The Night Walker (1964) | William Castle’s twisty thriller moves to a haunting Vic Mizzy beat
In her last feature film before heading to TV land, Barbara Stanwyck reunited with her former husband Robert Taylor for this mystery-suspense from legendary showman Castle, who casts aside his usual gimmicks and instead relies on the reputation of Psycho author Robert Bloch, who wrote the screenplay under the original title, The Dream Killer.
Stanwyck plays Irene Trent, a former beauty-parlour owner who is plagued by dreams of a fantasy lover. When her blind, possessive inventor husband Howard (Hayden Rorke) is killed in an explosion in the upstairs lab of their mansion home, Irene inherits his fortune…
But fact and fantasy get all messed up when Irene’s lover (Lloyd Bochner) appears before her and whisks her off to be married. Unsure whether it was a dream or not, Irene enlists the help of her husband’s attorney, Barry Moreland (Robert Taylor), to uncover the truth… But all is not what it seems as The Night Walker makes his nightmarish return…
Aside from the twists, turns and red-herrings, there’s some genuinely creepy moments to be found in the monochrome chiller, including a frightening image of a hand clutching an eyeball, which jumps out at you in the opening sequence as Paul Frees narrates a prologue on the subject of nightmares.
When I first saw this film as a youngster, I was deeply shocked by Hayden Rorke’s cane-tapping entrance from out of the shadows, which slowly revealed his horribly burned face. But it wasn’t his disfigurement or the idea that he might be an undead ghoul that disturbed me – it was seeing I Dream of Jeannie‘s Dr Bellows playing it mean and despicable. But I have to admit his make-up was pretty cool.
While light on the camp hysterics of the same-year’s Strait-Jacket (starring Joan Crawford), Castle’s woman in peril follow-up is a surreal, entertaining treat that will have you guessing till the very end. Stanwyck plays it with serious intent, and earns our sympathy (and respect) as a result, while Vic Mizzy’s harpsichord-fused score deftly underpins the film’s funereal tone (now: is it just me, or does the main theme sound like Food, Glorious Food from Lionel Bart’s Oliver). The exteriors were all shot at the Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch mansion in LA, which would become home to Elsa Lanchester and an army of rats in 1971’s Willard, while Mizzy’s catchy soundtrack got a Percepto Records CD release in 2002 (which now fetches ridiculous prices).
There’s also a collectable paperback tie-in, written by Sidney Stuart and based on Bloch’s screenplay, which was published in 1964 by Awards Books. This features the same imagery as the poster art, which was a variant of Henry Fuseli’s influential 1781 painting The Nightmare – of a demonic creature crouching over a sleeping woman. In the poster art, this incubus is painted as a horned devil, which does not appear in the film. However, it does have a curious link to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
On the audio commentary of Optimum Home Entertainment’s 2006 Blu-ray release, del Toro revealed his inspiration for the Pale Man (the ogre who inserts a pair of eyes into the palms of his hands) was based on an image from a film poster that he once saw as a youngster. While he doesn’t mention the name of the film, he was most probably referring to The Night Walker, because of that eyeball in the hand that appears in the opening sequence and on the poster art (which Final Cut have reproduced here for their release). By the way, I have to credit film historian Tim Lucas for being the first to muse over this connection. But I think he’s hit the mark.
Final Cut Entertainment’s UK DVD release features a lovely print of the film, but is lacking in bonus content – like the audio commentary that was included on the Shout Factory Blu-ray release in the US (whose trailer I have included below). Still, if you are a collector of William Castle’s films, and don’t have a multi-region player, then you should consider adding this to your collection.