Millionaire artist and troubled Korean War veteran Elliott Freeman (Lee Phillips) - he "flipped his lid when one of his buddies bought it" - is being investigated by Detective Palmer (Dick Van Patten)* after the grisly stabbing of Elliott's nude model and former lover Dolores (Kaye Elhardt). For one thing, Elliott was seen fighting over her with local hoodlum biker Charlie (James Farentino) and, we learn, he may have been behind the shotgun murder of his father years before - a murder hushed up and ruled accidental thanks to slick family attorney Adrian Benedict (Shepperd Strudwick).
There's no shortage of suspects, from voyeuristic girls' college Professor Melbourne (Day Tuttle) and Benedict's hulking mute chauffer Max (Mike O'Dowd) to Charlie's jealous and grotesque sometime biker-chick lover Sylvia (Sylvia Miles). Meanwhile, Elliott's newly-arrived half-sister Lynn (Margot Hartman, Del Tenney's wife) and his newfound girlfriend, perky college girl Carol (Jean Hale), thicken the plot and threaten to be the killer's next victim.
Though for years movies like Violent Midnight were dismissed as low-budget junk, recently critics are beginning to reevaluate these pictures. The Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. / Jack H. Harris films out of Pennsylvania, for instance (The Blob, The 4-D Man) are now recognized as clever low-budget sci-fi films with surprisingly smart characterizations and production ingenuity. East Coast productions like these were certainly far superior to most same-budget Hollywood films, from the hopeless ineptitude of writer-director Ed Wood's movies to the contempt-laden oeuvre of producer Jerry Warren.
Violent Midnight's brief nudity and sexual situations struck critics at the time as cheap exploitation, but in fact it's simply a movie made for adults with adult themes, content almost unheard of for a commercial feature at this budget level. The acting, too is a surprise. Most cheap films produced outside of Hollywood, including Denney's own Horror of Party Beach, have terrible performances, yet almost everyone in Violent Midnight is excellent, with most of the cast New York-based stage and TV actors.
And where most directors of cheap movies sacrifice all imagination in the name of expediency, dominating their pictures with static medium shots designed to burn up as many script pages as possible, director Richard Hilliard and cinematographer Louis McMahon show much imagination throughout with a wide variety of set-ups that really service Robin Miller's script. Of the many Psycho imitators, Violent Midnight's first murder, really the only scene directly imitating Hitchcock's film, is almost unique from this era in that it clearly understands what made the shower scene work in the first place, employing similar subliminal cuts. Overall, one easily imagines the entire the cast and crew working 20-hour days giving it their all, trying to make Violent Midnight as good a film as was possible, and by and large they succeed.
Video & Audio
Violent Midnight's transfer is disappointing. Where Horror of Party Beach and Curse of the Living Corpse are properly 16:9 widescreen, Violent Midnight is incorrectly formatted at 4:3 full-frame, even though the compositions and opening titles (a dead giveaway) crop near-perfectly at 1.77:1. Unfortunately, zooming in the image creates other problems as there is much digital artifacting, especially obvious during the film's many forest and lakeside scenes, where the swaying branches and splashing water don't translate well at all. Ironically, the original film elements otherwise look pristine; you can see every blemish on the actors' faces.
Another plus is that Violent Midnight may amount to a "director's cut" - it's highly likely that the film's steamier aspects were trimmed to earn the picture a wider run on the drive-in circuit. In 1964 such nudity was pretty much limited to nudies and classy A-list films like The Pawnbroker. The mono sound is problematic in a different way: the original on-set sound recording is the film's biggest flaw; it's often tinny and hollow, and the ambient noises don't cut well together, though this is only mildly distracting and not Dark Sky's fault. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras include an okay Audio Commentary with Del Tenney that could've used more participation from surviving cast and crew members (where's Mrs. Tenney?). A Photo Gallery features stills and lobby cards under both titles; and 4:3 letterboxed trailers for Horror of Party Beach and Curse of the Living Corpse.
Despite its disappointing transfer, Violent Midnight is still worth a look for its solid performances and above-average, adult screenplay and direction. It's no lost classic, but far better than its reputation would suggest.
* This is certainly the only movie where one can enjoy tough guy Dick Van Patten knocking out wimpy non-swimmer James Farentino.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.