Peter Collinson, 1972
Starring: Rita Tushingham, Shane Briant
After lying to her mother about a nonexistent pregnancy, the young, lonely Brenda leaves her home in Liverpool and sets off for London. She finds a job and rents a room from a coworker, but what she’s really looking for is a man to love her. She comes across the beautiful Peter and kidnaps his mangy dog, later returning it — bathed and and prettied up — pretending this was an act of kindness. But Peter sees right through her, forcing her to admit that she wants a child with him, even though he’s a complete stranger. To her surprise, he allows her to move in if she’ll keep the house clean and look after for him, but little does she know, Peter has a dark secret.
Probably the farthest Hammer wandered from their Gothic films while remaining firmly within the horror genre, this late period effort contains elements of some of the studio’s post-Freudian thrillers like Hands of the Ripper and Demons of the Mind, but this is also the Hammer films that comes the closest to the British social realism popularized by films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Morbid and hopeless, there is nothing quite this in all of Hammer’s output, even in terms of the film’s style and visual themes. Though it is set in ‘70s London, this is a very different city than the one depicted in Dracula A.D. 1972 or The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
This is also one of Hammer’s few films to focus on a serial killer. Though there are a few murders, Straight on Till Morning utterly lacks graphic violence or gore, but still manages to be chilling. Though it gets off to a slow start, things kick off around the half hour mark when it becomes clear that Peter has homicidal feelings for anyone — or anything — that could be described as beautiful. He brutally murders his pet dog after Brenda puts bows in its hair and is seen, via numerous flashbacks, killing his paramours with a box cutter. Peter tape records his crimes and replays the screams of victims, recalling both Peeping Tom (1960) and the recorded voices of children in another Hammer suspense film, Fear in the Night (1972). And like the latter film, the central characters are clearly insane, or at best, disturbed.
I have to admit, I’m definitely the target audience for Straight on Till Morning’s major themes. I have a real weakness for these sort of psychotic romances — and there are a number of sweetly romantic moments, as well as some teary melodrama — and I also love handsome young psycho films, as exemplified by films like Psycho (1960) and more specifically British films like Night Must Fall (1964), The Collector (1965), I Start Counting (1970), And Soon the Darkness (1970), and The Night Digger (1971) — coincidentally all of which I’m reviewing for my British horror series. This would also make an interesting double feature with films like Bad Ronald (1974) and The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (1976), as there are numerous fairytale elements. Brenda, soon to be renamed Wendy, where she pretends she is a princess and writes children’s stories. Peter, is named after and identifies with Peter Pan; the title is even a quote from Barry’s novel.
Straight on Till Morning comes with a very high recommendation, particularly for anyone skeptical about Hammer’s output. Though it is a slow burn, the concluding ten minutes are absolutely devastating, despite a lack of overt violence. This is thanks to some great sound design, as well as unusual editing. The assured direction is from Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), a minor figure in British horror who helmed a few remakes — such as And Then There Were None (1974) and The Spiral Staircase (1975) — as well as Fright (1971). I should also mention the two leads, who almost completely carry the film and are fantastic. Shane Briant was one of Hammer’s last male stars, appearing in everything from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell to Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. This was his first leading role and it’s definitely one of his best. Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey) is admittedly not one of my favorite actresses, but excels at these sort of Plain Jane roles in a way that is completely believable despite her character’s often implausible actions. For a taste of misogyny and nihilism that was rare for Hammer, pick it up on DVD.