Jimmy Sangster, 1972
Starring: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing
Robert, a school teacher in the English countryside, has just married an innocent young woman named Peggy. She relocates to the boys’ boarding school where he works, but has an uneasy transition: she’s recently recovered from some sort of psychological collapse and is convinced that an unseen man is attacking her. Because of her mental health, no one believes her, though the attacks continue at the school. When Robert goes away for a conference, she’s left alone with just the creepy headmaster and his beautiful, but cold wife, and someone seems to be trying to drive her completely mad.
Written, directed, and produced by Jimmy Sangster, this was originally supposed to be made in the mid ‘60s as part of Sangster’s black and white suspense series for Hammer but was (fortunately, in my opinion) delayed to the early ‘70s. Sangster will certainly never be remembered as the studio’s strongest director — though he was definitely their best writer — and he only stepped into the director’s chair for three films: The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Fear in the Night. Sadly, The Horror of Frankenstein is widely regarded as one of the worst in Hammer’s Frankenstein series — probably due to the fact that it’s essentially a black comedy and is the only film not to feature Peter Cushing — while Lust for a Vampire suffered a similar fate. I have to admit that I really enjoy both films, though this is largely due to the presence of later-era Hammer star Ralph Bates.
SPOILERS AHEAD: Here Bates co-stars as Robert, Peggy’s doting new husband. Admittedly, I prefer Bates when he’s allowed to be campy and over the top — he’s sort of a more handsome precursor to someone like Jeffrey Combs — as he is in films like the fantastic Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. But part of the strength of his performance is that he has to show restraint for the first 70 minutes of the film. In a sense, if you’ve seen one Sangster suspense film, you’ve seen them all, but that curiously doesn’t take away from the ability to enjoy them. Yes, this is yet another script about a psychologically fragile woman who is left alone with someone trying to drive her mad. Yes, it is also a film where the person she trusts most double-crosses her and has been withholding a secret motivation: her husband is having an affair with Molly, the headmaster’s wife, and the two have conspired to drive Peggy to murder Carmichael, so they can get away with his money.
Peter Cushing is sparsely used as Headmaster Carmichael, but is as fantastic as ever and makes the most of his totally bananas character — though it could be said that what makes the film great is the fact that it essentially pits four totally bananas characters against each other. Of course you have the obviously disturbed Peggy, played by Judy Greeson, (10 Rillington Place, Goodbye Gemini) who should annoy me but somehow is perfect for the film. Everyone makes a huge deal about how beautiful she is and even though she’s a grown woman (allegedly her character is 22), it feels like they’re all hitting on a 14 year old. It also becomes quickly apparent that Carmichael is off his rocker when he proudly displays a room full of nooses and knots; tying and untying them is apparently his passion and he makes quite a meal out of taking a scarf from around Peggy’s hair in an effectively uncomfortable scene.
The film’s real twist — which I am going to ruin right now, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know about it — is that Carmichael was the headmaster of a school, which burned down years ago. He used his considerable wealth to restore it, has hired Robert as a fake teacher, and maintains the illusion that he runs a packed school. He even plays recordings of his old classes over the loudspeakers, so the school is full of the sounds of children. I wish I was making that up, but it’s genius and, as I said earlier, fucking bananas. And you also have to consider the two “sane” characters, Robert and Carmichael’s wife Molly (Joan Collins, who is just as bitchy as ever). Robert seems normal enough, but, with a completely straight face, refers to Peggy as “the most normal person I’ve ever met.” Though he seems to find violence personally distasteful, he seems unfazed by the fact that Molly is an obvious sadist and makes disturbing sculptures in her spare time.
I could probably go on forever about my love for this film, so needless to say it comes highly recommended and is thankfully available on DVD — though you have to be a little patient with it. One one hand, the plot is easy to figure out, but it’s still full of surprises and is one of my favorite later era Hammer films thanks to a really strong cast and great performances all around. There’s no gore, no nudity, and very little violence, but if you can stick with the central mystery, Fear in the Night is more than worth it for the last ten minutes, when Peter Cushing’s unhinged headmaster has the last laugh and Ralph Bates has a total meltdown while screaming “you mad bastard!” I was also relieved to find a delightfully dark ending that manages to be redemptive — both the schemers wind up hoisted on their own petards, as it were — but with nothing really resolved, as Peggy and Michael are both left totally mad