Who was that groundsman and what did he think he was doing?

Fear in the Night

Directed by: Jimmy Sangster

Written by: Jimmy Sangster and Michael Syson

Featuring: Judy Geeson, Ralph Bates, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing

Peggy marries schoolteacher Robert ‘Bob’ Heller after a whirlwind romance soon after recovering from a nervous breakdown. She moves to the countryside to live with Bob at his cottage in the grounds of the private boarding school he works at. The school is owned by the headmaster Michael Carmichael an enigmatic and strange figure. Unfortunately for Peggy on the eve of moving from London to the school she is attacked by man in her room, she does not see the assailant, but his prosthetic arm comes off and falls to the floor in the struggle (it really does) which he scopes up and runs off with (I think, I cannot remember to be honest but if he does not it ruins the next bit). No one believes Peggy because of her past (too familiar) and after she gets to the school and meets the mysterious Carmichael, she realises he has a mechanical prosthetic arm.

It was nice to take a dip into the seventies output of Hammer, although Fear in the Night is definitely one of the lesser-known efforts from that stalwart company. No real horror, gore, sex or violence, the terror and horror are all psychological and the intentions from the very first scenes are to leave the viewer guessing what is happening or going to happen. It is all very Les Diaboliques even to the point of mainly being set in an out-of-term boarding school. From 2021 looking back to 1972 it easier for the viewer to establish fairly quickly what is going on and what the motives are, particularly if you happen to like horror films, especially with a psychological touch.

The acting, in what is a very tight four-person, mainly single setting, film is admirable throughout with Judy Geeson very much being the film’s focus from start to end, she is in more or less in every scene, and it great to see she was able to carry that load easily. Coming off the back of some big films at this stage in her career this is understandable but nevertheless the camera followed her story from beginning to end. Not easy. Supported by Dear John’s Ralph Bates, who had been in some more gothic Hammer horrors at this stage, the couple are believable in a very bland and brown seventies way. Geeson is clearly damaged goods and demure which to Sangster and production’s credit is not the intent of the film, it is just her character. Joan Collins rolls up as the femme fatal as the unlikely wife of the ever-reliable Peter Cushing. Cushing clearly had scheduling conflicts to such an extent that near the end he is a voice-over a speaker system, Cushing never gave anything but his best no matter the quality of the film and here he is no different as the very strange headmaster Michael Carmichael. Cushing never shared any screen time with his ‘wife’.

That in a nutshell is the cast and who they are. What goes on from that point is up to you to find out by watching the film.

The overall cinematography is well-lit and generally very seventies, not too many dark corners or corridors which gives the story of authenticity that a spookier setting would not given the time period and I particularly enjoyed one on location scene with Bates and Geeson are at a rather uninspiring and drab Granada service station, getting into their brown and boxy car. This is Britain, there is no mistaking that.

The sets are effective with the school empty, and everything mothballed for the summer holidays, dustsheets everywhere, not exactly spooky but good foreshadowing, I once worked in boarding school in the summer holidays that was in exactly that condition, Peggy and Bob’s cottage in the grounds is massive and Bob’s summer term job as a teacher is extremely cushty. Nothing is untoward in the ‘what you see the actors walk and run through’ imagery but there is enough there to raise a wry smile.

The screenplay is palpable nonsense the longer it goes on and is easily the weakest point if you are in possession of the plot-hole lorry you will not even scrape the sides as you drive it through the holes. Probably due to budget restraints I got the feeling of a product finished by not varnished. From the start we are jumping about timelines, but then that idea is forgotten, there is a framing narrative of Geeson’s character Peggy talking through events before, or after the story’s events we do not really know, with a psychiatrist, she had a ‘nervous breakdown’, that seemed to be going somewhere, with possibly a huge shock reveal at the end, this stops entirely halfway through the film.

The acting carries this film through, Geeson in particular is very believable in her emotions and expressions throughout, apart from one very silent-film reaction near the end, which was probably directing instructions, Bates and Cushing are good, although perhaps Bates’ is easy to ‘suss out’ early on, as is Collins who plays a variant of some of her later film and TV productions characters. So much so when you are introduced to her character halfway through the film you know you would say ‘What the heck are you on about?’ but we are in filmland here, not real life.

As a suspense thriller Fear in the Night works, the word suspense also working for your disbelief too as situations that arise the longer the film goes on get too silly.

I particularly enjoyed some ADR where actor’s voices were noticeably clear and precisely spoken but the foley was better, the Land Rover used sounded as if it had a bang of hammers for an engine.

My two favourite questions are, why the rabbit in the wood is full of red wax and who the heck was the groundsman?

As I have already stated this is Hammertasticly enjoyable, no gore or overt violence, and a ‘who is doing what to who and why’ plot but depending on your viewing habits, and I would imagine people reading this watch a lot of films, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that is going to come as surprise or shock to you. Particularly near the end.

Watch it for fun, watch it for a tightly plotted little thriller that runs at just over half an hour and does what it sets out to and then ends. If only films nowadays were more like that.

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