Nothing But the Night (1972) opens with a series of puzzling homicides. Each one is meant to look like an accident or suicide but in the tradition of Italian giallo thrillers, the murders are carried out by a mysterious black-gloved assailant. We soon learn that the victims were all elderly members of the private and highly elite Van Traylen Trust, an ominous institution that runs an orphanage in rural Scotland.
After a bus carrying children from the orphanage is involved in an unexplainable accident, a police detective (Christopher Lee) is tasked to investigate the case and he enlists the help of his friend (Peter Cushing) who is a doctor employed at the hospital where the crash victims are being cared for. Things take an even stranger turn when one of the young crash survivors (Gwyneth Strong) begins having vivid hallucinations involving a fire that seem to have no bearing on reality. When the girl’s estranged and unhinged mother (Diana Dors) visits the hospital attempting to reunite with her orphaned daughter a curious reporter (Georgia Brown) latches onto the case and is drawn into the ensuing drama. What unfolds is an investigation that leads everyone on a perilous journey of discovery involving arcane arts and unimaginable horrors.
But before I discuss the film further let’s backtrack a little.
In 1972, Christopher Lee had become increasingly frustrated by the scripts he was being offered. His disappointment led him to form his own film company called Charlemagne Productions, named after Charlemagne aka Charles the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor who was reportedly one of Lee’s ancestors. Lee formed the company with Hammer film producer Anthony Nelson Keyes who worked with Lee on some of his best films including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Gorgon (1964) and The Devil Rides Out (1968). Lee was particularly fond of their work together on The Devil Rides Out, a unique occult thriller based on a novel by author Dennis Wheatley that the actor had enthusiastically campaigned to have Hammer produce. The film was a surprise hit for the ‘Studio That Dripped Blood’ and critics applauded it. Lee hoped to mirror that success with Charlemagne Productions by making thoughtful adult films that explored the history of the dark arts, a topic Lee had grown deeply interested in following a career spent working in horror films.
To accomplish his goals, Lee secured the rights to uncanny detective fiction and occult thrillers by author Dennis Wheatley including To the Devil – a Daughter and The Haunting of Toby Jugg as well as two works by author John Blackburn who shared Wheatley’s sensibility, Bury Me Deeply and Nothing But the Night. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that developing a film company was going to be an enormously difficult and financially risky venture so Rank Film Distributors became involved and began dictating the creative course of Charlemagne Productions. Rank had worked with Hammer and wanted more of the same, which meant Lee was unable to make a clean break from his past and chart a fresh course for his career.
As the adaptation of Nothing But the Night began to take shape, Lee’s plans were stymied by the limitations being imposed by Rank. The film was rushed into production with very little prep time and the budget was incredibly low, even by Hammer standards. The cast and crew were confined to a scant 30-day shooting schedule and to make matters worse, half the cast was made up of children who could only work a few hours each day. Lee was particularly disappointed when Rank insisted on using a young and upcoming director named Peter Sasdy, who got his start in television and made a series of horror films ranging from excellent to verifiable – although highly entertaining – train wrecks (Taste the Blood of Dracula; 1970, Hands of the Ripper; 1971, Countess Dracula; 1971, The Stone Tapes; 1972, Doomwatch; 1972 and The Devil Within Her; 1975). Along with Sasdy, Rank employed an inexperienced television writer named Brian Hayles who had penned some episodes of Dr. Who. I suspect that Lee hoped to bring Terence Fisher on board since he had helmed the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out but at the time Fisher was busy making Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973).
Despite these setbacks, Lee was very happy with the cast, which included longtime costar and friend Peter Cushing along with plucky Diana Dors (Berserk; 1967, Theatre of Blood; 1972, From Beyond the Grave, 1974, etc.) and stalwart Kathleen Byron (Black Narcissus; 1947, Burn Witch Burn; 1966, Twins of Evil; 1971, etc.), two acclaimed British actresses who revived their careers by appearing in horror films later in life. The distinguished Michael Gambon (The Beast Must Die; 1974, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; 1989, Gosford Park; 2001, the Harry Potter films, etc.) also makes an early screen appearance here as a young police officer. It’s worth noting that many Hammer luminaries are credited in the production including composer Malcolm Williamson (The Brides of Dracula; 1960, The Horror of Frankenstein; 1970, Crescendo; 1970, etc.) and acclaimed special effects artist Les Bowie (Horror of Dracula; 1958), The Curse of the Werewolf; 1961, The Plague of the Zombies; 1966, etc.) but they were given little to work with. Williamson’s score is one of the film’s weak points and with no budget for effects, Bowie’s skills weren’t fully utilized.
Since its release, numerous critics and film historians have claimed that the movie was universally panned but opinions were actually more splintered than that. The Guardian complained about its “verbose but leaden dialogue” that progressed from “absurdity through absurdity” and Virginia Dignam writing for The Morning Star called it “grisly and unconvincing material” but she also complimented the cast. At BFI’sMonthly Film Bulletin, Clive Jeavons singled out director Peter Sasdy complaining that “One has to wait a very long time indeed – until the revelatory but overcrowded climax – before catching here a glimpse of the originality of style, inventiveness and visual flair that had enriched his Countess Dracula and Hands of the Ripper.” However, a more positive spin was provided by the Sunday Telegraph’s Margret Hinxman who praised all the performances and labeled it “compulsive viewing” insisting that the “climax is a genuine shocker.” Lastly I’ll quote Photoplay’s highly complementary reviewer Susan d’Arcy who wrote, “Nothing But the Night is a tense, slightly spooky and always riveting thriller with a macabre twist as convincing as it is unexpected.”
What really seemed to hurt the film was Rank’s inability and refusal to market it. Nothing But the Night isn’t the straightforward horror production Rank was hoping for. While there are plenty of murders, the curious nature of the plot doesn’t fit into an easily definable genre. As the title of my post suggests, the film is a paranormal police procedural and includes elements of the occult and science fiction, which baffled marketers who quickly dropped it like a hot brick. Advertising was extremely limited and although a trailer was created it was shown in very few theaters. The lack of support hurt its reception and in America, the film sat on a shelf for two years before it was finally renamed and redistributed in a few drive-ins as The Resurrection Syndicate. It was also crippled by censors who lambasted the film’s shocking ending and some Catholic countries banned it outright.
Regardless of the film’s troubled history, Charlemagne Productions churned out an interesting and unusual thriller on a minuscule budget that I find endlessly fascinating and I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates atypical horror films. Fans of The Wicker Man (1973), released nearly a year later, might be surprised to discover how much that renowned horror film owes to Nothing But the Night and if you appreciate The Devil Rides Out, you’ll find that this makes a compelling double feature with that much beloved Hammer classic. The film is haphazardly directed and may lack suspense at times but the premise is so fascinating that I forgive the occasional lapses in reason and pacing problems. I always enjoy seeing Lee and Cushing together and they’re well-suited to their low-key roles here while Lee particular shines as the grizzled detective being pulled into a perplexing plot that eventually finds him fighting for his life.
Diana Dors also plays her unglamorous part with gusto and insisted on doing all her own stunts in the film. I get a kick out of watching the disheveled middle-aged actress scurrying across the Dartmouth moors while being pursued by police. And the film’s frightening and surprisingly grim climax is an unrecognized milestone of British horror cinema that still has the ability to shock and stun viewers.
Nothing But the Night was the first and last film made by Charlemagne Productions. Both Christopher Lee and Anthony Nelson Keyes decided to close up shop after their frustrating experience with Rank and the film’s failure to succeed at the box office. Anthony Nelson Keyes retired from filmmaking altogether and Lee went back to working with Hammer films. A few years later, he convinced the studio to produce Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil – a Daughter but the film version lacked the imagination of their previous Wheatley adaptation. It would be Lee’s final film with Hammer.
Throughout the years, Lee was often asked about the short life of his production company, which he eventually revived in order to publish his endeavors in heavy metal music. His answers were usually brief and to the point. Lee was very fond of the film he produced despite its flaws and in his biography he suggested that it failed because “it was ahead of its time.” He also told an interviewer that “I think the film was too intelligent for the audience at whom the advertising and distribution was aimed. We didn’t have the director we wanted, we had an ineffective advertising campaign, no proper release. But we had a great cast. At any rate, I stand by the film and wish we could have made more.”
I wish he could have made more too.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on October 6, 2016