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Monday, November 16, 2015

Bill Castle Does a Dreamy Thriller

The Night Walker (1964) Is Out On DVD

I anoint Barbara Stanwyck as 60's, if not all-time, scream queen after seeing TCM's new disc release of The Night Walker, paired with Dark Intruder to tie ribbon on obscurities fan-base has begged for. Should it matter that both are mediocre-minus transfers? Depends on intensity of your want. Mine was reckless enough to order sight (or review) unseen. Lesson learned again --- don't wade out till you know murk of the water. Sole compensation is The Night Walker being 1.85 and plenty fun, sort of a jazzed-up Thriller episode with bigger stars and wider frame for poverty of art direction. What was the difference between features and TV at Universal? Answer: Practically none under weighty thumb of Lew Wasserman, U's chief baker whose bread always seemed three days old, him not worthy to associate with Hitchcock in any capacity other than agent, but born to tie-in with William Castle on downward arc of latter's shlock ride.

Castle linked with Universal for a mid-60's trio, intended to be five, plus a possible TV series "a la Hitchcock," but the association stopped after three, each less gimmick laden than chillers that gave Bill a name. Could Hitchcock have quelled fulfillment of the deal, as he had allegedly used influence to get Thriller cancelled? I wonder too if Castle and Hitchcock passed each other on ways in/out of the commissary. Maybe not, as AH took meals in his bungalow, and I doubt he invited Bill to join. Each had imitated the other, gone after similar markets, no love lost between them, though whatever $ Castle could bring U would be shared by major stockholder Hitchcock (The Night Walker used Psycho-scribe Robert Bloch, and Castle's last several pics had borrowed heavily off Psycho's blueprint). Universal was for covering thriller bases at both class and cheap level, thus Marnie to grace first-runs in '64, The Night Walker for grinds. There was a "commissary cocktail party" to kick off the latter, as reported by Army Archerd on 5/14/64, co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in attendance, with Joan Crawford sending congratulatory wire and hope they'd duplicate her socko Castle partnership that was Straight-Jacket of the previous year.

Castle and Universal flogged The Night Walker's "dream" theme, launching a contest with Modern Screen, latter among last stands of a dying fan mag tradition. There was also a six-minute teaser (titled Experiment In Nightmares, cost: $25K) with "nitery hypnotist" Pat Collins to herald arrival of the feature at theatres (anyone seen it?). Castle told trade press that The Night Walker would be a departure: "I've gone from gore into pure shock and suspense," his latest linked with "the current teenage rebellion against parental control." Say what? There are no teens in The Night Walker, at least none I saw, but Bill covered the disparity, explaining that "teenage frustrations also manifest themselves in dreams," so voila!, The Night Walker has a youth angle. He would make a point or two less cock-eyed, such as conviction that pictures are best opened regionally instead of mass-saturated: "You can be big in Minneapolis and drop dead in Chicago." If anyone knew realities of selling, it was Castle. "There should be different campaigns for different areas," he'd emphasize, this a policy Bill would apply also to The Night Walker.

Other Castle doozies he'd tell to sell The Night Walker: "Our company (that is, his company) is one of the wealthiest in Hollywood" (wait a minute, with Straight-Jacket having grossed seven million worldwide, maybe it was). To charges that his films were "too violent and could incite violence," Bill merely inquired as to whether John Wilkes Booth had seen movies (guess that falls under heading of "rhetorical question"). "Have we gone so soft in America? What do they want --- everything to be Disney?," he asked, not unreasonably. Castle and Night Walker stars Stanwyck, Taylor, and Lloyd Bochner divided thirty cities between them and headed out to thump the thriller from late December '64 into the new year. Reviews were mixed, as expected, Variety calling The Night Walker too "complicated," but with sock sequences per Castle habit. Stanwyck and Taylor were tendered as "Together Again!," ones of us ten years old at the time baffled for not knowing they'd been apart, or for that matter, even met. The Night Walker was clear-aimed at a Baby Jane market --- old-timers jumping out again to say Boo --- but this time, there was a rival at the gate, The Night Walker put head-to-head against Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte in many keys. It plays today in terms strictly nostalgic ... liking Castle helps ... and vet stars enhance, with unexpected bonus (for me) Vic Mizzy's nifty score. Close your eyes, listen to Vic's music, and you'll think The Night Walker is The Ghost and Mr. Chicken done straight.


Blogger rnigma said...

Castle would soon end up doing some projects for Hanna-Barbera, including narration on a record album of "The Tell-Tale Heart":

12:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Was not aware of this, Migma. Thanks.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Guess that explains how Hanna-Barbera did the "special effects" for Castle's Project X '68.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While I agree THE NIGHT WALKER falls short it is a fun film and delivers the goods. I put it into my Rochdale College program knowing it was going to be a hard sell. Luckily, no one else wanted it. Universal let me have the 16mm print a month in advance. Nightly I ran the opening scenes up to the moment after the explosion when Stanwyck sees the "boogie man." At the precise moment we first see his face I turned off the projector lamp. I let the scene play through with no image just Stanwyck's screams. Needless to say I had a HUGE success with the film. My audience loved it. It remains a favorite. I will be picking this one up for sure. Had no idea Hitchock got THRILLER off the air. Too bad and shame on him. I agree with you that Wasserman was not worthy to associate with Hitchcock except as agent. As an agent, though, he did Hitchcock proud. That demon on the woman in the poster is a grabber. It comes from a painting. Part of the disappointment of the film is that though that image is in the movie, it is only there as a briefly glimpsed graphic. There is something second rate about even the best of Castle's films. I like SARDONICUS because I liked the story it was based on but the story would have benefited from a better film maker's touch. Paramount and Robert Evans were right to let him work only as a producer on ROSEMARY'S BABY. Evans said to Castle, "This story is too good for you." That could be said of all of Castle's pictures. Hitchcock knew he was working in a carnival while at the same time surpassing our expectations. Castle's work always has the carny feel. Nonetheless, I had great fun with THE NIGHTWALKER. Too bad the accessibility DVD and Blu-Ray prevent us from exploiting these films the way I was able to whet people's appetite for the film back in the day. Many in the audience actually gulped when the projector lamp went off. The darkness made the terror more terrible. By chance the 16mm projector lamp blew at the moment in PANDORA'S BOX when Jack The Ripper murdered Lulu. THAT sent a definite chill into my bones. If anyone reading this runs a revival film series I suggest you do what I did with THE NIGHTWALKER and turn off the lamp while letting Stanwyck scream.

9:36 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

As much a fan of Castle as I am, this one ended up being a disappointment when I finally got to see it. Maybe because I have enough respect for Barbara Stanwyck that her presence contrasted too much with the cheapness of the story and production. (Price knew how to bring fun to a downscale production and Crawford just plowed in and chewed the scenery.)

This was close to, if not the last, movie poster Reynold Brown did. The original version had demonic faces in the background that were caricatures of various art directors he'd worked with.

4:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Intended to mention the Reynold Brown aspect, but didn't want to go overlong. That poster image of his in the banner is what I remember best about "The Night Walker" as it appeared in 1964-65 --- only wish there had been such a scene in the movie.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Reg's story about the projection interruptions at crucial moments reminds me of when I was the projectionist for a horror marathon in college. I was running THE BLOB, the place was packed, and at the moment when the gelatinous blob invades a movie theater and oozes through the projection booth... somebody pulled a fire alarm. I had to stop the show and evacuate the auditorium! (I'll always remember the action on the screen: people leaving the theater in panic.) It could have been coincidence -- how could someone who was NOT in the audience know the precise moment of truth and get to an alarm box somewhere else in the building? -- but I always credited some knowledgeable prankster for having life imitating art.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I first saw George Pal's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS a restaurant next door to the movie theater caught fire during the film's climax. The theater had to be emptied. That was synchronicity with a vengeance!

11:29 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Reynold Brown deserves a huge post dedicated to his work.

4:27 PM  

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