Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Classic Film Spotlight — William Castle's "The Night Walker" (1964)

by Peter Enfantino, Christine Scoleri, John Scoleri and Jack Seabrook

The Night Walker (1964)
A Universal Picture
Directed by William Castle
Screenplay by Robert Bloch
Music by Vic Mizzy
Starring Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Judith Meredith and Lloyd Bochner.

John: William Castle. Robert Bloch. Vic Mizzy. I know we're here to celebrate Barbara Stanwyck, but man, what a lineup! I'm sure many of you are thinking--what gimmick did Castle have up his sleeve this time? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The Night Walker is not only gimmick-free, it also lacks an introductory appearance from the jovial director. Instead, we get an interesting and somewhat surreal prologue about dreams narrated by none other than the great Paul Frees, which ends with a bizarre image of an eyeball in a closed fist.

Peter: That intro goes on and on and... I thought we'd never get to the film itself. Little did I know, once we got to the film, that was about as good as it gets.

Christine: Perhaps the gimmick was to get Barbara Stanwyck and ex-hubby, Robert Taylor, together for this film.

Jack: They seem pretty chummy--you wouldn't know they had been divorced in real life.

John: I think you’re right. In his autobiography, the fantastic Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America, Castle said, “I felt the declining box office on my next picture, The Night Walker, co-starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, both big stars that I felt would be strong enough to pull customers in. The picture played to almost empty theaters.”

Christine: I have seen many of Barbara Stanwyck's movies from the 1930s and '40s and it's great to see that she retains the same energy and acting talent here in her last feature film that has always made her a pleasure to watch. Including Stanwyck in a film automatically elevates its potential. Some sources state that Castle originally offered the part of Irene Trent to Joan Crawford, though I have not found much evidence to support the veracity of that claim. Although Crawford made an excellent axe-murderess in the previous Castle-Bloch feature, Strait-Jacket, I think that Stanwyck is the better choice for this role. Get a load of the way this lady screams. Yowza!

Jack: Does the five-note musical phrase that plays over and over remind anyone else of "Food, Glorious Food" from Oliver!? I kept waiting for Barbara Stanwyck to ask for more.

John: It didn't until you mentioned it. I'm just glad I had already watched the film!

Peter: Actually, Jack, the guitar bit reminded me of the intro to "2000 Light Years From Home" off Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones. Perhaps Mick and Keef were William Castle fans?

Christine: So, right off the bat, in creepy Castle fashion, we've got a milky-eyed guy, who looks like something bad happened to his face, leering over the bed of a woman while she whispers sweet nothings to her dream lover in her sleep. Shortly thereafter, we find out it's her freaky husband who also enjoys making recordings of her intimate vivid dreams. I love the way Stanwyck delivers the line, "My lover is only a dream, but he's still more of a man than you!" as only she could when he confronts her on her somnambulant infidelity. Now I've just got to wonder, what is this important work he's doing up in his lab, and why would a blind man go exploring the cause of a smoky explosion? We can surmise the cause of his blindness and disfigurement.

John: What was it exactly that brought these two lovebirds together? The explosion in the lab might have been the best thing to happen to Howard Trent (Hayden Rorke). Fortunately, it’s well-isolated, so a quick padlock on the door and the house is A-OK for the new widow, Irene. Unfortunately, she wants out of the place, pronto.

Peter: I like when the arson detective says the blast created a temperature so intense it melted everything beyond recognition... all while he's surrounded by damaged but still pretty recognizable equipment.

John: Howard's attorney, Barry Moreland (Robert Taylor), informs her that while she’ll inherit Trent’s fortune, she can’t sell the house just yet, so she chooses to shack up in the apartment behind the old beauty shop she used to manage (Irene’s — natch!).

John: Fortunately for Irene, the literal man of her dreams (Lloyd Bochner) is not turned off by her newly-claimed widowhood. It gives him the perfect opportunity to pop the question.

John: Aside from the Vic Mizzy score, to me the creepiest thing about the movie was their dream wedding sequence with a mannequin priest and witnesses. And rather than just relying on the voiceover dialog, Castle had the characters shaken when they were speaking, which added to the eerie effect.

Peter: Though I liked the Mizzy score (of course, it doesn't hold a candle to his themes from Green Acres and The Addams Family), I thought in several scenes (most notably when Irene is explaining her dreams to Barry), the music is intrusive and threatens to distract the viewer from the dialogue. Of course, considering that the dialogue isn't all that good, that may be the point.

Christine: Nothing says bad dream like wax figures at a wedding. The dramatic organ music helps create the nightmarish atmosphere. This is my favorite part of the whole film.

John: The shot of the organ playing while the unmoving hands hovered above the moving keys reminded me of another Vic Mizzy favorite, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken! Sadly for Irene, her former (toasted) husband also received an invitation to the nuptials.

Christine: Do you think William Castle may have seen "The Cheaters"?
"The Cheaters" episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller
John: Hmmm... that episode of Thriller was based on a Robert Bloch story. Can you believe that behind that make-up, Irene's dead husband is Dr. Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie? Hayden Rorke also played a role in another Robert Bloch penned episode of Thriller, "The Devil's Ticket."

Jack: Barbara Eden later wrote that Rorke was "unashamedly gay" and his partner was a TV director named Justus Addiss. I never suspected! He wasn't campy like Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly.

John: There’s nothing like your ex showing up at your wedding to send you off into a strange psychedelic dream within a dream sequence… a screenshot doesn’t even do this one justice!

Christine: Heads spinning, candelabra spinning, melted ex-husband...obviously someone drugged the champagne.

John: Scream and scream again! I don't think I ever thought of Barbara Stanwyck as being a scream queen, but she certainly pays her dues in this film.

Christine: She was warming up for this in Sorry, Wrong Number. She has an impressive lung capacity for someone who had reportedly been smoking since she was nine years old.

John: Joyce (Judith Meredith), the new gal at Irene’s beauty shop, has an interesting technique to make Irene feel better… but it turns out she’s more involved in the plot than even Irene knows.

Jack: Judith Meredith spiced up the movie for a few minutes but never had much of a career.

John: Of course, that results in her ending up in Irene’s bedroom in the middle of the night with a knife in her back!

Christine: Irene was apparently all out of screams by this time.

John: This is where things sadly fell apart for me. All of the build-up to this point leads to a revelation straight out of Scooby Doo, and while there are a few twists in the final minutes, it basically amounts to everyone being ‘in on it’ with the exception of Irene. 

Peter: I thought, aside from the set-up scenes which were tense and showed promise, The Night Walker was a sloooooow burn that never went anywhere. I sure liked it when I was a kid. Scared the hell out of me, but then so did my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Stack. Difference is, I don't have to revisit him forty years later to find out he was just a big pussy cat.

Christine: Despite William Castle's warning, I don't believe many viewers will be forced to dream of secret desires they're ashamed to admit as a result of watching this movie. It is a bit of a let down after the way it was built-up, but I enjoyed the unexpected twists at the end, and Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor make it an entertaining ride that's worth watching. Vic Mizzy's music makes it all the more delightful. The Night Walker's lack of success may have had something to do with Stanwyck's decision to work exclusively in television henceforth. Apparently she complained that she was only offered parts thereafter about "grandmothers who eat their children."

John: When all was said and done, The Night Walker reminded me of one of those episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller that led you to believe something supernatural was at play, only to reveal at the climax that it was not supernatural at all. That said, I still think it’s a fun entry in William Castle’s filmography.

Peter: Not Robert Bloch's finest moment.
Legendary poster artist
Reynold Brown's art for The Night Walker.
Michael Avallone's tie-in paperback.
Note that Robert Bloch's name is highlighted


Matthew Bradley said...

Pete, I sure liked it when I was a kid, too, especially that score! I'd be almost afraid to revisit it now and see that the emperor is underdressed, although it's probably still fun on other levels. As I recall, Bloch lamented (in his "unauthorized autobiography," ONCE AROUND THE BLOCH, in our FILMFAX interview, or both, I forget) the obvious use of live actors for the "mannequins."

Mike Doran said...

Sometime in the '70s, ABC and Universal-TV produced a TV remake of The Hound Of The Baskervilles, as a pilot for a Sherlock Holmes series to star Stewart Granger as Holmes and Bernard Fox as Dr. Watson.
Its significance here is that Universal used Vic Mizzy's score from The Night Walker - without credit to Mizzy. I can't find out why - maybe somebody out there knows.

The Holmes movie was in period, of course, so the score had to be re-recorded without the electric bass, but it's the same melody.

Jack Seabrook said...

Maybe the production company owned the rights to the score. I don't know anything about Vic Mizzy, so that's just a guess. I could not get "Food, Glorious Food" out of my head whenever it played.

Mike Doran said...


What I have learned over time about Universal TV is that they were big on "recycling" - scripts, music, actors, just about everything - long before it became the fashion.

Most of Vic Mizzy's composing was done for comedies: at Universal, he mainly did the Don Knotts comedy features, which were pretty much of their own kind.

UTV's decision to repurpose Mizzy's Night Walker music may have been based on that film's low gross at the box office. I would imagine that some sort of deal was made involving Mizzy forgoing screen credit (don't know for sure).

Christine said...

Peter, you may be on to something with the similarity between the Rolling Stones and Vic Mizzy. We had the British Invasion in 1964 when this movie came out, with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks releasing debut albums. No doubt they came to America and saw this movie. If you listen very hard (the tune will come to you at last), you can hear Vic Mizzy's influence in all their music. I'm quite sure I can even hear a little bit of In A Gadda Da Vida in the organ music during the dream wedding sequence. Vic Mizzy's reach is far and wide. Incidentally, the story of how he got the Night Walker gig is kinda funny. http://www.vicmizzy.com/biography.php

Grant said...

I recognized "Food, Glorious Food" on my own. But, being a great fan of "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (to me, it's much bigger than some weird little detour by the Rolling Stones, as it's usually made out to be), I'm a little embarrassed that that resemblance had to be pointed out to me.
Even though I've always liked THE NIGHT WALKER a lot, I can't help agreeing that nothing in the actual film is quite as spooky as that introduction.

Peter Enfantino said...

Your continued on-the-money observations of my genius are appreciated and, I'm sure I speak for the other guys, agreed upon. But stretching my incredible insights to envelope Iron Butterfly... woman, you go too far.

I'm not the person to ask about the highs and lows about the Stones because one scale is weighed down and the other holds only a few stray pebbles. There's some really cool stuff on "Satanic" (2000 Light Years, She's a Rainbow) but too much of it seems like a lost weekend of Mick's spent listening to Revolver and thinking he could do that too!

Grant said...

Even though I'm not that fond of the expression (apart from the alliteration), this movie and those early ' 70s TV horror ones she made put Barbara Stanwyck into that "hag horror" category. In other words, that famous fad of putting veteran actresses into horror films. But another actress who COULD go into that category is Rochelle Hudson. After all, she was in this movie, plus the infamous "GALLERY OF HORRORS."

Christine said...

I have been enlightened, Grant. I was under the impression that Stanwyck didn't want to be a child eating grandmother, which is why she left film, but apparently she was not opposed to it in TV where she was in "The House That Would Not Die" and "A Taste of Evil." You can find both on YouTube.

These types of movies have also been called Psycho-biddy, Hagsploitation, or Grande Dame Guignol. This film differs from others in that our "hag" is not a dried up old fig, but rather a sophisticated lady with romantic inclinations--dreaming about a young stud and trying to nab the handsome lawyer. Score one for the biddies! Stanwyck is definitely no hag. Bette Davis is the one who set the standard for hag in the Hagsploitation genre. Incidentally, Rochelle Hudson also appeared in "Straight Jacket" with Joan Crawford. Check that one out if you enjoy William Castle, or at least check out the "How To Plan a Movie Murder" promotional short with Bloch, Castle and Crawford. It's a hoot!

Grant said...

Yes, I enjoy Straight Jacket too.
I agree about Stanwyck not REALLY fitting that mold (I only meant it in a technical sort of way). It's also nice learning all those other slangy names for the genre.

Judy said...

I've never seen this and looks as if I might have to hide behind the sofa while doing so... but will hope to give it a try. I hadn't realised there was a whole genre of Psycho type films with older women. Great piece.

Jack Seabrook said...

Judy, I have a vivid memory of hiding behind the sofa as a child while watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, so I know what you mean.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the late reply. I have only just returned to blogging after a long absence. "The Night Walker" is one of my favorite films from the 60s. It's campy but fun. And you certainly did it justice. Thanks so much for participating.

I would also like to let you know that I've just announced another blogathon, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.


john kenrick said...

The Night Walker is a fun but not funny William Castle horror, and I always enjoy watching. It feels very 60s now but when it first came out it must have felt ancient to contemporary viewers (black and white, two aging stars, a B movie plot that feels like an entry in the Inner Sanctum series, radio or movie version

There's definitely a Sorry, Wrong Number vibe in this one. The story is different but Babs is hysterical in much the same fashion, and feels betrayed at every turn, only in this case she really is betrayed. Nice to see snakeskin sleek Lloyd Bochner, well used, and giving the movie a bit of a Thriller (TV series) vibe.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment, John! I enjoyed watching the movie but if it was much longer I might not have enjoyed it as much!