In 1972, Hammer Film Productions released a double bill titled Women in Terror. With some influence from the giallo all’italiana film genre popular at the time, both films were psychological horrors including mystery elements. As the title of the double feature implied, the films focused on terrorized women and how a lack of comprehension about what was going on around them was at least as traumatizing and frightening as any threat of physical danger. Several years before slasher films would popularize the idea of the ‘final girl’, these films, and many like them, would focus on the stress placed upon a woman at the centre of a living nightmare. Unlike final girls that usually found an inner strength to combat the killer, the women in these films were often depicted in fragile mental states even after the danger was finally overcome. Of the two films in the double feature, I have chosen to concentrate on the second film, Fear in the Night.
Judy Geeson stars as Peggy Heller, a woman in her early twenties who is embarking on a significant life change. A week ago Peggy was married, seemingly in secret, and is now moving from London to a secluded boarding school in the English countryside where her husband, Robert (Ralph Bates), is a teacher. As Peggy has known Robert for only four months, this decision would seem a little impulsive. When you consider that Peggy has an innate distrust for men, recently suffered from a nervous breakdown, and is leaving her psychiatrist’s care to make this move, you know things are not going to go well. From the very start, Peggy’s mental stability is in question. While she is packing for her trip, a mysterious figure in a trench coat breaks into Peggy’s apartment and attempts to choke her. It is only by dislodging her assailant’s prosthetic arm that Peggy is able to fend off the attack. With no evidence of a break-in and Peggy’s known nervous condition, the assault is largely dismissed as a trick of Peggy’s imagination. The next morning, Robert picks up Peggy and drives her to the boarding school and, presumably, away from the whole experience.
The newlyweds settle into their cozy cottage on the grounds of the school. The next day Robert needs to run some errands for the owner/headmaster and, since it is between terms, Peggy decides to give herself a tour of the school. As she is wandering the halls, Peggy stumbles upon Headmaster Michael Carmichael, as portrayed by Peter Cushing. Cushing is, as usual, a delight, playing the headmaster as a proper, dignified, old gentlemen that is not unfriendly and yet with something slightly off about him. The character’s quaintness suddenly turns creepy when he segues from a discussion about knot tying into a request for Peggy to remove the scarf from her head so her “most beautiful hair” can hang free. The headmaster goes so far as to move behind Peggy to untie the knot in the scarf for her. In a clever move by the filmmakers, this allows the viewers to see that Headmaster Carmichael has a prosthetic arm without Peggy seeing it herself despite it actually touching her.
Shortly after her meeting with the headmaster, Peggy is again ambushed by her attacker from London. This time even Peggy doubts the reality of the attack and therefore agrees not to call the police. She is rattled enough, however, to want to stay with Robert while he does some work out on the grounds. If you are wondering why one of the teachers is acting as a groundskeeper, I don’t really have a good answer but Peggy never questions it. During their excursion on the twelve hundred acres owned by Carmichael, we are introduced to the final star of the film. Making her entrance as the headmaster’s wife, Molly Carmichael, is Joan Collins, and what an entrance it is! Molly shoots a rabbit sitting in the grass not two feet from where Peggy is crouching, strides into the clearing with rifle under her arm, clubs the rabbit to put it down, and demands to know what the hell Peggy is doing there. Dame Collins carries herself with the regal haughtiness that her fans came to expect. Despite not appearing in a lot of scenes, Collins’ presence is commanding as her sadistic character works to keep everyone off-balance and in her control. In a later scene, Molly Carmichael even manages to get in the famous Joan Collins slap almost ten years before Alexis Colby would administrator it on Dynasty.
Before long, Peggy has another run-in with the headmaster while her husband is again away for the school. Her frazzled condition and the realization that Michael has a prosthetic arm sends Peggy into a full panic. Before any words can be exchanged between them, she shoots Michael with the shotgun Robert conveniently left with her. For an elderly gentleman, Michael is quite resilient. He pulls himself to his feet and pursues Peggy into the school. Peggy shoots Michael again but, other than causing his spectacles to shatter, the second shot barely fazes him at all. Peggy is unable to handle any more and faints. When Robert returns the next day, he finds Peggy in an almost catatonic state. Although she does quietly respond to Robert’s questions, she denies anything unusual happened the night before. Robert confronts her with a blood stain in their living room and the fact that both barrels of the shotgun have been fired. Peggy initially claims she does not remember what could have happened and then starts making up weak excuses. Robert, in his own exasperated state, spends the day searching the school grounds before returning to the cottage to offer some much-needed exposition as we finally begin to learn what has been going on.
Fear in the Night does, unfortunately, rely too heavily on Peggy’s agitation as the driving force of the story. Despite some indication that she eventually understands, she withdraws in on herself and is a passive participant for the remainder of the movie. She cannot be blamed for this reaction given what she has gone through but it is disappointing that the character is unable to find an inner strength and fight back. Beyond that limitation, the film is quite enjoyable. The acting is good all around and the story builds at a suitably deliberate pace. Being able to ride along with Peggy as she grows increasingly distraught creates an anxious atmosphere. Full of little hints that things are not as they seem, the film is strong enough to avoid being overly obvious. A few things don’t entirely add up and the twists at the end are rather fantastical but that is all part of the fun.
Fear in the Night (1972) Directed by Jimmy Sangster; Written by Jimmy Sangster & Michael Syson; Starring Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Ralph Bates, & Peter Cushing; Available on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory.
This is my contribution to The Joan Collins Blogathon. Please check out some of the other contributors to the blogathon by clicking on the image below. My thanks to RealWeegieMidget Reviews for a smacking good time. Ouch!