's lover is, she screams at him, "My lover is only a dream, but he's still more of a man than you!" Ouch! Trent tries to strike her with his cane, but she flees the house. As the old man stands at the foot of the stairs calling to his wife, a muted explosion sounds from an upstairs laboratory (the reason for or purpose of the lab is never explained). Not seeing (and apparently not smelling) smoke pouring from the room, Trent enters and the door closes, whereupon he's apparently blown to bits in a much larger explosion.

The obsessed millionaire Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke)
Howard Trent seems a little worse for the wear
after his laboratory accident.
An arson investigator assures the new widow that, although there's a gaping 6 foot hole in the lab floor, the rest of the house is structurally sound and safe to live in. (He also tells her that the explosion and resulting fire was so intense, that Trent was literally blown into atoms-- an unlikely proposition.) The house may be structurally safe, but there's something wrong with it nonetheless. That night, Irene hears the tapping of her husband's cane, and sees the door to his study close. She hears yet another muffled explosion coming from the locked lab, and when she goes up to investigate, she encounters the animated corpse (?) of her husband shuffling toward her through the smoke, one side of his face hideously burned. She wakes up. Was it a dream?

Naturally spooked, she visits Barry the lawyer for help in selling the house. Barry explains that the house is tied up in probate and it will be months before she can put it on the market. Irene decides to move back to a small apartment in the back of her beauty parlor (she owned and ran the business before marrying the dreadful millionaire). The plot thickens as Barry starts to woo Irene. But he has a rival in Irene's dream lover (Lloyd Bochner), who seems to have become flesh and blood, calling on her in the dead of night to whisk her off to strange destinations. Irene's life has suddenly gotten very complicated-- she's gone from being a downtrodden housewife whose obsessive husband wouldn't even let her leave the house, to an attractive, rich widow with a real-life would-be suitor, a dream lover, and a dead husband who's still after her. Will she go mad, or perhaps suffer an even worse fate?

The Night Walker is long on eerie atmosphere and chock full of Barbara Stanwyck's throaty, blood-curdling screams. Like Psycho, Robert Bloch's screenplay hauls out its spooks and scares at odd points, never letting the audience settle into a predictable narrative flow. A bizarre wedding-from-Hell officiated and witnessed by wax figures is particularly creepy. The sound work is also quite effective, from the ghostly tapping of Trent's cane, to Irene's aforementioned screams, to the superb and moody score by Vic Mizzy. And of course, there's the inherent interest in seeing two former larger-than-life Hollywood stars working outside their comfort zones in a low-budget mystery-thriller.

The movie suffers from a few plot holes and continuity errors that occasionally spoil the carefully-built atmosphere. Trent's 2nd floor laboratory that figures into so much of the film's plot is never adequately explained-- what did he do there, what was it for? A character, Irene's beauty parlor assistant (Joyce, played by Judi Meredith) is introduced, seems to be nefariously involved in the mystery, and then is quickly and inexplicably dispatched. And at the climax, a character refers to some trick with the Trent mansion's clocks, which to that point had not figured in the plot at all (probably a scene that didn't make the final cut). On the other hand, the holes and inconsistencies add to the film's incoherent, dreamlike quality. Dreams within dreams.

Surreal image from the introductory sequence of The Night Walker
If you see this in your dreams,
you need to wake up fast!
Speaking of dreams, Castle, always trying to do something different, inserted an odd, animated sequence between the film's opening titles and Act I. Narrated by Paul Frees (whose rich, deep voice was utilized in a number of genre movies of the time), the sequence lasts for several minutes, and is a surreal, somewhat rambling mini-essay on dreams and nightmares:
When you dream, you wander into another world where everything is strange and terrifying, a world that only exists at night. When you dream, you become… a night walker!
A woman's face, half hidden in shadows, is suddenly supplanted by a fist clenching a staring eyeball. The woman screams. The scene is irised out, then Act I begins with the hideous, sightless Trent advancing toward the camera. Damn, but that is some good, weird stuff-- classic William Castle! I know this is going to make me sound hopelessly old and out of touch, but I wish there were more William Castles in movies today, and fewer Michael Bays.

Long out of print in the U.S., The Night Walker is hard to find on DVD or for downloading/streaming. It deserves better. A few sites offer foreign DVD releases that are playable on North American machines. Google Night Walker DVD and see what you find.

The mystery of dreams is explored in a surreal introductory sequence:

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