Sunday, February 13, 2011

Black Noon (1971)

The Old West. Reverend John Keyes (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Lorna (Lynn Loring) are crossing the desert on their way to the good reverend's new place of employment. Alas, John is a preacher and not a ranger, and consequently the couple soon enough loses their way.

They'd probably die of thirst, if not for the sudden fortunate appearance of Caleb Hobbs (Ray Milland), his mute daughter Deliverance (Yvette Mimieux) and their factotum Joseph (Hank Worden). They rescue the preacher couple and bring them into the town Caleb's mayor of, picturesque - if slightly un-frontier-like looking - San Melas (see what they did there?). John recovers from his near-death experience speedily, but Lorna seems to have been hit a bit harder by dehydration and exhaustion, so the couple will have to stay in town for a bit before they can continue on their journey.

Their hosts sure don't mind. It's been quite a while since a preacher has been in town, and the populace is just all too glad to have the chance to get some holy vibes. When he's not staring at Deliverance in a way quite unfitting for a married preacher, John obliges his hosts' wishes of doing some preaching for them with a vengeance. Why, look, his first smug sermon even manages to heal a lame boy! And while he's being heroic, he also puts himself against the lone gunman (Henry Silva) who has been terrorizing the town.

Now, given his good qualities, the townsfolk would really like John to stay for a bit longer, perhaps as their new preacher. John is tempted to oblige that wish, but Lorna has a bad feeling about that, as she has about the whole place.

She's quite right, too. Not everything in the oh-so-subtly named town is quite right. Why does John have strange nightmares and even daytime hallucinations of a bleeding man since he has come to town? Why does Lorna get worse instead of better the longer she is staying in town? Might it have something to do with the witchcraft Deliverance practices in her free time? Or is it all part of a Satanist conspiracy? One thing is sure, John's moral compass is pointing in more awfully un-priestly directions the longer he stays.

Black Noon is a very neat little TV movie directed by long-time TV director Bernard L. Kowalski, and written by TV western specialist Andrew J. Fenady. As I have mentioned before, I'm very fond of films attempting to mix the western and the horror film, and finding a rather obscure example of a film mixing the Satanist conspiracy sub-genre and the western is the sort of thing that makes my day.

Even better for that day is that Black Noon has merits beyond its mere existence. Nobody will ever call a US TV movie from the 70s stylish or visually exciting, but Kowalski is the sort of professional director who can make the visual straightforwardness the TV format demands from him work to his film's favour; and if the situation demands it, like in the dream sequences, Kowalski is even able to use cheap old dream sequence standards in an effective way Roger Corman would have approved of. If nothing else Kowalski brings a tightness to the visuals as well as the pacing that fits the at its core very simple story well.

Fenady's script really has its moments too, never showing the silent and inescapable corruption/seduction of the priest and his beliefs with too grand a gesture. In the end, Black Noon's tone seems to imply, what we witness is terrible (and frankly a bit unfair) in its consequences, but in the end nothing unusual in the history of humanity; pithy corruption's just a normal, daily occurrence. Good old honest 70s bleakness didn't even stop from infecting TV movies, it seems.

But even when it's not about the basic weakness of people, the Black Noon's script does its best too avoid becoming overtly melodramatic. Of course there are louder scenes, but these scenes are actual emotional turning points the film worked up to while hinting at their underlying emotional complexities. This hinting at the film's themes does work so well not only because of Fenady's writing, but also because Black Noon's ensemble cast is rather great. Everyone (well, except for Henry Silva's porn moustache, but what can you do?) seems out to treat a set-up that could be played as a carnival side-show with earnestness and concentration, strengthening the human side of the story in favour of the film's potential for camp.



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