Countdown to Halloween: Orrin Grey on Dark Intruder (1965)
ABOUT OUR GUEST
I've known Orrin for over 20 years. We first met when he was attending college at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. He worked at one of the video stores I owned at the time. I always liked Orrin, not only because he would work long and strange hours, but also because we shared an interest in the same kind of movies. He's the one person I know who makes a legitimate living as a writer, a notion that both amazes and terrifies me. He's a published author whose latest collection, "Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales" is available today (Tuesday, October 2) at https://wordhorde.com/books/guignol/. Visit https://orringrey.com/ to learn more about it, and him.
“You seem to specialize in obscure acquaintances.” – Dark Intruder (1965)
I first heard about Dark Intruder from artist Richard Sala, which makes sense, as its eponymous “Intruder” looks every bit the part of some creeping brute from a Richard Sala comic. Fellow comic artist Stephen R. Bissette apparently wrote a two-part essay on the film for the magazine Monster! (issues 27 and 28, to be precise) which I have not yet read, in which he apparently delves into a lot of the stuff that I’m probably about to discuss. So, if you Want To Know More, I recommend seeking that out.
What I learned from Sala was more than enough to convince me to track down the film. Dark Intruder was originally shot as a pilot for a TV series that was going to be called Black Cloak, but the show never went to series and instead Dark Intruder got (rather unceremoniously, I gather) dumped onto screens in 1965 and then largely disappeared from the horror scene.
It stars a pre-comedy (but post-Forbidden Planet) Leslie Nielsen, has creature makeup by Universal stalwart Bud Westmore, and features a screenplay by Barre Lyndon, who also provided scripts for a number of better-known horrors including the 1953 War of the Worlds and Hangover Square. While Leslie Nielsen is the big name, the most distracting casting for me was that of his friend Robert Vandenburg, played by “your dad’s alcoholic golfing buddy as Agent for H.A.R.M.” who I recognized from watching way too much Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Aside from all of this, Dark Intruder is notable for very nearly being the first film to feature names and ideas taken wholesale from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos fiction. While you won’t find any Cthulhu or Necronomicon here, the main character does drop mouthfuls like “Azathoth” and “Dagon” pretty early on, and there’s a lot of talk about religions and gods and demons that were “ancient before Babylon” and things of that nature. The plot also hinges on the kind of identity swap that was a staple of Lovecraft’s weird tales.
The first widely acknowledged adaptation of Lovecraft’s work hit theatres just a couple of years before, when Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and Charles Beaumont made The Haunted Palace, ostensibly an entry into their then-popular cycle of Poe adaptations, but actually a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
While Dark Intruder isn’t a direct adaptation of any particular Lovecraft story, in many ways it feels more like one of his tales than most of the other adaptations that have come around since, and the reveal of the twisted killer’s origins and motives feel like they could have been wrenched from some unpublished Lovecraft manuscript—or maybe from a Robert Bloch story in the Lovecraft vein.
However, Dark Intruder also slots neatly into another narrative tradition within the field of weird fiction: that of the occult investigator. In keeping with its planned-for-series nature, Leslie Nielsen plays a bon vivant in 1890 San Francisco, a time and place chosen, no doubt, partly for its association with Jack the Ripper, as the fog-shrouded San Francisco streets stand in nicely for London, and an early shot of the murderer at the beginning of the movie calls to mind any number of Ripper pictures, including The Lodger, also from the pen of Barre Lyndon.
Of course, while Nielsen’s character plays at being a rake who takes nothing seriously, he is, in fact, a deeply serious student of the strange and occult, who keeps a mandrake plant in his room which moves when supernatural forces are nearby, employs a diminutive servant who knows his “secret identity,” has a secret laboratory hidden behind a bookcase, and covertly assists the police on strange cases like the one at the center of the film.
There have been plenty of characters of that stripe in the history of film and fiction, but this one stands out for several reasons, one of them probably coincidental but striking nonetheless. Put a white streak in his hair, and Nielsen’s character would be the spitting image of Jason Blood, the human alter-ego of the Demon Etrigan, created by Jack Kirby for DC Comics in 1972. What’s more, the plot of Dark Intruder involves body-swapping and transformations into a hulking monster.
Am I suggesting that there was any borrowing going on here? It seems unlikely, given how much has been written over the years about Jack Kirby and his creations. If there was any actual concrete connection between Dark Intruder and Jason Blood/Etrigan, someone would surely have found it by now. But the idea that Kirby maybe saw Dark Intruder on late-night TV and jumbled up the villain and protagonist into one character, adding more than a soupcon of Arthurian legend to get Etrigan, well, it makes for fun pondering, even if it isn’t necessarily true.
For a movie that runs a mere 59 minutes, there’s a lot to discuss in Dark Intruder, and I’ve spent most of my 800+ words talking around the film rather than directly about it. More than anything, when the final credits rolled following an ending that felt altogether too jocular on the heels of the film’s rather tragic climax, I was mostly left lamenting the fact that we didn’t get at least a season or two of Black Cloak to see where it all might have gone from here…
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.