Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dark Sky Films continues its series of Del Tenney films with Violent Midnight, a sexy murder mystery released under a different title, the much more commercial Psychomania. The independent thriller was filmed on a miniscule budget but benefits from producer Tenney's New York theater connections. The fine cast includes several notables in early film appearances and capable actors, many of them from Television soap opera, fill even the small parts. With its good performances the film immediately stands out as superior to its down-market competition.
Stamford, Connecticut. Successful artist Freeman (Lee Phillips of The Hunters and Peyton Place) has girl problems. He greets his sister Lynn (Margot Hartman) and delivers her to the nearby girl's academy, where some of the other students, especially the promiscuous Alice St. Clair (Lorraine Rogers) think he's the answer to their dreams. His favorite model Dolores Martello (Kaye Elhardt) tries to elicit a proposal from Freeman by playing him off against her biker boyfriend Charlie Perone (James Farentino, in his first feature). When the murders start, family lawyer Adrian Benedict (Shepperd Strudwick) is convinced Freeman is responsible because of a violent past after his experiences in the Korean War. A school instructor (Day Tuttle) also attracts suspicion, as he's a guilty Peeping Tom. Meanwhile Freeman is falling for wholesome local girl Carol Bishop (Jean Hale of In Like Flint). Detective Palmer (Dick Van Patten) has to sort it all out.
Maverick independent Del Tenny shows excellent commercial sense in Violent Midnight. Unlike the safer exploitation movies The Horror of Party Beach and The Curse of the Living Corpse, this psychological thriller hits a number of fresh themes. The troubled hero is a disturbed war veteran with an uncontrollable temper, an idea that would return in many a later exploitation film. Another potential killer is a motorcycle riding hot-head, three years before Roger Corman's The Wild Angels brought bikers back into vogue. A third suspect is a guilty voyeur. Finally, Tenney's film finds a sex angle by populating the film with a beautiful artist's model and a girls' school overflowing with man-crazy students. Add a Psycho- inspired mix of mental aberration and gory killing, and Violent Midnight is a progressive exploitation show with multiple promotional handles.
Writer-Director Richard Hilliard's somewhat mechanical script is populated with enough interesting characters to hide the identity of the killer from casual viewers. Dull Lee Phillips isn't a convincing artist but we accept the movie's notion that every woman in sight is instantly attracted to him. Jean Hale's fresh-faced Carol Bishop is associated with healthy outdoorsy activities, so even though he first meets her on unfriendly terms, we know she's the girl with the cure for whatever ails him.
Hilliard builds a nice spectrum of male characters. Well-known character actor Shepperd Strudwick is a sexless businessman and James Farentino assays a convincing ethnic hoodlum. Meanwhile, Day Tuttle sneaks around in a glorified bit as the sicko educator stereotype trying to get a peek at his skinny-dipping students. Director Hilliard cuts directly from all three suspects to the killer, who is seen only as a trench coat and gloved hands. That profile became a template for the later Italian giallo genre and its American slasher imitators.
Violent Midnight is very progressive when it comes to its roster of female victims, a smorgasbord of beautiful murder candidates. Kaye Elhardt is a sexy model and Lorraine Rogers a sexually voracious bad girl at the college. Both are perceived as troublemakers for Phillips and Farentino, with Elhardt claiming to be pregnant and Rogers flashing her wicked smile. The ladylike Jean Hale and Phillips' young sister Margot Hartman have to watch from the sidelines, as does the desperate barfly played by Sylvia Miles.
The film amps up the sex angle with several scenes of mild nudity and a fairly explicit seduction scene in the school utility closet between Rogers and Farentino. In his commentary Del Tenney says that his distributor ordered re-shoots to sex-up the picture, but I doubt that that's actually the case. By all accounts Psychomania was a shorter film, not a longer one, and none of the sexy shots look like pickups -- continuity and settings are identical. The full, sexy Violent Midnight would have been restricted to theaters playing nudie-type fare, so Savant is more willing to believe that specific shots were toned down and the sex scene removed for the film to play a wide pattern of drive-ins in 1964, two years after it was shot. Tenney's distributors were probably very pleased, as even with the sexy bits excised, Psychomania had plenty of exploitable content.
The film is reasonably well directed and has good audio, much of it looped in post. The B&W cinematography is undistinguished but serviceable and the editing is excellent, especially in the Hitchcock-influenced murder scenes. It's a textbook example of excellent value extracted from a low production budget.
Dark Sky / Monsters HD's DVD of Violent Midnight is a pristine transfer of well-preserved elements. The non-enhanced flat transfer could have been transferred 1:66 or even 1:77 judging by the title text blocks. It mattes off well on a widescreen monitor.
Dark Sky's extras include a photo gallery and some trailers, and Del Tenney's commentary. He has many interesting memories but doesn't go into specifics of how the production came about. He's certainly aware of his the appeal of his cast of actors, as is interview host Shade Rupe, who marvels at the cultural oddity of Sylvia Miles sharing a two-shot with Dick Van Patten. But Tenney either doesn't remember more about the film or is reticent to go into too much detail -- we don't hear about his personal connection with interesting personalities like Miles and James Farentino, or how he attracted his interesting (and trusting!) group of actresses.
Tenney does tell us that his previous assistant-directing and production experience was gained by working with the notorious Gerald Intrator of fare like Striporama and Satan in High Heels. That explains his ease with the adult content. It also makes us think that the film's 'hot' scenes were there from the very beginning. Violent Midnight is several cuts above the exploitation norm.
It's almost a shame that the film has to go out under its original title as finished on Del Tenney's uncut negative. For once, the crass distributors came up with something much more evocative. Violent Midnight is a pretty forgettable title, but we all remember Psychomania from the drive-in ads.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Violent Midnight (Psychomania) rates:
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Commentary with Del Tenney, Photo gallery, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.