A Separate Peace…of crap!
Peggy has just recovered from a nervous breakdown. After a whirlwind romance of only four months, she marries Robert, a young teacher at an exclusive boy's school. Ruling over the campus is the mysterious headmaster, Mr. Carmichael. He is married to a foul tempered woman named Molly. On the evening she is to leave to live with Robert at the school, Peggy is attacked by a one armed assailant. Arriving at the school, Peggy finds the place disturbing. The sound of children can be heard in the empty hallways and things look too ordered and pristine. Living in a cottage on the property, Peggy is attacked again by the same person. She grows frightened and when Mr. Carmichael breaks into the home one night, Peggy shoots him. Robert wants to know what she did with the body. Painfully over the edge, Peggy doesn't remember anything. But insanity is now the least of her worries since there are relationships and circumstances at play, just under the surface, which mean to frame her for murder, if indeed there was one. But who…and why?
If long drawn-out sequences of people walking around empty Victorian Tudor mansions discussing mundane facts about higher education sounds wildly suspenseful and terrifying to you, then Fear in the Night is your kind of film. Telling a tale told so often that it's become a cliché wrapped in a formula and modified by a change in local or sexual position, its pulp fictional plotline of innocence in peril caught between sex, greed, adultery, and potential inheritance is tired, trite, and mechanical. Once you understand the story, everything becomes gears and cogs in an almost always illogical machine. Fear in the Night is an hour of turgid setup, followed by a tame ten-minute thriller sequence. Then it requires 25 minutes to try and wrap up properly. Red herrings are as obvious as the numerous bright crimson props scattered throughout the set design like signposts. Anyone who is a student of the Diabolique school of cinema will immediate know where this movie is going and how it will get there. Still, for those not sick of the formulaic suspense thriller, Fear in the Night may provide a tense, psychological exercise in fear. The cast is uniformly good, from the brooding, foreboding Peter Cushing as a distant school headmaster to Judy Geeson as the young bride on the verge of what seems like her 19th nervous breakdown. The direction by Jimmy Sangster is also first rate. He creates some wonderful atmosphere with his camera as it sweeps through the stoic gloom of the decaying locations.
Hammer was in transition in 1972. The once mighty monster maker was wading through gory, erotic waters hoping to reinvent itself for a modern audience. Fear in the Night, unfortunately, was a throwback to their old moldy days. The last of the studio's bona fide thrillers, it tries too hard to create suspense by tone alone. Films of this nature require characters you care about or despise as well as tight, clockwork plotting. But throughout the first forty minutes of the film, the scenes are disjointed, never adding up and we get only the merest indication of who these characters really are. Joan Collins as the bitchy headmaster's wife comes across as the most fully realized, if only because she tells it like it is, upfront and confrontational. The rest of the cast keeps their secrets so close to the vest that it takes too long to remove them and then when they do come out, you question why. Greed and lust are perfectly acceptable reasons for murder and mind games. It's worked well in other films, but Fear in the Night is all potential and very little payoff. The old school setting is wonderfully creepy and is filled with possibilities. More could have been made of Cushing's past and his present state. Joan Collins could have been given more screen time than the three scenes she's in. Her pivotal role seems woefully underrepresented, as if not to give the story's hand away too quickly. But when the tale is this worn-out, wouldn't it have been better to go for broke and do something, anything to spice up the old hat? Fear in the Night cannot be anything more than a sub-standard thriller, no matter what its aspirations.
As they have with other films in their Hammer Collection, Anchor Bay presents an awesome, restored print of Fear in the Night. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is offered, as is a crisp, defect free transfer. The movie looks brand spanking new with the aforementioned ruby relics littered around the set standing out from the earth tone color palette. Alas, the Dolby Digital Mono is just serviceable, with a noticeable flutter from cars and machinery in the outdoor sequences, as if there was damage or defects in the original soundtrack. Anyone interested in the extras should be warned: the enclosed trailer gives away far too much of the plot. It's recommended that you watch it only after viewing the film. The only other bonus, fortunately, is a good one. Running the entire length of the film is an alternate commentary track with co-writer/producer/director Jimmy Sangster. More of an anecdotal walk down Hammer memory lane than a dissection of the film, Mr. Sangster is joined by historian Marcus Hearne and together they tell an intriguing tale of the heydays of British horror and the infamous studio. In many ways, this title would be worth a purchase just to have Sangster's insider view on the rise, success, and decay of the once mighty moviemakers. It's just too bad that, as an example of their work, Fear in the Night is one of Hammer's less successful titles. While well acted and directed, it just can't re-teach an old dogged script any new plot tricks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Co-writer/Producer/Director Jimmy Sangster and Hammer Films Historian Marcus Hearn
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