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When exactly Hammer Films of England began its decline is an arguable point, but its fortunes faded with the general collapse of the British film industry in the early 1970s. After leaping so nimbly into new territory ten years before, Hammer hadn't advanced with the times -- its gothic horrors looked hopelessly out of date when Dracula encountered (already outdated) London Mods, or Dr. Frankenstein was still trying to assemble one measly monster.
But Hammer's biggest stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee retained their popularity. As he had always done, Lee continued to work all over Europe acting in whatever roles were available. He was just beginning to re-invent his career with a major film for Billy Wilder. Unlike Lee, the older Cushing didn't chase foreign film work, and wasn't expecting the brief rediscovery that would come several years later with George Lucas and Star Wars. His career became more subdued after the passing of his beloved wife. It is said that one more than one occasion Lee had to coax Cushing back into activity, for films like the Spanish production Horror Express. Around 1970 Christopher Lee teamed with Hammer producer Anthony Nelson Keys to form a new company, Charlemagne Productions. They made only one picture under the Charlemagne banner, the mysteriously titled Nothing but the Night. I remember reading a long article in Cinefantastique that whetted my appetite for the picture, which seemed never to appear in Los Angeles. About the only English horror film of the time that became harder to see was Robin Hardy's superb The Wicker Man.
Adapted from a novel, Nothing but the Night is a murder-suspense thriller with a fantastic component that surfaces only at its conclusion. Dr. Haynes (Keith Barron) becomes interested in the case of Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong), an orphan traumatized by a bus crash. Haynes, his supervising Dr. Sir Mark Ashley (Cushing) and Special Investigator for the crown Col. Charles Bingham (Christopher Lee) all become convinced of a connection between Mary Valley and a string of suicides among the trustees of the Van Traylen Orphanage where Mary lives, on Bara Island. Reporter Joan Foster (Georgia Brown) believes that Mary's birth mother Anna Harb (Diana Dors), a spiritualist and an ex-prostitute, means her daughter harm. When Anna takes off for Bara Island, Mark, Charles and Joan follow in hot pursuit. The staff of the Van Traylen Orphanage refuses to allow a police presence to protect the children, even after several more trustees are killed in a boat explosion. Col. Charles rushes to save young Mary, only to be confronted with a terrifying truth that nobody suspected.
A competent story in some respects, Nothing but the Night didn't cause much excitement among horror film circles and has remained a "title of interest" mostly for fans of its two stars. Much to our disappointment, Peter Cushing's character simply hangs around the periphery of the story conducting tests and disapproving of reporter Georgia Brown's methods. Christopher Lee reserves the most active role for himself, but even the stalwart investigator does little except criticize people and express his impatience. In a way, the story has the same problem that plagues many latter-day Hammer thrillers. The script only broaches the core of its own subject matter in the last one or two scenes. The bulk of the movie observes the leading characters struggling to understand what's going on.
Brian Hayles' script offers a series of distractions. Dr. Haynes and Joan Foster share a passionate one-night. Reels of film are expended on the bitter Anna Harb's drive to the Scottish island; she claims that she wants to help her daughter yet turns violent the moment she sees Mary in the hospital. More sidetracks are offered with the general interference of the press, and a local policeman who sheds no light on the mystery. Moreover, it never seems clear exactly what kind of investigation is going on. Although trustees for a vastly wealthy foundation are dropping like flies, no relatives of these rich aristocrats are demanding explanations. Colonel Bingham's presence is a personal effort sanctioned by the Home Secretary, because he knew one of the victims. Who ever heard of an orphanage that wasn't open for public scrutiny? The Van Traylen foundation would be crawling with cops faster than you could order the afternoon tea.
It's been pointed out that Nothing but the Night has a number of similarities with The Wicker Man. A policeman is drawn to a costal island to protect a young girl, and receives a terrible surprise. A cliff side bonfire figures in the final scene. Nothing but the Night probably didn't inspire horror fans because its fantastic content isn't really integrated into the story. For a while we suspect that a character is into demonology, and a corpse is found with a star carved into its forehead. Only late in the story do we discover that the orphanage is staffed by experimental scientists who once specialized in brains and brain surgery. Although we never see exactly what they're up to, some kind of mad lab on the premises "does things" to the children, as in the science fiction picture The Gamma People" As it is, everything we learn about the Van Traylen conspiracy comes out in a rush of verbal exposition in the final scene. As far as I can figure, the children are victims of evil adults who want to prolong their own existence by stealing their young, healthy bodies. The movie doesn't even approach dramatizing that premise, which is why Nothing but the Night doesn't rise above thriller status.
Peter Sasdy had received some good attention for his direction of some Hammer projects. Although his early scenes show some invention, either shooting conditions or a restricted budget prevented Sasdy from making much of the film's potentially eerie content. The murders are perfunctory who-dunnit material and the behind-the-scenes skullduggery by the Van Traylen conspirators is not depicted at all. The nighttime conclusion is even murkier. What should be an unnervingly macabre mass suicide has little effect because we don't understand the victims well enough to understand why they would want to do away with themselves. The filmmakers seem to have believed in the 'mystery' aspect to the detriment of visualizing most of their own story.
Young actress Gwyneth Strong's long career began with this part, which she plays exceedingly well. Former glamour star Diana Dors is an effective but unpleasant possible villainess. Favored Powell & Pressburger star Kathleen Byron has perhaps two day's work as one of the Van Traylen staff, another underdeveloped part. The enduring appeal of stars Lee and Cushing are what make Nothing but the Night a notable destination for horror fans.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD Blu-ray of Nothing but the Night is an acceptable transfer of a not-bad enhanced widescreen master that doesn't quite retain its sharpness on a large monitor. The original cinematography of the Scottish exteriors is attractive, but many night-for-night shots are grainy. The audio is good and Malcolm Williamson's soundtrack quite lush.
Scorpion is marketing this film and several other 70s horrors in a format called "Katarina's Nightmare Theater". Professional wrestler Katarina Leigh Waters hosts the show in a video prologue. Speaking in an appropriate accent, she looks a bit like a cross between Caroline Munro and Lucy Lawless. No racy costume is involved but Ms. Waters is a pleasing sight. A text extra with background about the movie is included, an original trailer and some trailers for other horror attractions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nothing but the Night rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.