Monday, November 13, 2017

"Life Would Be a Lot Easier If We Weren't So Desperate" - Night of Terror (1986)

Our next classic exploration of the human condition is Night of Terror (1986), also known as Escape from the Insane Asylum. As we shall see, neither of these titles is strictly accurate, as terror does not occur on a single night, and only a minor background character actually escapes from an insane asylum. Nevertheless, the film, written by and starring Renee Harmon of Frozen Scream (1975) fame, is an intricately plotted nightmare in which overwhelming scientific and supernatural forces plague a wealthy textiles heiress who is simply trying to make her way in the world.

Reviewer HumanoidOfFlesh writes, "I have seen many bad horror movies, but 'Night of Terror' is easily among the worst horror movies of 80's....Utterly incomprehensible and amateurish piece of crap." Reviewer jakebabee writes, "This movie is just boring and looks like it has been shot on a video camera....Long dull scenes that are absolutely pointless, awful characters. The ending is very bad." This reviewer is correct in that the film does look like it has been shot on a video camera, but surely that has little relevance when judging the quality of a film.

We must now look at Night of Terror in detail and explicate its powerful statement about good and evil.

The movie opens with a young blonde woman and an older man having an affair in a mansion at night. The man, Alex Nilsen, says he cannot divorce his wife to be with the woman, Inez. Therefore, he injects Inez with a drug that makes her fall asleep and he commits her to an insane asylum.

The patients at this particular facility have a tendency to wake up, in striped pajamas no less, and not know who they are.

Acclaimed actress (and the film's writer/producer) Renee Harmon plays an inmate who is trying to convince her lawyer that she is perfectly sane and she should be let out of the asylum. Her lawyer has a letter from a doctor that says releasing her would severely threaten her mental health.

As Ms. Harmon and her lawyer converse, two female inmates fight over a baby doll in front of them.

Although we might feel confused and disoriented during these opening scenes, the filmmakers step in and explain everything through the clever cinematic device of having two doctors walk along a corridor explaining the situation.

Alex Nilsen, the man from the opening scene, is one of the doctors. "I couldn't divorce my wife," he explains to his colleague.

"Absolutely not. Not with all the dough Chris has," says his colleague. "Not with her owning the Michelin mills."

"Yeah, and we need that money to support our research."

"Yes, what would happen to our work within the fascinating field of mind alterations, had it not been for the Michelin millions?"

At that moment, the doctors are confronted by a gypsy woman in the corridor asking about her son, who is a patient. "He's not getting any better, he's getting worse. And I don't see any improvement."

She accuses the doctors of being killers before the orderlies remove her from the premises.

In Ms. Harmon's room at the asylum, where she and her lawyer continued their discussion after the interruption with the baby doll, the filmmakers give us more helpful information. About the medical research, she says, "My board of directors is getting very uneasy about this particular tax shelter. And they are considering the possibility of withdrawing their support." (It is good to know that Ms. Harmon is able to run her financial empire even as a mental patient.)

Meanwhile, her philandering, money-grubbing husband and his colleague continue their own discussion--which might be described as self-incriminating--in public at the institution's reception desk. "Her attorney is making some inquisitive noises," says the colleague, Dr. Harper. "He threatens to have her examined by a psychiatrist of his choice."

Dr. Nilsen replies, "Then he'll find out there's nothing wrong with her."

"Too bad," explains Dr. Harper. "Life would be a lot easier if we weren't so desperate for Chris's money to fund our research."

Dr. Nilsen has an excellent comeback: "Just remember. Money is the root of all research."

The research in question happens to be brain surgery attempting to make retarded people (in the doctors' terminology) into functioning elements of society.

The plot thickens when a mental patient named Charlie tells Ms. Harmon that he saw the doctors kill a girl. "A pretty one," he adds. Of course, this last fact makes the accusation even more serious.

The plot thickens even further when one of the near-catatonic patients, who appears to be a Ken doll at first glance, kills an orderly with a large kitchen knife that he somehow acquired offscreen.

(The employees at the institution discover that the patient is missing, and inform Dr. Nilsen of this fact, before they discover the bloody body of the orderly in the patient's bed. In your universe, that might be considered unbelievable, but in more sophisticated universes such as mine it is simply how hospitals operate.)

Ms. Harmon performs a bravura and tragically self-effacing monologue by looking into a mirror. "You know...what? You were lucky to find a husband. But he didn't marry you for your, he married you for your money." (Clearly, Ms. Harmon is not insane, as she quite rightly considers a man who marries for money to be shallow, but a man who marries for looks to be deep.)

"You better pretty yourself up for him," she says before marking up her face with lipstick. "Pretty! Pretty! Pretty! Pretty!"

Dr. Nilsen finally speaks with his wife, informing her of the next stop of the complicated plan to acquire her money. Ms. Harmon will be released, but she will be moved to a home next door to Dr. Harper's house so she can recuperate under the doctor's watch.

Ms. Harmon celebrates her release as anyone would, by throwing her clothes around the room with her daughter Becky while packing to go home.

To make matters more complicated--and exciting--the house Ms. Harmon moves into is both the house of her husband's murdered lover Inez and haunted as well. The haunting is proven conclusively when a television turns on by itself, and is further proven by a Polaroid snapshot of a spot of light on a door.

A night (of terror) begins.

Ms. Harmon is awaken by crunching noises in the bushes outside. Instead of checking the windows, she walks down the hall and is frightened by a blue mask hanging in a doorway. She is further frightened by a yellow rocking chair that rocks by itself. "What a strange house," she says out loud. "Oppressive. It is something...or someone is always around me, looking over my shoulder. I'm imagining things. I see and hear things that are not there. Maybe I am ill. Maybe...maybe I'm insane."

Then morning comes.

Further complications include the escaped mental patient, Paul, returning to his gypsy mother, who is also psychic. Paul begins to stalk Ms. Harmon and her daughter while wearing a black ninja outfit and a triangular black hood reminiscent in shape of a Ku Klux Klan costume.

In the morning, Ms. Harmon hears more crunching in the bushes outside, but she finds it is just her neighbor, Dr. Harper's wife. The woman says, "I'm your next door neighbor. That is, if living two miles down the road you can call next door." (Her judgment of distances is perhaps a bit off, as we can see through the kitchen window that there is another house a few yards away.

Ms. Harmon and her neighbor gab for several minutes about messy houses until Ms. Harmon asks if the house is haunted. Her neighbor says, "Hey, don't let my Seymour hear you say that crap. You know he doesn't believe in ghosts and all that shit. He'll have you back in the loony bin in no time."

Ms. Harmon takes no offense whatsoever at this comment. She accepts Mrs. Harper's invitation to a party later that evening.

Because the film has moved past the 40-minute mark, the filmmakers introduce a new set of characters: about 50 teenagers comfortably sitting around two sides of a jacuzzi.

In this scene, writer Renee Harmon proves she is in touch with contemporary teenagers and their concerns and manners of speech. "Hey, how about going down to my dad's party? He's got a live band," says one teenager, presumably Dr. Harper's son.

"Probably moldy oldies, I bet," says his friend. "Nah, I want to do something exciting."

As teenagers often do, they decide to go down to the Old Macfarland House, a local haunted house that is different from Ms. Harmon's rented haunted house. We have also heard that Paul, the murderous mental patient, is hiding out at the Old Macfarland House.

However, the teenagers end up at Dr. Harper's party listening to a synthesizer band (the band contributes to this, the second night of terror). When the party is over, they have the same conversation they had at the jacuzzi, and they come to the same conclusion: They will go to the Old Macfarland House. They sneak to the house, but some nearly chicken out. "Excuse me, girls," says the boy in charge. "You want to let's get going?"

The Old Macfarland House turns out to be a small wooden shed.

The same night, Dr. Alex Nilsen picks up a prostitute to use as a brain surgery subject. He incapacitated her and drags her to the Old Macfarland House.

The next day, Ms. Harmon and Dr. Harper hang out at a teenage pool party, where Ms. Harmon tells the doctor how much she despises him.

"Still, you're financing our research," he points out.

She laughs. "Not for long anymore. Seymour, you know as well as I do that my board of directors is opposed to this particular tax shelter."

Elsewhere, the film reveals that the ghostly manifestations in the rented house have been orchestrated by Dr. Harper. However, the filmmakers have some shocks in store for us, as we find out that the orchestrated manifestations do not extend to many of the things Ms. Harmon has experienced, including the yellow rocking chair and, chillingly, the sound of an eggbeater in the kitchen.

Ms. Harmon consults the gypsy so she can better understand what is happening to her. "You must understand the human mind as far as the supernatural is concerned," the gypsy says. "It works like a radio receiver. Some radios can pick up signals from overseas. Others pick up signals, uh, that are transmitted from a radius of several miles away only. You're tuned in to pick up supernatural symbols. It's as symbol as that."

Ms. Harmon is relieved that she is not crazy, only a supernatural receiver. The two share a hearty laugh.

A sequence of the tight suspense follows as Paul, the escaped mental patient, breaks into Ms. Harmon's house and hides in a closet. Ms. Harmon sees the ghost of Inez and at the same time Paul reaches out of the closet and grabs her. She blacks out, but she is unharmed, and after waking up she acts as if nothing had happened.

Ms. Harmon investigates what is going on, and discovers that her husband was having an affair with, and probably murdered, Inez. The next logical step is to use a ouija broad with her gypsy friend to discover more details.

The gypsy asks the spirits to find a spirit guide. The planchette moves across the board as the gypsy narrates: "Q...V...R...U...Julien. A man named Julien will be our spirit guide." They discover Inez is dead and in limbo.

The ouija scene is intercut with the teenagers returning to the Old Macfarland House during the third night...of terror. "It's spooky," says one of the girls.

Ms. Harmon's daughter and Dr. Harper's son find an old radio playing, though we in the audience do not hear the radio playing. "Hey, let's get out of here," says the boy. "There's an old radio on. There's gotta be someone living here. I don't want to meet that guy. Let's get out of here. Come on!"

The storylines come together as Ms. Harmon, Dr. Harper's wife, and the gypsy head to the Old Macfarland House to find the teenagers.

Director Felix Girard uses expressionistic lighting effectively inside the haunted house as Ms. Harmon searches for her daughter, but encounters the ghost of Inez.

Exploring the house alone, Ms. Harmon stumbles into her husband and Dr. Harper. "I'm here to take care of you...take care of you...take care of you..." says her husband, and the scene fades to black.

Ms. Harmon awakens in the rented house and overhears her husband explicitly instruct a nurse over the phone that the plan is to kill his wife.

Fortunately for Ms. Harmon, nobody is watching her, so she takes her car keys and drives away. Cleverly, she only drives a few hundred yards away from her house, then gets out of the car and runs into the woods. Her husband chases her, but her ploy was to circle around, get back into the car, and drive away. Her ploy is successful to a point, but when she reaches her friend the gypsy's store, the woman betrays her and, somehow, her husband is waiting for her there.

In the climactic scene, Ms. Harmon is anesthetized and prepared for surgery, but the operation is interrupted by lasers and the ghost of Inez, whose face melts grotesquely.

Appropriately, the finale has Ms. Harmon alive and walking with her daughter while explaining what has happened. "No, Becky, Paul did not kill your dad. He, Seymour, and Nurse Flanagan died of fear. At least, that's what the coroner's report stated. Fact is, Paul did not kill anyone."

Of course Paul did kill a few people, but the women explain that Paul was not responsible because he was under hypnotic control.

"Why don't we forget about the past, and start living for the present?" Ms. Harmon asks.

However, there is a final twist. Paul, dressed in black, carries a knife down the same walking path that Ms. Harmon and her daughter are using. The image freezes.

Like Frozen Scream (1975), Night of Terror was written by lead actress Renee Harmon. In fact, Night of Terror shares the earlier film's concerns with morally questionable doctors conducting research to improve the human condition but, in the end, creating murderers. Despite the supernatural occurrences of Night of Terror, however, it is the more down-to-earth film, as it is not as prone to metaphysical discussions as Frozen Scream. As an example of its relative down-to-earthness, Night of Terror presents its explanations of plot and motivation through the sophisticated method of having doctors converse while walking through a hallway. Compared to Frozen Scream's preferred method of interrupting dialogue scenes with explanatory voiceovers, Night of Terror is considerably more practical and restrained.

Night of Terror also captures on videotape some of Ms. Harmon's finest acting. Her monologue to the mirror is quite powerful, and the joy she feels when flinging items of clothing around after being released from the institution is palpable. Additionally, her native German accent, quite pronounced in 1975, is not as distracting in this later film. It could be argued that this film features her finest performance, and that her acting is well above the standard of excellence set by the other actors in the film.

Ms. Harmon's writing, too, appears to have improved between Frozen Scream and Night of Terror, particularly in terms of plotting. While Frozen Scream presents a rather straightforward tale of doctors freezing subjects in order to make them immortal, Night of Terror is considerably more intricate. Its doctors are plotting to cure mental retardation through brain surgery, but their primary concern is keeping control of Ms. Harmon's character's textile fortune by committing her to an institution, then releasing her only to force her to question her sanity and return to the institution, after which they can lobotomize her. The plot is a veritable roller coaster ride whose ups and downs the audience must attempt to follow, and in the process the audience has little choice but to fall in love with the film, and with Ms. Harmon.

(I must also relate that I have found many references to this film including hallucinations drawn from Frozen Scream, but the version I have seen has no such inserts. In fact, the version of Night of Terror with which I am familiar includes Ms. Harmon's repeated statements that she is not suffering any hallucinations. Perhaps this is the result of interdimensional transfer; I will have to research the possibility that when a film travels from Universe-Prime to your primitive Universe-X it picks up random footage from a similar film. The implications are fascinating, to say the least.)