Monday, September 27, 2010

VIOLENT MIDNIGHT

(1963; PSYCHOMANIA; d- Richard Hilliard)
Approaching a film like VIOLENT MIDNIGHT, one might consider hesitating or resisting fully while contemplating the repertoire of it’s creators, Richard Hilliard and Del Tenney (I EAT YOUR SKIN). After all, it was writer/director Hilliard who penned the infamous HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (directed by Del Tenney, producer and alleged co-director here), one of the uttermost turkeys ever set loose upon the unsuspecting drive-in public. That film, attempting to cash in on the recent trend in teen-centric low budget horror established by AIP, lowered the bar so far it more or less permanently stigmatized age-specific terrors as completely unreliable bunk - it’s reputation later cemented in ignominy as it was famously skewered on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.
So, imagine my surprise (imagine something else) when I found this to be a relatively competent and surprisingly interesting and provocative little thriller… that isn’t to say it’s very good, but rather, it brought unanticipated pleasures.
Opening with an ominous scene from a hunting trip gone awry, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT sets the tone via conventional “whodunit” means before the credits even roll, though shows flashes of daring soon after. This being a rather startling scene of a voluptuous model posing nude for the distinguished painter, Elliot Freeman (Lee Phillips), introduced previously during that hunting trip (in which his father was murdered and it was later ruled an accident). The last thing I expected five minutes into such an obscure black and white potboiler was a topless scene that might’ve caused even Russ Meyer’s knees to buckle. Regardless of how much a “bait and switch” this ultimately amounts to, I applaud their efforts. I mean, it got my attention, anyways.
Soon after meeting Elliot and his model, Delores (Kaye Elhardt), a lurking, black-gloved presence is revealed, peeking and poking around Elliot’s sprawling family estate, employing the kind of customary forebode you might expect from an episode of Scooby Doo… then Elliot’s intrusive, prickly family attorney (Shepperd Strudwick of THE TWILIGHT ZONE) pops up unannounced with his massive, creeping, mute German manservant (one of many none-too-subtle red herrings supplied in a bid to keep us off balance), who scares the hell out of Delores while ogling her disdainfully through a window.
Nothing in VIOLENT MIDNIGHT is especially original or exceptionally well-executed, but I have to give credit where it’s due - the movie manages to squeeze a lot out of such a miniscule budget. It’s cast, for starters, is loaded with future talent - working for peanuts here - including Oscar nominee Sylvia Miles (MIDNIGHT COWBOY), James Farentino (DEAD AND BURIED), (TV’s) Jean Hale and (TV’s) Dick Van Patton, all of whom give fair enough account for themselves, considering… furthermore, it’s much more risqué and suggestive than I’d ever have guessed, treading the line of common decency throughout (common decency was, like, an important thing in olden times).








So Delores has a thing for Elliot, rooted in a night of lust six months prior, and receives a call from her jealous on/off beau, Charlie (James Farentino, feigning menace and mugging like THE WILD ONE), a hot-headed biker who doesn’t mince words… “You be there tonight… or you’re gonna be the sorriest broad in town.”
Following that delightful cooing, Delores decides to stir things up by getting both men in the same place together, suggesting Elliot take her to Charlie’s favorite bar for a bite to eat. “There’s a little place down the road. It’s called Rizolli’s… it’s Italian.” Just when it looks like Charlie’s gonna wipe the floor with the slight, seemingly delicate Elliot, the artist turns the tables, tossing Charlie around effortlessly, beating him unconscious after a switchblade is pulled. It turns out Elliot was a decorated war hero in Korea, hinting some at his dark side after turning the bar on it‘s head, “I was gonna kill him.” “You couldn’t do a thing like that.” “Yes I would…”
His brooding nature is further embellished moments later when Delores, now scheming to ensnare him with a recent pregnancy he isn’t partner to, compares him to his father (whom he hated), which draws a ferocious slap. Later that night, Delores is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant wearing a trench coat and black gloves - the likes of which shoddily attempts to evoke Janet Leigh’s murder in PSYCHO, though the chocolate syrup passing for blood here seems a bit on the coagulated side.

From here we’re introduced to the rest of the principal cast, including Elliot’s bookish, neurotic younger sister, Lynn (Margot Hartman), Dick Van Patton as the cool yet hard-driving detective(!) and Sylvia Miles as, well, Sylvia, the ungainly, wolfish barfly who loves Charlie. There’s also the delectable array of young lovelies who inhabit the nearby Belmont College for Women - especially the gorgeous, scandalous Alice (“miss thang” herself, Lorraine Rogers), the adorably coquettish “Lolita” (catty, cutesy Shiela Forbes) and the good girl, Carol (Jean Hale, good-girl extraordinaire), who becomes the luscious apple of Elliot’s eye.
Also of notable interest is Mr. Melbourne (Day Tuttle, whose specific function at the school remained unclear to me), our resident peeping tom and spiritual avatar - who keeps a close eye on them, especially when they’re changing clothes or frolicking half-naked in the lake. Through his loving gaze, the bawdy, lustful secrets of yore come to wondrous, breathtaking fruition.
I’m trying to remember that this is, in fact, a murder mystery, but the film itself seems to forget that for lengthy, breezy stretches, offering us a steamy tryst in the laundry room between Alice and Charlie (Alice to Charlie, “Hey, you smell. Of Tobacco. And beer… and animal.”), romantic interludes with Elliot and Carol and even a dreadfully long folk song called “Black Autumn”. During this momentary lapse in order, a particularly melancholy college girl croons and groans endlessly about pushing up daisies, the big sleep, the general abdication of life, etc. The patrons of the tavern just stare at her blankly, pondering (as I did) just what got her panties in a bunch this fine morn.
And Charlie, that incorrigible chap - and the way he handles his women - left me wondering exactly what was his lasting appeal. I mean, whether viciously ripping out Sylvia’s earrings (“I’m not gonna hurt ya… much”) or one-punching Alice while skinny dipping at the lake, he seems to lack the basic good graces necessary to be the lover boy he’s otherwise indicated (chin-dimple notwithstanding).
When another gal buys the farm, Mr. Van Patton and company do all they can to remind us that there is an investigation going on here, that this kind of thing must not stand. Though rather out of left field, I still guessed who the killer was. The untoward overtness unto which every other suspect was portrayed became a wee tad overwhelming, though hardly mattering much. Watching VIOLENT MIDNIGHT was like stepping into some dark, daft, lovely alternate past in which breathy co-eds smiled sweetly and bathed and trollop-ed (help me here…), mindful of the rampaging psychotic terrorizing the community, though still lacking the better sense to avoid naked, drunken jaunts in the lake at midnight.

8 comments:

  1. great review. good job. you hit the nail right on the head with this one. keep up the good work.

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  2. Dammit, now I have to see this movie. A menacing James Farentino is something I have to see! He was a square-jawed, no-nonsense CWO in "The Final Countdown" co-starring Kirk Douglas as the USS Nimitz skipper.

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  3. He was also quite memorable in one of my favorite episodes of NIGHT GALLERY, "Since Aunt Ada Came To Stay", in which he played a professor of logic forced to reconcile the fact that his wife's aunt is a witch and is trying to steal her identity.

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  4. Great review! Now I too must se this movie :)

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  5. Solid! You make me almost want to see this. On the other hand, I'm still only halfway through the opening credits of Del Tenney's Curse of the Living Dead and it's been five years since I started...

    I think it really helps to have seen these films first as a kid, before your judgments are solidified, when everything you see is automatically awesome if it has knives or a skull or a spaceship in it. Bela Lugosi was our Elmo, The Horrors of Party Beach were our Pixar, it's all so relative... which is why reviews like yours are so important, as they peel back the armor of intolerance and generate excitement from nothing but old scraps of film and bad surf music! Viva the Dead-Eye D!

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  6. Wow- Thanks so much, Erich! You might have noticed I haven't posted in quite awhile... I'd been wrestling with a lot of things, self-doubt certainly not the least of which, so to say this comment is timely and encouraging would be a gross understatement. This really made my day!

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