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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nothing But The Night

This British production, released in the UK in 1973, did not get reviewed earlier, as it did not show up on lists of sci-fi films. It did show up on lists of horror films, or as a crime/mystery drama. However, at the urging of a reader that Nothing But The Night (NBTN) really was a sci-fi, it is hereby added to the study. Granted, 95% of the film amounts to a murder mystery, but there is a sci-fi connection revealed near the end. Christopher Lee stars as the primary law enforcement official, Colonel Bingham. Peter Cushing stars as the pathologist, Dr. Mark Ashley. NTBN was released in America in 1975, and is sometimes shown with the title The Resurrection Syndicate.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Several trustees of a wealthy trust (which runs an orphanage) are killed, but made to look like suicides. A young girl named Mary is on a bus full of the orphans, that is involved in a crash. Three more trustees died in the crash. While at the hospital, Mary talks in her sleep of strange visions of being burned in a big fire — but the bus did not burn. Dr. Peter Haynes wants to keep Mary for observation, fearing she’s in some danger. The orphanage insists she be returned. A tabloid reporter, Joan, sensing a story, digs up Mary’s biological mother (who lost Mary due to a long criminal record), in an attempt to wrest custody. Anna is a bit psycho, threatening to kill the doctors for not letting her see Mary. Joan and Peter are brusque and caustic to each other, but manage to forget all that and have a night of whoopee. This is when Joan learns of Peter’s tapes of hypnosis sessions with Mary. Anna tries to abscond with Mary, but fails. Peter is found dead, stabbed with one of Anna’s hat pins. Mary is returned to the island orphanage. Anna follows. Police discover her car, so everyone assumes Anna killed Peter and will kill others to get Mary. While on a ferry ride to the island, Bingham and Ashley see the orphanage’s nice motor yacht blow up. Five more trustees on board are dead. Some dynamite from a construction site was missing. People suspect Anna. An island-wide search ensues, but Anna evades them. She gets to the house, but gasps. Joan convinces Ashley to listen to Peter’s tapes. It’s clear that her hypnosis nightmares are the memories of the trust’s founder, Helen Van Traylen. Ashley reexamines the brain tissues of the dead yacht victims. They were dead before being blown up. The local doctor points out that two of the orphanage’s doctors were a biochemist working on the chemical link between the brain and personality, and the other a gifted brain surgeon. Joan and Ashley rush to the orphanage. Meanwhile, at a Guy Fawkes bonfire celebration, the children are dressed as adults — suits, army uniforms, african dignitaries, etc. Mary is dressed to look older (black dress, pearls). The Guy Fawkes effigyy is the body of Anna. Bingham rushes up to warn the children of dynamite in the effigy, but the children tackle and capture him. The remaining adults explain that Helen had her personality surgically transferred into Mary, as did most of the others into other children. This is their ticket to immortality. Bingham refuses to be an accomplice. The children pull him to the fire. Before he is burned, a helicopter with Joan and Ashley arrives. The prop wash causes Mary’s dress to catch fire. She screams, says they’ve ruined her plan. She jumps off the cliff, to die in the sea below. The other adult-dressed children solemnly jump off the cliff too. Bingham is left alone. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As a suspense/thriller, the story in NBTN is convoluted enough to keep a viewer guessing. The absence of gratuitous gore helps keep the film more cerebral than bestial. Both Lee and Cushing are fun to watch, even when their roles are written rather staid.

Cultural Connection
Symbol of Rebellion — The setting for the last act of the film will probably be unfamiliar to American audiences, but very familiar to British viewers. The bonfire and effigy, the chanted poems and fireworks were a Guy Fawkes celebration. All that began in 1605 when a group of militant Catholics plotted to blow up Parliament and King James I (for whom the King James Bible is named after). A man named Guy Fawkes was apprehended on the morning of November 5th, while guarding the gunpowder stockpiled beneath the Parliament building. He and his co-conspirators were executed. England then celebrated the 5th of November as a sort of victory. The king was not killed. Celebrations came to include a bonfire, upon which an effigy of Fawkes was burned. Children would make the effigy, and gather round the fire to chant poems. “Remember remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason, should ever be forgot.” To the British of the early 70s, Guy Fawkes was still regarded as a villain rebel. This lends some symbolic undertones to trustees as conspirators.

Interestingly, the ‘face’ of Guy Fawkes has come to symbolize rebellion in a different way in the 21st century. The Guy Fawkes mask has come to symbolize a sort of antiauthoritarian rebellion — used by the hacktivist group Anonymous and by some in the “Occupy” movement. The mask image was popularized in the 2005 film, V for Vendetta, in which the protagonist who struck back at the dystopian tyrants wore such a costume. The popularized image was drawn by David Lloyd in 1988, for a graphic novel of the same name. Guy Fawkes has become part of American culture too. How that sense of rebellion (against mortality?) fits the film, is food for thought.

Based on the Book — The screenplay for the film was based upon the 1968 novel (of the same name) by John Blackburn. He published a different novel in 1966 entitled “Children of the Night”, but the two stories are unrelated. The film is based on the ’68 novel. While it is said that the movie follows the book rather closely, the film has no actual occultism / satanic sub-plot. In the film, the sinister ‘miracle’ is described as coldly scientific and almost matter-of-fact. The work of the Trusts’s Dr. Tittle is that of biochemist, exploring the chemical link of personality in the brain, and Dr. Yeats, a brain surgeon. Neither of these two get much exposure in the script. No devils or demons appear, thought the Guy Fawkes bonfire, etc, might look satanic to non-British eyes.

A Pinch of Science — The script implies (but does not explore or explain) that the two doctors somehow managed to isolate a person’s identity, their memories and personalities, via chemistry. Once isolated, they were able to transfer the essence of the person to a new brain via surgery. Thus, the identity of Helen Van Traylen was extracted and inserted into young Mary. Her psychopathic tendencies (killing Dr. Haynes, young Sidney and perhaps even her mother, Anna) could be seen as Helen’s adult self-preservation agenda filtered through the emotionally underdeveloped girl in Mary. Perhaps knowledge and memories transferred, but maturity did not.

Quest for Immortality — The notion of a brain transplant to achieve ‘immortality’ is an old a trope as Frankenstein. The narrower notion of someone (old) wanting to cheat death by stealing someone younger’s body is also not new. She Demons (’58): The doctor is extracting “youth” from pretty young women in order to restore/maintain his wife. Womaneater (’59): The doctor extracts “life” from pretty young women via strange tree, so that he can cheat death. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (’63): The doctor looks for a hot new body for his girlfriend’s brain. The Atomic Brain (’64):The doctor is hired by an old woman to transfer her brain into the body of a pretty young woman. The examples are numerous, as the notion is both old and common.

Red Herring — The character of Anna Harp was written as a red herring in the novel, but director Peter Sasdy exaggerates her role visually. More typically seen in the “blonde bombshell” idiom in her prime, Sasdy had her in a brassy red wig. When Anna is on the island, trying to get to Mary, she’s dressed in a red leather coat too. She was a very red Red Herring. Sasdy used editing juxtaposition to keep viewers thinking Anna was the murderer. For example: a clip of Anna walking through the brush, a clip of the discovery of the missing dynamite, followed by another clip of Anna walking.

Rushed Ending — A criticism of Sasdy’s handling of the story, is that he did his job a bit too well in the first 9/10ths of the film, that the last tenth almost fails. He built up so much focus on the red herring, that not enough suspicion remained for the trustees. They still came off somewhat innocent in the end. Speaking of innocence, Sasdy did such a fine job of portraying the children as simple innocent children that the final reveal (that they were all neo-resurrected adults) did not fit well. Add to those misfits how little running time went into the denouement (a scant few minutes), that viewers seem likely to be confused. Why, for instance, would all those neo-resurrected people just jump off the cliff in the end? They were so obsessed with NOT dying that they took the extreme measure of ‘killing’ a child in order to inhabit their body. Then, when the truth is discovered, they just quietly leap to their deaths? Sasdy seemed so intent on delivering a shocker twist ending that he let story-cohesion slip.

Bottom line? NBTN is engaging enough as a mystery/thriller film. The pacing is okay, though it seems to take a long time for it to develop. The acting can seem wooden to modern American audiences. The sci-fi element appears only very near the end, so the film doesn’t have a sci-fi feel. Still, it is reasonably well done and entertaining.


Randall Landers said...

Thanks for explaining the ending. I saw the film once in the 80's, and never could quite figure out what was going on. So count me as one of those confused audience members that thought it just another bizarre ending to a bad film. :)

Darci said...

IIRC the reason Helen had a phobia about fire was her husband died in a fire, which was intimated to have been set to cover their tracks after some white-collar crime. Thus poor Mary was given the personality of a murderess and pyrophobic. When her dress caught fire, she overreacted.

Sasdy's rushed ending doesn't provide many clues to why the other children jumped off the cliff after her, just the 'ruined plans' exclamation. I wonder if the Trust intended to offer their resurrection technique to others, becoming an ongoing (and wealth-generating) enterprise?

Nightowl said...

Yes, the script did explain (a bit) that Helen's husband died in a fire, and she was badly burned. There was the intimation that she and her husband were up to something illegal. I suppose that's to 'taint' the Trust's funding source.
So, yeah, Helen was a bit of a defective and more prone to jump off cliffs, but all the others?

Darci said...

I was thinking that the Trust was going to resurrect themselves more than just this once. Being discovered by Col. Bingham ruined that. Also, even if the resurrection only worked once they might have been aiming at selling the technique to some aging oligarchs (and making some huge profits in the process). Make more sense?

Nightowl said...

Oh, I understand the Trust's plans to perpetuate themselves, but discovery by Bingham did not seem to spell instant failure. After all, the whole mission of the Trust was to live forever. For people so obsessed with immortality, they sure gave up easily. And, they seemed pretty adept at killing opponents.

One idea that occurred to me this morning, was that the immortality process was not yet complete. That, somehow, Helen-inside-Mary was not a finished process. She was the prototype. I seem to recall some dialogue by Trust adults in which Mary/Helen was spoken of like a forerunner, a leader of the way -- not simply leader of the pack. The tormented-by-dreams and psychotic stage that Mary was going through, might have been the hard part (rather analogous to adolescence)

Perhaps with the death of Helen/Mary, the secret to completing the process was lost. The other adults-in-children realized they had no completed resurrection to look forward to -- only getting stuck in the psychotic nightmare adolescence ahead of them. So? Better to end it quick off the cliff.

What do you think?

Darci said...

I took that mention of Mary to mean she was the first to undergo the operation but you're right, she certainly seems to be their leader. You also make a good point that they all may have feared going psychotic as she had.

אורי said...

The problem is that it is near impossible to find a place to download this movie, so are many of the movies you recommended

Nightowl said...

השמיים יפלו ,
Yes, some of these films can be very hard to find. I've not found any single source. Most of these films being obscure B films usually means that few sources bother. Persistence pays off, though. Hopefully, my little guide will help focus someone's list of films worth the effort.