Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Film Review: THE NIGHT WALKER (1964, William Castle)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Barbara Stanwyck (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LADY EVE, BALL OF FIRE), Robert Taylor (QUO VADIS, PARTY GIRL), Lloyd Bochner (POINT BLANK, THE DUNWICH HORROR), Marjorie Bennett (MARY POPPINS, MY FAIR LADY), Rochelle Hudson (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, STRAIT-JACKET), Judi Meredith (JACK THE GIANT KILLER, QUEEN OF BLOOD), Hayden Rourke (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS). Written by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, STRAIT-JACKET). Music by Vic Mizzy (composer of the themes to THE ADDAMS FAMILY and GREEN ACRES). Cinematography by Harold E. Stine (M*A*S*H, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE).
Tag-lines: "It will drive you to dream of things you're ashamed to admit!"
Best one-liner: "I CAN'T WAKE UPPPPPPPPPP!"

Now most William Castle horror flicks had a gimmick of some sort, but by '64, some would say that they were wearing a bit thin. ZOTZ! handed out plastic gold coinage, and STRAIT-JACKET wasn't even supposed to have one until Castle had some cardboard axes printed up at the last minute. THE NIGHT WALKER doesn't quite have a gimmick, but the trailer provides us with some ideas of what might have been...

We begin with some subjects (actors? though we are assured by voiceover that they are not) reliving their dreams under hypnosis- "All of a sudden we walk into a room, I turn around, there's no doors, there's no windows and I HAVE TO GO HOME!," "And as I go and kiss seems as though we're surrounded by mosquitos," or "...Only he's not wearing any clothes!" are a few of the gems. "What are dreams? What do they mean?"

Next, William Castle appears with a special warning:

"Do you know that a dream... CAN KILL YOU? Gruesome thought, isn't it?"

The warning continues, via title cards.


Now that's harsh. Farewell, 50's optimism. Farewell, "Scream at this movie, lest you become a victim of 'The Tingler'!", "Watch out for flying skeletons!", "Look through the 'Ghost Remover' pane of your glasses if you can't handle the ghosts!", and "Leave during the 'Fright Break' if you're too afraid!" They've given way to: "This movie will unearth your secret shames and leave you broken, depressed, and wishing the world would swallow you up." It's some rough stuff, but good 'ole Bill Castle is eager to lay it on us. Been taking some notes from Bergman, I presume. But it's sort of a metaphysical way to promote a horror movie- "this movie is only as scary as your subconscious... which is real scary."

Speaking of Bergman, THE NIGHT WALKER's opening scene is an avant-garde montage of ghostly, dream-like imagery nearly worthy of PERSONA.

We see ethereal, wind-blown hair, yawning nightmare-cavities, drifting human bodies, the leafing through of pages... While it's a bit heavy-handed at times (there's a giant floating Freud head!), I feel as if this sequence could be presented as evidence that William Castle is definitely not just a schlockmeister- he's a genuinely talented artist and craftsman whose interests happened to be ghostploitation.

"I know why my dreams seem real- because when I'm awake, my life with you is like a nightmare! My lover is only a dream, but he's still more of a man than you!"

THE NIGHT WALKER certainly flirts with 'Hag Horror,' and, as her interminable screams attest, Barbara Stanwyck has got the screechin' pipes to prove it. Stanwyck is taking her role (that of an aging, long-neglected wife whose nighttime fantasies are her only respite) very seriously, and as you all know, I really appreciate that. At one point she screams in the following manner:


I'd rather not waste time explaining the Gordian plot, which involves exploding laboratories, a horrific mannequin wedding:

handsome night callers who might be dreams...or they might be REAL:

some random rip-offs of DIABOLIQUE, spinning candles, a blind man who's always making remarks like "I'll see you around...well, of course I can't see you":

and repeated use of the line "I CANNNN'T WAKE UPPPPP!" Suffice it to say that a major element involves Robert Taylor being absolutely irresistible.

Readers: try not to hit your head on the keyboard mid-swoon.

In terms of other audiovisual talent: Vic Mizzy's spooky harpsichords, swingin' horns, and Dick Dale-style guitar riffin' make for a great (and severely contagious) score, even if it sounds a bit much like "Food, Glorious Food" from OLIVER! at times. Harold E. Stine's cinematography even accomplishes the Herculean task of occasionally approximating Antonioni!

In all, this is a solid piece of work. Not content to make the same picture again and again, Castle shows that he's capable of growth as an artist, as a craftsman, and above all- as a showman. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

1 comment:

Jason said...

Now I got that snazzy music from the trailer stuck in my head!