Remote Outpost: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
Remote Outpost: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
….. Do “The Matheson”
By Mark Onspaugh
NOTE: The Outpost staff has gotten word of something buried out in the ice near Quadrant 6, and I will be doing my best to get you news on that discovery, if it is indeed anything at all.
In the meantime, watching TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) made me curious about producer/director Dan Curtis’s other made-for-TV movies. A search through the archives uncovered DEAD OF NIGHT (1977), another trilogy written by the great Richard Matheson for Curtis. One story is Matheson’s adaptation of a story by Jack Finney, and the other two are pure Matheson.
Unlike TRILOGY OF TERROR, DEAD OF NIGHT has a proper lead-in. Ghostly, rippling letters give us the title, then we are shown a sinister house… or is it a mausoleum? Then a narrator (I believe it’s Curtis himself) proclaims:
“This is the dead of night. It has nothing to do with time. It can happen in sunshine or moonlight. In the best of weather or the worst. For the dead of night is a state of mind, that dark, unfathomed region of the human consciousness, from which all the unknown terrors of our lives emerge. The dead of night exists in all of us, and no one knows at what strange, unexpected moment it will make itself known. And so tonight, for your entertainment, three tales: one of mystery, one of imagination and one of terror…”
While not up to the caliber of the narrative lead-ins for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1964) or THE OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965), it does set us up for a variety of stories. Although any title with the words “dead” and “night” seem to promise horror, we are told this is not the case. I have read several reviews where people complain the first two stories are not scary or horrific – to them I say, “Listen to Mr. Curtis! He gave you DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971), for Pete’s sake!”
The first tale is “Second Chance”, based on a story by Jack Finney. Finney is the author of the books THE BODY SNATCHERS (source material for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and its numerous remakes), TIME AND AGAIN and FROM TIME TO TIME. Like Matheson’s BID TIME RETURN(basis for the. 1980 film SOMEWHERE IN TIME with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), Finney presents a method of time travel that involves surrounding oneself with artifacts of the desired time (clothing, furnishings) and traveling by a means of a sort of self-hypnosis, rather than relying on a physical device like a time machine. In “Second Chance,” Ed Begley Jr. (whose character got his arm torn off in CAT PEOPLE, 1982) is a lover of vintage cars. He finds a Jordan Playboy roadster rusting in a barn. The owner tells him a young couple died trying to outrace a train back in 1926. Begley buys the car for a hundred bucks and restores it to mint condition. He takes it for a spin to the nearby town of Creswell, taking the old country road.
As he is relishing this first drive in his newly restored Jordan, another vintage auto passes by… then another. When he reaches the town of Creswell, he finds it is as it was in 1926, and Begley (somewhat calmly) realizes he has somehow “drifted” in time, back to the period where the restored Jordan belongs. As he is walking along the quaint streets, his car is stolen. He runs in front of it but the thieves keep going. Unsure what to do in this strange time, he finally falls asleep and wakes in his own time.
(SPOILER!) Back in college, he meets a pretty sophomore who he doesn’t remember seeing as a freshman. When he goes to meet her grandparents, he learns they are the couple that tried to outrace the train. Begley trying to stop the car was just enough of a delay for the young man driving not to try and cross the tracks. The couple lived, and had children – then a grandchild… who is now Begley’s girlfriend (and one day wife). It’s a nice tale, one that would have been right at home in Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE.
The second tale is called “No Such Thing as a Vampire” and stars Patrick Macnee (THE AVENGERS, 1961-1969), Anjanette Comer (THE BABY, 1973) and the always great Elisha Cook, Jr. (ROSEMARY’S BABY, 1968). In this period piece (a deleted location card seen in the extras informs us that we are in Solta, Rumania 1896), Macnee is Doctor Gheria, a man of science. His beautiful wife Alexis wakes from a fitful sleep to discover two bleeding puncture wounds on her neck. Her screams bring her husband and Karel (Cook), the faithful butler. Alexis is sure that she is the victim of a vampire, and that she will die. Gheria scoffs, and makes sure the house is locked up tight, telling Karel it is rodents or a “venomous insect.”. When the attacks continue, he allows Karel to hang garlic, but only as a “comfort” to Alexis. More attacks occur, with Alexis growing weaker and more hysterical.
Doctor Gheria becomes distraught and Karel cannot explain how the vampire continues to elude them. Gheria insists he still doesn’t believe, but Karel does – he has even put one to rest.
Finally, Gheria invites one of his most promising students, Michael (Horst Buchholz of. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, 1960) to consult. Michael is alarmed by Alexis’ weakened state – he will wait up with good Dr. Gheria…
(SPOILER!). Gheria has drugged Michael’s tea, and finally the young man collapses. Gheria uses a syringe to draw more blood from sleeping Alexis, then squirts into and around Michael’s mouth. He carries the young man up to the attic, and deposits him in a waiting coffin. Then he leads Karel on a final, desperate search for the “vampire.”. Karel finds him and quickly runs down to retrieve his trusty stake and mallet. As Gheria waits for the inevitable, he says to his sleeping wife: “Rest easy, my dear, your nightmare is over… Or, perhaps it is just beginning, once you discover your lover is dead.”
I liked that this story looked like a Hammer production, and Macnee and the others all do a fine job. And wily Matheson plays with our expectations of the genre. Upon reading the title and being introduced to a “man of science” you figure he is going to learn the hard way that vampires do exist… And Matheson does not say they do or do not—but his doctor counts on local lore and legend to provide him with a way to remove his wife’s lover… And get his nervous slayer/butler to do it!
The final entry is “Bobby”, and, like TRILOGY OF TERROR, they saved the best for last.. Joan Hackett (SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF, 1969) is a grieving mother who lives in a multi-million dollar beach house up on a cliff. She returns home from shopping and takes a call from her husband—he is surprised (and relieved) to hear she is feeling better since the death of their son, Bobby. We know Bobby was loved because there is a huge portrait of him on the wall, one of those paintings that starts to give you the creeps if you look at it too long. After getting her workaholic husband off the phone, Joan (listed as “Mother” on IMDb) brings out an ancient, leather-bound volume and begins drawing an occult seal on the floor… This is no rough pentagram, but a beautiful device with clean lines and professional lettering – it is the kind of figure any demon would be happy to be bound in.
Joan then recites from the text, telling a number of individuals in the netherworld that they are subject to her command. She wants her son back – little Bobby, tragically drowned. She incants, exhorts, exclaims and finally collapses. Later, while asleep, she hears someone at the door… She asks who it is. If I were one of the demons of the Ninth Circle, that might tick me off, but finally she hears Bobby’s voice. He is on the front steps, shivering in the rain and looking pitiful. Joan is overjoyed, so much so that she goes nattering on until Bobby stutters that he is “cold… so cold, Mommy…”. She takes him inside and still prattles on instead of getting the kid into some warm clothes… Again he tells her how cold he is. She wonders why he never came home – he tells her he lost his memory and another family found him. He just got his memory back today. Seeming to forget all that pentagramming and intoning, Joan triumphantly declares that she knew he didn’t drown.
At first, Bobby (played by Lee Montgomery of BEN, 1972 and BURNT OFFERINGS, 1976) is happy to be home with his doting mother. Then he starts asking odd questions: how many doors does the house have?. Did his mother love him?. When Joan tries to serve him his favorite lunch, he tosses it aside angrily. Bobby, it seems, is not the smiling pre-teen we saw in his oversized portrait. He starts scaring his mother and demanding they play hide-and-go-seek as a storm rages outside.
When Joan goes looking for him, she demands to know why he is treating her like this. “That’s the way you used to talk to me, Mommy” he chides from his hiding place. Then he almost kills her with a potted plant pushed off the second floor railing. (Houses with demonic children like Bobby or Damian are filled with such hazards.). Cowering, Joan gets a call from her husband. In a genuinely terrifying moment, her husband is at first alarmed, then seems to be mocking her, repeating everything she says with childish glee. When Joan demands to know why he is acting this way, his voice changes to Bobby’s, laughing manically and screaming “I fooled you, Mommy! I fooled you!”
Then Bobby tells her she’d better hide – that he is going to find her. He chases her around the house with a butcher knife —just when you think Bobby is going to filet him mother, she pulls out a gun and blows him away—Bobby crashes through the plate glass window and down to the rocks below… As she is trying to recover, BAM! The front door opens and Bobby is there… Joan runs upstairs but he is waiting for her and pushes her down…
(SPOILER!) As he comes down, he tells her that she lied—Bobby didn’t drown, he killed himself to get away from her. When she cast her spell, Bobby didn’t want to come back, so something else came back in his place. Bobby’s face is revealed to be that of a demon – it’s a pretty good makeup for a 70′s low-budget TV movie, but it’s spoiled since that’s the image used on the box. (Bastards!)
If you’ve seen TRILOGY OF TERROR (or read my review), you’ll notice these two last stories have a lot in common—lone woman pursued through her lavish home by something small, supernatural and deadly—and armed with a big ol’ knife. Both episodes depend on the talent of the actress and the scare-factor of the creature, and both “Amelia” and “Bobby” succeed on these levels.
All in all, DEAD OF NIGHT is entertaining and well done, particularly if you realize only one of the tales promises to be straight-up horror (or terror, as they say here). It’s not as sexy as TRILOGY OF TERROR (I’m lookin’ at you, “He Who Kills”!), but Matheson’s stories are well-written and Curtis’s direction is solid.
It’s likely that Dan Curtis was hoping DEAD OF NIGHT might serve as a backdoor pilot. One of the DVD extras contains several takes of the opening narration, and one is almost a parody of Rod Serling’s iconic, clipped delivery—I have a feeling Curtis was hoping for his own TWILIGHT ZONE, but anthology series are a tough sell.
Another extra is DEAD OF NIGHT: A DARKNESS ON BLAISEDON (1969), a TV pilot about a couple of ghost hunting bachelors (who may or may not live together) named Jonathan Fletcher (Kerwin Matthews, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, 1958,THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF, 1973, OCTAMAN, 1976) and Sajid Rowe (Cal Bellini). Sajid has a sort of Bruce Lee vibe without the martial arts, and Jonathan is the sort of earnest psychic researcher Gary Collins would later play on THE SIXTH SENSE (1972). The story is about an heiress pursued by a ghost in the mansion she has inherited. The staging and acting are bit reminiscent of DARK SHADOWS, but much of the acting is way over-the-top—my favorite is the caretaker, played by Thayer David (THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON, 1973 – now one of my favorite titles, seconded only by WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, 1971). David wears coke-bottle glasses and spends a lot of time glaring and/or staring up into… what?. The young heiress is saved and agrees to be part of the ghost-hunting team, thus setting up a possible romantic triangle… But we’ll never know, because the network didn’t greenlight the series… Perhaps that’s just as well.
The 70′s were a fertile time for Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson—Matheson also brought us DUEL (1971), a film directed by a one-hit wonder named Steven Spielberg. We may just have to dust that one off for you in a future column. Outpost… out.
© Copyright 2011 by Mark Onspaugh
(Note: Mark Onspaugh will be having a reading and book signing at the Fire Dove Gallery in Cambria, California this Friday, August 19th, from 7:00 to 8:30pm -ish. If you live in the area, check it out and say hello.)