Plenty of pre-Code horror films took advantage of the lax rules, whether tackling taboo subjects (Tod Browning’s “Freaks”), queer sexuality (James Whale’s “Old Dark House”) or good old fashioned violence (Merian C. Cooper’s original un-cut “King Kong”). These movies married intelligence, subtlety and quality filmmaking to their envelope pushing, and as such they are fondly remembered.
This blog can announce with relative certainty that “Night of Terror,” a 1933 murder thriller starring Bela Lugosi, is not one of those films. Instead, it feels old and awkward. If anyone remembers it today, it is for gross gimmicks rather than quality. But there’s a reason this blog will quietly champion the film. We’ll get there though.
First, “Night of Terror” is effectively the story of a young scientist preparing to test his serum that makes people not need oxygen, whose attributes the film never bothers to explain. The scientist intends to test the serum on himself, which requires him to be buried alive. Unfortunately, before he’s in the ground, bodies start piling up. Police are searching for a maniac – dubbed “the Maniac” by the press – who has been killing random people at night. And on the eve of the experiment, he’s picked the scientist’s mansion as his stalking ground.
The movie doesn’t waste a lot of time, so I won’t either. The very first scene has two attractive adults (it’s too early in the century for them to be sexy teens) necking in a car. The Maniac pops up behind them, raises his knife, and bam. They’re both dead. Less than two minutes in and we have two bodies. We almost see it too. It’s pretty stagy and kinda hokey, but holy crap, that is impressive speed.
But that’s just the first scene, you think, and probably not representative of the whole film. The plot gets rolling, things slow down, you think you can relax, and bam. At the nine-and-a-half minute mark, there’s another body. And another at 20 minutes. What is this film?
To be fair, the movie never quite recaptures these opening scenes. Once it gets going, it will feel pretty familiar, albeit in a forward looking way. Some of the movie boils down to “people wandering around the old Rinehart Estate,” which predicts a lot of the haunted house flicks of the 1950s and beyond. There’s even a twist ending and a “no spoilers” gimmick that would have made William Castle blush.
The film might be at its best when its looking back. Some of the photography and edits recall silent film aesthetics, and they’re fine. A few images are quite striking: clever lighting on a staircase, good angles of Lugosi, a well-blocked scene of men carrying a coffin. It’s interesting to note that the cinematographer, Joseph A. Valentine, started in silents and closed his career photographing a couple of superb thrillers, including “The Wolf Man” and “Shadow of a Doubt.”
Where the film is not at its best is the narrative. The film credits three writers (two for screenplay, one for story), and none of them have much to say. Anyone expecting a clever whodunit will probably be disappointed. The intricacies of the plot don’t try to make sense. Does science really pay so well this guy can afford a mansion? What’s up with his family? The ages and, uh, marital relations seem all wrong. I can’t tell who is whose brother or niece or fiance. The servants are Gypsies with turbans? Most of the gags were old even then. And none of this is getting into what seems problematic 90 years out: the crime reporter’s aggressive pursuit of the heiress, the stereotypical Black chauffeur, and I’m surprised no one yet has suggested the Maniac is coded as Jewish.
But you don’t even have to be insulted to see the stereotypes. The plot is a collection of every cliche you can think of: an old dark house, creepy servants, a seance, weird science with plenty of test tubes, stuffy Continental professors, a fast-talking crime reporter, a clueless cop, a crazy-cos-crazy killer, police sirens and bad driving. My least favorite are the one-sided phone conversations. You know the ones, where we only see one of the characters talking so they have to repeat everything the other person is saying for the audience.
Those phone calls come courtesy of Wallace Ford (from the aforementioned “Freaks,” which I had forgotten) as that fast-talking crime reporter, and this feels like a good place to talk about the acting. It’s not good. Ford is energetic. I’m not a fan, but maybe you will be. Of course, I find most of the performances bad. Cliches and stereotypes can be watchable in the hands of the right cast, but this ain’t that cast.
If you need solid performances, this blog can recommend two. The first is Sally Blane as the young heiress. She’s fashionably costumed, which I always find interesting in a contemporary film, and gives her role enough personality that she come across like a person and not a prop.
The second is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bela Lugosi as Degar the mystic butler. Lugosi is not merely the most notable actor in the picture because of his name. He probably knew he was in a bargain film – the rumor is this was strictly a “for the paycheck” gig for him – but he still moved like he meant it. Don’t pay attention to his dialogue. Classic thriller fans will know it all already, and Lugosi delivers it all in the same deadpan baritone. Instead, watch the way he moves his body and holds his face. The concern he shows his wife in particular feels genuine. As a whole, his performance is easily the most compelling thing on screen.
But the real reason anyone would watch this film, the only reason it should be remembered, is the pre-Code murders. There are a couple of sexually suggestive lines dialogue and a certain box of cigarettes that probably wouldn’t have gotten into the script two years later, but it’s really the murders that are the draw. There are imminent threats of danger, smatterings of blood and pointy objects, and we see about as much of it as the times (and the budget) would permit.
In fact, the Maniac might be the first serial killer in the movies, or at least the talkies. He’s kind of got a costume, he leaves a calling card on his victims (newspapers because crazy), and there is a body count of eight when the movie’s over. The running time is a little more than an hour, so that averages out to roughly one body every seven minutes. That’s impressive, even by today’s standards.
In a scene, Lugosi offers one of the mansion’s guests a newspaper. The guest rejects it. “There’s nothing in the papers,” he says.
“Nothing… but murder.” Lugosi retorts. You tell ’em Bela.