A few years ago I was asked to participate in a DVD supplemental for JASON X, the then latest in the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise. Since I am not a fan of these films particularly, it was a chore to find anything interesting to say about the film except it was clever enough to set itself in the future with far more possibilites then having a mindless maniac slashing his way through a forest filled with teenagers having sex....not that that can't have some entertainment value depending on the teenager.
Now let's flash forward a bit to last night when I watched a DVD-R I have of a moth-eaten 'old dark house' flick entitled NIGHT OF TERROR. I had been saving it primarily because it starred the great Bela Lugosi two years after he played DRACULA----the film's reputation has always been in question from years of bad word of mouth about how boring it was or how Lugosi is wasted playing a servant, etc. Well I am here to tell you that watching it the other night has made me realize that NIGHT OF TERROR well may be the first slasher film of it's kind for the pre-code era.
The premise of this film is pretty raw for 1933. A knife welding maniac is on the prowl, killing literally anyone in his path and then pinning a newspaper clipping on their back. The maniac in question has no dialogue until the climax of the film, so he just creeps around the outer regions of the frame grinning at the audience, like, well, a maniac. His physical appearence is so similar to another arcane film character known as THE SMUT PEDDLER (1965), an independent grindhouse film made by a hack named William Rose. In this film, the Peddler, made up with facial sores (probably sexual and grime) is the link to each vignette in this skid row programmer. NIGHT OF TERROR was produced by Columbia pictures in 1933 with a shooting title of HE LIVED TO KILL, a title better suited to a film noir than a Lugosi horror thriller of the golden age. The time in which it was made prevented it from being truly gory, as it surely would be if a similar premise were done today. Never the less, it still has it's moments since this maniac opens the film by slaying a couple making out in a car under a full moon in a remote lover's lane. The camera moves away as he descends upon them both with knive in hand and all we hear are their screams. Maybe Eric Red saw this one before he wrote THE HITCHER.
The problem with all the old dark house films of this era is in the preoccupation in the script with young lovers, in this case, Wallace Ford as a reporter who is so unflappable in that after a murder takes place in the same house with his sweetheart, his first inclination is to hit the phones to report his scoop to his paper. Oddly enough, Ford would make several low budget films with Lugosi, remarking at one point during the filming of MYSTERIOUS MR WONG: "Imagine hiring a Hungarian to play a Chinaman?"
The plot of NIGHT OF TERROR is a catalogue of what is the usual for this sort of fare (ie., sliding doors, secret passages, a seance, a scientist buried alive to prove a theory regarding suspended animation----a device that would have been better served in the screenplay). Lugosi is as always fascinating to watch, as is his body language and focus at all times. Unlike Karloff, Lugosi never simply walked through any of his films which is why we watch even things like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLIN GORILLA. Bela never lets you down. Try that the next time you watch one of Karloff's later films like the insipid VOODOO ISLAND.
Having said all this, my real point is to compare NIGHT OF TERROR with the slasher films of today like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which by the way, Freddy does look a bit like the maniac in the Lugosi flick. The maniac is just as mindless as Jason in that he kills without reason, not to mention, it seems to set him off watching couples make out....sound familar?
It has always enraged Lugosi fans to see their idol (and mine for that matter) playing secondary roles so soon after his tour de force as Dracula. The reason for this, I was told by his biographer Robert Cremer, was that in his native land it was common for stars on the stage to play leads one night and supportinmg roles the next. However, Lugosi needed guidance when he arrived in Hollywood and most likely ignored most of what he was told from the looks of his choices after 1935.
NIGHT OF TERROR, is in point of fact, a very enjoyable creepy thriller, badly directed and stagy of course but not without charm. Lugosi looks amazing in his turban, cutting a dashing figure at the height of his powers as a screen presense. The films climax has been much discussed by fans because it so closely resembles THE BAT WHISPERS in which the killer addresses the audience directly. What makes this one especially creepy is the maniac is supposed to have been killed moments before by the hero. This maniac may well be the true cinematic ancestor to Jason Voorhess....yet like Jason he comes back from the dead, but unlike Jason....with dialogue! The maniac has this to say just before the credits roll: "I am the maniac. If you dare tell anyone how this picture ends and who the murderer is, I'll climb into your bedroom tonight and tear you limb from limb. I haunt you good night, sleep tight....hee hee hee.......
Bela offers up an Oriental cigarette (a joint?) in this clip from NIGHT OF TERROR.