U.K. | 1973
Directed by Peter Sasdy
Christopher Lee
Peter Cushing
Diana Dors
Color | 90 Minutes | PG
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC)
Scorpion Releasing
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Review by
Troy Howarth

Retired policeman Colonel Bingham (Christopher Lee) springs back into action when a series of bizarre murders connected to a Scottish orphanage hits a little too close to home. Enlisting the aid of his friend, pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing), Bingham uncovers a grisly plot involving the children at the orphanage...
    By the 1970s, Christopher Lee was becoming increasingly weary and vocal about the state of the horror genre as he saw it. No doubt emboldened by being cast in higher profile mainstream fare like Hannie Caulder (1970) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Lee became outspoken about the quality of the genre fare he was being offered. The actor soon decided to put his money where his mouth was, establishing Charlemagne Productions as a possible competitor to Hammer Films. The company was named after Lee's most illustrious ancestor, the famed emperor Charlemagne, and was supposed to offer more intelligent thrills compared to Hammer's increasingly exploitative product of the period. All the best intentions in the world, however, didn't save the company from becoming a resounding flop. Lee used his connections to purchase the rights to a number of occult thrillers by Dennis Wheatley, but for their maiden voyage, the actor and his partner producer Anthony Nelson Keys, another refugee from the Hammer machinery selected the comparatively obscure thriller Nothing But the Night, by John Blackburn. Blackburn was fairly prolific through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, but his books seldom attracted major league attention outside of Britain. Lee and Keys therefore set themselves to a difficult task in trying to market a relatively unknown property by a relatively obscure author as their attempt to outdo the horrors of Hammer.
    It would seem the production itself was beset by difficult and compromise. Lee had hoped to get his friend Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire) to direct, but was forced to make do with relative newcomer Peter Sasdy, who had already directed the actor in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969). The shoot involved a great deal of location work, and the weather did not cooperate one bit. By the time the film was in the can, Lee was no doubt beginning to rethink his urge to produce and things continued to deteriorate when the time came to market the picture. A deal was cut with Rank Film Organisation in the U.K., but worldwide buyers proved difficult to come by. The film languished for years before finding a U.S. release under the bizarre title The Resurrection Syndicate in 1975; it died a quick death then, as well. Even in the U.K., Lee fumed as the film was dumped unceremoniously, with scant advertising to help sell it. The whole process put the kabosh on Lee's business venture... But what of the only film it produced? Was Nothing But the Night really such a bad idea to start with? Or might it emerge as something of a lost treasure among the many horror titles starring Lee and Peter Cushing? The answer to both questions, funnily enough, is 'no'...
    Taken on its own terms, Nothing But the Night is a decent, if unduly stately, mystery with horror overtones. Lee and Cushing carry the film with straight-faced aplomb, even if the dialogue occasionally reeks of cliché (when pressed on why he's so interested in the mystery, Lee is forced to utter that hoary chestnut, "This isn't just a police matter this is personal."). Fans of the two actors will enjoy it for their performances alone. Like the same year's Horror Express, it offers a rare instance of the horror icons being paired on the side of good but unlike that Spanish import, it doesn't really give them a lot of fun things to do. Bingham and Ashley are a sort of Holmes and Watson duo, but they don't have much in the way of chemistry. Bingham is pushy and no-nonsense, but the heart of his investigation (his friendship with one of the victims) is never expanded upon, making it all seem rather arbitrary; Ashley is pushy and short-tempered, making the normally charming Cushing come off as a bit of a bore here. Neither actor is really tested or given anything especially memorable to do, though Lee does get to cut loose somewhat during the climax of the picture. These actors are pros of the old school they're compulsively watchable no matter what but Nothing But the Night doesn't emerge as one of their top pairings, largely because neither of them are allowed to really make much of an impression.
    None of this is to say that it's a bad film, however. Despite some awkward moments why is it that overhead helicopters have such a hard time spotting a murder suspect... in a largely barren landscape... while the person in question is wearing a bright red jacket? and a surprisingly bland visual aesthetic, the film is engaging enough in an undemanding kind of way. The story has some novel ideas, and even if they are hindered by one dimensional characterizations, there's something inherently special about seeing Lee and Cushing together again. The supporting cast includes Diana Dors (overacting like mad as an ex-hooker turned murder suspect) and a youthful Michael Gambon, but the real standout is young Gwyneth Strong, who handles the key role of the child somehow linked to the murders with surprising flair. Strong holds her own against her distinguished cast-mates and manages to make her character sympathetic and believable.
    Director Sasdy made a splash at Hammer with the aforementioned Taste the Blood of Dracula (regarded by many as the best of the series after Terence Fisher's 1958 original), but he had already racked up some impressive credentials on the BBC (where he had directed Cushing in an adaptation of Asimov's The Caves of Steel). The Hungarian-born director seemed poised to take over Fisher's mantle as Hammer's premiere director of gothic fare, but following an impressive trilogy of films for the studio (rounded out by 1970's Countess Dracula and 1971's Hands of the Ripper), he left the fold in search of other opportunities. As previously indicated, he was more or less forced upon Lee for this picture, though the actor appeared appreciative of his efforts in later interviews. Sasdy does a competent job with the material at hand, but the end result pales in comparison to his best work. The film is also burdened with a cheap look, which would appear to be attributable to cinematographer Kenneth Talbot. Curiously, Talbot had photographed Sasdy's last two pictures for Hammer and impressive looking they were, to boot but here he appears to have been having an off day (or three). Barring the occasionally stylish set-piece (a hypnosis session, the final confrontation) much of Nothing But the Night is dispensed with in an offhanded fashion.
    And yet, for all its missteps, Nothing But the Night is far from an unmitigated disaster. That may sound like a backhanded compliment and, I suppose, in a way, it is but truthfully, fans of British horror of the period are used to making do with less than ideal screenplays and occasionally compromised production values. The key ingredients here Lee and Cushing are enjoyable enough on their own terms, and there is indeed enough novelty in some of the concepts to provoke a thought or two. It may not rank among the very finest of the Lee/Cushing horror pairings, but it's still a decent time filler in its own right.

Scorpion has provided Stateside Lee/Cushing fans with their first 'legit' taste of Nothing But the Night on DVD. The 1.78/16x9 transfer is very nice on the whole. Colors are accurately rendered, and the image is markedly less murky and dingy than the old, out-of-print VHS release from Monterey (under the nonsensical, and misspelled, title The Devils Undead). The film never got a lot of exposure in America, and for years would remain one of the harder collaborations between the two actors for us Yanks to see, but this DVD release will rectify that.
    The film is presented as part of Scorpion's series of horror titles hosted by former WWE Diva (or "Dvia", as the back of the slipcase would have her; it's not easy being a spelling Nazi!) Katarina Leigh Waters, under the banner Katarina's Nightmare Theater. The idea is clearly to replicate the good old days of TV horror hosts, with the admittedly photogenic Katarina serving as hostess at the start and finish of the feature. Scorpion have set it up that her presence can be minimized, however; the reversible cover art (which is really rather atrocious) has one side without the Katarina banner, and it's also possible to watch the film without her intro and outro. The mono English soundtrack is in decent shape, and is free of hiss and distortion. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer, liner notes (viewable as onscreen text) by Cushing biographer Chris Gullo, and trailers for other Katarina-hosted titles (including Sasdy's even more disappointing The Devil Within Her, with Joan Collins and Donald Pleasence). 11/04/11