Countdown to Halloween: Neil Pike on Night Fright (1967)
ABOUT OUR GUEST
I "met" Neil when we co-authored a chapter on the 1970s in the soon-to-be-published retrospective of the genre during the 20th century, from the folks at "We Belong Dead." I enjoyed the experience greatly; he is a conscientious and responsive collaborator. I'd work with him again in a heartbeat.
Neil has contributed to a number of genre publications, including Midnight Marquee’s "The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films of the 1960s" and "Dead or Alive: British Horror Films of the 1980s." He’s written for We Belong Dead magazine and his reviews can be found in "Son of Unsung Horrors." He is currently working on a book about eco-horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and told me he was delighted to watch something that didn’t involve animals on the rampage or toxic waste!
When Jeff approached me for this, he gave me two instructions – no more than 750 words (ever the good editor/webmaster) and the film must be one that I hadn’t seen before. This left me in a quandary. Pick an embarrassing omission or go for a complete obscurity? In the end I went for a movie that’s a bit of both, a flick that UK video store frequenters in the golden era of the early ‘80s may know under a different, more notorious title and one that I passed over repeatedly after hovering my hand over it in my local shop. Was it worth the wait?
When a film starts with a teenage couple necking in a ‘60s muscle car, you know what you’re going to get. Their make-out session is interrupted by a radio news flash about some mysterious object crashing in the hills outside town. Needless to say, the hot-to-trot couple get theirs, victims of a monster that seems to be stalking the town, and Sheriff Clint (John Agar) and his deputies need to find it, as well as the link to the mysterious object that has the NASA boys all riled up. Things get more serious when the sister of Clint’s sweetheart heads down to the lake with her friends, and a local scientist figures out that the mysterious creature is the result of a NASA experiment gone wrong.
Full of suspiciously old teenagers and about 20 minutes of jitterbugging to incidental music by The Wildcats, as well as a poorly-lit man-in-a-suit monster, Night Fright has all the hallmarks of a late entry into the beach-party and malt-shop exploitation movie of the sort Del Tenney and Roger Corman in his early years used to turn out. If you don’t get a buzz from that groovy scene, Man, then you’re going to find Night Fright a real chore. Fortunately, I’m rather fond of them – they represent about the most innocent and least challenging form of exploitation pic, and who doesn’t love a chocolate malt? If you put your hand up to that, you’re dead to me. Anyway, Night Fright’s biggest problem is that it takes too long to get to its monster. Corman was a big proponent that you should hold off from showing the creature as long as you can because your effects team can never produce anything as effective as the imagination of the audience. To give Corman his due, he did start on films with effects budget of thirty bucks so he knew what he was talking about, but that was 1954 and Night Fright was released in 1967, by which time studios like Hammer and AIP had given the contemporary audiences a plethora of on-screen creatures, so Sullivan’s flick does feel very old fashioned. The creature (an alligator mutated by cosmic radiation) when it does finally appear is so poorly lit that it’s difficult to see what it looks like beyond a big guy in a mask and furry body suit straight out of the pictures of Larry Buchanan.
Still, Night Fright is better made than most zero-budget regionally-produced shockers of the period. Sullivan stretches his paper-round budget pretty well and the performances from the main actors are all OK – This was well down the list on John Agar’s filmography but he’s a pro and plays it straight. The technical credits are littered with people who’d go on to work with regional auteurs S. F. Brownrigg and Charles B. Pierce, so it’s no surprise that it’s at least competently made, and it also allows the keen-eyed to identify that it was probably shot somewhere in east Texas, given the behind-the-scenes credits.
Here in the UK, Night Fright had its debut on home video, released under the title ETN: Extra Terrestrial Nastie. The video box was a pastiche of the poster image for Spielberg’s ET (1982). God alone knows what renters expecting to see a contemporary bloodbath thought when they actually got jitterbugging kids and fashion choices that went out before the moon landing. I doubt they were impressed. Still, blatant false advertising is part of the DNA of exploitation movie making and Night Fright has enough of a groovy vibe and throwback charm to make its short running time pretty painless. Now, someone put another dime in the juke box and get me another malt before we head down to the lake. The mashed potato and the monkey aren’t going to do themselves!
ABOUT THE COUNTDOWN
We all have them... stacks of movies we've purchased, but never watched; or, movies on the DVR, filling them to capacity. This year for the annual Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to make a dent in my "stack," watching one movie a day for the month of October that I've never seen, then writing about it.
Well, I'm going to cheat a little. Assisting me this year are a number of "guest bloggers" that I've invited to participate by commandeering classichorrors.club for a day. These are all people whose blogs I read, whose podcasts I enjoy, and/or whose existence I simply appreciate. It's an experiment, but I hope you'll enjoy reading some new perspectives.