Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In short: Night Terror (1977)

aka Night Drive

Through various twists of fate, Carol Turner (Valerie Harper) finds herself alone on a night drive through the US desert states. Usually, Carol is disorganized and seems a little helpless when confronted with the vagaries of her daily life, a state I believe is certainly not helped by a husband (Michael Tolan) who presents with all the hallmarks of 70s TV husbands. He’s a bit of a belittling arse, is what I’m saying. So our heroine seems to be a terrible fit for the situation she finds herself in when she witnesses the murder of a highway patrol officer by a mute killer (Richard Romanus). She doesn’t actually see the killer’s face, but still finds herself chased by him through endless, dark miles of highway, having to outthink and outmanoeuvre him throughout the night.

This fine thriller directed by TV veteran and mainstay E.W. Swackhammer is clearly somewhat inspired by Spielberg’s Duel but it’s not so much a case of straight-out copying the other film than taking the basic set-up, and adding variations that get it onto a different lane in the end. Swackhammer makes a lot out of very simple and straightforward suspense set-ups. A particular favourite is the sequence where our heroine has to break into a gas station where she encounters a series of interlocking obstacles, pretty much like in an old adventure game. Scene like this could in lesser hands feel a bit tedious, perhaps even silly but are usually so well paced on so organically staged they are rather on the nail-biting side.

Harper is – as usual it seems – convincing at portraying Carol’s change from the mentally scattered housewife to a woman capably and effectively fighting for her life. There’s an obvious – unobtrusive – feminist bent to this, where Carol, when taken outside of the zone society (and her husband – shudder) prescribe her, finds strengths and talents she probably never realized she had. I also liked how believable her mistakes are, not the slasher sort where the lamb is basically running into the blade of its slaughterer, but ones perfectly fitting to a woman confronted with a situation nobody sane expects or would be mentally prepared for.

Romanus makes a rather striking villain, achieving creepiness through physical menace, his relative muteness – sometimes he uses a larynx microphone to communicate - a very effective replacement for gloating speeches. You might add a mental digression about the problematic use of his disability as part of his creepiness, or you might shrug about this sort of thing in what is a pulp-style kind of entertainment made four decades ago. Personally, I don’t see much use in the former, but as always, your mileage may very well vary.

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