‘Do you like tying knots in things?’ says demon headmaster Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) to a nervous Judy Geeson in Jimmy Sangster’s underrated thriller from Hammer studios. Even if she did, she’s unlikely to share in the ferocity of his passion for string and ropes; even the opening credits take in several varieties of knots to indicate we’re in twisty/turny territory. Fear in The Night lifts liberally from the Diaboliques template, but the boarding school setting is used rather differently here, and the mystery, while slow, is satisfying to solve.
Peggy (Geeson) has ben roped in by her new husband Robert (Ralph Bates) for a new job at a remote school for boys, presided over by Carmichael and his wife Molly (Joan Collins), although the two never appear together. That’s a red herring, and so is much of the plot here; the nub is that Peggy is very nervous and appears to be hallucinating an attack by a one-armed man. When Carmichael appears, he’s missing an appendage, and she naturally puts two and two together and assumes he’s the one who is out to get her.
Everyone is out to get someone here, and poor Peggy doesn’t know the half of it. Sangster’s script had been developed by Universal for a decade, but was updated by Hammer with a school setting; this creates a certain atmosphere which really adds value to the suspense, and the final scenes involving the predator stalking prey in the school’s dining room is quite hypnotic. Collins has a notable turn here, shooting passing rabbits with gusto and genuinely hard to read until the final revelations. And while Geeson makes something of her female-in-peril role, Cushing unsurprisingly walks away with the acting honours, making the headmaster a worthy adversary.
Also known as Dynasty of Fear, also known as Honeymoon of Fear, developed as Brainstorm then renamed The Claw, Fear in the Night was caught between the twin peaks of Psycho and Halloween in offering up suspense-driven plotting. While not as good as either, Sangster’s film does have a unique selling point to offer; the long but patient build-up allows for a few decent surprises and shocks for genre fans.